As will surprise no one, as busy as I am, I can't fail to respond to something.
There has emerged a new genre in online magazine writing, in recent years: the essay that pretends to be offering advice to potential humanities grad students, while actually offering only mockery and scorn. There have, in fact, been dozens of this types written, scattered all over the internet. And they are defined not so much by the constancy of their opinion but by their self-undermining nature: by taking such luxurious pleasure in mocking potential and current grad students, these essays ensures that very few who need to hear them will be willing to listen. Dr. Rebecca Schuman, visiting professor at Ohio State University (and thus employed, unlike many millions of people in this country) has a perfectly typical example of the form. It's notable only for the exceptional purity of its resentment and projection. (Actual URL: there_are_no_academic_jobs_and_getting_a_ph_d_will_make_you_into_a_horrible_person. Yeah, I trust this post to be an honest extension of advice!)
Now, we can make a few conclusions from this piece, but they aren't really about the PhD job market. Dr. Schuman does not really present an argument against getting a PhD in the humanities. An argument would require evidence, which she does not provide. She says that there are 150 applicants for every tenure track job in her field; where she got that figure, who can say? It's funny; I would think that the requirement to show where your facts comes from would be the sort of thing you learn in a graduate program. In any event, I don't doubt the accuracy of that figure. The odds are very low. But even if we take those numbers at face value, the notion that every one of those 150 applicants is equally worthy of being employed is stupid. There are programs out thre that have very high TT employment rates. They're hard to get into. But they exist. And, indeed, that's where Dr. Schuman's anger comes from: because it's not literally true that nobody gets employed in TT jobs (in fact many thousands do), there's anger to be had at the fact that she isn't so employed. Yet.
If I was actually interested in the well-being of PhDs, I would start with this (cited!) information, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics-- which shows, in fact, that the well-being of PhDs is in fact quite well protected.
Typically, I tell people not to go to grad school. That's the advice I give, generally. And I do rather stridently. But when I do, I make it actual advice, by which I mean, it comes from a place of respect and a sincere desire to help. I don't pretend to offer advice when I'm actually offering contempt and mockery. And I also recognize that the vast majority of PhDs are in fact in far better shape than the national average. They have an absurdly low unemployment rate of 2.5% and weekly earnings twice the national average. As with any statistics, there's plenty of individual variance within there. But the data are unambiguous: the vast majority of PhDs end up fine. Many or most of them won't end up as TT professors, and for many of them, that'll be a disappointment. But in a country with such vast poverty, unemployment, and general economic hopelessness, PhDs are doing fine. My general advice stands: don't go, unless you are merciless in your self-criticism, if you are mercenary in how you pursue particular fields and research interests, and if the program has a very high placement rate. My own program (not department), for instance, has a 100% TT hiring rate in the history of the program, a time-to-degree of 5.4 years, and better than 90% graduation rate for people who finish their preliminary exams. (Could I easily be one of the people left without a job, though? You betcha.)
To assert that you are offering employment advice for PhDs, without considering data like this, is either deeply misguided or deeply dishonest.
There are smart and stupid ways to pursue graduate school. I laid out my version of the smart way here. But I certainly understand that I could end up on the outside looking in. And you know what? I'll figure that out. As someone who has endured actual human hardship, I guess I just don't see that kind of rejection as the pit of despair that Schuman does. My natural response to her talking about the spiritual death of not getting a TT job is to say, first, I think she needs to readjust her definition of suffering. And, second, what a terribly narrow, sad definition of the world, or of success.
If I end up not getting a tenure track job somewhere, I might be a full-time adjunct. Or I might get a job at a community college. Or I might go into industry, as a small but consistent number of the graduates of my program do. Or I might teach high school, which I would love. Or I might do any other set of things. But I will survive. And if I do, I'll cherish these years. Because every single day, I feel challenged and fulfilled. These have been the best days of my adult life. I say that without reservation or hesistation. I've gotten paid to go to school and to teach and to work with brilliant people, every day. I cannot tell you how often I am reminded of how lucky I am. And whatever comes, comes. I've been poor before. I'm not afraid. For some of us, the thought of working a 9-5 office job is far worse than living an economically precarious existence. To choose the latter over the former is an adult choice that an adult can make. Besides: you think that there's gonna be such a thing as a job, for much longer? All the people who squeeze into a cubicle every day are the next downturn away from being worse off than the most overworked funded grad student.
Besides, I knew the odds going in. I studied and researched. Being a grad student, after all, is essentially to say that you want to be a professional researcher. If you don't do the necessary research first, I have limited sympathy for you.
I don't doubt that some people need to hear her message. I do regret that she voiced it in a way designed to eject as many people from it as possible. But understand, potential graduate students of America: Rebecca Schuman is not writing to help you. She has nothing but contempt for you. She writes, instead, to mock you and ridicule you. She does this because it is a very easy sell to a website that makes its money through mockery, and because she's angry. Be very skeptical of your urge to go to grad school. Check the numbers. Study up. Be ruthless in your self-evaluation. But Dr. Schuman? Don't take her personally. Her baggage is only that. And more, listen to your gut: whatever else she's doing, she's not offering advice. Advice doesn't come wrapped in this much contempt.