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Why do people continue to apply to, and attend, nothing-special doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences?

I’m certainly not the first to ask this question, but I still haven’t heard a good answer. And this piece reminded me that we could easily ask the same question about nothing-special law schools.

Apparently, in the face of catastrophic placement statistics, New England Law has continued to raise its tuition at impressive rates, to expand its classes, and to lower its LSAT scores.  Now, for $42,000 a year, you can attend a law school whose recent grads report a median annual salary of $50,000, and only 25% of the class even had a salary to report.  

As an academic, I was immediately struck by the obvious parallel to graduate programs in the evergreen disciplines.

The situations aren’t entirely identical, of course.  Law schools don’t need students as t.a.’s, and humanities grad schools don’t generally charge $42,000 a year per student.  (If they did, I’d expect to see enrollments crash.)  Law school is generally much shorter than a Ph.D. program.  But the basic concept of making money off the largely-false hopes of idealistic young people is the same.

At least the prospective lawyers have the excuse that the market only collapsed a few years ago.  People working on older information may not know how bad things have become.  But folks in the liberal arts fields have known for decades.  

Why do people still rush in?

I have a few hunches, but that’s all they are.  

One is denial.  Yes, others may struggle, prospective students think, but I’m special.  After all, look what a good student I am!

My response to that is that a whole lot of adjuncts-by-default thought the exact same thing, and with just as much reason.

Another is a felt lack of alternatives.  If you aren’t strong in a technical field, and sales isn’t for you, and your family doesn’t own a business, law or grad school can seem like a good idea.  If you don’t have any better ideas, I can see the short-term appeal.

But it isn’t a short-term decision.  Grad school in the humanities -- at least at the doctoral level -- is a solid five-to-ten year commitment.  Law school is three, but the debt is forever.  And with every passing year of low hiring, the backlog of people with degrees and looking for work just gets bigger.  Yes, if you’re a superstar coming out of Harvard, you will probably do quite well.  But if you’re a pretty good student coming from an average program, I really don’t like your chances.

In my own case, the decision to head to grad school was based on a combination of a lack of any better ideas, denial, and some faith that the Bowen report’s prediction of a “great wave of retirements” wasn’t complete crap.  At this point, the Bowen report has been consigned to the ashbin of history, but the other reasons still hold.

Yes, it’s possible to cobble together good and purposeful careers outside of the traditional academic track.  I like to think I’m a poster child for that.  But I don’t think that’s what most people have in mind when they go.  

I understand the issue from the supply side.  New England Law makes good money by continuing to recruit, and graduate programs need the prestige and cheap labor that grad students provide.  But I’m still struggling with the demand side.  

Why do bright people continue to jump, voluntarily, into the sausage grinder?

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