Thursday, February 25, 2010

More Academics Come Clean on the Value of a Graduate Education

For those of you like a former classmate who thought getting a PhD in the humanities after law school would guarantee a cushy job in academia, think again. It's nice to see more academics like Hope College professor Thomas Benton write the truth about the job prospects in academia, another over saturated and competitive job field. Getting a PhD is an investment in time and thousands of dollars. It could lead to a dream job in academia or you could also end up falling flat on your face with huge debt and few job prospects. Benton's article in The Chronicle of Education also touches on the issue of graduate school specifically benefiting wealthy students while leeching off of students who aren't as privileged or connected, something we've been talking a lot about here. I've posted excerpts from his article below. I also recommend reading another article written by Benton in 2004, Is Graduate School a Cult?. Please forward this to any friends or relatives thinking about waiting out the recession in graduate school. It's important that more students, not just those considering TTT law schools, understand the risks they take when deciding to spend the next five to eight years of their lives on a degree that won't guarantee a damn thing.

The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind'

By Thomas H. Benton

A year ago, I wrote a column called "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go," advising students that grad school is a bad idea unless they have no need to earn a living for themselves or anyone else, they are rich or connected (or partnered with someone who is), or they are earning a credential for a job they already hold.


One reason that graduate school is for the already privileged is that it is structurally dependent on people who are neither privileged nor connected. Wealthy students are not trapped by the system; they can take what they want from it, not feel pressured, and walk away at any point with minimal consequences. They do not have to obsess about whether some professor really likes them. If they are determined to become academics, they can select universities on the basis of reputation rather than money. They can focus on research rather than scrambling for time-consuming teaching and research assistantships to help pay the bills. And, when they go on the market, they can hold out for the perfect position rather than accepting whatever is available.

But the system over which the privileged preside does not ultimately depend on them for the daily functioning of higher education (which is now, as we all know, drifting toward a part-time, no-benefit business). The ranks of new Ph.D.'s and adjuncts these days are mainly composed of people from below the upper-middle class: people who believe from infancy that more education equals more opportunity. They see the professions as a path to security and status.

Again and again, the people who wrote to me said things like "Nobody told me" and "Now what do I do?" "Everybody keeps saying my doctorate gives me all kinds of transferable skills, but I can't get a second interview, even outside of academe." "What's wrong with me?"

The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)

Unable even to consider that something might be wrong with higher education, mom and dad begin to think there is something wrong with their daughter, and she begins to internalize that feeling.

Everyone has told her that "there are always places for good people in academe." She begins to obsess about the possibility of some kind of fatal personal shortcoming. She goes through multiple mock interviews, and takes business classes, learning to present herself for nonacademic positions. But again and again, she is passed over in favor of undergraduates who are no different from people she has taught for years. Maybe, she wonders, there's something about me that makes me unfit for any kind of job.

This goes on for years: sleepless nights, anxiety, escalating and increasingly paralyzing self-doubt, and a host of stress-induced ailments. She has even removed the Ph.D. from her résumé, with some pain, but she lives in dread that interviewers will ask what she has been doing for the last 12 years. (All her old friends are well established by now, some with families, some with what seem to be high-powered careers. She lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to pay off her student loans.) What's left now but entry-level clerical work with her immediate supervisor just three years out of high school?

She was the best student her adviser had ever seen (or so he said); it seemed like a dream when she was admitted to a distinguished doctoral program; she worked so hard for so long; she won almost every prize; she published several essays; she became fully identified with the academic life; even distancing herself from her less educated family. For all of those reasons, she continues as an adjunct who qualifies for food stamps, increasingly isolating herself to avoid feelings of being judged. Her students have no idea that she is a prisoner of the graduate-school poverty trap. The consolations of teaching are fewer than she ever imagined.

Such people sometimes write to me about their thoughts of suicide, and I think nothing separates me from them but luck.


  1. For the most part, the process and outcome of legal education in this country mirrors that which is described in both of the articles linked above.

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  3. I know a woman with a PhD from Harvard - the only teaching job she could get last year was at a community college. Most degrees aren't worth the paper they are printed on.

  4. JJD - I agree. I think attending an Ivy League or a top ranked university for college is worth it, but that's it! Graduate schools and most professional schools are not worth attending anymore because of the massive debt and the poor job prospects most students face after graduation. As Benton states, only wealthy students with financial assistance from their parents can hang around waiting for the perfect job.

  5. Hardknocks -- I don't necessarily agree that attending an Ivy or near-Ivy undergraduate is worth it, assuming that you're taking on student loan debt to do so. While law schools and graduate programs may respect the name brand (thus launching the name brand alums onto the treadmill that Benton so trenchantly describes), it's far from clear that the job market as a whole does. I got my undergrad degree from the University of Chicago -- an allegedly "top" school that was known locally as producing the "best educated people on the unemployment line."

  6. Jadz - True. I came out of college nearly debt free so sometimes I don't realize how fortunate I've been compared to people who come out of college with more debt than I had coming out of law school. If going to UChicago means taking out $100k in loans then attending a good state school might be a better choice.

  7. What's the news? This has been common knowledge for 20 years. My wife has a Phd from Brown and is happy to work in insurance. She knew the situation going in.

  8. So, she got the PhD for her health??? Unless an education is the new Fendi bag, why would anyone get it--unless it's to further your professional prospects?

  9. FWIW I graduated college in the early 1990s and it was pretty well known at that time that a PhD meant 7 years then no job.

    Still, a lot of kids got sucked into the PhD trap. The fact is that it's very easy to convince yourself that you will work your tail off and end up on top.

    It's also very easy to get fooled by history. Apparently my parents' generation had a very easy time getting PhDs and then tenured professorships. Largely because universities were expanding a lot in the 50s and 60s.

    For that generation, a PhD really was a ticket for a bright kid from a modest background to a solid middle class life.

    So for somebody in GenX, it's natural to assume that you can follow the same path.

  10. I wouldn't say it's "common knowledge." I certainly was not aware of this, and I don't live under a rock. Furthermore, what the hell is the point of getting advanced education but for better opportunities, a better career. Unless you're a trust-funder and independently wealthy, young people pursue education so that they will be able to make a living and a life for themselves, not pursue a hobby. I mean, remember, school costs a huge boatload of money. I think that's common knowledge.

  11. Benton has written extensively on this subject. PhD programs are for people who already have money or connections to academia. Such people can walk away, and focus all of their energies on research papers. This has been a trap for quite some time. Just look at the number of grad students and adjunct profs teaching undergrad classes. Schools can get away with using these people, instead of full PhDs.

  12. I wouldn't say it's common knowledge either. At least back in the 90s, if a PhD couldn't get you a teaching job at least the economy was good enough that you could get SOMETHING. Also, not as many people attended graduate school back then. Now it's almost expected that everyone who wants a good job has to go to college and get a graduate or professional degree. Today's graduates have been royally screwed with the increase in tuition and practically nothing else to fall back on if their initial plans fail.

    There is an obsession in our society with U.S. News rankings and students who aren't wealthy get suckered into believing the hype. They take on tons of debt because they believe it will be worth it in the end when they get a great job. They take on the debt because they don't understand that a lot of what happens post-graduation depends on a combination of wealth, luck, and connections. I'm a sucker for prestige and rankings too but luckily I was poor enough to get a ton of scholarships and financial aid. I admit that if I didn't get the aid I would've taken out as much loans as possible to go to the most prestigious schools anyway.

    This is what the news, teachers, and parents hammer into students since high school: you must get good grades, the best SAT and ACT scores, and take on as many extra curriculars as possible to get into the highest ranked school at ANY cost. Anything less is somehow a disappointment. This is especially true for families like mine with parents who aren't educated but believed that an elite education at ANY cost is the ticket to success. This is the myth Benton writes about and it continues to fool more students each year who believe that an additional degree will magically get you a job in this economy. More teachers like Benton need to dispel this myth and help students make choices that are best for their families' pocketbook, not what US News thinks is best.

  13. Yet. As applied to the law school trap (which I think is a special situation compared to, say, the English Department), adjuncts IMHO often add a great deal of value to a student's education in that they are frequently the only folks at the podium who have been in a courtroom, served a subpoena, haggled with opposing counsel, or dealt with a client -- in the last 20 years or maybe ever.

    Which is not to say that the math is not HIGHLY advantageous to the law school. (I.e., pay the adjunct $6K at our school, with the estimated tuition revenue at our school for a 20-person 3-credit course coming in at ~60K).

    Which is to say that the economic advantages (well, that and the fact that the tenured faculty are only interested in teaching seminars in Law and a Banana rather than something useful), rather than the educational benefits, are probably why we see so many adjuncts in legal education. Just like the rest of the academy!



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