My recent post, Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor, was far more widely read than anything I have posted before (27,000 page views and counting). It provoked considerable discussion--not only in the comments section of this blog but also on Twitter, Facebook, and other blogs. Some excellent points were made and I thought I should address them in one place. Reactions fell into a few broad categories:
What, this again?
|Yeah I heard that one before|
"stark but truthful picture of the higher education job market"
The bulk of the reactions were similar to the above comment from Ted Schwab. An old friend from grad school emailed to say that her program had added the post to the assigned readings for incoming MA students. Digital history guru Dan Cohen called it "depressing but sage advice." Thanks, guys.
The Opportunity Costs Debate
I was properly called out for my offhand remark that the opportunity costs of a humanities PhD are "over a million dollars." I should admit this was a wild guesstimate on my part--but I am not sure I was wrong. In a thoughtful reply to my post, Sean Takats calculated his own opportunity cost. Takats gave up a well-paid job at IBM to pursue a history Ph.D. and in six years sacrificed by his calculation $450,000 in earnings. But his calculation is incomplete, not taking into account the investments he might have made it that time (IRAs, home equity, etc.) and how those investments might have appreciated from that time until his retirement. He also does not calculate the differential between what he makes now as a professor and the larger amount he would be making had he stayed in the IT field. If you add those up, surely we are well over a million dollars.
|"Charlie Brown, aren't you going |
to the AHA this year?"
Of course, many college graduates are not finding work at all right now. For them, a fully-funded grad school gig is far better than moving back home with the parents. One person commenting about my post on another discussion board (unfortunately I cannot find the link) said that I did not understand the realities of the economy right now. He said he was a new college grad and was back at the crappy job he had right after high school and for the same money. A fair point. But even for those students, surely the economy will recover in the better part of a decade they would spend in grad school.
My Students Can Too Be Professors! They are Special.
|Source of poor career advice|
Holger Syme takes on my post point-by-point to argue Yes, You Can be a Professor--but his only argument is that since he overcame great odds and became a professor, his students can too. Sean Takats properly calls this response "a textbook example of survivorship bias." Takats quotes Wikipedia: "Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored […] It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than being just lucky." This is a better explanation of the point I made in my post, that asking professors if you should go to grad school in history is "like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket." Nate Kreuter expanded on this point with a column over at Inside Higher Ed titled You Aren't the Exception.
We Need to Reform Humanities Ph.D. Programs
I like it that a lot of commenters thought that the job market was in part a symptom of the wretchedness of current history PhD programs--which in this country take an average of nine freakin' years to complete, have terrible drop-out rates, and with few exceptions are focused exclusively on preparing one for a career as an academic historian at a research-focused university. There is a lot to say on this topic and I will reserve my ideas for a later post.
"You are a world class ass"
They may have a point. Yet I do not like giving the advice in "No, You Cannot be a Professor." I have any number of students who would make great history professors, given the chance. But realistically they will never have that chance, and I have a responsibility to tell them.