So You Want to Be a Professor? Why?


Graduate education in the humanities is in a deep crisis. The causes are complicated, but the basic reality is simple: there are more and more applicants for fewer and fewer positions on the tenure-track, or even with multiyear contracts. In my own field of political theory, which is technically in the social sciences but functions more like a humanities discipline, there were just 26 openings for assistant professors in 2012-13. That’s down from a recent high of 57 in 2006-7.

Under these conditions, it seems like you’d have to be crazy to pursue a Ph.D. And there’s a growing catalog of articles and blog posts with that make precisely this argument under headlines like “Just Don’t Go,” “No, You Cannot Be A Professor,” and “100 Reasons Not to Go to Graduate School.” Despite these warnings, in 2012 doctoral enrollments grew by 7.7% in arts and humanities and 4.2% in the social and behavioral sciences.

Students need to better understand their prospects. When students ask me for advice, I tell them that they probably shouldn’t consider graduate school in the humanities or academically-oriented social sciences unless they can answer “yes” to all of the following questions:

1) Do you want to be a professor?

Earning a Ph.D. means spending five to ten years training for precisely one job. If you don’t get it, you could be screwed.

Graduate programs increasingly claim that they prepare students for non-academic careers. Don’t be fooled–although they mean well, few college professors have the slightest idea how to train anyone to be anything except a college professor. In most fields, Ph.D.s are actually at a disadvantage to new B.A.s.

There are some “alternative academic jobs” that welcome graduate training, such as positions in museums or think-tanks. But there aren’t very many–and most of them require only an M.A. So don’t enter a Ph.D. program because you think it will broaden your career options. It will do just the opposite–and could leave you dangerously overqualified and underskilled at an age when many of your peers are already entering their professional prime.

2) Do you understand what professors really do?

The answer may seem obvious. Professors teach, right? And when they’re not in the classroom or grading papers, they don’t have much to do.

Wrong. According to preliminary findings from a study at Boise State, academics spend only about 40% of their time on teaching-related tasks. Much of the rest of their days are spent on dreary email and meetings, just like other professionals. And the hours are long. Assistant professors in the study report working about 60 hours a week, including 15 hours on weekends.

The faculty at a regional public university like Boise State probably spend more their time on teaching than professors at research universities, where the pressure to publish new scholarship is intense. That emphasis on research also defines most graduate programs. So before you decide to go to graduate school, it’s crucial to understand what scholarly writing actually looks like.

Undergraduate courses can be misleading on this point, particularly if they focus on primary sources. Instead of reviewing your old syllabus collection, check out a few issues of a flagship journal in the subject you’re interested in studying, such as Mind for philosophy. If you find the contents boring or impenetrable, don’t go to grad school–because that’s the kind of writing on which your success will depend.

3) Do you understand where professors really work?

If you’re considering a Ph.D. in the humanities, you likely attended a selective research university or liberal arts college with a national reputation. And you probably imagine working at the same kind of place. No wonder. Despite all the possible disadvantages–remote location, relatively low salary, long hours–a secure position at an elite university or college is a pretty great job. That’s why so many people want it.

But institutions with selective admissions, verdant quads, and lively intellectual community are only a tiny sliver of American higher education. The vast majority of students attend community colleges, regional state universities, or private colleges with a local or regional draw and pre-professional emphasis. So that’s where most professors teach.

Would you be happy working at unglamorous institution where students’ abilities and interests are likely to be different from your own? Can you imagine teaching introductory surveys, semester after semester, year after year? If not, you’re unlikely to find satisfaction in an academic career.

4) Do you understand the job prospects in your discipline and area of interest?

Consult the placement information provided by disciplinary organizations such as the Modern Language Association. Try to find the most specific information about your area of interest–say, British literature. How does the number of positions in that field compare to the overall number of jobs?


Also consider the historical trends–is the field growing or shrinking? Don’t rely on anecdotes from your mentors or personal impressions from your classes, which may not reflect the overall situation. One phenomenon that reliably surprises prospective grad students is low demand for professors who teach subjects that attract big crowds. Military history, for example, is popular with undergraduates but has a minimal presence in the history discipline.

You should also carefully scrutinize the placement records of specific departments that interest you. Don’t even consider applying to any that refuse to provide detailed information about careers of recent graduates. And don’t let them dazzle you with stories about a few stars. You want to know what happened to their “average” Ph.D., since that’s what you’re likely to be.

   5) Is someone else paying?

Under no circumstances should you borrow money for a degree that lacks immediate non-academic value. In the social sciences, that means the only Ph.D.s worth borrowing for are probably economics and clinical psychology.  In the humanities, currently-employed teachers who receive raises for additional degrees might be another exception. In general, however, you cannot responsibly pursue Ph.D. study unless you are independently wealthy or able to rely on support from others.

A lucky few are born rich. Others can count on extended family to chip in. But most graduate students depend on their universities to pay their way. So you should not enroll in a graduate program unless you are certain of being “fully funded”.

But “fully funded” doesn’t always mean the same thing. At some universities, full funding covers tuition, but not living expenses. At others, it requires teaching–sometimes a burdensome amount. And funding is usually time limited. For that reason, it’s crucial to find out the average time to completion in the departments you’re considering. If it’s longer than the funding they offer, don’t bother.

Also, keep in mind that you may not be able to provide financial support to others for some time–or ever. Apart from a few stars, even academics who are lucky enough to have “real jobs” don’t earn much money. And the vast majority work in low-paid, contingent positions for some or all of their careers.

   6)  Are you willing to delay starting a family?

Yes, people do have babies in grad school. I’m not sure how they manage it, though. Money isn’t the only obstacle, although it’s a big one. Many young parents have told me they found it almost impossible to balance the intense focus required for graduate study and the early phases of an academic career with childrearing.

Most departments tout family-friendly policies, and some of them make a real effort to help graduate students with children. But fact remains the academics are expected to do their hardest and best work between the ages of roughly 25 and 35. Needless to say, the burden on women is especially heavy.

So if you’re set on starting a family sooner rather than later, Ph.D. study is probably not the right course.

   7) Are you willing to move around–and can you afford it?

Another reason graduate school and the academic job market make parenthood difficult is that they encourage transience. You have to go where the admissions offers and jobs are. These are not always in socially desirable or geographically accessible locations.

You also have to be prepared to spend days, weeks, and even months away from home giving lectures, attending conferences, or engaging in research. And bear in mind that you may have to spend money as well as time on the road. While professors on the tenure track are usually reimbursed, grad students and contingent faculty are often on the hook for travel expenses.

All this traveling can be a nightmare for families. If you go to grad school, you may end up finding it difficult to spend time not only with your own spouse and children, but also with parents or relatives. You are unlikely to be a position to turn down opportunities that will advance your career. If living your home town or region is a priority, academia may not be the right course.

8) Are you sure you want to be professor?

For real this time….


2 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Professor? Why?

  1. For graduate students seeking consistent full time employment, the National Guard is expanding it’s funding opportunities for graduate study programs.

  2. Thanks for this excellent article. The only thing I have to add is that we can no longer continue to exclude natural sciences from such stories. I don’t know enough about engineering or applied sciences to comment. In natural sciences, particularly in biomedical sciences, a similar crisis exists, but it has been masked to date by consistently increasing, generous funding and a growth and expansion craze among R1s and R1 aspirants. Nonetheless, fewer and fewer biomedical PhDs are able (or qualified) to get a tenure track position, and industry is no longer able to absorb all of the excess. So many of the “academic jobs” that NIH and NSF use in their surveys, to say, “See, see, everything is fine here” are temporary postdoc positions and crappily paid adjunct teaching gigs. No stability, no future.
    Just as, I believe, the need for TAs drove the overproduction of humanities and social science PhDs, the need for research assistants to get the research done has driven the overproduction of biomedical PhDs.
    Not good. Just say no.

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