Suggestions welcome

by Michael Bérubé on June 25, 2010

Even though today is Friday, this post is not ABF — neither arbitrary nor facetious (and certainly not fun).  I suppose it’s my own fault that I have to make this clear at the outset, since I have been known to make up “letters” from imaginary “readers” now and then.  But the following letter is quite real, as is my reply.  The person who wrote to me, earlier this week, suggested that I might post the exchange (so long as I deleted his/her name), in the hope that s/he could get some further advice in comments.  So, dear readers, if you have further advice, offer it in comments!

Dear Dr. Bérubé,

After reading your “Employment of English” at the tail end of my master’s in literature in 2007, I had pretty well sworn off my fanciful idea of becoming a professor. I come from a modest background and my parents have been hit pretty hard by the recession, along with most of my extended family. Making those kinds of sacrifices of time and lost income with very little hope of a job at the end just seemed dangerous to me.

I went back to journalism to weather the coming economic storm because I had an in at a large newspaper. (I had been a reporter for two years before the M.A.). Of course the recession has hit newspapers very hard. In the last four years my newspaper has let go of half its staff which once numbered nearly 1,600. I find myself compromising more and more and writing fluffier, stupider stories than ever before. Though I believe in watchdog reporting, I can’t say I do much of it, and I hold little hope of doing much anywhere else right now.

What was once a distant second in terms of a career is starting to look like my best option, and I began studying for the monstrous GRE subject test in literature around February of this year. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m making a huge mistake. I’m married now, 29, and I’d like to have a small family eventually. I’m a solid writer, was awarded best thesis in my department upon graduation, and I Really Care about literature. Of course I realize there are probably a lot of other people fitting my description with PhD’s who won’t find work anytime soon.

It may be an inexorable dilemma I’m facing, but I thought I’d ask what you thought. Should I drop the PhD plans and get on with finding decent pay for decent work? Is there any hope of a job in or out of the academy for an English PhD? I don’t want to hurt my wife or future family by making a foolish choice, but I get the greatest satisfaction from writing, reading, researching and teaching. I’m in a fix, and I’d really appreciate any thoughts if you can spare the time to write back.

G. (not his real initial)

Dear G.,

Thanks for writing to me, and for reading my old book as well.  I wish I could say that things have gotten better since 1997-98 — and if I wanted to equivocate, I could say they have, because the market for English PhDs did indeed improve between the years 1998 and 2008.  It wasn’t great, of course, but it wasn’t abysmal.  Now, it’s abysmal.  The financial collapse is still having ripple effects, not only on private colleges’ endowments but also (or especially) on state budgets, and I’m convinced that we’ll see a second shock to that system once the stimulus money disappears.  Over the next decade or so, I’m guessing that states are going to face one severe crisis after another (infrastructure, pensions, K-12), and higher education isn’t going to be one of the priorities.  So I’m not sanguine about the near future of public higher education, and I doubt whether the private colleges and universities will be able to expand as the publics contract.

What that means is that the precipitous drop in jobs listed with the Modern Language Association — from 1826 two years ago to 1380 last year to about 1000 this year (a 24 percent drop followed by a 27 percent drop — the details are all here in <a href=””>this .pdf</a>) — may turn out to be a structural depression that lasts for years.  The early-90s drop eventually let up around 1999, as figure 1 in that report shows.  If this downturn is as bad as that one, we’re looking at a “recovery year” of something like 2015.  But if this downturn is worse, as I fear, then I’m not sure we’re looking at a “recovery year” at all.  Instead, we might be looking at something like a jobless recovery, in which the new positions in English are overwhelmingly off the tenure track.

I truly wish I had better news from the front.  I realize that journalism, too, is going to face one severe crisis after another, and I don’t think its future is much brighter than ours.  So part of me wants to say, “eh, between journalism and doctoral study in English, it’s pretty much a wash.”  But I hesitate to say this to someone who’s 29 and wants to start a family one of these days.  If you were to start a PhD program in 2011-12, you’d be looking at another four-five years of study, followed by … well, maybe followed by a better market in the years 2015-17, but maybe followed by a bleak market in 2015-17 made bleaker by all the people who didn’t get decent jobs from 2011-15.  You don’t want to be adjuncting when you’re 35, this I know.  And I don’t see how it’s possible to raise a family on adjunct wages (though many people manage to do it nonetheless).

In saying all of this, I haven’t so much as addressed your conviction that you’d be happiest with a job that involves writing, reading, researching and teaching.  It is indeed a great job, even when all the committee work is factored in, and of course I think that the desire for such a job is not only entirely legitimate but (in a perverse sense) completely sane.  Which is to say, I’m not one of those people who grouses relentlessly about how the profession is rotten to the core and spits out everyone who Really Cares About Literature and rewards only the hyperprofessionalized theorymongers with icewater in their veins.  As you’ve probably gathered from my old book.  The only question, as I see it, is whether the profession of literary study will offer a sufficient number of those great jobs for the people who aspire to them.  And I fear that the answer is no, that the odds of any one person getting one of those jobs is extremely slim.  Now, in one sense that’s the Monte Carlo fallacy at work, because your odds of choosing any number between 1 and 1000 is 999:1, and yet you chose a number!  So yes, obviously, <i>somebody</i> is going to get <i>some</i> decent job here and there.  But should you take that chance?  That’s your call in the end, because only you can answer the question of how much of your life (and your family’s life) you’re willing to juggle in order to give it a shot.  But I do feel an obligation to be as explicit as I can about just how steep the odds are, and how severe the personal sacrifices might be.

I hope this helps, though I expect that it will simply make your inexorable dilemma seem even less exorable, and more of a dilemma.

Best wishes,
Michael Bérubé

P.S.  Don’t worry too much about — or study too long for — that monstrous GRE subject test in literature.  As I learned in the course of writing <a href=”″>this little essay</a> for the <i>Chronicle of Higher Education</i>, only 41.5 percent of English departments require the test.  By contrast, 96.2 percent of departments require a writing sample — and for good reason, because it’s the single most important piece of information in an applicant’s dossier.  Which is to say what I should have said earlier: go ahead and apply this fall, and see what happens.  At that stage, after all, you have nothing to lose save for the application fees.  When you have a better sense of what your options are next spring, feel free to write to me again to talk them over.

<a href=””>x-posted</a>.



rm 06.25.10 at 4:39 pm

Any advice I was gonna give was given by Dr. Danger. I tell all my MA students that the MA makes some economic sense — it boosts a public school salary, qualifies you to teach in CCs or adjunct at 4-years, you don’t waste too much time on it, and you can go to other careers more easily. The Ph.D. overqualifies you for some jobs and wastes a lot of productive years.

However, I’ll testify that the worst career decision I’ve made, looking only at financial considerations, was taking a state university job over a high school job that paid, initially, a little more (because of a bonus they added to the normal salary for the Ph.D.). It was the cusp of the millenium, and I found a chart that showed university teaching salaries rising much faster than public school salaries. I hoped past returns would be a guarantee of future performance. Ha ha. (Whether I could have been any good as a teacher at that level is a different question.)

So, does Mr. Gatorade’s state have a reciprocity program where an MA or PhD can get you into a high school teaching job? The state I had my offer in would have allowed me to teach right away and get my certificate by taking the PRAXIS test, without having to endure College of Ed classes.


y81 06.25.10 at 4:40 pm

If you enjoy reading and writing, I would continue to recommend law school, provided that (BIG proviso!!!) you can get into a top 14 law school. It pays much better than journalism, the regulatory state isn’t going away (or being replaced by people doing the same work for free), and you can certainly find a niche where literary facility is rewarded (as opposed to theatrics, or salesmanship, or transaction structuring, or any of the other useful skills for lawyers).

If you’re not going to a top 14 school, things may be dicier. Volume of financial transactions is likely to remain low for many years, in my view.


Michael Bérubé 06.25.10 at 4:53 pm

I would agree, y81, but for a post I read on this very blog about a year ago. And of course one should also consult this other blog, as well.


Antonio Conselheiro 06.25.10 at 4:59 pm

I have had friends who did very well in areas like library science and information technology (or whatever they call it). This training is useful anywhere where investigation and retrieval of information is needed — e.g. in law, business, government, etc., not just in libraries.


Hidari 06.25.10 at 4:59 pm

I had made many mistakes in what I laughingly refer to as my ‘career’ but the biggest (so far!) was getting a PhD at the start of my ‘career’. It wasted valuable time, was very expensive, and meant I got into the job market when I was considerably older than most of my competitors for the few remaining jobs.

I have absolutely no idea about the American system but here’s what might help is to get some form of ‘minor’ qualification (say a CELTA TEFL) and see about getting a job either in the ‘third sector’ or teaching at a college: this isn’t as unusual nowadays as it used to be with the rise in asylum seekers and ‘refugees’ etc. for whom English is not their first language (don’t know about the American situation). Once you are ‘in’ you might be able to use whatever qualifications you have and then do a PhD ‘on the job’.

Another option is that Mr G. speaks another language he might be able to do something similar. A cousin of mind speaks fluent Spanish (and has the CELTA): she is now teaching language and literature at night classes at a College, is now in a position to apply for a position at at University, and might, therefore, be able to get a full time post at a Uni in a few years. Third sector work generally (which can be ‘gotten into’ via volunteering, hopefully leading to a post later on) can be a lot more ‘vocational’ and teaching orientated than people think.

To repeat, these ideas may not have any applicability in the American system in which case, sorry!


Antonio Conselheiro 06.25.10 at 5:25 pm

When a writer is hired to the major media because he’s a conservative, he should know that he reports to the conservatives and not to whoever “hired” him.

I want to believe that David Brooks is and evil genius the slyest, smoothest disinformationist supervillain ever, but the possibility exists that he’s trapped — maybe he knows better but realizes that if he shows any sign of sanity he will be fired and never will have as good a job again.


Antonio Conselheiro 06.25.10 at 5:26 pm

Wrong box.


y81 06.25.10 at 5:38 pm


With regard to the CT piece, my perception is probably biased, because most of my friends are 50-something lawyers who have stayed in the profession, so they sort of enjoy it. (On the other hand, the lawyers who hang out with academics and complain about how they hate their jobs aren’t an unbiased sample either.) Certainly I agree with the broader point of the CT piece, which is that it would be good to have more knowledge of what particular jobs actually entail before starting on a particular career path. If being on either side of most lawsuits repels you, or if the idea of either issuing securities or regulating their issuance seems boring, then you should think some more.

With regard to the other site, I was very careful to limit my recommendation to attendance at a top 14 law school. I know that there are some Columbia or Northwestern grads out of work, but the bulk of the sites in that genre reflect the travails of graduates from lower-ranking law schools. My heart breaks for those young people, who have been deceived by third-tier academic money mills, but that is not what I was recommending.


bianca steele 06.25.10 at 5:43 pm

I used to know a history Ph.D. who worked in marketing, but I don’t know what her path was in between. It does involve research and writing, but if it’s the committee work you hate, the corporate world isn’t going to be any better.

There’s also technical writing, which involves less research and IMO less interesting writing (Habermas wouldn’t help you much here, I’d guess), but more of it. Whether it’s an especially stable job or not, I’m not really sure.

For both of these, you’d need some ability and desire to work with technical stuff, and also with technical people.

As for “jobless recessions,” in software, at least around here, people didn’t start hiring until a while after the recession officially ended, and a couple of years after that, there were still people who’d been unemployed three years out there looking (and getting hired). So I’m not sure how much the numbers should be relied on.


giotto 06.25.10 at 6:08 pm

Dear G:
When you see an ivy tower, run the other way. I’m near to completing a humanities PhD (which well be from Posh Prestigious U.), with 3 years of adjunct teaching under my belt, and extraordinary teaching evaluations (which of course count for exactly nothing). And I’m bailing out. As MB noted, the overwhelming likelihood is that university administrations will use the current collapse in the job market as an excuse to further their push for fewer tenure track positions and more adjunct positions. And adjunct teaching is viable if you are independently wealthy, or have a spouse earning enough for the family. But obviously that is not most of us.

Fortunately I have options. I can bail because I have training in a trade. I’m not keen on the idea of working a trade into my 60s, but I can make significantly more money, working significantly fewer hours, AND I will get my weekends back. In addition, I’ve come to look at adjunct work as the the equivalent of scabbing. Teaching as an adjunct makes me complicit in my own exploitation, and contributes to the perpetuation of the system that makes the exploitation of adjuncts possible. It is a shame that the administrations are going down this road (and a greater shame that the current generation of tenured faculty has done so little to prevent it happening) but this is where we are, and things are not likely to improve anytime soon.

I don’t regret the time I spent on the PhD; as a personal quest it has been well worth it. But I would be very naive to think it will now become a career.

If despite all this you still decide to go for the Phd, here is what I’ve told my upper division students when they’ve asked: Don’t go anywhere for graduate studies unless the program offers you at least 5 years of full support and funding for summer study/research. Under no circumstances should you go into debt in order to pursue a humanities PhD.


Hektor Bim 06.25.10 at 6:24 pm

Technical writing is a very varied field. It can be the woman’s ghetto and is thus relatively low-paid.

I can’t see much reason to get a humanities Ph.D. at this time. Go get a job in something besides newspapers or grad school. Try technical writing, media content creation, or something else.

It can take arbitrary amounts of time to finish a humanities degree, and one frequently doesn’t have salary support.


Tim O'Keefe 06.25.10 at 6:26 pm

The question to ask isn’t just “What are my job prospects like with a PhD in English Lit?” but “What are my job prospects like with a PhD in English Lit from department X?”

Do English PhD programs publish credible placement information? (You also want to want what the programs’ attrition rates are like.) I’m in philosophy (I’m DGS at a terminal M.A. program), and philosophy PhD programs in the U.S. and Canada are pretty good overall (but not perfect!) about putting this information on their websites.

If English is anything like philosophy–and I’m pretty sure it is–one thing to keep in mind is that, even if you end up going to a good program and end up snagging a TT job, chances are you’ll spend a couple of years bouncing around the country from temporary appointment to temporary appointment before landing that TT job, and in order to get the TT job, you’ll probably have to willing to move pretty much anywhere in the country, from big city to small town. With a spouse (and possibly children), these are significant downsides. I’m glad I went into academia for all sorts of reasons, but I got lucky.


Matt 06.25.10 at 6:43 pm

Y81’s point about law school is important- the job and salary potential is very different at different schools, and most of what’s said at the various blogs complaining (usually with at least some justice) about job prospects is most applicable to graduates from lower-tier schools. But, for some people, going to a lower-tier law school (or better, the lower part of the first tier) can still be a good idea _if one gets significant financial aid_. I see Tim’s point as related. The “don’t go to grad school” mantra should at least be clarified to mean that one shouldn’t go to a grad school program with a bad placement record, or without funding, and so on. And, as I know, having a family makes it a lot harder, because it is not only more difficult, but also feels a lot worse, to move around a lot for a few years taking less than wonderfully paying jobs while waiting for things to work out or not if it’s not just you, but also one’s spouse (and perhaps kids) that must move.


Michael Bérubé 06.25.10 at 6:46 pm

y81 @ 8: I was very careful to limit my recommendation to attendance at a top 14 law school. I know that there are some Columbia or Northwestern grads out of work, but the bulk of the sites in that genre reflect the travails of graduates from lower-ranking law schools. My heart breaks for those young people, who have been deceived by third-tier academic money mills, but that is not what I was recommending.

Understood. See also Tim O’Keefe @ 12, whose first paragraph is exactly right. Back in 1982, when I was applying to graduate school, I decided on precisely five top-tier programs and got into two — both of which were places that admitted large numbers of M.A. students and then whittled them down. That was fine by me, because I wasn’t going to stick around post-M.A. unless (a) I got myself some fellowship support and (b) liked the program. I figured that if I applied more widely but didn’t get into one of the more highly-ranked programs, then this would be a Bad Sign in and of itself, and probably an indication that I shouldn’t spend my 20s getting a PhD from a middling program, too. So I didn’t bother applying more widely.


y81 06.25.10 at 8:03 pm

It’s a summer Friday, and all the clients seem to have left early, so I was faced with a choice between reading the mezzanine loan amendment that I got yesterday, or doing something else. So I went back and read the CT comment thread that Prof. Berube linked to (@3). I have to say, that is really a model of how good a comment thread can be: the participants are civil and knowledgeable, with a wide variety of experiences and views. It’s the sort of “discussion” that couldn’t have existed before the blogosphere. I only hope that lots of undergraduates-at-loose-ends have read it. (BTW, at first, I was regretting that I hadn’t participated in that thread–I only read this blog intermittently–but then I saw that “unimaginative” said about what I would have said.)

Back to the mezz loan amendment.


Lawyerbob 06.25.10 at 8:04 pm

The legal job market has been hit by the recession like the job market generally. Even top-14 law school grads are having trouble finding jobs. That said, I think the legal job market will probably recover better than the job market generally. I like being a lawyer; I like the writing and the advocating in court, and working with my clients. Of course, I’m at a firm that has sane hours, which makes a huge difference.

The rest of this thread is harshing my mellow, because my lovely daughter is about to begin her freshman year at Elite Liberal Arts College with the ultimate ambition of getting a Ph.D. in folklore and/or cognitive psychology with the ultimate goal of teaching. I may bookmark this thread and let her have a few happy weeks at school before showing it to her.


lots of undergraduates-at-loose-ends 06.25.10 at 8:52 pm

yeah, we’re reading this thread pretty intently.


cate 06.25.10 at 9:05 pm

If you really want to stay in academia but are worried about the job market, I’ll advocate for shifting into Communication (or as per the Simpsons: ‘is fake major!’)

Good news: The discipline is massively undisciplined. We run the gamut from the squashiest post-humanists to the most rigid social scientists, which results in a wide variety of programs to choose from that might fit your current interests (including those focused on rhetoric as composition or on mass communication, to pair with your interest in English and experience in journalism). And good lord are we hiring (well, not so much with the recession, but comparably). Programs are growing quickly, and the sheer numbers of majors give Comm programs fairly significant pull within the university.

Bad news: This horde of students will mostly be made of people who want to be on TV or just want to talk about TV because other stuff is boring. This makes giving career advise pretty hard. And the lack of discipline in the discipline makes getting control over the hordes (setting clear curricular benchmarks) very difficult. The discipline problem also means that while departments may wield strength of undergraduate numbers, as a fairly young field [at least in its current form–I won’t bore you with the history of rhetoric], it doesn’t draw as much water academically as some of its more established sister departments.

This doesn’t really answer the academy v. nonacademy question, but I don’t have a good vantage point to make that comparison. I don’t mean to talk you out of pursuing an English degree (heck, that’s my BA!), but if the job market is a deal-breaker for you, communication might allow you to continue to follow the same or similar interests while offering more job prospects.


Keith 06.25.10 at 9:16 pm

Antonio Conselheiro:

No more Librarians! If you think it sounds bleak for English PhDs, it’s twice as bad for librarians. Everyone who goes in to get their MLS is being fed the same bare-assed lie: that all the old guard librarians are retiring and now’s the time to get that librarian job, especially if you’re a tech-savvy young-un, because you’ll have your pick. It’s ALA propaganda. The market is flooded with overqualified librarians all fighting for the same handful of jobs.

I’d have to dig up the statistics but a survey done last year found that there were more than 3000 new MLS grads trying for 1700 positions nationwide, and that doesn’t include all the grads from the previous year or the year before that and the number of available jobs is shrinking. For every 2 librarians that retire, they only replace 1, instead shifting responsibilities off to other librarians. I currently do the job of 3 librarians.

I just interviewed a candidate for our university library this week who has 15 years experience and knows her shit backwards and forwards. The position she applied for is 32 hours/week with no benefits and entry level salary. My wife, who has 10 years experience and multiple degrees on top of her MLS can’t find work at all. Multiply that by about 2000 and that’s who a new MLS grad is going up against, all for the same positions.


cate 06.25.10 at 9:29 pm

Gotta echo Matt @ 17. When I advocate for staying in grad school, it’s with the assumption that funding and benefits are included and that you aren’t paying tuition. Without full tuition, living stipend and healthcare included, the economics of a Ph.D changes radically.


Rich Puchalsky 06.25.10 at 9:35 pm

The standard advice in my milieu to people like this is to go into tech writing, but that seems to me (not having ever done it) like it would be a soul-crushing job.

How about the advocacy sector? There’s a vast, or at least large, set of nonprofit groups that work on more or less political issues that need mid-level people with reading and writing and speaking skills as “analysts” or whatever. I’d guess that they generally make mid-30s, although I last checked more than a decade ago, which is not much money but still better than what an adjunct makes. And you need no training other than college. It helps if you live in DC or in a state capitol.

“Communication” I have no direct knowledge of, other than that everyone I encounter who’s in it is a corporate flack of some sort.

I was faced with this same kind of decision a couple of decades back, although I had more technical and less writing skills. I eventually started my own business, which brings in a middle-class income and lets me work from home. I was able to do this by being one of about three people in the country who work freelance in my particular specialty. It’s not like there’s a lot of work, but there aren’t many people who do it either. If you can find some kind of specialization like that that will hold up over time, it clearly can work, but I’m not sure exactly how to set out and find one.


Barry 06.25.10 at 9:45 pm

To summarize this thread:

1) Don’t go for a Ph.D. unless it’s a top 10 program (maybe top 20, if one can relax it).

2) Do not go for a Ph.D. unless the department pays for it. The cost of a Ph.D. is well over $100K, not counting lost income – paying off those loans is probably impossible (with rare exceptions, and the burden of proof being on the program).

Suggestion: (1) might apply to many professional programs as well (aside from law). The MBA field is saturated, now that 2 years of grad have moved in a lousy job market + Wall St and many firms laying off MBA’s. Question – does this apply to DDS and MD programs as well?


burritoboy 06.25.10 at 10:01 pm

There’s a much broader question here than that I think is being addressed.

The university plays the following role within the social contract democracy:

The social contract theorists were well aware that most intellectuals from 400AD -1650AD had been priests (Aquinas, Scotus, Augustine, Ockham, etc) . Further, the learned professions of the law (Marsilius, Baldus de Ubaldis, etc. )and medicine (Maimonides, Avicenna, etc) were also very closely linked to philosophy as well (through Aristotle in the case of medicine and Cicero in the case of law). The social contract theorists knew they were going to diminish the power of the Church, remove the influence of Aristotle from the natural sciences and re-establish law entirely upon a new basis (a new basis which did not lead legal practitioners back into philosophy and high culture as the older order did).

The modern university (or it’s predecessor, the Royal Academies) is intended by the social contract theorists to be the pre-eminent location of intellectual work in their new regimes. That is, the social contract theorists moved the location of intellectual work from being widely distributed (in at least 4 major locations: the Church, the law, medicine and in government service) to being primarily concentrated in two locations (the university and bohemia).

The problem we are facing today is that the modern university is proving to be significantly more fragile than the multi-location situation that existed before the Enlightenment. There’s a single major funding source (government), for example. Also, because the university is now the only place where intellectual work can be done in a reasonable way (bohemia being the place where it’s done under impoverished and horrid conditions), that means that all or most intellectual work now conforms to the norms of academia.

The problem is much deeper than that of the modern university. The problem is that the social contract theorists seem to have made several grave errors in how they approached the problem of transmitting knowledge itself. They were likely far too optimistic that the support of universities by actual governments would be constant (indeed, constantly growing). They also perhaps made an error asserting that the university could take the place of the Church. Also, removing the learned professions from close relationships with philosophy damaged civil society greatly.


burritoboy 06.25.10 at 10:02 pm

i don’t know where those strike-outs came from.


Walt 06.25.10 at 10:10 pm

I worked as a tech writer for a while. It’s okay — not particularly more soul-crushing than any other job.


Laleh 06.25.10 at 10:28 pm

As a research admissions tutor, my advice is “if you have ANY doubt about a PhD, don’t do it”.

As someone who started a PhD (in social sciences, admittedly, not humanities) at the age of 31 (with my biological clock ticking – I am a woman), it is simply the best decision I ever made. Along the way, I have gotten lucky: I have a job at a great place; my partner teaches in the same city; our children are healthy and easy-going… AND I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE my job and my students and my department. That said, I realise this takes the fortunate confluence of far too many things for it to be easily repeatable, so back to my original advice, slighly paraphrased, “ONLY do a PhD if you reall really really want it.”


Laleh 06.25.10 at 10:28 pm

that should be “doubts”…


Matt 06.25.10 at 11:03 pm

1) Don’t go for a Ph.D. unless it’s a top 10 program (maybe top 20, if one can relax it).

I don’t know about other fields, but in philosophy I’d put this a bit differently, in that specialties can matter a lot. If, for example, you wanted to work on philosophy of biology, you’d certainly want to apply to Duke, Wisconsin, and Indiana, none of which are top-20 programs over all, but each of which has one or more of the best philosophers of biology around. Sub-field strength doesn’t always trump over-all strength of a department, especially if one doesn’t know what one wants to work in, but for certain areas it’s more important than the over-all ranking of the department. I suspect that something like this is true of other fields, too, but don’t know for sure.


novakant 06.25.10 at 11:29 pm

I don’t know about the value of a PhD in the US, but I would recommend becoming fluent in a second language and spend at least a year abroad in a non-english speaking country instead. I say this because at a certain educational level it is very common for non-native speakers to be fluent in English, while it is pretty rare that native English speakers are fluent in another language, so there must be a market for such skills.


bianca steele 06.25.10 at 11:57 pm

I’ve usually felt sorry for the tech writers I’ve worked with. It’s not a terrible job. You usually don’t have to drink the corporate kool-aid. On the other hand, usually the only judgment called for is in knowing who to ask for information. If you can take pride in clearly explaining something even when it only needs to be explained to ISP employees, not having control of the content (which you’re not the one responsible for) or the format and style, and having 2/3 of the writing be pretty repetitive (maybe dozens of pages that are minimal variations of one another)–and being dependent for information on arrogant people whose own language skills range upwards from nil–it’s probably a decent way to use your writing and organizational skills. But for example, you have to cover a lot of different areas in a short time, and it can be difficult to know when it’s okay to normalize technical jargon into standard English or change sentence structure without modifying the logical form of the statement.


y81 06.26.10 at 12:24 am

“If you can take pride in clearly explaining something even when it only needs to be explained to ISP employees, not having control of the content (which you’re not the one responsible for) or the format and style, and having 2/3 of the writing be pretty repetitive (maybe dozens of pages that are minimal variations of one another)—and being dependent for information on arrogant people whose own language skills range upwards from nil—it’s probably a decent way to use your writing and organizational skills.”

Mutatis mutandis–and, to be fair, there are a few mutandis–that describes a lot of legal writing too.


floopmeister 06.26.10 at 1:00 am

I’ve got about 15 years teaching experience in ESL, tutoring at an institution in Australia and planning to start a PhD next year. While I couldn’t really say I love teaching English as such anymore (!) I am able to regularly teach in places throughout SE Asia on ten week contracts which slot nicely into the semester breaks (hoping to teach a IELTS preparation course to academic staff in Hue Vietnam at the end of the year).

I have a mortgage, a partner and a young kid (not in that order!) and I can bring a good $5000 – $6000 clear (after family’s airfares etc) back to Oz out of such a contract (on top of the amazing life experiences) but then my partner does work in the Aus gov with four weeks holiday and the ability to take leave without pay whenever so that definitely helps.

I’d have to second the people that mentioned the value of a CELTA and then heading OS. It’s all experience teaching adults and most of my teaching now is of other university teaching staff who want to be able to teach in English themselves – from an Australian perspective there is a lot of work going in this sort of thing (while I’m mostly around SE Asia I’m sure the situation is similar in other areas like South America).

Finally there’s the opportunity to move into development work, which I have also been involved in (teaching diplomatic English to senior government officials in Lao PDR). A good two year contract can pretty much ‘set you up’ – and the development field is pretty focussed on paper qualifications. That said, you need to be able to marry your humanities/lit PhD to some few years of teaching experience (and that’s where the ESL work has paid off for me). The focus seems to be shifting back towards education (away from the exclusive focus on ‘security’) which can only be a good thing.


Luther Blissett 06.26.10 at 1:17 am

To repeat some of what’s been said:

1) Where are you hoping to get your Ph.D. in English? I came out of Penn’s department, which has a 66% tenure-track job placement record. That’s not bad, considering some of the remaining 34% go on for post-docs or research fellowships that are not counted as job placements.

2) Can you get the Ph.D. without accruing debt? That was my big mistake. I took on a lot of student load debt because I was stupid. However, there’s no reason you must, if you can live frugally. If you can, why not get the Ph.D. for the love of it?

3) If you love teaching, would you be happy teaching at a private high school? That is the job path I pursued, because I loved teaching and ultimately hated research (and came to hate the sort of literature I had become “an expert” in — contemporary American fiction). Right now, I teach amazing teenagers classics of world and British lit. They are doing far more interesting work than my Penn undergrads that I taught as an adjunct. And they are more fun to work with. Private schools *want* Ph.D.s in English. Often, they will pay for you to get a teaching certificate once they hire you. Public schools often require an MAT or certification from the start, but I received several job offers from public high schools, which would have paid me substantially more for the Ph.D. and the teaching experience I had accrued as a Ph.D. student.


rm 06.26.10 at 1:34 am

I’m sure the school in general matters most — placement rate and all — but to echo Matt at 28, in English what is a good program may also depend on the concentration. For Rhetoric & Composition (which used to, at least, have a less abysmal job market than lit fields), there are some Big Names that are great in the field (Stanford, Cal, Purdue, and others) but also some that, if you didn’t know the field, you wouldn’t know how good they look to a hiring committee (e.g. Texas Tech, Northern Michigan, Louisville, Greensboro, and others).

However, all of the above should really be struck out, because THERE IS NO JOB MARKET. This is like advice on how to pick PowerBall numbers.

Also, I restrained myself from ranting about how that fake “Communication” discipline thinks it owns Rhetoric, when we own Rhetoric, darnit! Because it’s irrelevant. So be grateful. Emoticon.


ice9 06.26.10 at 2:26 am

Large suburban high schools. Advertise yourself as an AP English teacher interested in teaching only AP or higher electives and unafraid of reading lots of papers. Talk about rigor and writing coaching. Be patient, but about 25% of schools have real problems getting teachers who are intellectually capable of teaching AP and can write. There’s a boomlet of teachers now who have a masters degree and who think of teaching as a form of masonry (the kind with bricks); they also run high to bureaucrats-in-training and lazy slobs. Benefits are good and pay will be good too. Plus we need you.



GeoX 06.26.10 at 4:50 am

As someone about a year away from a doctorate in English from a school with no particularly special cachet, posts like this are NOT what my mental state needs right now. The question “is this all a meaningless pipe dream?” DOES occur to me on a regular basis. And looking at things realistically, I don’t see any particular reason to think I have the characteristics necessary to beat the odds here. So I do worry about this stuff all the time.

However, it also has to be said–and it may be naive to do so, but the fact remains–I care a hell of a fucking lot about literature, and, even if we take job prospects out of the picture entirely and look at it in a vacuum, I fucking well WANT this degree. I have no dependents and I’m fully funded, so I’m not going into debt, so there’s that at least. More importantly, though, it is absolutely, inarguably true that over the course of my studies I have read many many MANY books I wouldn’t have otherwise and have refined and expanded my worldview and increased my intellectual rigor in ways that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise (which is not of course to say that one COULDN’T experience such things without being in an academic program–just that I personally never would have–I know myself well enough to say that for sure). And the value of that is, I think incalculable.

(Plus, of course, if I hadn’t thrown caution to the wind and gone this route, I know damn well there would always always ALWAYS have been Nagging Doubts.)

A tenured position would be nice, sure (okay, let’s be honest: it would be the most beautiful thing in the world, and I’m insanely jealous of people who are living that dream). But regardless of what the future may hold, the process has made me less dumb and less lazy than I was before, and I could not in good conscience take it back, even if I ultimately end up doing something un- or only marginally related.

Of course, all this dopily idealistic blathering will have no meaning for someone who has serious exigencies to consider. And surely my experience is not going to be universal. As always, why em em vee. Still, I think if you’re considering graduate school solely from a concrete cost-benefit angle, you’re missing a good chunk of the story.


sg 06.26.10 at 6:41 am

further to floopmeister’s suggestion, there seems to be a lot of work available in Japanese universities for people with PhDs in English and/or CELTA/TESOL qualifications to teach English and do “research” in English, that are maybe more accessible than in the west. Every Japanese uni has to teach english as a second language, and the better ones employ academics who might actually have an interest in publishing english literature papers as well. There are a very large number of Japanese universities! The downside is a lot of them are starting to close/consolidate, and the career structure ain’t great. But that’s academia everywhere.

Novakant’s prescription “become fluent in a second language” sounds nice, but yeah, just, you know, get fluent, baby. Just like that. Also, my experience of people who’re fluent in second languages is that in the job market it isn’t rewarded at all. I know a woman in London who is fluent in French and nearly fluent in Japanese, and it took her 6 months to get a job after her return from Japan, and it’s paid no more than if she didn’t have two extra languages.


EMG 06.26.10 at 7:07 am

If you care so much about literature, why don’t you write some?

The many lovers of literature *outside* the ivory tower don’t care a whit about your interpretative studies. We want more contributions to the actual tradition. The chances of success for a real book can hardly be worse, these days, than for a Ph.D. thesis nobody will ever read.


Tim Worstall 06.26.10 at 8:06 am

“while it is pretty rare that native English speakers are fluent in another language, so there must be a market for such skills.”

Eh? The absence of those with a skill set proves demand for that skill set?

As to the larger subject here: given that a high level education in the humanities seems not to lead to a job using such high level education in the humanities, might we not conclude that too many people are getting high level educations in the humanities?

That the education sector itself should shrink?


Guido Nius 06.26.10 at 10:39 am

To Michael, by responding in the way you did, you did all that could be done.

To G. (if you’re reading this), I chose the decent job for decent pay a decade ago. It means I will never be able to do anything with my writing (which I am doing more and more of to a pleasure, that is (almost) not spoiled by the anticipation of possible success) because the circle of people doing things literary is a closed circle and late entrance is more difficult than being accepted in the ‘cool kids at college’-group. It also turns out that I’m quite happy, even during most times in which I realize that I got addicted to the well-off lifestyle to the extent that it is impossible to be ever 100% focused on writing. I think it depend on whether you want to be recognized for your writing and/or spend time in the spotlight being applauded for your great thoughts; if so, I don’t think you do your loved ones a favour by ‘sacrificing’ your desires ‘for them’. Nobody wants to get stuck with a grumpy old man that blames you for not having been able to realize his fullest potential.

Just my 2 cents.


liberal japonicus 06.26.10 at 1:48 pm

there seems to be a lot of work available in Japanese universities for people with PhDs in English and/or CELTA/TESOL qualifications to teach English and do “research” in English

Unfortunately, that might have been true about 15-20 years ago, the current demographics here means that unless Japanese universities can find a lot of students in the next decade, at least a third and maybe half of the universities will have to close. To give an idea, the college going population was 2 million 10 years ago and is now about 1.2 or 1.3 million. This article discusses some of the problems.

Universities here have begun outsourcing the undergraduate English courses, and if they do hire foreigners, they are hired on term limited contracts (usually 1-3 years). One may think that stringing together a few of these contracts and building up ones publications for a return to the US might be an option, but it is really difficult to do the requisite networking overseas. China and other Asian locales have more opportunities, but the current salaries are rather low, and it is not certain if you will have job security. Which is unfortunate, because these other asian locales are very interesting and everyone wants to learn English. I just got back from a seminar for high school teachers at Hue University, and it was a gas. With that, I wonder if floopmeister could contact me at libjpn at gmail, I’d be interested in exchanging notes about Hue.


cate 06.26.10 at 1:51 pm

rm: Ha! One hand-hold in english and the other in philosophy, hanging above the yawning chasm of Intro to Public Speaking. And I like it!


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.26.10 at 1:56 pm

I too thought the advice was spot-on, the best one could give in the circumstance.

I returned to school many years ago after getting married and our first child. It was perhaps not the smartest move for our family (if my father had not been cremated, he’d still be turning over in his grave) but I suppose I was still suffering the effects of adolescence (as it were) and my wife did not verbalize any strong objections or concerns. To make matters worse, I did not think that my chosen area of study would have anything whatsoever to do with what job I would find at the end of formal schooling, for I had picked “Religious Studies” and never imagined pursuing graduate work or getting a job in the field. I eventually did go to graduate school and, belatedly (it’s a longer story), received an MA despite having left school early and thus did not go on for a PhD, one reason being that we were deeply in debt and another owing to the frustration I felt at not receiving more economic support (of the non-loan sort, like TA assignments).

When I left school I held several minimum wage jobs before getting into housing construction (at the urging of a brother who was already making ‘good money’ working as a carpenter) and eventually becoming a finish carpenter for a local contractor. One of the homes we (re-)built was destroyed by the infamous Painted Cave fire here in town back in the early summer of 1990. Both of the owners had been professors of mine and one of them, Nandini Iyer (mother of the writer, Pico Iyer, and widow of Raghavn Iyer, author of a non-pareil study of Gandhi’s moral and political thought), who taught Religious Studies and from whom I learned a little Sanskrit, would have conversations with me at the “job site” (to the annoyance of my co-workers) on such topics as whether or not the Buddha had an understanding of the Advaita Vedanin conception of “nirguna Brahman” or what was the precise nature of the Buddha’s putative metaphysical reticence (questions, incidentally, I’m still addressing). One day Nandini asked me to “substitute teach” (my locution) her class and, later, asked if I could fill in during her sabbatical and I agreed both times, not quite sure what I was getting into. I was eventually offered to teach my own courses at our community college (she’s since retired, and although I’m Pico’s age, she happens to be my best friend).

I’ve been teaching part-time now for about ten years and have even published a few things. I have no ambition to teach full-time at our community college (at any rate, these days I’d have to compete for the position with out-of-work PhDs) as that would not leave me enough time for avid pursuit of avocational educational interests nor leave time enough for research and writing. I have another part-time job but it’s safe to say that my wife’s employment keeps us afloat (and our comparatively low-income means we live, by choice of course, rather frugally: I have no cell phone, credit cards, etc., we’ve never owned a new car, don’t travel…).

All this by way of illustrating that one never knows quite how things will turn out. I realize my story is rather unusual and was shaped by (perhaps uncommon) idiosyncracies. But one should keep in mind that even if it’s not “realistic” or financially prudent to pursue an academic career, it’s not impossible to cultivate an amateur’s passion and considerable skills for ploughing any number of intellectual fields… and perhaps that passion and those skills will bear fruit in unexpected yet no less satisfying ways.


Gavin Weaire 06.26.10 at 1:56 pm

An obvious point, but I’ve missed it if someone has made it already. The writer is proposing to move in a few years’ time to wherever he can get a job, supposing that he is that lucky. His email doesn’t seem to say anything about the practicalities of that for his wife’s career.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.26.10 at 2:07 pm

erratum: “Advaita Vedantin”


JonJ 06.26.10 at 3:29 pm

After getting a Ph. D. in philosophy long ago and dropping out of academia, I eventually ended up studying Japanese in Japan for a couple of years and have been a freelance Japanese-to-English translator for more years than I want to confess to. It’s been a pretty good vocation, since there is a huge unmet demand for J>E translation in a number of fields and machine translation is still very far from replacing humans for decent-quality output.

The only catches are that you have to learn fluent written (and spoken if you want to get into interpreting) Japanese, which not too many people can hack (hence the large demand and low supply), and you have to be pretty well acquainted with (or able to get acquainted with) a subject matter field in which there is a good demand, such as financial, legal, or patents. Translating literature won’t put miso shiru and gohan on the table.


Barry 06.26.10 at 5:33 pm

Another: “while it is pretty rare that native English speakers are fluent in another language, so there must be a market for such skills.”

Tim Worstall: “Eh? The absence of those with a skill set proves demand for that skill set?”

Seconding Tim here – never confuse supply with demand. In addition, it could easily be that any such demand is quite nicely filled by non-native English speakers who are fluent in English (hundreds of millions of such people exist, IMHO).


Joshua Gunn 06.26.10 at 7:22 pm

As a recently tenured professor of communication studies, I have to disagree with the dismissive tone and uninformed observations of “cate” regarding the field of “Communication.” Although I have many bones to pick with her four paragraphs, in the spirit of parsimony let me reduce them to four: (1) a working knowledge of the history of communication studies (that is, the many subfields that converge over the term communication, including the mass comm, communications [Illinois ICR], Canadian [media ecology] and speech traditions) would show the field or “fields” are not “fairly young”; most academic departments are relatively “young”; (2) a knowledge of the institutional history of communication studies would reveal there is neither a “lack of discipline” nor a single discipline of communication, but many disciplines; to assume this state is “bad news” reflects the kind of impulse-to-mastery that is no longer serving more singular disciplines very well at all; (3) to invite anyone to “come over to Communication” from their respective field assumes that “any idiot can do it,” which is an assumption I find offensive; my program harbors some of the best scholars and teachers I know, and they work every hard; and (4) communication studies programs often claim to teach argumentation, which is ironic considering cate’s evidence for making sweeping claims about “the discipline” are based on (a) cultural stereotype (e.g., The Simpsons) and (b) her immediate, departmental experience. Frankly, for those of us in “Communication” this fourth point is rather embarrassing, which is why I will state emphatically cate does not speak for me.


Michael Bérubé 06.26.10 at 8:15 pm

I think it’s always useful to learn another language, and I always wish my French was better than your basic second-year high-school stuff. But I think this is tangential to G’s request, really. Likewise, in response to EMG @ 38, I think it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between wanting to study literature and wanting to write it.

The suggestions about teaching in private high schools are good ones, and I hope G takes them seriously … but then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I, because I spent a few pages of The Employment of English pointing out that there are some high school teaching jobs that are considerably better than teaching off the tenure track in higher ed. So I’m assuming that G. read that bit….


Bloix 06.26.10 at 10:49 pm

The only reason to go to graduate school in the humanities is that you MUST study English, or write art history – in the way that some people must play piano or swim the English channel or paint or whatever. Graduate school is not something you do because you’ve always been a good student and your professors seem to be admirable people and life in the business world seems boring and intimidating. If you don’t know with a conviction that is stronger than anything else you have ever known that you MUST do this, if you don’t spend every moment thinking about your field of study and every minute away from your books worrying about when you’ll get back to them, then YOU SHOULD NOT GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL. If it’s even a question for you, then DON’T DO IT.


Davis X. Machina 06.26.10 at 11:17 pm

In thirty years there won’t be an undergraduate degree in the humanities conferred, or even offered, in a land-grant university. STEM rules the waves, and the conversion of all but elite post-secondary education to a two-track public-college vocational system — one expensive, based on community colleges, and one very expensive, based on what used to be state universities — will be complete.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.27.10 at 12:07 am


“DO NOT BORROW MONEY TO GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL.”—Now there’s some wholly unrealistic and silly advice, unless of course only wealthy folks are to attend graduate school. What is more, not a few students enter graduate school uncertain of precisely why they’ve embarked on this path or with half-hearted enthusiasm and yet may develop the conviction that they (now) MUST do this…. People are free to make such choices and some, it turns out, may discover they’ve made the wrong choice in deciding on graduate school. In any case, what was once the “certainty of conviction” that motivated the original decision may, with the passage of time, crumble into crippling doubt.


Bloix 06.27.10 at 12:52 am

“People are free to make such choices”
Yes indeed they are, and why are they? If I want to borrow $100,000 to open a restaurant or to expand my trucking business, my banker will want to see a business plan that shows how the investment will generate the income stream to repay that loan. But if I want to borrow $100,000 to pay it to a bunch of people who will spend a couple of hours a week talking to me and a couple of more reading what I write, the banker will hand me the check. Why? Because the loan is federally guaranteed, so that there’s no one to care whether the credential I receive will ever allow me to generate the income needed to pay it back. The buniversity certainly doesn’t care. It is overjoyed to take that money and it expects me to feel grateful that it is willing to relieve me of it.

“and some, it turns out, may discover they’ve made the wrong choice in deciding on graduate school.”
Ah, yes, they’ve made the wrong choice. It was their choice and they made it, and they were grown-ups when they allowed themselves to be fleeced so it’s really their own fault. It has nothing to do with graduate programs recruiting far more students than there are jobs. And since they cannot relieve themselves of student debt via bankruptcy they will be reflecting on the implications of that wrong choice for many, many years.

“what was once the “certainty of conviction” that motivated the original decision may, with the passage of time, crumble into crippling doubt.”

How true. Most people who want to become professors, like most people who want to become athletes or actors or fashion designers, are destined to fail. The point is, the professoriate is an over-crowded, over-competitive field. If you can imagine doing something else, you should be doing it.


Abelard, High Professor of Postmoderny Deconstructionisms 06.27.10 at 1:21 am

@23 yes, yes, yes, omg yes. ok done.

Nietzsche seems to be the last person who was able to do actual intellectual work outside of the university before “modernity” hit. Good luck trying to write literature that is going to one day sit next to Will and Plato (and that really is the standard) under the duress of a tepid, enervating 9-5 (anyways, there is no such thing as a 9-5 in late capitalsim: your career is your life, so you dont get time away from “work”), or a retail/table service job to simply pay rent while you pen your masterpiece.

I think one simply has to go to the university today in order to “do” intellectual work (lamentable fact to my mind) because academics are the only people who really care about and understand the literary-philosophic tradition that a writer/thinker would be attempting to contribute to. Trendy kids who work in publishing who went to Ivy School (I’m not holding Ivy School Education against a person, but they certainly herd-think) are more interested in looking cool to other trendy kids on the publishing scene; put a piece of very forward literature or philosophy in front of them (that they havent seen and do not understand because it will necessarily involve an iconoclastic hamstringing of everything they ever learned) and they will have no idea how to *sell* it, which is the other huge problem you cannot avoid being a writer “outside” of Academia.

Too, the average age of getting published is 36; you will either kill yourself or a lot of other people working some soul eradicating “job” and waiting that out to get published rather than being in academia.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.27.10 at 1:26 am

Don’t pay back your loan and you’ll discover rather quickly that universities in fact care quite a bit…. If your credential doesn’t allow you to pay it back then you’re under an obligation to find employment that will. (There’s no guarantee a ‘business plan’ will be successful or that one will, in fact, generate the income stream necessary to repay any loan.)

I’ve not heard of graduate schools guaranteeing anyone jobs and in fact there’s nothing close to certainty in most economic sectors that provide anything by way of guaranteeing employment prospects. On the other hand, achieving some clarity about recruitment and publicity practices, such as they are, is perfectly fine.

The point of the last paragraph is that no one knows if their dreams, goals, ends, what have you, will succeed. It’s simply a fact that it often takes the pursuit of same to discover if they will or will not (perhaps we’re acting under self-deception or wishful thinking, or perhaps our wishful thinking provides the requisite motivation that assures our eventual accomplishments): alas, precious few of us can predict with absolute certainty what will happen, which hardly means one should avoid a more or less objective appraisal of one’s prospects, but there’s no algorithm for this kind of decision-making that one should invariably defer to. The fact that any field is over-crowded or over-competitive may be a reason for deciding not to enter it, but it need not trump or crowd out other reasons. Again, most of us do not know in advance if we will end up succeeding in such fields.


Bruce Amiata 06.27.10 at 1:49 am

There’s also this, via FDL: DARPA Seeking CompLit Experts

After nine years of conflict, the U.S. military is still having trouble finding common ground with warzone locals. One way to fill that breach, Darpa figures, is through “interactive stories.”

Unfortunately, they are, as they say, batshit insane:

Want to pacify a country with neither the native speakers to speak to the local language or the willingness to learn it? Build videogames to try to communicate without language!

We neither have the competence nor are we investing in getting the competence we need to carry out our COIN project. For better or worse, we have not done what the country did during the Cold War, which is establish a bunch of Area Studies centers to gain deep competency in the culture and social science of the areas we were seeking to influence and fund people to go learn these difficult languages. Not to mention, we’re kicking out those in the military who do speak these languages.

Instead, we’re asking kids that probably didn’t join the military because of their linguistic skills to learn Dari in two-week courses and we’re trying to invent some way to successfully establish common goals through the use of computerized, mimed narrative.


Bloix 06.27.10 at 2:25 am

Michael, if you’re still around, you might want to point G toward the enlightening series written by Eszter Hargittai of this very blog, available at
and her Ph.Do series at


sg 06.27.10 at 2:32 am

Bloix, in America is the graduate debt paid back just like a normal loan? In Australia it is paid through taxes only if your income exceeds a certain level, and interest is only the CPI, so there is not really any sense in which the debt you’re shackled with is the same as a normal loan. Is it different in the states?


Shoup 06.27.10 at 4:07 am

Luckily, in Australia PhD tuition is completely free for nationals, and it’s often possible to snag a reasonable $20k a year scholarship to ensure you don’t starve. It only takes three years, to boot.

I’m surprised more people don’t consider the option.


Michael @ Panoptiblog 06.27.10 at 5:08 am

As a high school English teacher 9 years in, and a current doctoral candidate in education (dissertation about halfway there), it troubles me that anyone would say that they should’ve taken a job teaching high school since they lived in a state that would allow them to start teaching “without having to endure College of Ed classes.” It snidely contributes to the sense that all there is to know about teaching is content, rather than actually being able to communicate well with the wide cross-section of kids they would come across in that job. There are many problems with Colleges of Education today, but opting out of any considered discussion of pedagogy in the hopes that a few semesters as a TA for undergraduates is preparation enough is not the answer.

All that said, as career advice I think rm is pretty much dead-on. That’s one reason it’s hard to imagine leaving high school teaching when the doctorate is finished.


VV 06.27.10 at 9:07 am

Lest you think the situation in STEM is much better for young PhDs:


Bloix 06.27.10 at 2:00 pm

sg- student loans in the US are government subsidized so that the borrower doesn’t pay while he or she is still in school, and the interest rate is below market rate. But when the time comes to pay, principal and interest are due just as in a normal loan. Your income has nothing to do with it.

And in one sense student loans are more onerous than normal loans – they are much more difficult to discharge in bankruptcy. If you start a restaurant and fail, you can declare bankruptcy and your loans are discharged. You are broke, but you get a clean start. Your banker knew what he was getting into when he made the loan, and he accepted the risk that you wouldn’t be able to pay.

But with a student loan, the banker takes no risk – the federal government either guarantees the loan or makes the loan. And the government is not interested in accepting that risk that you won’t succeed as an academic (or as a hairdresser or truck driver, or whatever you chose to study). So the rules for discharging student loan debt in bankruptcy are much more stringent than ordinary debt, and they are almost impossible to meet, unless for example you’ve become long-term disabled due to disease or accident and can show you’ll never earn an income for the rest of your life. If you are able to take any job at all, the government will demand that you pay off your student debt even if that means you will spend your entire adult life on the edge of penury.

So taking on significant graduate school debt is equivalent to climbing into a cave with no ladder. You may be confident that you’ll find the passage through to the other side, but if you don’t, the chances are good that you will never be able to get out the way you came in.


rm 06.27.10 at 3:02 pm

Michael @ Panoptiblog, I’m sorry to have written so sloppily as to convey disrespect for the importance of strict pedagogical training. The reason most people in English/Rhet-Comp don’t want to have to take classes in the College of Ed is that pedagogy is about all we talk about for years of training and is about the entire subject of our research. Far from avoiding serious attention to pedagogy, we soak in it. We read Ed journals, publish in them, and teach the articles in our classes. We use APA and MLA styles with equal ease. So a lot of what happens in Ed classes is repetition for us. And, too, also, you know we are always pushing for our English Ed majors to get more content-area courses; but let’s skip over that off-topic debate.

In exchange for my sin of being snide about Ed courses, I will forgive you for your snide reference to “a few semesters as a TA.”

Let’s be friends. I think you’d be smart to keep on in high school as an Ed.D. or Ph.D., and I think I would have been smart to pick up a teaching certificate in undergrad to go along with my English degree. I coulda been a contender for some tenure-track jobs that wanted both; another reason I should have taught at the high school, because if I hadn’t like it, I would have been able to go for some college jobs that required a teaching certificate and K-12 experience.

In contrast to by beloved Lost State that allowed an alternate pathway to certification, there is my Current Backwards State that places so many barriers in the way of prospective teachers that many, many gifted people who might like to teach find that there are just too many hoops to jump through. For instance, a retired lawyer or engineer should certainly have to take classes in pedagogy and psychology and prove they have, as they say, the “teaching disposition,” but it’s sad to see people like that asked to re-take freshman and sophomore general education.


rm 06.27.10 at 3:03 pm

A lot of folks here have mentioned private school teaching, and that is a good career path . . .

. . . however . . .

. . . I would caution anyone going that way to remember that the Officially State Sanctioned Certificate of Credentialization in Teaching is highly, highly valuable, and may someday count more in a job search than all of your years of Non-Credentialed teaching experience in a private school.

I guess that’s why, since my day, most private schools have gotten more insistent on hiring teachers with certifications.


Antonio Conselheiro 06.27.10 at 4:12 pm


LFC 06.27.10 at 4:43 pm

I’m a little bit surprised that no one in this thread (unless I’ve missed something) has suggested that G. try to find a journalistic job that would engage him more than his present one (although Michael’s original reply hinted at it) . I’m sure this would be very difficult, but I can’t imagine it would be more difficult than getting a TT teaching position in English after going through a PhD program. Newspapers are hurting, but doubtless there are a few that have (more or less) maintained standards, and there also a few new outlets (Pro Publica is one I’ve heard of) devoted to serious reporting. I’m sure competition for those jobs is extremely fierce, but again, could it possibly be fiercer than the English academic job market? Also, no one has mentioned that if politics and gov’t is something G. is at all interested in writing about, there are various somewhat specialized outlets (Nat’l Journal, e.g.) that do detailed reporting for a narrower audience than the daily mass press, but it’s still journalism. Maybe he should talk to some other journalists (I’m not one) about whether it’s possible, despite the generally dismal environment, to find something more satisfying.


John Mark Ockerbloom 06.27.10 at 6:38 pm

From both this discussion, and the law-school discussion linked earlier, it’s clear that a lot of the generic templates for careers (journalist, english prof, lawyer, librarian) are problematic. Not only are there many fewer good jobs than seekers in many cases, but also the time preparing for them (like a long PhD program) can be unacceptable, particularly if you’re dealing with near-term family obligations. And its not uncommon for people aiming for some prized but generic career to be unsatisfied with where they end up.

So my advice, for it’s worth, is: Think beyond generic. Consider the sorts of work you want to do, and try to think of lots of different ways in which you could do that work in a way that someone would find worth paying for. Consider especially ways where you can start *doing* that work, and not just preparing for it, sooner rather than later.

My wife and I both work in library-type jobs, for instance, and neither of us did it by getting library degrees. (I agree with the person upthread that generic MLS graduates face steep odds getting an ordinary library job at present.) We both did digital library work well before we started our present jobs; in my case, as a graduate student in computer science; and in her case, as something she did on the side while doing other things (including, for a number of years, taking care of small children) as her “main gig”. We ended up developing skills that turned out to be ones that our eventual employers found quite valuable. (And only one of those employers is a library– the other is an internet company that has a use for librarianship.)

I can’t say that this will always work smoothly; the folks I know who have built their own career paths not uncommonly do a few different things before finding a really good fit. But why not start trying to do the things you love sooner rather than later, and try to find ways to make it work? You probably won’t get everything you want all at once– maybe you might do K-12 English teaching, and research and writing on the side; or maybe you’ll write research reports for some organization that needs them, and find some other way to scratch your teaching itch. (Maybe *you’ll* be the one primarily raising– and along the way, teaching– your children.) Or maybe you’ll find some other path entirely. Think about what you value most, and what your family needs, and be creative and watchful for opportunities.


Davis X. Machina 06.27.10 at 7:43 pm

I guess that’s why, since my day, most private schools have gotten more insistent on hiring teachers with certifications.

The regional accrediting bodies — NEASC, e.g. — are the driving force behind this. It gives them at least some basis for comparing high schools of both flavors pari passu.


recent PhD 06.27.10 at 8:09 pm

I’m a recent humanities PhD who was lucky to get a tenure track job right before the academic market collapse of the last two seasons. I don’t want to sugar coat things — the academic job market right now is horrible.

The option of teaching at private schools is really good advice. I know of some colleagues who took those jobs after getting MAs or PhD. I also have several colleagues who are either out of work or are working as adjuncts.

Some general things to think about when considering graduate school in the humanities:

1) Consider the opportunity cost of spending those years in school rather then building savings, retirement funds, and experience level at a workplace.

2) Also consider the strain that the poverty of graduate school can place on a romantic relationship.

3) The possible, and in this academic job market, increasingly likely frustration of not achieving a living-wage job at the end of graduate school.

4) I know relationships that did not survive the move after graduate school. How flexible are you in terms of where you live? In academia there are so few jobs that you have to be able to relocate. Is your partner ok with moving for your academic career? Are you ok with moving anywhere that you can get a job? Does your partner have transferable job skills and is she going to be happy if she moves with you? If you have children in grad school, are you ok with relocating them for a job in a different geographical area?

good luck with the decision!


EMG 06.27.10 at 10:50 pm

Dr. Berube, of course there’s a difference between writing literature and “studying” it but my problem concerns the value of the latter.

Literature is written for readers, not academics. The only serious response to literature is more literature. Of course academic writing is a literature too, literally speaking, but unless you’re producing writing that can attract general readers of a caliber similar to those of the primary literature, it makes no contribution to the literary tradition, and any job structured around it is a sinecure.

Look, G. is already a writer. It seems to me that by toying with the grad school idea, he’s in some sense looking for a way *out* of writing. The standard of prose quality (not to be confused with level of discourse) are much lower in the academic world. On some level, G. probably realizes this and is tempted by it. One might argue that there is more time to read and contemplate in grad school, but in any walk of life, time to read is what you make of it, and library cards are free from your municipality, about $100/year from the local university. If you need an unearned subsidy to do what you “love”, you probably don’t love it enough.


sg 06.28.10 at 12:18 am

ah, Bloix, I think the loan systems are different then. In Australia the repayments are through tax, so based on your income, with a lower threshold on when you start paying. It’s essentially a graduate tax, I think. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve been crippled (or like I really even notice) my loans, and I am happy to have been able to get jobs i enjoy because of them.

Even under that system though, I’d be mighty leery of paying to do a PhD. I got my loans for masters degrees in professional fields, which have a reasonable chance of a payoff (and I was working in the field when I studied them, so had some confidence of future work improvements due to them). I’m inclined to agree with you that going into hock for a PhD – even gentle hock – is a difficult risk to justify.


JohnM 06.28.10 at 2:51 am

sg, just out of curiosity, what happens if you emigrate from Australia after receiving the degree, or work/live overseas in general? I’m assuming there must be an alternate payback plan in addition to the tax plan… otherwise I really really should have gotten a degree in Australia (hah)


Michael @ Panoptiblog 06.28.10 at 3:57 am

rm, yes, let’s do be friends. And forgive me if I sounded dismissive of college teaching experience; on the contrary, that much experience in front of actual students is an improvement on what most preservice teachers get, which is one of the problems with many teacher ed programs. Further, I didn’t mean to give the impression that “strict pedagogical training” is what everyone needs before entering the classroom. Some discussion, however, of what might actually get kids in their mid-teens engaged in reading that most of them see as pointless and dull, and how to deal with a context that is completely different from university, is better than none. My impression of college teaching in the humanities, and maybe in English departments especially, is that as far as pedagogy goes, the individual teacher is on his or her own.

One thing that would really help is mutual disarmament of contempt between English departments and English Education departments that is unfortunately so often the case. I was recently talking to someone who was just finishing up her doctorate in English at an elite east-coast institution that has top programs in both fields. Even for those interested both in English literature and high school education, she said, opportunities for crossover work between the two departments is almost nonexistent. Each sees what they do as completely irrelevant to what the other does.

At any rate, I absolutely agree with your last paragraph. I would love to see more alternative pathways to certification, especially in teacher-needy states, and there are certainly too many hoops to jump through for those returning from other fields. But I fear for what too much streamlining of that process will do to the profession (read: teacher factories). Unfortunately, some teacher ed programs seem to be moving away from what I consider to be their strength (the opportunity to discuss theory as applied to teaching and learning).


sbk 06.28.10 at 5:18 am

Literature is written for readers, not academics. The only serious response to literature is more literature.

What an admirable sentiment, given as career advice: and you are a publisher? A small press owner? A literary agent? A literary journal editor? How much up-to-the-minute contemporary fiction do you read? How much do you pay for? How much do you think people should pay for it? Should it be given away for free? What deserves to be published? Is only published writing “serious”? But of all these questions, I’m most curious about how much of the stuff you actually read, if you go about giving advice like this. 100 new books a year? 50? 20? 2? And do you actually enjoy most of it? (Let’s leave aside comparisons with academic writing, because it’s a cheap shot and because book sales are not actually the money-earning part of being an academic, Harold Bloom notwithstanding.)

And incidentally, I have read a good deal of literature that seemed to have been written for academics. More generally, I wouldn’t underestimate their power as an audience. They read books, buy them, assign them to their students, and help to establish value and thus bring in new readers.

And for everyone else: no, grad school in lit is a very bad idea, but this country is running a desperate goddamn shortage of good ones.


sg 06.28.10 at 8:10 am

JohnM, I’m actually doing that right now. Your loan goes up at the rate of the CPI, but as far as I know there’s no penalty for not paying, because it’s paid back through taxes and the payments resume when you return. But as far as I know there are no reciprocal arrangements, so my tax doesn’t go higher while I’m in Japan.

I hope not, anyway!


RickB 06.28.10 at 12:31 pm

What the world needs is people who will go do difficult work and then write about it. Read Greg Mortensen’s 3 Cups of Tea. Take a position with an NGO and go abroad and really learn something. The mortgage and the health insurance and all of the cares of a family will still be waiting when you return. In fact they will seem smaller when you have learned what poverty really looks like.


mds 06.28.10 at 1:47 pm

Davis S. Machina @ 51

In thirty years there won’t be an undergraduate degree in the humanities conferred, or even offered, in a land-grant university. STEM rules the waves …

I would second the link VV provided @ 60 for anyone thinking that STEM has “triumphed” over the humanities, at least in the US. At the very least, I would cross out the first and last letters. I’m also seeing much more of the effort in T going into defending intellectual property than producing it. And engineers are primarily useful if a society is investing in building interesting and useful stuff. In thirty years we will be back to elite universities exclusively as official entry portals to the financier class, with community colleges dedicated to training people how to operate the Windows 2037 cash registers at McDonald’s, and advanced coursework in wiping the bums of the retired financier class in their nursing homes.


cate 06.28.10 at 2:04 pm

Joshua Gunn,

Your points are well-taken. I was being inappropriately glib, and for that I apologize. Your critique reminded me that I have a responsibility to be a thoughtful advocate for the field. No hard feelings–I appreciate the wake-up call.


frabjous 06.28.10 at 3:42 pm

Coming in late to underscore what everyone else has said: don’t get a Ph.D. in English unless you have such a burning desire to do it that nothing else looks palatable, your spouse has a “portable” job, and you get full funding. Even then, think twice. Speaking as someone who doesn’t regret having an EngLit Ph.D., but also wishes she had her 20s to do over, I can’t in good conscience recommend it.

Private school teaching is great – I have friends who like it a lot. I also have grad school friends who are fundraisers, political lobbyists, marketers, and lawyers. The love of language and the written word will take you a long way in a lot of fields.

If you are technophiliac at all, though, I don’t recommend technical writing, a dying field in itself. I recommend the gig most of my former tech-writer friends now have: interaction designer. There is a strong librarianship tradition in interaction design, a large dose of cultural anthropology, and a strong belief in the value of the correctly-chosen word. There are many great graduate programs in the field now (which didn’t even exist when I started grad school, including SVA in New York, and Carnegie-Mellon. If you’ve ever nerded out over where the Search field is on a website or why your phone is so confusing to use, it’s work you might enjoy.


bianca steele 06.28.10 at 4:50 pm

sbk: How much up-to-the-minute contemporary fiction do you read?

This is entirely off-topic and off-base. I’m trembling in my flip-flops at the prospect of having sbk examine me on whether I’m permitted to have an opinion or whether I’m some kind of poser, and I’m sure EMG is too. I’m flashing back to college when an ultra-hip Shipley grad told me I didn’t like the Hooters early enough.


bianca steele 06.28.10 at 5:53 pm

The article @61 argues that our K-12 system actually produces plenty of good science and math graduates. The question is then why does everyone say the reverse? Is it because we’re fooling ourselves and all those people, even those who get to the Ph.D. level and get postdoc positions and then can’t get teaching jobs, are really terrible: ALL of them are worse than practically every foreign student? Or is it because we think raising the anxiety level is always good because it makes people work harder to find ways to improve things and make changes?


mds 06.28.10 at 6:33 pm

The question is then why does everyone say the reverse?

Well, cui bono? [SWEEPING GENERALIZATION ALERT] When tech company execs beat their breasts about the inadequacy of science and math grads in the US, what they’re really saying is “Raise the H-1B cap so we can bring in foreign tech workers who face restrictions on moving to another job, and hence can be paid less.” When leading lights cry that we need to train more scientists, what they’re really saying is “A few top scientists with enormous labs need an endless stream of replacement labor for their publication mills.” Look at Stereotype University’s new life sciences center, and you’ll not find a collection of junior scientists on their way up the academic ladder under the benevolent guidance of their mentors. You’ll find a few big names, ideally attracted at enormous expense from another institution, given charge of entire floors of postdocs, grad students, and technicians. It’s the factory floor paradigm for research, with little workplace democracy in sight.


Gary 06.28.10 at 6:57 pm

I left a PhD program in English for law school ten years ago when my wife became pregnant because we didn’t think we could support a child on my paltry TA pay and her even more paltry pay in an art-related field. In retrospect, that decision was correct financially, but it was terrible for me personally.

I’m now a partner in a large law firm, and I make more money than I ever could have made in academia, with much greater job security as well. But I hate my job, and I’m miserable most of the time. I’m past the point where I can do anything else other than practice law–too much debt to afford a pay cut, no other skills or training, can’t afford to go back to school, etc.–and I think a lot about spending the next 35 or 40 years doing what I do now, which is a pretty terrible thought.

Scarcely a day passes that I don’t regret leaving grad school. I think about the work I could have done, the classes I could have taught, the way my life would have felt more significant even if I made less money. Passing on what you truly love in favor of financial comfort makes sense from a lot of viewpoints, but it extracts a cost, too. G. ought to do what makes him happiest and sort out the other details later.


Jim Demintia 06.28.10 at 7:09 pm

“sbk: How much up-to-the-minute contemporary fiction do you read?

This is entirely off-topic and off-base. I’m trembling in my flip-flops at the prospect of having sbk examine me on whether I’m permitted to have an opinion or whether I’m some kind of poser”

You’re misinterpreting the question. It’s not a hipster exam to make sure EMG reads “the right books,” it’s a challenge to A) his suggestion that no one reads literary criticism, but literature can always find an audience, and B) his ignoring the financial considerations that are at the heart of this whole problem.


bianca steele 06.28.10 at 7:37 pm

Not to push this too hard, but even though the things you say are what one most often hears, they’re two different kinds of questions. One says that no American graduate is any good and that’s why (1) we have to hire from overseas and (2) we have to overhaul every single educational institution from scratch. What about (2)? It is obvious that some schools are better than others. We can assume that Bronx Science, Georgetown and Princeton Prep, and Groton produce better physics undergrads than G. Washington or Archbishop Ryan in Northeast Philadelphia. But beyond the extremes, where is the data–available to the hiring manager and the school board official–that provides more nuanced information about the relative quality of US and overseas graduates? Or are they just supposed to intuit where their respective school are in the hierarchy and deduce their quality of science education from their general ranking?

And it’s curious that nobody worries that even Groton just might lose a bit of reputation w/r/t the quality of its science education when people talk about “Americans” in the aggregate like that.


Bloix 06.28.10 at 7:46 pm

#81- the answer to your question is here:
As you’ll see, compared to other OECD countries, the US has an average number of students performing at the highest proficiency levels, but a much higher than average number performing at the lowest levels. We can churn out PhD’s with the best of them, but ordinary high school grads can’t learn to do bookkeeping.

Most developed countries do a much better job in giving the mid-range of students a reasonable command of basic math and science skills. Twenty-eight percent of American 15-year olds do not “have the skills that would enable them to use mathematics actively in daily life” – which means, I suspect, that they can’t add.


va 06.28.10 at 8:02 pm

If you can, why not get the Ph.D. for the love of it?

Oh good lord. If you “love” getting a Ph.D., you’re a masochist. It can be nice, sometimes, but mostly it’s full of boredom, anxiety, depression, frustration, and anger. There’s not much to love about writing a dissertation.


Michael Bérubé 06.28.10 at 9:38 pm

Actually, I loved writing mine. And if you truly enjoy doing research, finding out stuff, reading deeply and widely, and writing it all up along the way (as G. seems to do), then it’s quite possible to enjoy writing a dissertation. But it’s true that there are many people out there who find it agonizing, soul-sucking, boring, and/or pointless. I remember one student at Illinois who told me that she loved reading and teaching but just couldn’t stand writing those damn term papers. By all means, I said, bail out of this program before you hit the dissertation stage. Because if you don’t like writing now, the dissertation experience is going to be utterly excruciating.


Shelley 06.28.10 at 10:53 pm

There are no jobs for us. And as we earn our bread doing other things, then we will find out who, really, loves reading and writing.


va 06.29.10 at 5:50 am

Actually, I loved writing mine.

And like that, the spittle on my half-deranged comment evaporates. I love when you talk sense to me, Michael.

I hate everything about this dissertation except for the reading and writing part, though. I’m going to try to adopt and adapt Luther’s sentiment and “get the Ph.D. for the hate of it.”


Katherine 06.29.10 at 8:10 am

Take a position with an NGO and go abroad and really learn something.

Just like that! As the great man said. NGOs are under the same economic pressure as everyone else. NGOs are getting hundreds of applications for entry-level jobs, so “taking a position” may not be a walk in the park.


Michael M 06.29.10 at 6:24 pm

In response to Tim O’Keefe @12, I think one of, or perhaps the only, good things about Leiter’s PGR is that it has made a large number of philosophy departments put at least some form of job placement information up. As someone with an interest in both fields I can’t say that I’ve found English departments to be as forthcoming (one revealing experiment is to look at the websites for two departments from the same university and see the difference).
Can anyone point to some English department websites that actually do a good job of this?


Walt 06.29.10 at 7:58 pm

I think he meant take a position with an NGO. You know, by force.


y81 06.29.10 at 8:13 pm

I think that anyone surveying the job market over the next ten years, and not the next six months, would reasonably anticipate that there would be many more jobs at law firms (for those with JDs) and at NGOs (for those with humanities BAs and MAs) than there will be at universities (for those with PhDs).


G 06.29.10 at 10:41 pm

I am amazed to find that after four days my letter scrawled off in furious frustration is still receiving comments. I just wanted to thank everyone here for their advice and constructive comments. It’s more than I could’ve hoped for, and it’s more than one meal for thought. I suspect I’ll be chewing on this for a few weeks at least. Thanks again.


MikeN 07.03.10 at 8:02 am

Um..the “monstrous GRE subject test”? Is there a seperate one for admission to PhD programs?

Because I’m a 2-year community college dropout (economic history), spent my life until my mid-30s doing various jobs in the Canadian bush, mxed with long spells of travelling.

Decided to go study Chinese in China after the oil patch crashed in 1986, and ended up as an ESL teacher in Taiwan, the epitome of “if you can’t do anything else, you can always…”
I needed some extra credits for resume padding, so I registered for the GRE in English Lit., spent two weeks with a “History of English Lit.” cram book and scored 99th percentile. Anyone who is reasonably well read should be able to ace that test with a little polishing up on litcritspeak – of which I knew absolutely nothing except what I got out of the back of Abram’s “Glossary of Literary Terms”

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