I have to admit I feel rather hypocritical writing this, but its time to face facts. If you’ve read my earlier posts on higher education, you know my thoughts regarding the bloated state of the American college/university scene. This extends, unfortunately, to the doctoral level as well. As you can see from the chart to the right, the world of the history professor has not been immune from the economic downturn that has affected us all. Things are still better than they were in, say, the early 1970s…but they are still pretty bad. Further, over the course of the last 40 years, there have on average been many more PhDs received than jobs available.
A recent post on The Thesis Whisperer asks the question that prompts this post. As they walk through their answer they focus mostly on the instrumental (i.e. whether or not it could be done). Near the end, however, they look a little more at whether or not it should be considered in the first place, which in my mind is a better question:
Getting PhD is not easy. It needs passion and patience. The only driver in the whole journey is your self-motivation. So what is your motivation? Is it the title of being a “Doctor”? Do you have a brother or sister with PhD and you feel you have to have it? Are you pushed by your family? If you are not convinced yet that you really need to do a PhD or you have doubts about it, wait for a while and do not rush to it. After all this is going to be at least four years of your life and you need to make sure that you will not run out of steam at the middle of way.
Once a person enters the post-baccalaureate world, the idea of the PhD takes on all the allure of the ancient Siren. Try as one might to ignore it, the temptation is always there. For some it is purely about the content matter. For others it is about further avoiding the demands of adulthood. Still more do a PhD to satisfy some inner inferiority complex and to finally prove to the world they have arrived. And for just about everyone it is the sine qua non for teaching at the college level. To finish with a Master’s degree “ONLY” is felt by some as a kind of failure, leading them to push on towards a degree they ought never to have sought in the first place. If a top-tier and fully funded program will not accept them, then perhaps the next school down the line will suffice.
Did I get caught up in all this rigamarole as I looked to doctoral studies? Absolutely. But if I had been rejected by the schools I was looking at that first year, I’m pretty sure that would have been it for me. I would’ve been done. Clearly the academic world and I were friends, but not that close. My story turned out otherwise…but I will tell you this: entering into a PhD program did not make me a better person, a better teacher, a more faithful Christian, or worth more of anyone’s respect. It was simply a journey I chose to undertake–one that I know has benefited me academically and professionally and will, I hope, come to benefit many others in the years to come.
Too many PhDs and not enough jobs is only one effect of our sacrifices at the idol of the doctoral. As the American Historical Association recently discussed, the academy tends to see the goal of the History PhD (and I suspect many of the humanities) in only one area:
And what is the “it” that is the job market for historians? The academy alone? That is what we say when we offer statistics on placement. That is what we say when the department placement officer proffers the annual warning that ye who enter here do so at your own peril. Most orientations include a reference—in the best cases even some focus—on “alternatives.” But the default, the hope, the gold ring, is the tenure-track position.
Imagine that. Having finally arrived in the Promised Land of the PhD, only to find out no one wants you…at least not in the elite ranks of the professorial. In the article, the AHA thankfully offers helpful alternatives to this singular goal of the PhD. This is good step. But rather the calculate alternatives, should we be minting so many PhDs in the first place, especially in a field like History that isn’t exactly booming? Hear me out: we do need bright an intelligent women and men furthering reflection in the field…but we don’t need this many. Many of the places the AHA recommends as viable options for the PhD (archives, government work, public history) could just as well be accomplished by someone with a robust MA in the field. And–dare I ask–do we need PhDs teaching every class in every college across the nation? Food for thought.
I still struggle with a lot of my motivation for being involved in this world. But in light of these issues, I would caution anyone considering PhD work to look deep into their souls and ask themselves if this is something they SHOULD do. Two (paraphrased) thoughts in closing from professors of mine at Princeton Seminary:
- “Academics is like sports. Sometimes you just shouldn’t go out for the team.” -Diogenes Allen
- “Getting a PhD isn’t necessarily about being the smartest person in the room. It is about being dogged and never giving up.” -Unknown
Words by which I’ve tried to live. If you want to enter this world…be sure you know why.