Sunday, November 13, 2011

Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor

[Note: In response to the interest generated by this post I have also posted No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions and For New Readers: Northwest History's Greatest Hits.]

[2014 Update: So what can you do with your history degree? My friend and former student Lee Nilsson offers some great tips in No, You Cannot be a Professor Part III: Survivor Stories.]

In a way it is the greatest compliment a student can give. I ask them what they want to do with their history degree. They get all passionate and earnest and vulnerable as they answer, "I want your job. I am going to be a college professor!" Then they turn their smiling faces towards me, expectantly awaiting my validation and encouragement of their dreams. And I swallow hard, and I tell them....

No, my esteemed student, you are not going to be a history professor. It isn't going to happen. The sooner you accept this the better.

This is not because you are not bright enough. You are plenty bright. In any case, finishing a Ph.D. program is more a matter of persistence than intelligence. The reason you are not going to be a professor is because that job is going away, and yet doctoral programs continue to produce as many new Ph.D.s as ever. It is a simple calculation of odds--you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.

First, let's look at the odds. Tenure track jobs are declining. The AHA recently reported that "The number of job openings in history plummeted last year, even as the number of new history PhDs soared. As a result, it appears the discipline is entering one of the most difficult academic job markets for historians in more than 15 years." And the job market was terrible 15 years ago. Very few of the people in history PhD programs right now are going to get teaching jobs--the Economist recently concluded that "doing a PhD is often a waste of time."

Not you.
Ah, but you say, I am special. I am a 4.0 student (except in your class where you gave me that 3.8 and ruined my life). Every teacher since kindergarten has told me how delightfully clever I am. I have interesting ideas and I really really love history. I know how hard it is to become a professor, but I am willing to work hard, so those odds do not apply to me.

Yes they do. The thing about grad school is that everyone else is at least as special as you, and most of them are more so. They all had 4.0 GPAs, they all have gone through life in the same insulating cocoon of praise, they all really, really love history. Hell, some of them shoot rainbows out of their butts and smell like a pine forest after a spring rain--and they mostly aren't going to get jobs either.

I know that some of your other professors are encouraging your dreams of an academic career. It is natural to turn to your professors for advice on becoming a professor, and it natural for them to want to see you succeed. Remember though that we 1) mostly have not been on the job market lately and 2) in any case are atypical Ph.D.s in that we did land tenure track positions. To return to the lottery analogy, it is like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket. For our part, there is a lot of professional satisfaction in mentoring some bright young person, encouraging their dreams, writing them letters of recommendation and bragging of their subsequent acceptance into a good doctoral program. Job market? What job market?

Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promises to provide education with far fewer teachers--and whether you buy into this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won't be that lucky.
Also not you.

For a more accurate gauge of the job market speak with some of the people you find adjuncting at your university.  Ask them about the pay and benefits they get for the hours worked--most are earning little more than minimum wage with no benefits. Or head over to the well of bitterness and despair that is Adjunct Nation, and peruse the articles on topics such as Avoiding Freeway Flyer Burnout or Kent State Faculty Senate Opposes Collective Bargaining For Part-time Faculty. This a far more likely vision of your future than is the happy mid-career faculty member who biked to work yesterday and met you in her sunny office with the pictures of her European vacation on the wall.

Finally, I want to look at one factor that is too-little addressed in these discussions: the opportunity costs spending 6-10 years preparing for a career that, even in the event of your actually landing a tenure-track job somewhere (and again, that is not going to happen) will leave you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole compared to your friends who started professional careers right out of their undergrad program. In six years you could have entered a career, risen to mid-rank, bought a house, and had your IRA off to a healthy beginning. If you go on for a PhD, instead you will find yourself with student loan payments equivalent of a home mortgage but no home (and no equity), no retirement savings, and banking on the thin chance of landing a job in some part of the country usually only seen on American Pickers. The opportunity costs are at least a million dollars. You don't care now, because you are young, but you will.

So no, my bright-eyed young scholar, you are not going to be a history professor. That is not to say that you cannot work with history. There are some great jobs in public history--working for local government, or federal agencies, or museums, or as an independent contractor, or a hundred other things. These jobs are also competitive and hard to break into, but there are more of them and you only need an MA. Or you could get certified and teach history in the public schools--again, quite competitive but not nearly so much as college teaching. Good luck!

90 comments:

Tokugawa Mark said...

Much of your despair is well founded, but I don't understand the debt question. I commonly tell students that they should only consider grad school if they get a full scholarship and livable stipend. That way they're spending six or eight years studying something they love, with a chance at a job they'll love. If it doesn't happen, they've enjoyed a fantastic free education and they can still snag that job a Hooters -- writing occasionally on the social history of breast implants and wet t-shirts perhaps

Jason Antrosio said...

This is the honest truth--there is a chance things can turn out differently, and we can work toward making those changes, but at this point this is a remarkably realistic assessment.

My current advice echoes Max Weber nearly 100 years ago--that "academic life is a mad hazard." For more, see my post on The Florida Governor's Daughter and Undergraduate Anthropology Major.

Larry Cebula said...

@Mark: Good point that they should not be going in the first place unless fully funded (a slippery term by the way) but the opportunity costs are still there.

@Jason: Excellent post, and it has me thinking about how we all need to promote our disciplines and our courses, particularly to those non-majors who might end up governor one day.

IB said...

Sartre comes to mind: "There are even men (e.g. caretakers, overseers, jailers) whose social reality is uniquely that of the Not, who will live and die, having forever been only a Not upon the earth."

Mario said...

and why does relocation sounds that awful for gringos?. That is mainly because you cant. You have been underestimating the rest of the cultures of the world , and now your education is so USaian (yes , you are not Americans , America is a continent) that does not fit (in most cases in other latitudes , such Australia and China). Poor you all , think that the western romans felt like this around the year 500.

Michelle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle said...

On the other hand, I've had an extraordinarily easier time getting a job as an adjunct than I have getting a job teaching at the secondary level, and it certainly pays better than subbing, which I also do. (English, like history, is one of the two most commonly certified areas in secondary education. I graduated in 2007 and have not been able to find a job teaching middle school or high school English for love or money, yet I've gotten gigs adjuncting at two different colleges in two different states. Of course, teaching basic writing might be different than lower level history courses.)

Anonymous said...

It's interesting how US students only look at a PhD as a gateway to an academic career (and how professors encourage them to see it in that light). I finished my PhD (DPhil) in History at Oxford University, in England, in 1993. I never had any intention of working in academia, and nor did 95% of the people earning PhDs with me. I went into the British civil service, where I worked with many people who had PhDs. Other people went into industry, technology, whatever. The problem in the US seems to be the professors continuing to encourage their students to believe that the only right and proper thing to do with a PhD is to be a professor, when that is so very wrong. I knew an extremely talented woman who completed her PhD in political science and went to work for McKinsey, in a very highly paid job with travel and responsibility. Her professors reacted to the news as if she had contracted a life threatening illness, instead of celebrating the fact that she was going to have the chance for a great career with a company that would value her intelligence and education.

Larry Cebula said...

@Michelle: Maybe I should have said "No tenure track professorship for you.

@Anonymous: Great comments, it sounds like the UK system is way more realistic than our own.

Michelle said...

@Anonymous: I think this is true in many (most?) of the non-humanities fields even here in the U.S. I speak from limited experience, but of the relatives I have who have PhDs, the two who have PhDs in the sciences do not teach, while one who has a PhD in German was a professional teacher.

I wonder of the relative professional ease there might be for those who work in the scientific and mathematical fields to get non-teaching jobs, if there, in fact, more obvious ways to use those PhDs outside academia.

Anonymous said...

Depressing, but hard to argue against, especially when I consider that I pretty much did everything that you (and the other comments) say never to do. Life goes on, I suppose...

Steve Fountain said...

This is similar to the point I have come to. I no longer write letters of recommendation for PhD programs in Humanities or Liberal Arts. It is not about debt, it is the opportunity cost of spending years to reach odds about the same as making it in the NBA.

I graduated from a top-20 program and 13 years later only one member of my entering cohort has a tenure track job - and for the record that is not me. One reason is that public history is not a part of the curriculum at top tier universities (though the only students I currently have with job offers are in public history).

One structural problem is that grad students serve as critical labor for large introductory classes in all disciplines. That has no connection to the job market and no easy solution.

Joe V said...

Should your comments have begun with an apology, as in "sorry that I and my colleagues in positions of power and authority in the university system have allowed this situation to happen" and maybe "Here is what we plan to do about it." There is more than enough demand for teaching to provide stable, secure positions for every "bright-eyed young scholar" you condescended to, provided the existing faculty did not capitulate again and again to the corporatization of the university. How about some ideas for your young scholars on how to organize?

Larry Cebula said...

@JoeV: I am intruiged by your assertion that "there is more than enough demand for teaching to provide stable, secure positions for every 'bright-eyed young scholar,'" but you are going to have to show me the math. How do you figure?

As for "positions of power" you are buying into a common misconception concerning faculty. Come to Cheney sometime and let me show you my cubicle.

Joe V said...

Larry, I'm sure you're well-meaning and a great professor. I was referring to the profession in general, and the "how did this happen" attitude I encounter especially at big state schools. On the job front, if every course taught by abused, under-paid causal academic labor was instead taught by a full-time faculty member, I believe there would be a need to produce more PhD's, no? There has been a massive increase in the number of courses/students taught, while the number of full-time faculty has decreased, yes?
Again, if my comment was harsh, it is only because I think we faculty should be organizing rather than discouraging.

Hannah said...

The negativity and discouragement seems to be getting a bit out of control. Instead, try this on for size. It's grounded,realistic, and part "tough love," yet encouraging and honest. Something a student needs to hear, but stops short of presuming that the power to decide rests with an individual faculty member.

"And so, please don’t tell your students that if they’re not rich or well-connected that they shouldn’t go to graduate school in the humanities. Tell them if you don’t think they are cut out for the work, and please tell them how difficult it can be at all points along the way. Also tell them that if they want to go to law school or culinary school. But if they still want to go, help them figure out how to be the person they think they want to be, how to become the person that will be satisfied. They will need skills. They will need to pass tests in practice and in academics. They will need to make friends, make professional connections, perform themselves in interesting ways, and they will need luck."

For the entire post:
http://jsench.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/working-classes/

Larry Cebula said...

Joe: I think our area of agreement is probably greater than our disagreement. I am proud to say that my faculty union does fight for contingent faculty, and that as a result some of them get health benefits and multi-year contracts. But their situation is still objectively terrible.

But as we are fighting the long, rear-guard action, there is still the stream of students coming into my office wanting to be a history professor. What should I tell them?

Ted Schwab said...

I really appreciate this stark but truthful picture of the higher education job market. I originally wanted to go for my PhD in medieval history, but decided instead to pursue a career in public history. Although I'm still in grad school (but currently employed as a project manager/archivist), I see quite a few opportunities for public historians outside of the academy and even outside of public history itself (PR, advocacy, organization, etc).

On the topic of the post--do you think there would be any merit in the re-creation of PhD programs to include less specialization and instead stress transferrable skills and interdisciplinary marketability? I agree with you about the lack of tenure track positions, but if adjuncts made themselves invaluable to the university (through technical expertise, skill combinations, broad-ranging abilities), they could ensure that the university would want to hold onto them. Academics could take hold of business principles and through aggressive self-promotion, skill mastering, and creative ability, ensure that they have a continuing place in the digital future.

Zachary Schrag said...

Thank you for this much-needed statement. I must question the claim that "The opportunity costs are at least a million dollars."

According to CNN in 2010, "liberal arts majors can expect to be offered a starting salary in the range of $35,508."

In 2008, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 28 of 95 institutions surveyed offered their graduate TAs in English at least $15,000. That leaves an opportunity cost of just around $20,000 per year.

Thus, if a student takes six years to complete a doctorate, that's an opportunity cost of about $120,000. Maybe higher, if you consider that if the student didn't go to grad school she would have gotten some raises, and if you consider that many doctoral students will not receive that $15,000 stipend. Maybe lower, if the student supplements her stipend with some paid work during the summer, if she keeps living costs down by doing without a car or living in subsidized student housing or a low-cost university town, if the PhD raises her earnings inside or outside of academia, and if we figure in taxes.

If you assume that a 22-year-old graduating senior who entered the job market would live as frugally as a grad student and invest all the extra $120,000 in a retirement fund at 6 percent interest, and leave it there until age 65, you can turn that $120,000 opportunity cost into a $1.4 million opportunity cost. But I'm not sure that's good accounting, since a dollar 43 years from now is not worth a dollar today.

So I agree with your basic point that opportunity costs make attending graduate school--even with a stipend--an enormous financial sacrifice. But I think you can make that point without exaggerating the numbers involved.

Anonymous said...

Why do you have to be so mean? Let the kiddies play.

Tedra said...

"they're spending six or eight years studying something they love, with a chance at a job they'll love. If it doesn't happen, they've enjoyed a fantastic free education and they can still snag that job a Hooters"

Yeah, lalala. That's what I thought when I went to grad school (and I was going to point out that that response is lacking in the original post: even students who are willing to take your word for it that they will probably not get a t-t job are likely to say "I love my field so much that I just want to study it for fun."

But the thing is, 6-8 (or more; I took 10) years getting a PhD isn't just fun time. It's time when your peers, as the original post points out, are establishing themselves in their careers, beginning their retirement savings, etc. None of that registers much to a lot of people in their 20s, but let's say 8 years for the PhD, 5 more doing some kind of academic employment in the hopes of ending up with a t-t job (in my case, I *had* a t-t job and gave it up for lots of reasons, so even landing the job isn't a guarantee), and then you're 15 years behind the economic curve and trying to figure out how to get a non-academic job. Entry level jobs pay piddly wages and employers are likely to look askance at you, a 35-year old person, competing with 22-yos for those jobs; mid-level jobs are a good bet (and anyway, you've got tons of "marketable skills") but you have to figure out how to shoehorn yourself into them.

And regardless, you have virtually no earnings that count towards social security payments, nothing saved for retirement, you probably haven't bought a house so you haven't been building any equity there, and you have to work through the emotional/psychological issues associated with "failing" as an academic.

So no, it really isn't as simple as "hey, as long as you don't take out student loans it's all good."

Larry Cebula said...

@Ted: Oh absolutely the system of graduate education needs to be reinvented, and public history points the way. Doctoral students should have multiple skill sets (history = X, where X equals something like GIS, historic preservation, computer programming, etc.), internships should be a required part of the program, grant writing should be a required course, etc.

We historians say these things to one another all the time, and maybe a program somewhere is actually implementing such reforms, but I don't know about them. Anyone?

Anonymous said...

I'm not a professor, but your condescending know-it-all tone further confirms how lucky I am to have chosen a career path outside of academia. It's nice to not have to deal with pompous a$$hats all the time.

Larry Cebula said...

@Zachary and @Tedra: You both make good points questioning my math but from different directions. I guess to really figure out the opportunity costs you need to do things like figure out the average salary of humanities BAs, then calculate the average Social Security, pension, and mortgage payments that person would have made during the 6-8 years their undergraduate friend spent in grad school, and then figure the interest rates over the 40 years until our theoretical BA student retires, and see what amount of money we are talking about. Economists make this sort of calculation all the time, but as a historian it makes my head hurt.

Perhaps I should simply have written "the opportunity costs are enormous."

Anonymous said...

Coaches have a stranglehold on full-time secondary school social studies positions. While this does include a minority of "academic" teams such as Debate, you're more likely to be hired to take X program to state than to be a dynamic and interesting instructor on history, politics, and government. If you only have the latter skill, good luck, because you'll need it!

Plus, good luck talking about contemporary controversies even with 17/18 year olds and even with language and images they can find in the Spokesman, the Oregonian, Idaho Statesman, or Seattle Times.

Margo Shea said...

I've never been good at math. And I had a perfectly acceptable, reasonably creative, making-the-world-a-better place career in the nonprofit sector when I ditched it to get a doctoral degree in history.

And I am exactly where you predict newly-minted phds will be when they finish -- in debt, without financial or job security, under-employed and under-appreciated in my place of employment.

I am also an utterly different person, and in most ways a better person. The phd was a meandering path, not one choice. It was a process, not career arithmetic.

Would I do it again, knowing everything I know now? Well, let's see --- I met my husband, who rocks, lived in what is to me the nicest place in the world, studied and researched and thought about something I am deeply passionate about, learned to write and think and to express myself confidently in front of lots of people, made wonderful friends and have the sense that I can now complete any thing I set my mind to. So, I guess I'd have to say yes despite all the unpleasant consequences.

My friends who made more, ahem, practical choices --- they are changing spouses, changing careers, being fired, refinancing their houses, hooked up to chemo, losing their parents, trying to save their parents. Life is complicated and not doing what you love doesn't make it less complicated -- it just makes it flatter.

I tell my students not to do a phd if they think it will lead to a safe, lifelong job in a leafy town somewhere. I also tell them to try something else for a few years at least before entering grad school. But I don't tell them not to do it. Because sometimes you just have to eat the peach.

Sean said...

Like Zach, my alarm bells starting ringing at the mention of "million dollars" of opportunity costs, which is quite simply unreasonably high. Nonetheless, Zach may be understating the case, since there's no reason to think that a history PhD candidate's earning potential closely tracks that of an average liberal arts degree major.

Even without the "million dollars" bombast, there's no question that the opportunity costs can be substantial, and I've been thinking of writing a blog post on just this subject. As someone who abandoned a remunerative and secure job to go to graduate school, I gave up somewhere north of $450,000 over the course of six years, even after accounting for graduate stipends and other fellowship support. Even from current the perspective of a TT position, this was a stupid and reckless decision mitigated only by extraordinary good luck.

Holger said...

Dear Larry,

yes, the job market is bad. Yes, there is an opportunity cost in going to grad school. But I could't disagree more that telling our students to give up on the idea of getting a PhD is the best response. I've written up my reaction in greater detail here.

Buck Reed BuckReed said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Derek Johnson said...

I heard this blog post first hand sitting in Dr. Cebula's office during an internship my final year of undergrad. It's a sad reality. Simply put, Dr. Cebula wouldn't sugar coat his opinion of the career choice I was planning on pursuing. And he hasn't here.

It needs mentioning that he did encourage me to live my life, and whatever I decided to do, he was more than happy to write my letter of recommendation and remain a source of advocacy and guidance. It was tough advice that I needed to hear.

However, the need for passionate historians are needed in our communities. Volunteer at your local museums, workshops, public schools, and the like. Who knows, something may come of it. If not, you're still contributing. Sounds like a win to me.

Sean said...

As hinted above, I've gone ahead and done some opportunity cost calculations.

jiminnc said...

Response by this guy:
http://www.dispositio.net/archives/586

"And while job prospects are obviously far from great, I’d say it’s a good thing Cebula doesn’t teach statistics (for reference: the odds of winning the jackpot in a standard 6-from-49 lotto game are about 1 in 14 million; those of being struck by a meteorite are about 1 in 700,000; those of getting a tenure track job as a historian… well, they’re a bit better)."

Louis K. said...

Larry,
A fine column that applies to most fields at the University--not just history. I'm sharing this with my students. Thank you

Larry Cebula said...

@All: I am humbled by all of the interest. I will post a follow-up in a few days to respond more fully to the comments and critiques.

Anonymous said...

Given your views, don't you think you should be working to eliminate or reduce the graduate program at your own school, particularly when it is promoted as a gateway to doctoral degrees that you apparently think are not gateways to much beyond that?

=============================

The MA program in History is designed to prepare students for pursuits requiring a historical background. Students who are interested in teaching careers, in preparation for doctoral programs and in participation in professional internships such as library, museum, or archival work can design a program to suit their needs.

John Moudy said...

I would have to say that this is my experience to. Any history related job is incredibly tough to break into and we all run the risk of having to work outside of our field, but PhD tenure track positions are the most difficult to find and the most difficult to break into. I have to agree with Dr. Cebula, any other field in history is still hard to break into, but it still easier than trying to become a tenured professor.

John Moudy said...

I also apologize for some of the bad grammar in my last post.

WG said...

It is disappointing to hear the sad news about the realities of the academic job market when you're an undergraduate, but it is nothing less than tragic to make this realization after you've invested years in graduate school. Too many people never hear this message (even if they're told it) until far too late.

This is the theme of blogs like "100 reasons NOT to go to grad school" (100rsns.blogspot.com). It's a shame that there aren't more academics like Dr. Cebula who are honest with their students (and themselves) about the future of the profession.

LAS said...

I agree with much that's been said, but some things need to be added. One, where are all these $35K a year jobs for graduating undergrads now? Many are taking jobs for $8 an hour, no benefits, being told they need to "pay their dues" for some indefinite amount of time after amassing $20-$40K or more in student loan debt. Two, to what extent does the constant stating that tenure and so much else in the humanities are "going away" become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Three, what collective knowledge will be lost if people stop working for PhDs? They aren't just credentials; they represent intellectual growth that is hard to duplicate. We need mass struggles to take control of our education, not surrender - and to what would we surrender? Should we all forego college all together and get sales jobs somewhere or try to work our way up at Walmart?

MiriamLW said...

A helpful letter that might be useful to share w/all those students who think they will get my job (or better). Thanks.

-I agree w/Tokugawa Mark: I tell students if they don't get serious financial support from the institution in the form of fellowship and/or TAship, don't go. The institution that's accepted you hasn't made a full commitment.

-realize that a humanities degree is 7-8 years (rarely as little as 6), and your chance of tenure-track position within 3+ years is less than 50%. So have a backup plan and really think hard about being a decade behind your cohort in having a life of any kind.

-Also I tell students to research the fields that interest them not just for grad work, but undergrad teaching. There ARE some jobs--not just adjunct--but in particular areas. Composition & Rhetoric is one that strong writers who are pretty sure they want to teach do well in. Hot spots come and go--but it's something to try to think about as you move towards choosing a dissertation topic.

-If you find you don't like teaching, get out fast. That's 80-90% of what most university/college jobs are. The rest is committee work/service, with a tiny percentage of research mostly during the summers when you're not paid. Remind folks that elite colleges and research universities are a very small segment of the job market--public and state institutions with not very selective admissions are the majority. In short, most of your students if you get a job won't be like yourself.

-choose a dissertation carefully. Small teaching colleges like mine want to hire someone who can teach all the basic conventional classes; if you can do cool interdisciplinary or hot theoretical stuff too, that's a bonus. And we do hire, tenure-track for now.

-Finally, I have to say nearly half of my graduate cohort dropped or moved in different career directions long before the PhD was finished. So that's something also to put into the mix--maybe it's better now, but quite a few people figured out that this wasn't what they thought it was. PhD isn't just more of what you loved in college, nor is it all "life of the mind"--it's preparation (hazing in some ways) for a very particular professional career. Think of it as pre-professional training. Then realize that a law degree takes a couple years, a library degree likewise, most MAs or MSs 2 years. Is there a better option?

Andrea said...

Unfortunately, this is a higher education problem, not just a History problem. In STEM fields, you're often more than welcome to become a serial postdoc with equally uncertain long-term prospects.

Anonymous said...

The universities consistently over value their degrees, misleading students to spend the money on an education that simply does not cash flow. This applies to almost every degree in almost every field. But they have to sell education, it's their job.

There simply are not enough jobs. No jobs equals over saturated markets. I mean really, does any small city need 3 culinary arts schools or two graphic design schools. Talk about saturated markets! Geesh - 800 graphic designers would have to either die or retire every year for those students to even get creative positions. Most of them don't work at Hooters though. If you earn your MA you can probably get a job developing photos at Wal-Mart.

History, Business or Mathematics, it really does not matter. If our economy continues the way it has been, your post may as well read "Open Letter to My Students: No, You Won't get a job... Any Job".

Tim said...

Most of what you have said in this post is true. However, why would you want to dissuade students from obtaining a PhD, which is the highest academic degree there is. I am not doing my PhD because i want to be a professor, I am doing it because i want to make a difference in science. It's a small difference, but a difference nonetheless. Doctoral work is one of the supporting pillars of science and other disciplines and should not be undermined just because jobs kind of suck right now. You should tell you students that doing a PhD is a fine course to take, but that jobs are scarce. But to provocatively come out and say it like you do brings some assumptions to the table. You think all students are looking past their PhDs towards being a professor? please. Graduate school is where most of the fun and enrichment and growing up of life occurs. So why would you want to skip that entirely for some boring museum job you can always take in the end? Here is some positivism:

YOU WILL BE A PHD! and you will have contributed to the civilization of MAN!

Tim said...

Here is a little analogy for this monstrosity of a letter.

A man is down on his luck, and needs someone to give him advice on how to proceed to make some money for himself. He goes into the lobby of an expensive hotel, and strikes up a conversation with the richest looking woman in there. He asks; can i ask you something? how did you become so rich? can you give me any advice on how to direct my choices towards becoming a millionaire? She replies: well, here is my advice: do not ever buy a lottery ticket or invest any time in trying to win the lottery, i don't know what else to tell you, but that sure as hell does NOT work. So the man replies: well, can you tell me what will? She says; i have no idea how to make money, I just won it all in a lottery.

Anonymous said...

I have a Masters Degree in History and after looking all my options, my accumulated debt I opted out of academia. As for public history, I hope all of those who now currently hold jobs as professors have this discussion with their students and encourage them to take management, business or computer science as a minor to help students employability in the field.

Adrienne said...

@ Anonymous (of November 13, 2011 8:27 PM) --

The big difference with the UK is that it takes only 3-4 years to get a PhD. It is also not uncommon for students go straight to PhD after a 3-year undergrad. 6 years in uni and you get a PhD? Not too bad at all.

The situation is not the same Canada or the US. Your PhD will take 5 years minimum. In the case of Canada, it's customary to do a Masters beforehand (adding 1-2 years). So we're talking about very different situations. Doing a PhD in the UK may seem like a reasonable option, but not in the US or Canada.

I myself am Canadian and am finishing my MA in the UK. After much thinking, I've decided to not pursue a career in academia. Even without a PhD, I've spent 7 years in university and I feel completely unprepared for any jobs out there. Part of me feels I should have gone to community college to get a more tangible skill instead of wasting all this time and opportunity cost in university.

cam said...

Dear Professor,

You are a world class ass. You have no vision outside of your narrow, limited views, and your message is short sighted and damaging. A great many nobel prize winners have made it through much more trying and desperate times - even through the holocaust. Many academics in developing world countries have lived with low wages and financial uncertainty for decades, yet they do not use their circumstances as an excuse not to prepare a next generation of academics and thinkers. That is, your views reveal more about you than it does about the profession. It is alarmist and juvenile to send out the message you have, especially to those much younger than you, and who may look to you for guidance. I shudder to think what kind of world we would live in if everybody thought like you. You are an educator, not a parent to these student, and you should limit yourself to educating them instead of patronising them with your whinging, narrow perspective on their futures. You cannot predict the future. Academics and intellectuals have always found ways to survive, and the whole higher education model may adapt and change in the future. So stuff your crystal ball where it belongs, and do your bloody job i.e. raise a next generation of good academics and thinkers. Otherwise, step aside and let someone else take up the challenge.

Larry Cebula said...

I am humbled by all the interest in this post. Let me reply briefly to some of the points here and at length in another post (which I promise to finish this weekend).

@Anoymous: I think you are correct that we should remove the reference to preparation for doctoral work from our departmental website. I will raise the issue with my colleagues--thanks for pointing it out.

@LAS: You are absolutely correct that the entry-level jobs for history BAs of years past are not around anymore. And that does influence the opportunity cost debate. More on this to come.

@Tim: What? I teach public history--I do in fact prepare people for practical careers in the historical profession. Dig through the blog a bit and you will see what I am about.

@Adrienne: 3-4 years for a PhD in the UK? That is more like it. But that does not include any coursework, right?

@Cam: World class! Woot!

Elizabeth Golden-Pidgeon said...

One does not have to "become a professor" to teach. I am currently doing a lot of "teaching" in my work as an environmental consultant. I organize environmental events and programs, in addition to other word. Also, there are non-tenure jobs, part-time jobs and adjunct teaching jobs at college, teaching jobs in government, high school teaching jobs, and research jobs. Although there are less professorships available, a lot of professors are aging (no offense, please)and will be retiring soon. Someone has to replace them.

Larry Cebula said...

@Elizabeth: Ah, the long-predicted wave of retirements that will improve the job market. I wish it were true. We have been hearing that prediction for 30 years now and it has yet to come true. Retiring tenure track professors are being replaced with part-time adjuncts, classes are getting larger, and the continued massive overproduction of Ph.D.s all combine to form a job market that never gets better.

Anonymous said...

Before the Great Recession, the number of tenured positions was growing though a) slower than the number of adjunct positions being added, b) much slower than the number of new PhDs, and c) far slower than enrollment.

Retirement has slowed in every industry, so this isn't a higher education problem. All the Baby Boomers who started their careers in the fatter times are staying in place for a combination of positive and negative reasons. This is understandable and often beneficial for everyone involved. Except new, young professionals.

less is more said...

You know its a good post and you raise some really relevant excellent points. However, there is a tinge of condescension, kind of like pulling the ladder up behind you. With that said, much of what you said is true, though more true for Americanists than others. I know many people in Asian and Latin American history with tenure track jobs who just recently graduated. But this stuff needs to be discussed ...

Larry Cebula said...

@Less: I think it is more like pulling up the gangway to a sinking ship before any more people get on!

Steven Higley said...

Truth is, the only two professions with good prospects nowadays are lobbyist and US Marine. I worked as a professional land surveyor for 20 years. That profession is at death's door, along with the real estate and construction businesses. Now I am working toward a MA, with plans to go on to a PhD. What brought me to that course was sheer cynicism. If all is hopeless, I may as well do as I wish. There ought to be room in this discussion for that bit about only failing if one fails to try.

Anonymous said...

You're right about History, probably.

Wrong about other fields, economics in particular.

There is no way you will fail to get a tenure-track professorship somewhere in economics if you graduate from a top 10 and aren't in the bottom five of your class.

This is because MBA's and business schools are doubling and redoubling their populations every few years.

Anonymous said...

Teaching economics to business students is worse than teaching computer science to CS undergraduates or history to social studies majors.

Talk about a crowd that couldn't possibly care less about your research or theory despite, ostensibly, being in your field.

James said...

I'm a little puzzled about the way these odds are always presented. "There's no way you'll get the job," it goes, "because there are like 400 applicants for every job." What's weird is that, when you look at non-academic jobs, that's totally normal. Maybe it wasn't pre-2008, but it certainly is now. There was an opening for media assistant at a local public school near me. This is an 18,000/yr job with no particular likelihood of advancement. 500 people applied. When I left AmeriCorps this past year, my position was going to be replaced with a very low-paying, part-time job. Number of applicants? 250! Not to mention that AmeriCorps itself is only able to take on about a third of the people applying.

It's true that successful professors have the bias of being survivors deluding them into thinking the process is easier than it really is. But sometimes I suspect the opposite is happening too. First of all, it's nice to think you've climbed the highest mountain and overcome the greatest obstacles, so there might be a bit of psychological interest in talking up how hard it's been.

Moreso, though, I think it's lack of familiarity with the non-academic world. Reading academic blogs can really bring this out...a common complaint is how much time is spent in meetings. But this is exactly the same as every job! Another complaint is the lack of tenure...just like every job...hmm. In fact, a lot of the reasons to not go into academia just sound like reasons to not get jobs.

This isn't to say adjuncting isn't a hellscape that needs reforming, or that we should get all students to go to grad school. It's just that this account seems to use a lot of reasons that just apply to every life choice available to those of us graduating since the crash. And that opportunity cost? We're all eating it by virtue of being this age right now, grad school or no, because hourly-wage retail positions with a BA in our pocket are not exactly increasing our earning potential.

Be frank with students about the academic career they dream about, and be firm with those who are clearly not cut out for it. But the idea that you would talk qualified students out of it reeks of paternalism, and they'll resent you for it when, after graduation, they're making $9/hr as a bank teller or a Hallmark store clerk (which, by the way, they got after competing with 200 applicants). If they're going to fail, let them do it with an informed decision to pursue a dream, rather than undignified surrender to insurmountable odds.

James said...

An addendum to my comment above: One other issue I have with this particular line of reasoning is that it basically tells students they ought not to try to do anything where the odds are against them succeeding. The lottery example is completely misleading, since the buy-in cost is minimal and the chance of winning is infinitesimal, neither of which is true of achieving an academic job. The chance of getting the job is low, granted, but not that low. And if you're willing to move/willing to live in rural America/willing to teach at the expense of publishing or doing research, your odds get better. And this makes it just like any of a number of jobs: musician, poet, athlete, etc. And when someone says they want to be one of these, we certainly can make them aware of how hard it will be, and how important it is to gain other skills in case it doesn't pan out. But to tell a talented musician or athlete, especially one that has achieved some success already (say, by getting a scholarship) that they ought not to continue along that path because the odds are against them seems unnecessarily risk-averse. Just so with academia.

Anonymous said...

Plenty of Historians make plenty good cash in the market of writing pop science books, opinion pieces and corporate/political consulting --so its not really fair to measure their job market by professorships alone. I have a math degree and I never intended on teaching --doesn't mean I am not fruitfully employing myself as a mathematician. So mixing the concepts of "PhD is useless" with "job market for PhDs" based on teaching alone is quite erroneous.

Especially since you chose to cite what the Economist concluded-- that just killed all credibility to this argument right there.

You should advise the students to learn some game theory and business to complement their expertise in history, and they would be absolutely invaluable in today's complex knowledge economy (regardless of your own lack of creativity in becoming a prof).

Larry Cebula said...

Anon: "So mixing the concepts of "PhD is useless" with "job market for PhDs" based on teaching alone is quite erroneous."

Hence the title of the post, "No, You Cannot be a Professor" and not "No, you cannot go to graduate school."

Anonymous said...

For a darkly humorous take on this question:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obTNwPJvOI8

Anonymous said...

you professors are all disgusting animals. I'm glad people are finally becoming aware of the scam you run and taking away your scam positions. Doing undergrad is the biggest regret of my life. But soon judgement day is coming for you and the only way you are going is DOWN and you know it. I'm glad you suffer like animals on your way to your scam position though. if you want to email me my email is cheetah at usa.com

Larry Cebula said...

Cheetah, I would think your biggest regret would be going off your meds!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chas Clifton said...

When I was in graduate school (U. of Colorado, religious studies), I realized that the system was still, at its heart, set up for celibate medieval priests and monks.

It had its quasi-feudal aspects -- whose livery do you wear? -- but that is another story.

To be a grad student, in the humanities at least, is to be a little bit of a renunciate still. Once you realize that, it helps.

It also helps that if you marry, you marry someone who understands that aspect of the academic life.

Larry Cebula said...

Chas: Your metaphor is a good one--I have heard it said that the university and the Catholic Church are the two surviving medieval institutions.

phree said...

Larry - I totally agree with this post and am in the same situation with a PhD in philosophy. I would never advise an undergrad to attend graduate school for the humanities unless they were independently wealthy and did not need a job.

I too had a FT non-TT after completing my PhD in 2004. All of the FT TT jobs I have applied to have cancelled searches both before and and during the Great Recession. I worked in a miserable position at an unethical for-profit, EDMC, until I refused to capitulate to unethical policies designed to separate students from their money.

The delusional TTs who are critiquing your post do not live in our world and do not get it at all. There is no future for PhDs. We are being replaced by our own starving ranks. I blame the Baby Boomers who were more than willing to sell us out to hang onto their own TT jobs.

Larry Cebula said...

Phree, thanks for your supportive comments and I hope you find or have found an acceptable Plan B! I am not sure I would blame the non-retiring boomers though. It is not their fault that they lost half their 401ks in 2008, or that when they do retire they are not replaced with tenure-track faculty but with a collection of adjuncts.

The problem is that America has retreated from its commitment to making a college education available to every person. Taxes are lower than they have been in 50 years, and there just is not enough money in state governments to keep their commitments. This was the case before the recession and will remain the case after.

Matt you know ASTLE said...

Good evening.
I found this blog doing a search of "how to be a professor". I'm a recent B.A. graduate, who is for the first time really starting to think about career options. I was not a history student, but a Spanish major with a minor in mass communicataion. I went to an average, large state university. I am currently in Spain working as a sort of teacher's aide in primary school English classes and supplementing income with private English lessons. I've been here for 2 months, and will be here until the end of May, with a possible option of renewing for another year. My Spanish is constantly improving.

I've the vague idea of becoming a college professor. The demand for Spanish seems to be high. Reading this blog entry is quite discouraging though. Some other career options I've given thought to are:
Government (State Department)
Public School Teacher (Enjoy kids more than I thought. Perhaps Bilingual Education)
Journalist (Currently rekindling a passion that I neglected in undergrad)

Perhaps this comment doesn't fit with this post, but I'm looking for some advice. Really anything. Is being a college professor something I should pass by? There'd be work as a community college professor right?

Thanks for your help,
Matt

Larry Cebula said...

Matt: I am of course not a Spanish professor, but my sense is that things are as bad or worse in language departments. Not just too many PhDs chasing too few jobs (with too-low pay) but there is also that fact that language departments have an overwhelming bias towards hiring "native speakers." Part of what many universities, particularly the non-elite ones that have the majority of the jobs, want in a professor of foreign language is a a non-American to provide their students with the cultural experience of working with professors from all over the world. And if you were to miraculously land a job it would consist mostly of teaching the 100 introduction course until you hate it.

There are a lot of things a bright, multi-lingual person may do with his life, but being a Spanish professor is not a likely path. Sorry.

Amanda Gibson said...

Yay, you have convinced me to get a phd in history! I went the high paid career track right out of college. I made lots of money, saved lots of money and burnt out. My husband's business and career is secure enough that I don't have to work again. Now time to focus on my passion! I'd actually prefer to get the phd, then get a part time teaching gig, saving me lots of time to travel and read history books.

Larry Cebula said...

Amanda, if you have the ability to get a PhD just for the pleasure of it I would say go for it. Grad school is a wonderful intellectual adventure, if you are not looking for a job out of it. Have fun.

j dunn said...

My wife completed her Ph.D. in 1993, myself in 1996. We attended a state university, and are today full profs at a university in a different state. Our department hired a Medievalist (80 applicants) and Latin Americanist (90 applicants) in the last two years; will be hiring a post-1945 Americanist this spring (140 applicants)-- all three are tenure track positions offering about $43K in salary.

All you say is certainly happening to some, but not to all. I was told it would be difficult to find employment teaching, and remember wasting my time visiting the AHA convention. I worked at a community college before landing a university position; several of my university pals make over twice my pay as employees of the state or federal government - all working as historians, the pay rate partially based on getting those Ph.D.s. If you glance at H-Asia, H-Levant, or H-Africa, you see full-time positions for Asian history, and even more connected to "Middle East."

So yes, more Ph.D. degree awarded every year than there are tenure track job openings. Yes, do not go into debt to obtain a history degree. Yes, do not think you are special. Yes, do not assume you will make a rapid transition from graduate student to professor. And yes, only put all that effort into an MA or Ph.D. because you like history.

If I was still washing dishes for a living, would the Ph.D. have been fun? Can't give an honest answer, but I think only a bit less. Would I suggest the Soup Nazi will stop every candidate? No, find the right field, add some luck, produce, and you can toss a bowl of hot soup right in his leering face!

fibsernum30 said...

This is the sad truth. It is hard to poor water on youthful fire and passion for a discipline and their hopes for a college professorship, but until the universities no longer have so many unemployed Ph.D.s to exploit with MacDonald's-fry-cook level compensation, nothing will change.

Joybuzzard said...

If our universities were more than businesses looking to make a profit, the university networks would recognize courses from 'freeschools' that are taught the same way by professors with the same qualifications but without pay. Many freeschool courses would not qualify, and most aren't really academic, but some retired professors or PhD's without tenure teach people for free because they enjoy teaching. Our system should acknowledge what is learned, instead of just what's been paid for. Requiring people be educated is one thing, but when that requirement is abused by universities who charge far more than the classes cost to deliver, there has to be a better system that gives people credit for what they know regardless of where they learned it. In that sense, it's good that the universities are falling in on themselves. The university system was designed to restrict the flow of information to artificially create ignorance and dependency in the masses, and people with university degrees often know far less about their area of 'expertise' than normal people, especially with psychology, social work, etc., because the ideological aspect of many professions taints the research so the 'experts' are trained to believe things that most people know aren't true.

Justin Seppi said...

I have read over hundreds of these open letters. Unfortunately most depict the accurate state of academia. What all these letters fail to do, and the largest mistake they make, is to express what we should do with these degrees! Great, I can't be a professor. But what can I do? Many continue into the track of elusive professorship because they don't know what else is available to them.

Jennifer Cropper said...



I got my PhD in 1992, around the same time JDunne did. I was good at what I did and had multiple offers from Universities and industry right out of grad school. Things were NOTHING like this in 1992. NOTHING. First of all there were WAY more jobs.

No one even knew about the internet in 1992 and now grandmas are using it. Regardless of who retires education is going to go the route of other jobs and become automated. It is already beginning.

Even if the current situation of filling teaching and research slots with underpaid postdocs is remedied this greater issue remains. A highly educated individual working in a University setting should be able to see this. Thus, it is difficult to understand how they can continue to neglect discussion of this elephant in the room with their students.

People with tenure track positions would have an easier time not misleading students if they would OPEN THEIR EYES and STOP LYING to themselves. It is very unfair to these young impressionable minds. THIS IS THEIR LIFE YOU ARE PLAYING WITH when you do not give them good information. Its true that Universities are businesses, but students expect a certain level of integrity from their professors and this includes being told the truth.

I feel very strongly about this.

JK DeLapp said...

It is interesting to note that in the US, a PhD is a Teaching Degree--whereas in Europe and Asia, a PhD is an even higher version of a Masters.

Maybe there needs to be a shift in the business world, as well--and a need to start looking as PhD's as an even more qualified version of a Master's...

Eric Z said...

This is a fantastically accurate article. Everything you have said is also largely true of High School History job in some major metropolitan areas of the country.

Glenniosaurus said...

I already gave up on Grad School, unless William and Mary will pay for my PhD and I can study Colonial American Relgious history. I'll just scrape by doing what I've been doing for these last two years getting paid $8 an hour trying to break into municipal govt working part time and internships and working construction on the side with no benefits and hope that the nepotism pays off eventually

Glenniosaurus said...

I already gave up on Grad School, unless William and Mary will pay for my PhD and I can study Colonial American Relgious history. I'll just scrape by doing what I've been doing for these last two years getting paid $8 an hour trying to break into municipal govt working part time and internships and working construction on the side with no benefits and hope that the nepotism pays off eventually

Gray Dred said...

I've served as a member of our Departmental Personnel Committee for 8 years, which recommends the hiring of new tenure track Ph.D.'s. While the market is really tight, I have interviewed dozens of duds and there is plenty of room for talented teachers and innovative thinkers. The problem is - you pointed out- most graduate students are not talented, they cannot make inspiring teachers and therefore should not be professors.

Moreover your predictions of the marketplace are overly dour. The University - even corporatized-must have something to sell to perspective students and that means a stable, even if smaller full-time faculty. Your economics also does not consider the end of the baby boomer generation and while there may be market contractions, we cannot predict the influence of the global marketplace in any precise way. Hopefully, a economist will weight in here with a broader perspective and not just dour predictions based on poor math.

Adam M said...

This article would have been more helpful if I'd read before grad school, but it is to disabuse students of impractical notions.

Adam M said...

This article would have been more helpful if I'd read before grad school, but it is to disabuse students of impractical notions.

Malaprop said...

I am surprised by the word vomit put forth by readers who failed to read the post's title, let alone its body. I am currently a grad student, with no intentions of pursuing a doctorate. I'm amused by how many people seem offended by the tone of my "No," when they ask me if I'm going to teach. It's not because teaching isn't a noble profession, or that I wouldn't enjoy it. If I were to achieve a doctorate, I'd expect more job security and better benefits than the low-level bank job I left in order to go back to school. Even now, some of my favorite professors are "part time", and likely to remain so until they give up on academia and hunt for a position in another sector. I expected something different, because I'm studying science...but it's the same as history, apparently.

flordiachick3333 said...

It's true, sadly. My mother holds a PHD and she hasnt had a job in close to nine years; No one will hire her after they cut her and a dozen others. It's sad.

Benjamin Schaffer said...

To the original poster, I am an undergrad at a liberal arts institution in South Carolina. My professors, though initially encouraging me to pursue something else than an academic degree, have noted my stubbornness and have given me great advice on how to find a job as a professor. Nothing is impossible, especially if you think you have a calling to do something. It may take years of odd jobs and failed opportunities to get there. But what made you so special to get the job that others can't have? Very elitist.

Miriam Hertel said...

This is an old blog post, I see, but I can't resist commenting. If you're committed and passionate about your proposed field of study, and you want to get a Ph.D., I see no reason not to try. I did mine at at Yale, which paid my tuition and living expenses for 7 years, and where I had the time of my life, met friends I will always cherish, and met and married my husband of 20 years. Yes, the job market is brutal. But there are jobs other than tenure track and adjunct positions. Yale and many other colleges offer full-time lectureships which start with 3-year contracts, and give you the opportunity to sign on for good after 6 years. These positions stress teaching over scholarship, and are exactly what many Ph.D.'s are looking for anyway. Not all of us want to be a famous historian or literary critic. I left Yale with zero debt and returned several years later to take a job there, once my little ones were in school. It was the perfect job for a working mother, and though I have moved on since then, I have no regrets about finishing the Ph.D., even when I knew the chances of getting a tenure track job were slim. I might add, though, that every single one of my friends who stuck it out (translation: finished the dissertation) eventually found a full time job at a college or university. There are some jobs out there. There's no reason why you, the prospective Ph.D. candidate, can't be one of the lucky ones.

Larry Cebula said...

Miriam, thank you for your perspective. You are exactly the lottery winner I refereed to in the post. Congratulations!

Shana said...

This holds true for your Ed.D. as well! I worked a full time job (with two little children) and earned my Ed.D. I am currently teaching middle school. I have applied to over ten counties in the state of Georgia for administrative positions and have only had two interviews. I have been named "Teacher of the Year", have wonderful recommendations, etc., but still no job. You are right in saying that it's like winning the lottery. There are so few slots to fill and so many amazing candidates! I wish that someone had told me sooner.