Maybe it’s time for me to update my old essay on graduate school.
In my old essay, I emphasized that the institutional culture of academia makes it very difficult to evaluate whether an academic career is a good idea or not once you’ve started your doctoral work. I pointed out that most doctoral programs are devoted to socialization into academic norms, not the deepening or enrichment of a liberal-arts style undergraduate education. I think this is still an important thing to understand: if you’re thinking about graduate school in an academic subject, you have to know that you can’t just experiment with it and get a clear understanding of whether you like it or not.
I consciously chose to put aside the question of the job market in academia when I wrote that essay. Markets are volatile, and my advice could be rendered moot fairly quickly. At this point, though, I think several things about the academic job market are likely to stay relatively fixed for a while.
First, the working conditions in academia have grown steadily worse for the last decade and are likely to worsen further. Leave aside the question of blame for another conversation. Faculty, alt-ac, and administrative jobs have less job security, pay worse, have fewer benefits than they used to. Positions in public universities are also increasingly subject to the aggressive interference by elected officials seeking either to protect cronies or score points by bashing the professoriate, constantly belittling the professional competency and work ethic of faculty. Academia is an extreme example of a tournament economy where only a few people can hold the desirable jobs, and where getting to hold those jobs involves very significant amounts of luck. Anyone considering an academic career has to think soberly about this point.
Second, the opportunity costs involved in pursuing an academic career are still considerable and disproportionate. In a perverse way, that situation might have improved slightly as the employment picture of the whole economy worsens. If there are no other opportunities, then there’s less loss in six years or more spent gaining a doctorate that has no other uses besides an academic career.
I need to break this point down a bit further:
a) There are fields of doctoral study where a Ph.D is an important entry-point credential for careers other than academia. Economics is the classic example, engineering another. In those fields, graduate study doesn’t have the same opportunity costs, though each has its own job market blues to consider.
b) There are fields of doctoral study where a Ph.D actually will degrade your employability outside of academia. Not because employers will think less of you, but because your Ph.D overqualifies you for a position you would be glad to accept, or imposes a financial burden on an employer because of a mandatory payscale-to-qualification rule. This is where I really have to take issue with the increasingly large group of consultants and advisors who offer their services to ABDs and Ph.Ds seeking employment outside of academia. I appreciate the optimism of advice to “think outside the box” of the tenure-track job, but in disciplines that do not have established career paths where the doctorate is a nearly mandatory credential, almost all the things you could do with a Ph.D you could do without a Ph.D. If the Ph.D has any value in a less precisely defined professional setting, you often won’t know that until you’ve worked for a while in that profession, so it’s best to wait until that becomes very clear.
The problem with Cheryl Reed and Dawn Formo advising people to look to a whole range of other professional possibilities that make good use of the tools and skills acquired in pursuing a doctorate is that they assume that there are such skills and that the people they’re counseling have a clear sense of the range of the applications of those skills. This is where I come back to my older essay: in many disciplines, most of what you learn in graduate school is how to be an academic. If you learn other things (textual interpretation, archival research, quantitative skills) that’s often an auto-didactical deepening of things you already knew how to do at the end of your undergraduate career. If you learn presentation and writing skills, either through teaching or preparing work, that’s often in spite of a doctoral program than because of it.
If the job market for doctorates is going to be more flexible in general, rather than in a few fields, the doctorate itself needs a radical redesign. It needs to take less time and be far less focused on the sociocultural reproduction of the academy’s artisanal norms and fetishes. Advising people that they can find other uses for a doctorate prior to that kind of redesign can never be more than trying to help people make the best of a bad lot, salvaging what they can out of the wreckage of a near-decade (or more) of effort. Which, I have to say, has a certain kind of recursive intensity to it: one of the better things you can do to salvage your lost opportunity is advise other people about how to salvage theirs, but anyone in that line of work is just as dependent on people continuing to believe a doctorate is the right thing for them to do as the rest of academia is.