In our discussion about graduate school in the humanities, Professor Sam Crane wrote:

To those students who talk to me about pursuing graduate degrees in political science, I say that they are absolutely assured to get tenure at Harvard in ten years…
That’s the caricature you are painting here.

Readers should consult that thread to see if that’s an accurate description of my argument.

In fact, I tell them the academic job market is horrible, has been bad for a long, long time, and is getting worse. I tell them that getting a job like the one I have is unlikely. I tell them that they should go on for a Ph.D. only if they truly love the learning, because that is something they will be certain to have for a lifetime, regardless of what job they find themselves with. And for some of them, that is what it is about. Love of learning, regardless of whether they get an ideal academic job.

Once we get beyond the snark, Sam and I are in agreement. The academic job market is horrible, especially in the humanities but even in things like political science. Even if you are a top student at Williams, you are very unlikely to have a career as nice (in terms of pay, teaching load and student quality) as that of most tenured professors at Williams. Related thoughts from Derek Catsam ’93 and Tim Burke. Good for Sam for telling his students about this harsh reality. Do other Williams professors do the same? I hope so. More discussion below.

I sought comments from Laura of Apartment 11d about whether or not she (and her husband) were aware of these facts when they enrolled in graduate school. Her reply:

One commenter wanted to know how many grad students really knew the odds that they would face finishing their program and then finding employment. They asked me if our grad school programs informed us about our odds. The answer? No.

I clearly remember our orientation in a large seminar room. There was about twenty five or thirty first year political science students sitting around a U-shaped table. I’m still in contact with many of them, mostly through Facebook and the occasional e-mail. Most of them dropped out of the program. A few after the first year. One died. (Robert, I still miss you.) Most just drifted off over the years. I think three of us finished the dissertation. We all took about eight years. We all had sizable loans. Only one has a tenure track job. That’s a really lousy success rate. Any business that operated with that level of success would go bankrupt.

That orientation day, we learned about the requirements for the program, but nobody told us about the one in thirty odds.

An N of 1 (or 2) is not impressive, but I was hopeful that Sam would be swayed by Laura’s testimony since he is a regular reader of her blog. (I did not know what Laura would say before I asked her. But I knew that misinformation about the realities of graduate school was all too common.) Perhaps Sam’s students are well-informed, but many/most students are not. Some of that is their own blindness and delusions. Yet a big source of the problem is the dishonesty of the graduate programs themselves.

Considering graduate school in the humanities? Just Don’t Go.

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