Does it Make Sense to Pursue a Humanities Doctorate? The Pros and Cons of Graduate Education in the Humanities

04/27/2015 08:23 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

I. Introduction

You loved studying literature in college and thought how much fun it would be to be the teacher leading the discussions you enjoyed. What if you could turn your love of reading and thinking about what you read into a lifetime career? Maybe even write a novel or poems? Spend your days on a beautiful campus?

These dreams were my dreams and for the most part college teaching fulfilled them, but is that opportunity still available in the first quarter of the twenty-first century or has the Golden Age of Higher Education passed when young Ph.D's had a reasonable expectation of joining the tenured faculty of elite universities or colleges?

What you need to know before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities is that when you finish your degree you will be entering a very difficult job market, in part because many colleges and universities supplement their tenured faculty with adjunct professors who are usually poorly paid. Even if you do get a position at an elite college, it may be only after post-docs, some years off the tenure track, or after taking a first job at a much less prestigious school, or some combination of the above. Young faculty are often getting tenure at Cornell ten years later than many in my generation did because they had post docs and positions that did not offer tenure or they began teaching elsewhere.

The job market becomes even more difficult if your personal circumstances--say, a partner whose work is in a specific place--constrains you from looking throughout the US and perhaps even abroad. Subtracting yourself from all but one geographical area makes the job search all that much more difficult.

You will have a better chance if you are also open to community college teaching or secondary school teaching, perhaps at a strong private school or even a first-rate public school. Clearly it will be more difficult to do research or write that novel or play in positions where you are teaching a much heavier load, but it is not impossible and has often been done.

II. How To Proceed If You Are Sure Graduate School is for You

Often a gap year is a good strategy. If you make Phi Beta Kappa as a senior and graduate with honors, you will be a more attractive candidate when applying for admission during the year after your senior year compared to applying in the middle of your senior year. Furthermore, you will have time to study for the GRE exams that many top schools require.

Be sure the people who write your recommendations are enthusiastic about you. Also, be sure they are reliable since, alas, some professors do not do this task in a timely and conscientious manner. If a professor comes to class prepared, meets office hours on time, returns essays with alacrity and shows interest in the students--and particularly in you--you will have an better idea how reliable and committed that faculty member will be in writing your recommendations. Since the genre requires some hyperbole, it is good to choose people who know how to write recommendations.

Getting a masters degree first can be a good idea for several reasons. For one thing, it allows you to see if grad school is for you. For another, if you are not admitted to a top tier graduate program, a masters can prepare you to be a strong candidate at a more prestigious school. But be aware that if you transfer for your Ph D. to a different school, you probably will lose time. That is, students entering with a masters degree do not finish two years sooner and often not even one year before students beginning right after taking their B.A. The process of transferring, getting used to a new place, and putting together your doctoral committee not only can be time-consuming, but so also can be course requirements -and suggested courses--as well pre-dissertation exams.

Apply widely to graduate schools and choose some that are not in the first tier and a few that are safety schools where admission seems very likely. You can always decide not to go to the latter, but in my experience those who apply to only elite schools and don't get admitted-- even if they knew that might happen--were devastated. If your finances are tight, most schools will waive the application fee. Although the job market is discouraging, applicant numbers are still very high, and many of the elite schools, in recognition of the difficult job market situation, are taking fewer students than they once did.

While you are applying to universities, admission and fellowship decisions are actually made by the department in which you wish to study. Your application should show that you know something about the department faculty and programs to which you are applying. This means that you will need to fine-tune each application so that it shows a personal awareness of and interest in all the departments to which you are applying.

You do need study for the GRE exam. One way to study for the literature subject exams is to read the Norton Anthologies of British and American Literature. How well you do will make a difference, particularly in this era of grade inflation where most applicants have similar grades. Some schools take the subject exam (in the case of applicants to English Departments, "Literature in English,") more seriously than others, but in my experience, the majority stress the Verbal and Analytic Writing scores.

Corresponding with professors with whom you might study may be helpful to your application, but be aware that only a small number of professors serve on the graduate admissions committee each year and they have the final say. Also be aware that admission is quite subjective, in part because it is not easy to differentiate among strong candidates. On virtually every selection committee I have ever been on, I can say that if one person in the room were different, the outcome would be different because the dynamic among those making these decisions would be changed.

A big variable is who is on the committee and what their inclinations are. I have been on committees where foreign language facility mattered a great deal to one member, and I admit to thinking myself that if a student cannot do reasonably well on the quantitative GRE, the student may not have the best reasoning power.

What the foregoing means is that you will probably be admitted to some programs and not to others, and you may be offered a more generous aid package by one school than others. If the more generous offer is not from the most prestigious school that admits you, you will have a difficult decision. Sometimes, you can tell a school you have had a better offer and that school might come up with a bit more.

If you are thinking of an MFA (Master in Fine Arts), you should know the numbers of applicants are even higher at top programs than they are for Ph.D. programs. For the 2015-16 entering class, the Cornell English department extended admission offers to 22 Ph.D. students and one joint MFA/Ph.D. student out of 258 applicants. The MFA program extended offers to eight students of 810 applicants, less than one in hundred.

What the MFA does is give you a chance to write; at Cornell the MFA is a two-year degree with an additional two years as a teaching assistant with his or her own section of freshmen humanities class stressing writing. But you need to know that unless you are recognized as an important talent on the basis of already published material, your getting a position at the conclusion of an MFA is even more difficult than at the conclusion of a Ph.D program.

After admission, prospective graduate campus visits are much more valuable than
undergraduate ones. If you are admitted to a number of schools, you might want to visit the ones that you are most likely to attend and to speak to the professors with whom you might study and the students who are in the program. If professors seem uninterested in you and morale among students is not good, you might think of going elsewhere, providing that you have that choice.

III. What Students Need To Know

Be aware that you will be investing five or six years of life in a process that may not yield a place in the college teaching profession and that a job in a major research university is even less likely. Those who do get such jobs often begin elsewhere and get noticed by writing important articles and books. Graduate students in the humanities are usually those who loved learning as undergraduates, but--and these categories are not mutually exclusive--they may also be people who didn't know what else to do.

Many grad students convince themselves that the joy of learning is enough, but when they don't get positions, they are heart-broken. Students may convince themselves jobs don't matter when they are accepted in graduate school at 22 or 23, especially if they have a five-year support package, but they are often devastated when they can't find a position at 29.

If your goal is to be a professor, you need to be aware that colleges and universities tend to hire from the top graduate schools and this is even more true of the elite schools.

On the other hand, in my experience some community colleges and smaller colleges and satellite regional campuses of some state universities are more likely to hire those with strong teaching credentials who may not have Ph.D.'s from elite research universities.

IV. Crucial Decision: Choosing a Graduate Mentor and a Graduate Committee

In most doctoral programs you have a graduate committee composed of three or four members. I actually in most cases prefer three because it is less cumbersome to get people together and to function as a team. An alternative is to have three but have an informal fourth who reads dissertation chapters and gives advice when needed.

Whom you choose as chair of that committee is essential, even though the other committee members should also be mentors. In general you should choose faculty with whom you have taken classes and received positive feedback. Each member will represent a somewhat different field. One way of preparing yourself for the job market is to have range; small colleges are looking for people to cover their curriculum rather than research scholars who can best teach graduate seminars in their dissertations subject.

As much as you want a match for your specific interest, I would recommend that wherever you go you should seek mentors who are fully interested in you and your progress. I have been, I think, as effective a mentor for those working in my exact areas of interest as I have been for those whose work was reasonably close to my expertise.

You need to choose as your Graduate Committee chair:

1) A mentor who is interested in you and your subject and who knows the difference between mentoring and creating a clone. The best mentoring is helping a student find his or her own way.

2) A mentor who thinks of mentoring as an essential part of his or her professional responsibility and is not only there for you when needed while you are a graduate student but also understands that mentoring does not stop with the Ph.D. You want someone to whom you can always turn at every stage of your career for advice and timely recommendations. Be aware that professors who have trouble giving back papers and chapters within a week or so will be equally unreliable when you need them for other things later.

3) In general choose someone who answers emails promptly, keeps office hours, and also has reasonable social skills. It is not easy to deal with eccentrics, and there are many in academia. Ideally, you want someone who is a good listener, advocates for you when necessary, and is enthusiastic about both teaching and research.

V. Necessary Skills

The most important skills for graduate success are similar to those for undergraduates: time management (knowing where your time each day goes) is essential. So is your knowing your program's requirements--including whatever qualification exams precede thesis writing--and making a schedule with your graduate committee to meet them. You need to be proactive in discussing these requirements with your committee members because on occasion some graduate faculty may be inattentive to their students moving forward.

Begin projects when they are assigned, leave time for drafts, understand expectations, and participate in seminars. Go to department and university lectures, but realize they are significant time investments--often with Q&A and reception stretching to 2 ½ hours--and ration how many you attend. Make sure you take time every day to do something that is fun, whether that means going to the gym, practicing the guitar, or taking a walk. Take time to make friends at your new school.

First-year graduate students often have a little trouble adjusting to their programs. They have been validated stars in their undergraduate programs but now they are all, in some sense, beginning students in programs where the older students are the stars. Especially in the first term, some first-year graduate students feel like freshmen. If students come from less prestigious schools they may worry about whether they can compete with students from elite schools.

Keep in mind that you were selected in a rigorous selection process because the department committee thinks you can do the work. It is up to the graduate program to help in the transition, but you should be aware that feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt are almost universal. If you are having problems, speak to your Graduate Field Representative or, better yet, a professor with whom you are taking a seminar. Be aware, too, of the mental health facilities on campus, and use them if necessary.

VI. The Doctoral Program's Responsibility

I would like now to address graduate departments.

Training College Teachers should be an important focus since teaching college is the position most grad students want. At Cornell we have an excellent freshman writing program and graduate students in several humanities fields spend the summer between their first and second year as apprentice teachers. In their second year, they usually teach their own class under the supervision of a course director. While commendable, this still leaves us with inexperienced teachers. To some extent we at Cornell pretend the teaching is better than it is and that one summer of training makes a master teacher.

Mentoring teaching should continue throughout the students' graduate career, but this responsibility is not always fulfilled in doctoral programs, despite the fact that most of humanities graduate students aspire to be professors. Every doctoral committee should have a teaching mentor who visits the graduate students' classes and meets one-on-one with the graduate student to discuss what has been observed. The mentor and student should be having a continuing dialogue on teaching methods throughout the student's graduate career. Needless to say the mentor must be a skilled teacher. Ideally, funding would be available to enable the student to work with the mentor as a teaching assistant not only in large lecture classes but also in smaller classes.

Programs that put skilled teachers on the market will have a placement advantage, especially for positions at small liberal arts colleges. The emphasis on quality teaching at research universities has improved and has always been important in English departments. Thus research universities will be looking for those who will be able to teach undergraduates as well as to give specialized seminars and mentor graduate students. Certainly, the chances of getting a position at a small liberal arts college, a community college, a regional campus of a major state university, or even a secondary school is increased by having mentored and supervised teaching experience.

VII. Moving Forward or Taking Time to Build Credentials?

Let me segue to a complicated topic: the current length of graduate school in the humanities and whether it is necessary. Given the lack of jobs, should graduate programs be speeding up the process rather than slowing it down? We are dealing often with adults in their mid to late twenties and it can be demeaning and lead to arrested development if they remain students for six or seven years prior to seeking employment. If they are going to get a position after years of trying, do we want them to be well into their thirties when and if they finally get a tenure track position?

Now because students need publications and conferences, they often take longer than five years to complete their degree. But perhaps we should streamline that process. Too many graduate students take weeks off preparing a conference paper for a tiny audience or belong to several reading groups. On the other hand, as my young Cornell colleague Greg Londe contends, if one chooses to give conference papers that lead to dissertation progress, they may serve a useful purpose. Perhaps a balanced approach is to recommend, prior to entering the job market, a few conferences within five years but also to stress the importance of getting one or more of those conference papers published. One publication in a reputable journal is worth a great deal more than multiple conference presentations.

We need, I believe, to figure out a program that lasts five years, including teaching assistant years and a fellowship year. Admission to candidacy exams should take place no later than the sixth term. We should encourage students to find a dissertation topic as early as possible and encourage course essays that become early versions of dissertation chapters. Sometimes faculty are dilatory in grading papers, encourage incompletes by raising the bar unreasonably for course papers when they should consider course essays as necessary exercises, and fail to push students to take exams and submit chapters.

VIII. Career Preparation

We need, as I have been stressing, to make clear that many if not most Ph.D. students are not going to get tenure track jobs at research institutions and that many of those getting jobs will be teaching heavy loads at small and not elite liberal arts colleges and community colleges. We need to warn them about a system that can exploit them by offering low paying adjunct jobs.

I recommend that graduate programs in the humanities have an informal continuing colloquium for our grad students about alternative careers to academic teaching/research positions. Such a colloquium should be a component of Ph.D. programs in the humanities.

We need to present other opportunities for graduate students in the humanities, including positions in non-profit charitable foundations that support educational initiatives as well as positions in student services, cultural institutions (especially museums which publish catalogues and also require research and writing skills for their exhibits), journalism, publishing, and the new media.

As we open more doors to what Ph.D.'s might do, we should consider whether we can train them to write for a larger audience as a serious journalist or staff writer for a major and influential magazine. Graduate programs should invite non-fiction writers to give classes or even short terms training sessions and suggest that graduate students enroll in journalism classes on campuses that have them.

If they have not done so in their undergraduate years, graduate students in English and other humanities, should be taking courses in communication departments and even computer science departments in order to develop skills transferable to the Internet world. Those who have taken such courses could explore other art forms as well as economics and sciences with the idea of expanding the areas on which they might write for a general audience.

Part of the problem is educating our humanities colleagues to be aware of these other career paths as they prepare and advise graduate students. Many are so deeply immersed in their own narrow research and academic politics that they have a frog's perspective on other opportunities.

In some fields people with doctorates can move back and forth between industry and academia. Celebrity public figures and some creative writers have been able to do this, but it is rare in the humanities. In STEM fields there are many more opportunities for positions in private industry, especially in fields like pharmaceutical and computer engineering where research is paramount and publication encouraged. In some areas within the new digital economy, English Ph.D's have found places where their writing and editing skills are valued.

IX. Literary Scholars as Public Intellectuals

We humanists need to speak to those outside the academy and strive to be public intellectuals who communicate, by means of ideas and lucid prose, with those in the larger community who are interested in the various arts as well as to those making political and economic decisions that have an impact on public life, including on cultural institutions and universities. We need to think of our graduate students of today as potentially the public intellectuals of tomorrow. We need to teach graduate students to write for a broader audience so that they will bridge the gap between academia and those in the public who are readers and thinkers as well as those who are members of influential political and cultural communities.

I applaud Kevin Birmingham's effort in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses to write for a larger audience rather than to join those academic ostriches who pretend there is no audience beyond specialists. I also applaud his Harvard mentors, at least one of whom, Louis Menand plays, with his pieces in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, a role in public discourse. To shift metaphors, Birmingham eschews academic mole work that makes readers think: "Something must be going on down there because of the small pile of dirt next to the holes, but what exactly it is we cannot ascertain." Indeed, much of my considerable enthusiasm for Birmingham's project derives from his efforts to write as a literary intellectual reaching out to an audience that goes beyond Joyce scholars.

We need to eschew jargon that interferes with communication, and we need be wary about assuming that we are moving teleologically forward in criticism and scholarship, an assumption that leads to patronizing past scholarly approaches. Chances of placement outside academia increase when one can write lucid precise prose without reveling in specialized academic speak.

X. Conclusion

For me, the academic life--teaching bright and committed students--and writing about literature and culture has been a perfect fit. But I am hesitant to advise students to pursue an academic career in view of the job market. With financial exigencies caused in part by a decline in state aid for public universities and in part by rising expenses, some of which are mandated by laws, as well as a decline in humanities majors, I cannot foresee that the job market will improve. Add to this the often exploitive hiring of underpaid adjuncts and you see the reason for my hesitance.

For one thing, there are too many already minted Ph.D.'s hoping to get the opportunity to occupy a tenure track line. For another, starting a tenured job in your later thirties after post-docs and short term lectureships or non-tenured assistant professorships limits your career development compared with those of professors in the past who had tenure track jobs ten years sooner. I see people getting tenure in their mid-forties which delays having children and some of the other pleasures of an economically and socially stable adulthood.

Nevertheless, if you are willing to immerse yourself in your studies with the knowledge that the future is indeterminate, and you have the good fortune to get full support from a strong department, I would caution you about the odds of getting an academic position, but I would not discourage you from trying.

Author of the recent Reading the European Novel to 1900 and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century, and a book-in-progress on the undergraduate experience tentatively titled The Art of Learning; Suggestions for Succeeding in College and Beyond. He blogs on higher education and the media for the Huffington Post. He can be reached at and followed on twitter at and