'Feast or Famine' for Humanities Ph.D.s

Some doctorate earners emerge with high levels of debt, while a growing number have none. For a plurality, teaching assistantships are top source of revenue, but that's not the case for most other disciplines.

November 28, 2016

Many discussions about the challenges facing new recipients of Ph.D.s in the humanities note that they enter a difficult job market, usually with significant debts from their education.

An analysis being released today by the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences offers a new take on these issues. It shows what it describes as a "feast or famine" situation for those with humanities Ph.D.s, some of whom appear to be well supported by their graduate departments, and others who must borrow money and/or rely on teaching assistantships to finance their doctoral educations.

A smaller share of humanities Ph.D.s are graduating with debt now than years earlier, but those who are borrowing are seeing debt rising at faster rates than almost all other disciplines.

Among the findings (based largely on data gathered by the National Science Foundation's surveys of doctorate holders):

  • The average graduate education debt accumulated by humanities Ph.D. recipients reached a record high of $22,405 in 2014. That is $6,814 higher than the average for new Ph.D.s in all fields. Only Ph.D.s in education finished with more debt (an average of $28,412).
  • The average debt accumulated during graduate studies by humanities Ph.D.s increased 56 percent from 2002 to 2014 -- an increase exceeded only by education (130 percent). In engineering, the average debt level was lower in 2014 than in 2002.
  • Debt for humanities Ph.D.s reflects a "feast or famine" situation. Almost half (48 percent) of humanities doctorate recipients in 2014 completed the Ph.D. with no graduate education debt. But 29 percent of humanities doctorate recipients finished with more than $30,000 in graduate education debt. For 7 percent of new humanities Ph.D.s, debt levels were $90,000 or higher.
  • The percentage earning doctorates without graduate debt (48 percent) is smaller than it was in 2004 (57 percent).

It is worth noting, of course, that many of those earning Ph.D.s have debt from their undergraduate educations. The average undergraduate debt for humanities Ph.D.s is just over $9,000. And while 63 percent of humanities Ph.D. recipients were not carrying debt from their undergraduate educations, 11 percent had more than $30,000 in undergraduate debt.

Sources of Graduate Funding

Another analysis released today by the Humanities Indicators Project shows that a plurality (41 percent) of new humanities Ph.D.s in 2014 said that teaching assistantships were the primary source of the financial support for their studies. That was more than the 35 percent who said that they relied primarily on grants and fellowships.

Humanities Ph.D.s are far more dependent on teaching assistantships than are other doctoral students. Across all academic fields, only 21 percent reported that teaching assistantships were their primary source of doctoral education funding.

The finding could be significant because many experts on graduate education say that some experience as a teaching assistant may be a valuable part of graduate education, but that pressure to be a teaching assistant over and over again as a graduate student can delay dissertation completion and increase time to degree.

The Importance of Informed Decision Making

Robert B. Townsend, director of the Washington office of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, said the analysis points to the need for prospective graduate students to seriously evaluate how much support they will receive.

"It has been something of a truism among people I know who advise prospective doctoral students that you should not pursue a Ph.D. unless the program is underwriting the costs," he said. Townsend said he was "reluctant to be quite so absolutist," as there are plenty of people who have found successful careers as humanities Ph.D.s without generous aid packages.

But he added that "the numbers tell a difficult story for others who are trying to go it alone, especially when viewed alongside the challenging job prospects and low average salaries for humanities faculty." He said he hoped the data would "at least provide a basis for thinking carefully about the costs of the degree."


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