Scaring Students Away from the Ph.D

January 19th, 2010 by Chris

Thomas Benton is the pseudonym of a liberal arts professor in Michigan. I know his name because a few years ago he penned a pretty depressing – but realistic – letter to undergraduates urging them to consider some centrally grim economic realities about the academic world before making the decision to go to graduate school for anything within the Humanities. I typically recommend that my students read it as they ponder graduate study. I can assure you that no student walks away from it feeling optimistic. Well, Benton’s at it again with this piece in the recent edition of the Chronicle. This time he’s even more sobering and negative, moving from what was an earlier “think first before doing this” position to a “you’ve got to be completely crazy if you do this” stance.

This is a strange subject to address for a professor in the Humanities. You want to tell your students to do what you do, to go for it, and not to avoid the career path for whatever reason. You don’t want to say “What are you nuts? Do what I do?” However, the truth is that market is harsh. Given this truth, you need to have good advice for those eager and idealistic students, some or many of whom want to go to graduate school and get that Ph.D. in some field in the Humanities – maybe even the craziest one of all – philosophy. When you have “that talk” with them, what do you say? Well, Benton gives you some things to jot down to use as overall advice, that’s for sure.  For instance, Benton points out:

  • That too many students in the Humanities finish graduate school with very sizable debt, sometimes ranging from 30K to 50K.

This is true. In a field where getting a job is not a guarantee in any way, or even a likely scenario for that matter, this is far too high a level of debt to take on for a Humanities grad student. My advice to students is this: first, take on the absolute minimum level of undergraduate debt possible; second, if graduate schools are not willing to fully fund you don’t enroll. This might mean not pursuing philosophy, of course, but a failure to fully fund you is a failure to embrace your credentials (given the competition at least), so if that’s the case then you may not have the goods, in which case a different career is a better option. At the least, it’s giving you a hint of what the job market would be like. Moreover, philosophy jobs are scarce, and even when you land one they don’t pay enough to take on any level of school debt.

  • Too many students are led to believe by professors that they are meant for graduate school in philosophy, or that they have the goods required, by constant grade inflation and also through recommendation inflation.

I think this is unfortunately true as well. I always tell students that the level of competition for slots in graduate school in philosophy is fierce. They have been led to believe by their previous schooling that having all “As” and great recommendation letters does the trick. Of course they’ll be admitted, they think. Why wouldn’t they be? After all, they’ve made the Dean’s list for years! It’s important to disabuse them of this horribly wrong misconception.

As we all know, undergraduate “As” don’t mean that you are “graduate school material.” Maybe you are. But maybe your “A” simply means that you’ve “mastered school.” In a grade inflated world where “B” means “reasonably good job” the “A” has simply lost its luster. In fact, I see students all the time stopping in their efforts to get better once they’ve received the “A” (on a paper, say) because they misunderstand what it means. They think that the “A” means that they have achieved excellence and so they can rest once they get one. After all, the “A” is the final reward, so you can stop trying harder.

Partly, this is the fault of the structure of academia and partly it is the fault of the reward structure in education. Partly it’s the fault of lazy professors. Regarding the former, I think we do a disservice to students when we fool them (with good intentions) into thinking that the function of undergraduate education is to train potential graduate students who want to become scholars (they are reading the excellence of the “A” in this way). It isn’t the purpose. More and more, undergraduate education is just a rite of passage for the “every person” who needs the degree as a social validation in order to enter the workplace. The B.A. is the required entry ticket into the middle class. If that goal and aim dominates academia for the most part, then the meaning of the “A” needs to be seen in that light and context, not the context in which students are trained to be future scholars. Instructors can’t change this aspect of education, but we can make sure that students understand what grades really mean so that they are not left thinking that earning a “4 point” means more than it really does (and I fear that it means less and less over time). We can also be less lazy and give out fewer “A”’s.

I also think that instructors can be led to write inflated recommendation letters, at least for the reason that we don’t like to say that someone can’t do something when we’ve watched that person try and put in decent amounts of effort over the years. Just as much as students are trained by the system to think that effort matters, we as professors have to. There’s a feeling that you are robbing them of “their shot” if you don’t pad the recommendation when they’ve tried hard. I don’t do this myself (or at least I try to do it as little as possible), but I do feel the pressure to do it. I would assume that many professors do inflate the letters — which means that they are becoming more and more meaningless and moreover misleading.

  • The level of interest many students have in pursuing a subject beyond the undergraduate level is usually not quite as deep as they think it is, and they are not usually called on this.

I think he’s right again, and I mention this to students too. Too many (way too many) students seem to me attracted to graduate study because it’s “the next stop on the train” or because “it’s cool to think about philosophy.” But I’m not sure that some of them really love it. I see one or two now and again who have that fire. But most do not. Most like philosophy, they don’t love it. Yeah, philosophy is fun to do, and it is cool to think about, but most philosophy students don’t dedicate their lives to it. But you’ll need to love it. This field is tough. If you’re not willing to truly love it and eat it and drink it, don’t bother. You won’t make it. There’s too much competition in it. Just get a different kind of job and read philosophy on the side. There’s nothing wrong with being a lay-philosopher.

I could go on — Benton makes a lot more points. Although I agree with him, however, I don’t tell students not to go to graduate school. What I do is scare the crap out of them and then let the chips fall where they may. I tell them that there’s a good chance they might not get into graduate school, for whatever reason. I tell them how ridiculously high you need to score on GREs to be considered for many places (scores they are not getting), and how much higher those scores need to be to get full funding. I tell them how difficult it is to get in, even with those high scores, and that being a “4 pointer” isn’t exemplary at that level – it is just assumed as a given. I tell them that the recommendation letters they will get aren’t particularly useful, because no one knows who the letter writers are.  I tell them that up against students from better known colleges with better known faculty, they are at a disadvantage. I tell them that this is not fair, but it’s life. I tell them that if they get in and finish the Ph.D. (which most do not) the jobs will be scarce. I say that if they get one, and are lucky enough to get one on the tenure track, they might not get tenure. And that if they get tenure they might have to live somewhere miserable and unexciting. And I tell them that they will never make much money. Hell, I tell them that they might even wind up living in an anti-intellectual society that thinks being a professor in some way makes you disreputable and shady.

If they can accept all of that, and have the scores and skills, then I say go for it. If they can’t accept it, or don’t have the scores and skills, then I advise that they find a different route for post-undergraduate work. Basically, going into philosophy is like becoming an artist. You’re taking a huge risk to do something that you (should) love. It may be worth it to do so (it was and is for me!), but you need to understand the possible negative consequences of making that decision beforehand.

Benton makes lots of points I couldn’t cover here. I even disagree with him in some places. For instance, I don’t think the job market is as much a crap shoot as he seems to think it is — I think some students are simply wrongly advised. So whereas I think it’s true that the field is bad, I think there are clear steps you can take to improve your odds. But that’s for a different post.

I’m curious about the advice others give to their students — or even the impression that students themselves have of this grim situation.

6 Responses to “Scaring Students Away from the Ph.D”

  1. Amy Says:

    I got my bachelor’s in English (i.e., literature). After taking a year off, I went on to pursue a master’s in writing (i.e., the teaching of composition). I finished my course work over a year ago. I knew that some of my colleagues had gotten work at our institution teaching per course. But I also had a job offer as an assistant manager at the fast food place I’d been working at.

    I took the fast food management job. For lots of reasons. For one, I felt more validated at Burger King. Not only was I the best drive-thru girl, I was also management material. And I knew I’d be making more money and would have more job security, which was important since my husband was underemployed.

    I’m not really sure what I want to do as a career. I do enjoy teaching writing. I want to finish my thesis. I’m a better BK manager than I was a writing teacher. I have job security and money. But I work 50 hours a week with a schedule that has me sometimes getting off work at 4 am, sometimes going in at 6 am. I have to work holidays. I don’t think I want to do that for the rest of my life.

    And composition isn’t even really a humanity.

  2. Lara Says:

    I’m not in the humanities, either, but I definitely find myself being much more cautious about encouraging students to apply to grad school. There are just no jobs right now in my field, and very few funded graduate opportunities, either. It feels just plain wrong to encourage every good student with an interest in my field to jump on that train wreck.

  3. Phil Says:

    I wonder a bit about the level of responsibility you seem to feel about helping these students with their choices. These are people now several years into their adult life, in theory at least well able to make their own choices. You’re not really in the position of life coach. I don’t see why you shouldn’t cast aside this serious mantle of balance and reasonableness, and just advocate for the thing that you do – presumably, the thing that you love. Because, crucially, if you don’t advocate for learning, who will?

    Young people are bombarded with highly professional marketing campaigns attempting to lure them into one profession or another. Academia doesn’t really do that, but I feel that you owe it to academia, and owe it to the students, to be as good a representative of pure knowledge as you can. I dunno, maybe you don’t believe in it, but given what you teach… Anyway, I believe in the pursuit and transmission of knowledge as a noble, pleasurable and honourable profession. If the professors in our seats of learning don’t attempt to persuade their students of the joy and wonder of knowledge, then I think its a shame.

  4. Million Says:


    Quite an inspired post. You bring up a line of thought that, I think, you should subject all your students to! Anyway, seeing as I’m pretty familiar with the job market – being a student who sat down with you on several occasions – one particular paragraph caught my eye. To quote,

    “The B.A. is the required entry ticket into the middle class. If that goal and aim dominates academia for the most part, then the meaning of the “A” needs to be seen in that light and context, not the context in which students are trained to be future scholars.”

    Dead on! Dead on! Dead on!

    Not many people realize it, but given the global economic climate a B.A. is very close to mandatory. A B.A. in something *usable* is mandatory. The industrial jobs that used to employ the middle class are gone while one of the few ways we can compete globally is with an educated workforce. The catch is, people’s college educations have to fit in. Studying the humanities doesn’t really do that.

    It sucks, but it’s also the way things are. The good news? There are a lot of new applied degrees out there. I mean, I’m thinking of taking the plunge and getting my PhD in “Library and Information Science.” Never saw that coming.

  5. Chris Says:

    @Phil: I definitely don’t life coach as a professor — that would be odd and somewhat inappropriate. The classroom is for the subject matter, and there I do exactly the sorts of things you think I should be doing. But as an adviser (I have that role too), I do have to life-coach to some degree. Students can be particularly clueless about these sorts of things, and it’s not their fault. How would they know? They don’t even know in many cases what questions to ask. To be sure, I don’t personally discourage them from pursuing anything. I tell them the real situation, what you’ll need to succeed, and let them figure that out for themselves. Particularly good and talented students will get nothing but encouragement from me in moving on to graduate school (we have a remarkably large number of students in grad schools compared with our relatively small size as a department).

    Moreover, I tell them that when I chose to do philosophy, my family was on welfare. So I should know about making risky choices. But I was willing to do that – I would not have regretted the pursuit of philosophy as a career, even if it ended up with no job.

    @Amy: I can understand the choice dilemma. Food gets in the way. Still, I would hope that you pursue the Ph.D., as I think you have the goods, and I can’t say that about everyone.

    @AJ: There’s a glut of applied degrees now. I don’t know if that trend will last – we’ll see. I think as a B.A., it doesn’t matter what you major in for the most part. For the Ph.D., I think the concern is not that a humanities Ph.D. couldn’t find some other job, but just that you will face a difficult market if you are trying for an academic job. I could have seen the library science thing coming. Doesn’t seem inconsistent to me!

  6. Million Says:


    You’re right about the glut of applied degrees and there being some uncertainty if the trend is here to stay or not.

    All I can say is that – in my experience – employers seem to have trouble connecting the dots between any ol’ college degree and work. Maybe this diden’t use to be the case, but since there are so many people with a degree now it has to play some role in producing this newfangled emphasis on “application.”

    As for Amy, my former nemesis. She definitely gots da’ goods.

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