To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.?

Larry Cebula, a history professor at Eastern Washington University, has a post at his blog titled, “Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor”

Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promise to make provide education with far fewer teachers–and whether you believe this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won’t be that lucky.

This prompts a reply from Erik Loomis, himself a new Assistant Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island:

It’s hard to argue against him. Like Paul’s many excellent posts on the problems with law schools that you have read here over the last few months, which I am going to force any student of mine who wants a letter for law school to read in exchange for the letter, it is probably a very bad idea to go for a Ph.D. in history.

But I hesitate a bit. I am a graduate of the University of New Mexico. This is not an elite institution. It is marginally a top-50 Ph.D. program. It has strengths in certain areas (Latin America, U.S. West, U.S.-Mexico borderlands) but you wouldn’t want to go there for anything else. Theoretically, it should be really hard to get a job with a UNM Ph.D.

However, every single person I know who was a serious student at UNM and who wanted to go into academia has a job. Every single one.

Scott Lemieux, another History Professor at the same blog (Lawyers, Guns and Money), adds his thoughts:

I would say without equivocation that unless you’re independently wealthy paying for a PhD with anything other than opportunity costs is crazy. But if you can get funding from a good program, whether you should get a PhD depends on some highly contingent variables: the job market in your specific field, your willingness to move to a wide variety of locations, the other career options available with your undergraduate degree, your commitment to an academic career.

I think you can take a broader view and treat a Ph.D. as education instead of specific training for an academic career. Education, I would argue, is a very good thing and generally, when approached creatively, opens up possibilities including career opportunities. This is true even if the function of the Ph.D. as “academic-in-training” declines. I think the world benefits from having more people trained in critical thinking and armed with well-developed specific knowledge.

UPDATE: Roger Whitson responds to the original Larry Cebula piece, elaborating on a lot of my thinking. Specifically, there are a lot of things you can do as a graduate student above and beyond traditional academic training that will make you employable, and there are a lot of ways graduate programs can change to make their approach to training graduate students better.

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About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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2 Responses to To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.?

  1. Thanks for the pingback! I think you are absolutely right about taking a broader view of the Ph.D. I also feel that graduate programs should systematically take a broader view of the types of programs that they are preparing their students for, and communicate these options.

  2. Adam Van Arsdale says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Roger. I thought you did a great job providing specific and practical ways in which graduate students and graduate programs can improve themselves. Not everyone needs to spend 25 years in a formal education environment to make it in the world, but I find myself loathe to discourage people from educating themselves as much as they want.

    John Hawks, an anthropologist at UW-Madison, had an interesting essay on a similar topic, though geared towards anthropology, recently that is also worth checking out.

    http://www.anthropologiesproject.org/2011/10/whats-wrong-with-anthropology.html

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