There’s no shortage of such advice out there; consider this winsome and thoughtful post by Brad East, which puts the whole question in a properly theological key which I won’t try to better. However, the practical side of Brad’s post and some recent conversations with students have underlined for me that I offer different advice than most of my fellow professors do. I’m writing that advice out here in hopes that it will be of service to some, perhaps especially to those students who share with me a concern for values like place, community, and family—values to which graduate school has too often been hostile.
For a long time—decades at this point—the job market for those seeking to enter the humanities professoriate has been highly competitive. And probably for about equally long, professors have been giving students something like this advice:
Prestige is the currency of academia, and so in order to get a job, you should try to maximize the prestige of your CV by attending the highest-ranking program possible and publishing as much as possible in the highest-ranking journals that you can.
Probably this was good enough advice at one time, so far as it goes. “So far as it goes” meaning insofar as you wanted to let a career drive all your decisions to the exclusion of considerations like place, community, and family—so, for me, not all that far, as it turns out. But good career advice, at least.
Today, I’m not convinced that such advice is even good career advice, all other values excluded. I say this because higher education in America is in a period of great contraction. Virtually all academic institutions, and the humanities departments within those institutions, are declining in size both for cultural and demographic reasons, and that trend will not reverse anytime soon. COVID accelerated this trend by dealing a major blow to the financial stability of many institutions and by dramatically reducing the birth rate in this country, ensuring that future educators will have fewer students to instruct.
When I started graduate school in 2010, the job market for humanities graduate students was bad; today, it’s much, much worse. Rhetoric and composition, my PhD specialty, is probably the healthiest subfield in the humanities—most institutions still agree that students should learn how to write—and this year there are fewer than half the jobs listed as there were a decade ago.
Given these realities, hoping in prestige is placing your trust in a false god. If there are less than 200 jobs nationally in your subfield each year, there aren’t enough positions even to employ all the graduates of the most elite programs, which have reduced the number of students they admit, but not enough to change the supply-and-demand imbalance. Getting a job as a professor is like making the NBA, as Tim Carmody wrote many years ago—there are a vanishingly small number of spots for a huge number of competitors, and predicting who will make it is a crapshoot. And yet it’s not like the NBA in that if you do in fact make it, the compensation isn’t generational wealth, but an income that might—depending on cost of living and your family situation—just barely allow you middle-class status, with fewer worker protections and worse benefits than those held by the local high school teachers.
At this point, I can’t imagine how it could make sense to uproot your life, to take out debt, or to make other major sacrifices chasing academic prestige. To spend a decade of your life living in a strange place, working desperately for little money, in pursuit of a credential that amounts to a lottery ticket that will buy you a slim chance at a modest salary—that’s a fool’s errand.
As grim as this situation sounds, I think it actually offers an opportunity to reframe the academic life—to make it less of a careerist pursuit and more of a way of living in service of your community and your flourishing as a whole person. As bad as the job situation sounds, and is, I don’t think it actually implies that nobody should go to grad school. Rather, it’s an invitation to stop being hag-ridden by prestige and conformity, and to start making your graduate education something that serves rather than detracts from your larger well-being.
The old advice assumes that prestige and conformity rule the day in academia. But the hold of those powers is slackening as higher education in this country declines—if there’s no academic job waiting for you on the other end, there’s no reason to let prestige drive your decisions. Maximizing prestige isn’t likely to get you anywhere, because jobs for professors—and especially those jobs that really care about prestige—are vanishing. Therefore, instead of chasing prestige in order to qualify for jobs that aren’t there, you should pursue social capital and find ways to make yourself useful to your community. These qualities will help prepare you for jobs that might actually be there when you graduate, but more, they will help you make a life that’s about more than a career.
So, to sum up, my bullet-point advice to would-be graduate students in the humanities runs like this:
- Go to graduate school because you want to be that sort of person, rather than in expectation of a certain career.
- Don’t chase academic prestige, but focus on building relationships with your community through your academic pursuits.
- Do not—I repeat, DO NOT—take out debt for graduate school, but only go if you are fully funded.
- Remain flexible and maintain a Plan B career plan, since you can’t bank on an academic job.
- Seek out ways to make your studies useful to your community.
- Don’t put other parts of your life, like marriage and family, on hold.
Now, a few elaborations.
In the end, all education is formation, and so the only good reason to go to graduate school (or to pursue any education at all) is that you want to be the sort of person who has pursued such education, regardless of the outcome. Under the old dispensation, however, the professionalization component of graduate school had a tendency to form you in the image of the careerist striver—which, for me, is actually the opposite of everything that study in the humanities ought to cultivate. The bleak job market today invites you, if you feel compelled to go to graduate school, to go for better reasons: not as a ticket to a certain job, but in order to equip yourself with love and knowledge of your subject, to prepare yourself for a specific kind of service to your community.
Like much advice offered to would-be professionals, the traditional advice for academics doesn’t rate social capital and local knowledge as a source of prosperity. Such qualities like having family help or local knowledge and relationships aren’t rated as having economic and professional benefits—they are treated as purely personal and unnecessary. But living in a place that you know well, and where you are known, isn’t just a nice feeling—it certainly will help you navigate life’s inevitable crises and pressures, and may well even benefit you professionally, especially as you seek non-academic jobs which depend upon networking and local knowledge. I see the new reality of the academic job market as inviting would-be graduate students to factor their local relationships and social capital into their plans. If your chances of an academic job are almost nil, and you’ll need to rely on creativity and flexibility to find a career—like any student with a humanities background—then local knowledge and social connections will be invaluable. Students should consider studying in a location that will allow them to preserve their existing networks if possible, in the expectation that their career prospects may depend more on such local networks than on grasping the brass ring of academic standing.
Only a little to say here, on debt: you should absolutely not overinvest in a humanities graduate program. If you don’t get fully funded (by which I mean: you’re not paying tuition, and you’re earning a stipend) for your degree of choice, you should take that as a prompt to do something else, at least for a year until you can apply again. Taking on debt for graduate school in the humanities is the definition of a bad investment.
Similarly, you need to maintain a Plan B career option. You’ll be rewarded not just with the prospect of a soft landing in the (likely) event that the academic job market doesn’t work out, but perhaps even more importantly, you’ll always carry with you the blessed knowledge that you have options. I have found that awareness tremendously freeing even in my work as a professor. So find a side hustle you can work while you’re in graduate school, ideally something that might offer you prospects for a career pivot down the line. Freelancing in editing, copywriting, and communications is a natural path for many humanities grads. Or get teacher certification along with your bachelor’s and do some substitute teaching. Go crazy and do a year at community college before graduate school, getting training for a trade. Carpentry, plumbing, and even general handyman work can pay very well, and you’ll never regret possessing such skills even if you end up in an academic or other white-collar job. But whatever you do: you must have a plan B.
A consideration for your own community ought to extend to what you choose to study. You should ask yourself, going into graduate study, not what you most deeply love or are passionate about (if you’re a real humanist, that consideration won’t narrow your choices down much!), but rather: “What do I need to learn to serve my community better?” The possible answers here might be quite diverse—it could well be that your particular community especially needs somebody who understands Plato or the New Testament or Shakespeare or a hundred other well-traveled subjects. But I wonder if more graduate students ought to consider studying their own regional history, literature, and culture. Many state universities already dedicate resources to these regional studies centers: consider the University of Nebraska’s Great Plains Studies center or Missouri State’s Ozarks Studies program. Virtually every community needs more people who are knowledgeable about its local history and culture, because such knowledge is by its nature held by a small number of people, and it’s increasingly vulnerable in our global and commercial age. Such local knowledge may not give you a career, but it may well give you something more important: a vocation.
As with all this other advice, know thyself and discern all these guidelines in the context of your individual life. But for those with ears to hear, I would say: if you want to get married and have children, don’t put these life steps off because of graduate school. Yes, a significant other and children will compromise your ability to be a perfect, always-working graduate student—which is to say, they’ll help you be a balanced and healthy person rather than allowing your work to consume you. Rachel and I welcomed our first two children while I was still a graduate student, and she was pregnant with our third when I defended my dissertation. I also worked a full-time non-academic job while studying for my comps and writing the diss. These commitments made me less than a perfectly impressive graduate student—I just couldn’t do all the conferences and networking events and what have you—but I think they actually helped me complete my degree faster, because I was very focused with how I used my time. And I know that these non-academic commitments made me a healthier person. If I hadn’t gotten an academic job, I would have had nothing to regret about my graduate school experience, because I did nothing out of pure careerism, but (for the most part) only did those things I would have wanted to do anyway, for myself and my family. (If I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t lean into these choices more and make my academic pursuits more hyper-local and focused on my community.) And as it happens those non-careerist choices have served me really well as I won the metaphorical lottery and ended up as a professor.
All in all, it’s true and regrettable that the academic job market in the humanities is very bad. For that reason, my first advice to most students is that they should not go to graduate school if they can possibly find something else to do. But if there’s a benefit to that regrettable situation, it’s the opportunity it offers every student to make graduate school a path to love of place and community, rather than a path to anxious careerism. If you have ears to hear this call, then graduate school can be not just an option, but a blessing to you and to the life of your community.