An Offbeat Approach to Graduate Study in the Humanities

If you’re considering graduate school in the humanities, I suggest a dose of wide-open thinking. You’ll see shortly what I mean by that, but first, let’s be sure you understand the conditions that await you.

I’ll assume you’ve been told about the academic job shortage. It’s severe, and it won’t be getting better. Your chance of landing the position you’ll have trained for—a tenure-track professorship—will be truly slim after spending nine years of your life (average completion time) earning the necessary credential. Unless you’re one of the lucky few to win the prize, you’ll be facing contingent work as a low-paid, part-time adjunct or a full-timer with no chance for tenure. That road is littered with unhappy lives.

The alternative is to find a different kind of career, and graduate departments are now feeling pressure to help their students prepare for one. The problem is that spending nearly a decade in the advanced study of philosophy or literature, only to then become a business manager, a civil service employee, an editor, etc., is a major disconnect. The alternative career path is likely to pay better than contingent teaching, but it carries the same emotional scar: the feeling that you have failed to fulfill your proper role as a professor.

[Related: “On Adjunct Faculty as Victims”]

Underlying all of the above outcomes is the basic assumption that the purpose of graduate study is to prepare for employment—graduate school is professional school. This assumption is key. Open your mind and think hard about it. If you accept it, advanced study in the humanities will likely lead to long-term unhappiness. If you reject the assumption—and I mean you honestly reject it, and aren’t just kidding yourself—you are much more likely to be satisfied with your studies and your life afterward.

Ask yourself three questions:

1. Do I truly love—passionately love—the material in my discipline so much that I’d rather be immersed in it than do anything else?

2. Am I willing to earn the same amount as a McDonald’s worker for the next few years?

3. When my studies are over, will I be able to say they were worth it—when my likely employment options are to be an underpaid, temporary teacher or to find a job that isn’t related to my specialty?

If you can answer yes to all of these questions, then why not give graduate school a whirl? Treat it like a fling. Don’t see it as job training. Think of a college athlete who knows that the quest to go pro will be temporary but wants to enjoy the experience before settling down into something stable. Or think of a young rock musician who knows that making it big is no more than a dream but is nonetheless determined to live the life for a while. What counts is the activity itself. Pursue learning for its own sake rather than for an extrinsic goal—enjoy your self-development.

To proceed on this basis will empower you. You will feel free to operate outside the expected parameters for graduate students. Since you’re not focused on a future professorship, continuing all the way through the PhD credentialing process isn’t necessary. However, I recommend completing the requirements for a master’s degree to aid your future marketability, so that you appear goal-oriented and accomplished. Otherwise, stay as long as it feels good to be there; when your efforts become a drag, leave with no regrets. After that, who knows? Maybe you’ll decide to study in a different field, such as business or science, that will connect you to reasonable job prospects, or maybe you’ll simply look for employment directly. It could be that you will complete a doctorate just for personal fulfillment. But for now, focusing on those eventualities has been deferred. You’re not boarding the train for a destination—you’re there for the pleasure of the ride.

[Related: “The Rise of the Pseudo Faculty”]

Your sense of freedom extends to your course of study. You can tailor it to your personal interests, without concern about subjects that might help you get a job or that would please your professors. Make liberal use of independent study, if you can find sponsors, and form interdisciplinary connections by taking courses in other disciplines to the extent that you’re allowed—push the envelope. Indulge your intellectual appetite. Give this factor maximum priority when choosing what program to attend. Don’t get caught up in prestige. What’s important is the flexibility to exercise your individuality. If your sights are set on studying a particular topic, look for a place with appropriate faculty expertise or an academic structure that allows you to give it a go on your own. If your agenda is open, a program with liberal requirements is still desirable since you are bound to discover specific interests as you go. It may be that a stand-alone master’s degree is the best place to start. Don’t rule it out. You can move on to further study later, whether at the same institution or at another one.

Although you have a freewheeling attitude about why you’re in school and what you’re studying, be practical about finances. Don’t borrow money for your fling. If you’re going to graduate school, do it with an assistantship that covers tuition and provides a stipend (which will be somewhere in the teens or twenties per year, hence the earlier reference to McDonald’s). Beyond that, I recommend developing a side hustle to supplement your otherwise meager income, to extend your studies if institutional support dries up, and, possibly, to expand into a long-term source of earning. Think in terms of self-employment or contract work that can be done from any location and for any number of hours. Our economy is replete with this sort of thing—people making money on ingenious endeavors at marketing, making, growing, fixing, evaluating.

Know from the outset that while some of the people around you will support your venture, others will see you as an apostate if you accept institutional money beyond the master’s degree level without planning to earn a doctorate. Even though there are few jobs for PhDs, the conventional mindset justifies the existence of advanced studies on the basis of credentialing. It’s accepted that many students don’t make it through, but not if they aren’t trying to. This being the case, you may find yourself reflecting on the morality of your self-indulgence. Are you exploiting the largesse of your sponsor? Yes, but the exploitation also extends in the other direction. As much as you are using the system in a way it wasn’t designed for, so is the system using you when it puts you through years of preparation for a job you have little chance of getting. If you are feeling pangs of conscience, your professors should be feeling them too.

However, this isn’t the only way to view the matter. Rather than a standoff of shaky morals and suspect agendas, your graduate school experience can be seen as a win-win. You are being paid to have an intellectual fling without the commitment of a dedicated degree candidate. When you leave—probably, but not necessarily, without a PhD—it will be with satisfaction, not with the resentment held by the army of contingent laborers who wanted a professorship and failed to get it. You won’t fault your program for a result that didn’t happen, and with more people like you around, the faculty will feel less pressure about the career prospects of their students. As counterintuitive as it may first appear, your offbeat approach to graduate study may be just what humanities programs need.

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  • William Casement

    William Casement is a former philosophy professor and art dealer. He is the author of numerous articles across several disciplines and of books on the literary canon, reforming higher education, and art forgery.

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3 thoughts on “An Offbeat Approach to Graduate Study in the Humanities

  1. I did a PhD in a STEM field so some things might be different, but some are definitely not.

    (1) I actually went to grad school because I felt like I had a dissertation in me (without knowing what it would be about). I wanted to do the project, and I did that, so it was successful, and I was much less stressed than most. I strongly endorse the idea of doing grad school with a non-careerist attitude. I would advise anyone who doesn’t actually want to write a dissertation, not to try.

    (2) The article even endorses dropping out with a master’s, even as a plan going in. Taking 2 years at the university on stipend, rather than paying tuition as the “standalone” master’s degree students must do, seems like a pretty good deal. Maybe a reward for meeting PhD admission standards which are presumably higher, in at least some way. Totally different committee and process usually.

    (3) To reiterate the standalone master’s degree will cost a lot of money. Being in a PhD program lets you do it without increasing the student loan balance. I wouldn’t do it any other way, because I wasn’t independently wealthy as a student.

    (4) One must frankly acknowledge the student’s alternative opportunities or lack of them. Maybe this student graduated without a good job offer, but had some success with grad school applications. This happens a lot (can also happen the other way round), and especially last year when so many companies were downsizing. If this student leaves grad school, with or without a doctorate, and doesn’t have great choices for the next step, it may still be better than the student’s choices were after the bachelor’s degree.

  2. William Casement — This sounds attractive in some respects. I take it that you did something like this yourself. I seem to remember you writing lucidly about problems with the AP program — and as I recall, you were an art dealer in Naples, FL. Now, I have to wonder — please don’t feel any necessity to respond — were you able to do this, and then go on to a career/business as an art dealer — with ordinary means — or did you have come into considerable money along the way?

  3. I could — maybe — accept this if the faculty themselves took vows of poverty — if their love of knowledge was such that they also were willing to work for subsistence wages like monks in a medieval monastery.

    Notwithstanding that, Dr. Casement’s advice is quite irresponsible because he neglects to ask what the young person will have after having invested nine years in graduate school — in addition to four (or more*) years invested as an undergraduate. It’s not if one is willing to spend thirteen years working at subsistence wages but what is the reward for having done so?

    It’s the opportunity cost that he’s overlooking — the person who starts working at 18 will have thirteen years of work experience and seniority over those who went to grad school and are entering the workforce in their 30’s, with an irrelevant (if not useless) degree. And the other question he is not answering is why the taxpayers should be subsidizing all of this…

    Yes, it’s the taxpayers who are funding all this largess. It’s the taxpayers who are paying for the financial aid that funds undergraduate education (which then funds the graduate teaching assistantships), it’s the taxpayers who fund most of the research grants, it’s the taxpayers who fund the public universities and it’s the taxpayers who pay more so that private ones can enjoy exceptions from income, property, and other taxes.

    So the question I ask is not what the humanities programs need but what the taxpayer needs — and can afford. Beyond educating a relatively few college professors (and a great number of K-12 teachers on the undergrad level), how do these programs serve the national interest? During the Cold War it was felt that they showed the moral superiority of the West, but the Cold War has ended and the humanities programs have become vast wastelands of what was once called Anti-Americanism.

    Above and beyond this, if one is to have an ‘intellectual fling”, one need no longer confine it to buildings centered around a building full of paper books, i.e. the traditional university. If one doesn’t care about the credentials, one needn’t worry about exams or program requirements — one could merely wander around the world learning about that which one was interested in. But then, what is the undergraduate liberal arts degree for and why aren’t those years used for what now apparently can only be taught in graduate school???

    In a world where the average professor earns two to three times the median wage for working less than half a year**, encouraging students to live a subsistence life without expectation of financial reward is unethical. While the monks took vows of poverty, it’s UMass employees who are the highest paid of all Massachusetts state workers.

    * Graduating in four years is increasingly uncommon for two reasons. First, a student who transfers from one college to another (or even changes majors within the same institution) often has to spend an additional semester or two to meet the new requirements. This is also true when a student takes a 2-year community college degree and transfers into a 4-year institution. Second, students are often not able to get all their required courses, in the required order and hence often have to take a fifth (sometimes sixth) year just to get all the required courses.

    ** While administrative salaries are obscene, the fact is that administrators work full time, five days a week and all summer as well. By contrast, there are professors who are only on campus 2-3 days a week and have a 43 week contract, if not less. If one balanced this out on an hourly basis, one likely would find that the administrators are really not being paid that much more than the faculty.

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