Two Big Problems With Graduate Education in the Humanities

Graduate School in the Humanities

“Graduate education in the humanities is in crisis.”

Departing MLA President Michael Bérubé and I apparently agree on many things.1 Of course, he’s been in the academy a lot longer than I have, but you don’t have to be an industry veteran to recognize the precarity of graduate education in the humanities. Sure, humanities departments have been saying this for years. The “sky is falling” rhetoric blisters the landscape of critical humanities journals past. Graduate education in the humanities has always been hypersensitive to its marginal status in the American university, but this time, it’s for real.

In his February 18th2 article “The Humanities, Unraveled” Bérubé develops a speech he gave at this year’s annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, during which he discusses this prognostication of crisis for graduate education in the humanities. Like I said, we’ve all heard this too many times, but I like Bérubé because he suggests some real reasons why. Outlining reasons helps us discuss solutions to these self-inflicted problems of humanities departments.

In this article, I’ll share my Two Big Problems with graduate education in the humanities, and I’ll begin to formulate some possible solutions.

Problem 1: Too Many People Want to be Professors

The current structure of graduate education in the humanities is flooding the job market. Everyone wants to be a professor, but only a fraction of those who begin a graduate education will achieve that goal. It could be a game show hosted by Regis Philbin: Who Wants to be a Professor? The odds of getting a tenure track professorship these days approximates the odds that someone would win a million dollars on that ubiquitous nineties game show.

Not quite the same thing maybe, but the barrier to success is the same: too many people want to win. Not everyone can win. Not everyone can become a tenured professor. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. There are a limited number of jobs and an unlimited number of applicants. If we keep graduating far more humanities PhDs than we have jobs for, we will continue to exacerbate the problem. Duh.3

Bérubé points out that “of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.” How do you like those odds? Not so much.

Problem: Graduate education in the humanities is overproducing, which floods the market with supply, thereby reducing demand and devaluing the “product.”

Solution: Stop accepting so many students into PhD programs. Or, at the very least, start preparing PhDs for jobs other than college professor.

Problem 2: Graduate Education Has Learned How to Exploit This Market Dynamic

Uh oh. Now we have a real quandary. The very people who are in a position to solve these problems actually benefit from perpetuating them. Oops. Somebody effed up.

Before returning to graduate school, I worked in middle management for a few years in the retail world. For about a year of this time, I had an operations director who was a complete ass. He was incredibly rude to everyone and he made asinine decisions on behalf of our store when he knew nothing about our day to day operations. Like the time he forced out about 10 times as much inventory as our store could hold because it would “increase sales.” The only thing it increased was waste when we had to toss all the perishables. But, I digress.

At some point during his year at the top, our HR manager left the company (probably due to the jerk OD), and this guy decides that he’s going to appoint himself director of HR while still maintaining his operations role. In other words, he was the source of our problems and also the “solution” to them. If we wanted to file a complaint about his abusive behavior, guess who we had to talk to. Yep.

Thank god this egomaniacal prick got canned not long after that when the president of the company and his VP’s got word of this injustice.4

When you think about it, though, this dynamic exists also in graduate education today. As the heading of this section informed you, departments (and administrators) have learned how to exploit this market dynamic which is overproducing PhDs. It’s called adjunct and graduate student labor. The very people who are creating the problem are the ones who benefit from it. So why change? Just keep talking about how bad it is, make it look like you care, and then sign acceptance letters with your other hand. Presto! You’ve got yourself your very own cheap labor force that will never be exhausted.

Bérubé references Marc Bousquet and William Pannapacker who, he argues, have both suggested that graduate education in the humanities is a “shell game.” Bérubé goes on to cite Bousquet’s “argument that the Ph.D. is actually the ‘waste product’ of a system designed to produce cheap teaching labor” and he himself writes that “the system has been redesigned in such a way as to call into question the function of the doctorate as a credential for employment in higher education.”

Problem: The same people who have the power to change things are also the ones who benefit from keeping things the same.

Solution: Option #1: Stop accepting so many students into PhD programs. Oh, have you heard that one before?

Option #2: Incentivize graduate programs to do a better job of supporting their graduates. Here’s a thought: Only allow programs to accept as many students as they successfully place each year. How about that for an incentive?

Option #3: Cross-disciplinary hiring and graduate admissions committees that include equal voting rights for graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty. There needs to be some kind of system of checks and balances that regulates the influx of exploitable labor.


Is graduate education in the humanities in crisis mode? What do you think? Unfortunately, we’ve kind of created a “boy who cried wolf” situation. It seems to me though that, due to the massive oversupply of labor and also the unprecedented defunding of higher education, coupled with the political attack on anything that isn’t STEM-related, the answer is a definite yes.

What’s your take on all this? What other problems do you see and what should we do to fix them?

Notes: 1Not to mention our sharing of the stage at the 2013 MLA Presidential Forum2Which happened to be my birthday, in case anyone was wondering. 3Since we’re doing the nineties thing and all. 4Some middle manager sent them an email calling attention to it. Hmmm.


  1. A Twitter conversation about this post:

  2. More from Twitter:

  3. Option 4: Refuse to be exploited. People with grad degrees in the humanities are smart, adaptable, and highly employable. They know the score in higher ed; why do they persist in penury, when they have options? Why do they keep working for nothing when there are better jobs they can compete for? (Are they really being exploited if they actually have better options elsewhere?) It may not be what they aspired to, but a private-sector job can be highly rewarding — and it’s better than poverty.

    1. Definitely agreed. I’d prefer that we all just take matters into our own hands and change the system (or at least change our own personal situations). That change would happen if people started leaving the academy en masse.

      Still, though, I think it’s important to call out the inherent flaws that necessitate that change.

  4. Your analysis is spot-on, but the solutions are incomplete. Create a crowd-sourced data collection service, like Joshua Carp’s GradPay (June 24, 2013). Perhaps he would want to add this dimension to his project. The data must quantify the true *risk* for each discipline. For example:

    Number of grad students accepted in a field for a given year: 1000 (??)
    Number of Ph.D’s awarded in that field for that year: 300 (??)
    Number of tenure-track positions posted in that field, that year: 2 (?)

    So your chances as a beginning grad student for that year would be rated at 2/1000 = 0.2%, or slightly better than the chance of becoming a professional concert-violinist, even with training from Juilliard. Obviously, I’m simplifying the statistics (and the temporal dimension would have to be added). But only hard numbers, gathered independently and publicized widely, will cause the change you’re talking about.

    Checks and balances won’t grow spontaneously out of the system as it is. As you correctly point out, the institution has no interest in changing this state of affairs, because they’re benefitting. It’s a buyer’s market! How do you change a buyer’s market? You decrease the demand for their product by disclosing the true risk. (Other industries are legally obligated to disclose risk; only academe is unregulated. Oh, the hypocrisy of demanding regulation and risk disclosure, as long as it’s those “other guys” over there on Wall Street!)

    Once a potential English grad student sees a big fat 0.2% (concert violinist) posted over the entrance to his grad program, he or she will think twice before entering. (Words are not enough. Remember that a potential grad student is often still thinking like a college student: he or she is thirsting for approval from a respected mentor — a situation that is ripe for exploitation.) Only then, when the client base dwindles rapidly, will graduate programs and universities begin to institute the kind of reforms you mention.

    1. Great points. Have you heard about the new PhD Placement project being undertaken by The Chronicle of Higher Education? Seems like they might be trying to create a data resource similar to the one you have suggested.

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