"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Question for Readers

Is it worthwhile getting a Ph.D. if your only options are A) working as an adjunct or B) leaving academe for some other kind of work?

Especially if you've experienced significant financial hardship along the way (and if remaining an adjunct would cause you significant financial hardship), is it worth it to spend time and effort getting the Ph.D. if you cannot, in the end, no matter how talented and smart you are, achieve the career goal you started out with?

The Economist says no.  Thomas H. Benton has been saying no for a long time. This NYU guy says yes, but I think there are some serious flaws with his argument, starting with the fact that his point-of-view is that of the university --specifically, that of the professor of graduate students and someone serving on the graduate admissions committee--and that the interests he represents are those of the university and NOT of the students. Sure, it's great for universities, at least in the short term, to have an abundance of graduate students and recent Ph.D.s willing to work as serfs, believing if they stick it out long enough--if they can prove themselves good enough--that a tenure-track job will come along eventually and make it all worth it. But that argument doesn't do a very good job of representing the interests of graduate students or recent Ph.D.s....

My answer is complicated, and readers will have to wait to read it. But in the meantime, share your thoughts, whether you have a Ph.D. or not, whether you're on the tenure track or not!

If it's worth it, what makes it so? If not, why not?



  1. In the humanities, it does not make sense in my opinion. In the sciences, absolutely. In fact, I know a lot of people in science that do their PhD with the intention of working in the private industry (from chemist to mathematicians to food science to biologists). In the social sciences, I am not sure.

    By the way, I only read your post, not the links you posted, so I don't know if there was a difference there.

  2. I wouldn't get my Ph.D. if I knew my only options were adjuncting or a job outside academia. I always viewed the degree as a means to an end ... I wanted to be a professor, so I was going after the Ph.D. Now that I don't think I'll be pursuing any more academic positions, I don't feel compelled to finish (right now). So if I'd known I'd feel like this when I started out in graduate school (as in, it was a credential I needed for a particular job I was unlikely to get in the end), I think I would have left after the MA.

    That being said, I think that there are a lot of people for whom the Ph.D. in itself is something they wanted to achieve, regardless of what kind of job they wound up with. For those people, I think getting the degree itself would be such an accomplishment that they should pursue it.

    However, two caveats. First, Ph.D. students need to avoid taking out loans. Also, they need to be given a clear sense of what their post-grad job options will be. This cabal of silence surrounding the reality of the academic job market has got to stop.

  3. It was worth it to me as a way to transcend the confines of my upbringing intellectually. I am an educated person in a way I simply would not--even if I'd gone to college--given that I grew up poor white trash. So at that level, it's worth it to me that I did it. I am transformed.

    In terms of job prospects, I don't know. But it does open many doors for me in church work because I'm in religion, so I think the landscape is different.

    Also, I would love to be interviewed for your freelance piece. You can email me at bloggingdeath@gmail.com

  4. I began the PhD with no misconceptions about the likelihood of a job. I taught high school before I started and missed writing and research. I felt incredibly selfish focusing on my own personal intellectual development, but I loved it too. I only remained in the program to completion because I never accrued any debt. That was my deal at the beginning.

    For me, the PhD was completely worthwhile. I'll go back to high school teaching before getting an adjunct for an extended period of time.

  5. absolutely not in the humanities UNLESS you can do so with no financial strain (sponsored by trust fund, uni, whomever) but as I tell my students who ask, a Ph.D. is a very expensive hobby unless you are totally committed to moving wherever and how ever many times it takes to land a potentially crappy paying teaching job. It is still the best job in the world (IMHO) but I am STILL paying off my stupid grad loans and if my spouse didn't make more than twice my salary we'd be well and truly fucked

  6. It was worth it to me but I was fully funded - no loans - and I did it at a place I liked, namely my undergraduate school, so I didn't have the issues of moving somewhere unhospitable where I didn't know the lay of the land / have friends, etc. So it was a nice way to spend my 20s and I developed personally and intellectually and professionally. A lot.

    My original plan, though, was not to go into academia but into some other kind of research job, some kind of think tank, and I believe that was the right plan even though I didn't do it.

    I did my PhD years ago, however, and I do not recommend the PhD in humanities to people now.

  7. Received my PhD a few weeks ago in a rarified field that requires one to truly be part of it.

    Throughout, I was heartily warned by many and was completely aware that there was no real possibility of employment at the end of it, but a life-long passion can override the most dire warnings and stark reality. I did it for the love of the subject; because I simply can't do otherwise.

    The work is what matters most to me, but does it annoy me to no end that I might end up waiting tables again to feed my child? Of course! I'd really love to make a living AND an impact, but the ability to make a significant contribution to the field and deepen our understanding is far more important to me than my bank account. Such a thing has to be a personal decision that one makes with eyes open.

    I am very frank with anyone who asks me about grad school--it has been an expensive full-time 'hobby', more than a decade full of hurdles and fraught with intense obstacles.

    To me, it was worth every bit of the time, expense, and struggle, but it can be one hell of a path.

  8. It's the idealism that keeps the system going. If you're working as an adjunct, that's exactly what you're supposed to think -- that it's all worth it because you can't put a price on "the life of the mind."

    Now that I have the Ph.D. in hand, I would never say to anyone that it wasn't worth it, even though I'm working as a secretary in order not to take any more handouts from my family.

    But, of course, you can't put a price on your intellectual life!

    At the same time, when academics don't stand up for what they're worth (and, yes, I'm speaking in paradoxes here), the powers-that-be are more than happy to take your work for less than a living wage. If you don't put a price on it, others will, and you'll come out the loser every time.

    And that's just not right. You are not a martyr. No one should have to live the life of a martyr just because they believe that knowledge is more important than wealth. Asking for enough of a salary to support yourself and your family -- given the contributions knowledge workers make to society -- is a reasonable thing to ask for and does not mean you're somehow saying that knowledge is any less valuable.

    Also, I think it's a bit naive to believe that you can make "a significant contribution to the field" when you are either A) preoccupied teaching way too many classes as an adjunct to spend time on research and writing or B) working outside of academe for better pay but losing access to the resources you need to do your research. The latter is what I'm trying to deal with right now.

    Even though I've written publicly about the "is it worth it" question and solicited opinions here, I think it's actually a pretty dumb question. The idealists all line up on one side (Yes! My intellectual life is more important to me than anything else!) and the pragmatists on the other (No! I can't find a job!). It's a great strategy to divide and conquer -- get academics to fight with each other about who has the moral high ground, the people who claim they don't care about money or those who demand a fair wage.

    What gets lost is this: The current labor structure of higher ed is unsustainable. Whether any individual thinks there's value in the Ph.D. or not is, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant. Because if we don't fix the problems that are undermining the quality of education (an adjunct's working conditions become hir students' learning conditions), we risk undermining the level of access to knowledge that the next generation of undergraduates will have. And that's something we should all care about, wherever we stand on the "is it worth it" question.