Learner Beware: Why I’m Starting a PhD Program in the Humanities and Why I Recommend Against It

“Do what I say, not what I do.” I recently began a PhD program in Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture at NDSU. Why? Because I’m a glutton for punishment, bad odds, and the esoteric. Also, I’m a sucker for academic virtues and the love of learning.

Before I explain why I opted for the program, and why I counsel my students to pursue PhD studies only with eyes wide open, I want to give a big shout out to my program. For the first week’s assignment in ENG 760: Graduate Scholarship, Dr. Miriam Mara has assigned several recent posts from the Chronicle of Higher Education concerning, you guessed it, whether students should begin graduate studies in English! (e.g. blog posts by Thomas H. Benton who later dropped his pen name and wrote under his real name, William Pannapacker, including “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go“)

I’m super-excited for a lively class discussion Tuesday night, and I’m grateful my program, through Dr. Mara, is acknowledging what its students are signing up for.

But, back to why I recommend careful deliberation for students considering grad school in the humanities. First, there’s the sticky wicket of employment. Last year in Minnesota, the average student loan debt from undergraduate degrees stood at $30,000. I’m not an economist, but of this I’m certain: it’s hard to payoff debt when you don’t have a job!

The academic job market sucks. Open positions in the humanities receive hundreds of applicants, qualified applicants. Hard stats are difficult to find, but the Modern Language Association says 50% of folks with PhDs in English eventually find a position. (I’ll let you judge whether MLA is to be trusted on such matters.) Those aren’t great odds, and remember that even those who find positions schlep for many years from one yearlong underpaid adjunct position to another before landing the tenure track position.

The prospects for positions in religion, I dare say, are even worse than English. Philosophy? You must be joking.

Why, then, am I wasting precious time and money at NDSU? In short: it’s strategic. I have the freedom and resources, as one employed and already in a faculty teaching position, to spend towards becoming more fully credentialed. Also, speaking with great fondness for my position, but also frankly: I’m realistic enough to know that if my current non-tenure track position were ever in jeopardy, I’d be up a creek without a paddle if I wanted to look for a faculty position elsewhere.

Also, it’s not a coincidence that I’ve chosen to focus my studies on new media and digital religion, as the digital humanities is actually a growing research area these days.

I’ll be honest: I have no idea what I want to be doing 30 years from now. If it’s anything like I tell my students, perhaps it will be in a job that doesn’t currently exist. (Obligatory note to my administration: I love my current position. I’d sign a 30-year contract to stay the second one was offered.)

While I can’t predict the future, I do know this: in our economy a PhD carries weight beyond the academy. If my college closed its doors (God forbid), and I was scrambling for a job, having a PhD certainly wouldn’t hurt when applying to churches, non-profits, colleges, foundations, you-name-it.

Though the degree does not guarantee employment in the academy, at PhD still has credentialing power beyond it.

What else do I tell my student set on going on for further study? I think I’ll begin adopting the approach of Claire Potter in The Ten Commandments of Graduate School).

Is academia in a godawful fix right now? Yes it is. So know that you need to prepare for that, and that you need to be part of the solution not part of the problem.

Potter goes on to give helpful, smart commandments for success in a PhD program. The one I find most appealing, “Thou shalt have an excellent professional back-up plan.”

In a strange way, that describes, why I’m beginning my program at NDSU. Backing my name up with those magic letters will serve as a backup in many other practical ways.

So, wish me luck. And, don’t worry, I’ve been warned.


  1. My experience was that it was an awful lot easier to get a job in academia when you already have one. When you don’t, it’s a pretty awful and demoralizing existence.

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