Should students considering a Ph.D. in the humanities have their heads examined? It’s a reasonable question to ask, what with all the mockery they have to endure. Take the cover of The New Yorker on May 24, 2010. It shows a certain Tim, hanging up his Ph.D. diploma in the bedroom where he grew up. He’s no scientist, as other headlines make clear: "The crisis of the humanities officially arrives," reads one (from October 2010), which was occasioned by the closure of some underenrolled undergraduate programs in the humanities at the State University of New York at Albany.
To answer the question, one might ask some questions of the data. The numbers tell a different story.
To judge by the choices that undergraduates are making in selecting their majors, the humanities continue to have appeal. For the period between 1987 and 2009, there’s no sign of steep decline in interest; instead, it’s a story of a modest rise and an even more modest descent. Since data about majors fail to track total course enrollment, majors are an indirect proxy that may actually underestimate students’ interests and activities. If one looks at the behavioral and social sciences, one finds that they show a similar pattern. In part because students continue to choose humanities courses and majors at the undergraduate level, colleges and universities continue to hire for these departments. Again, the data tell the real story: there has been no significant decline in full- and part-time employment in the humanities between 1999 and 2006. As measured by advertised vacancies, employment prospects for humanities Ph.D.s trended upward between 2003-04 and 2007-08 and have begun to recover after a recession-related drop in 2008-09.
In fact, a reduction in enrollment in Ph.D. programs in the humanities, coupled with the evidence showing that undergraduate majors in the humanities have remained steady, can be taken to suggest that the longstanding oversupply of Ph.D.s is now being mitigated. The relative share of doctorates in education and the humanities has dropped considerably over the last decade, in part because the production of Ph.D.s in science and engineering, which accounted for 73 percent of all doctorates in 2010, has risen so steeply. According to results from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, the number of humanities Ph.D.s granted in the U.S. dropped from 5,404 in 2000 to 4,979 in 2010.
And what of the choices that graduate students in the humanities are currently making?
According to the most recent survey data that we have gathered at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 86 percent of humanities Ph.D. students are satisfied with their programs, and 78 percent would recommend them to prospective students. Our figures are slightly higher than the most recent national satisfaction data, available on the website of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students. And these students are thinking not only about their Ph.D. departments, but also about their employment prospects.
The national data show that, when surveyed three years after finishing their degrees, about 94 percent of students with humanities Ph.D.s report being employed. Of these, 77 percent were employed in education, and 17 percent outside of it, in a wide variety of occupations — from artists and entertainers, to writers, public-relations specialists, broadcasters and administrators — and much more besides. In the past five years of our own alumni survey, between 89 and 100 percent of humanities students with full-time employment reported that their employment five years after graduation utilized their doctoral training. And employment outside of the academy is not necessarily or even mostly a fallback response to failure in the academic marketplace: when asked about their primary career goals, about 17 percent of first-year students in the humanities at our institution identify goals in activities other than research and teaching. Many of our students don’t end up with academic jobs because they are interested in pursuing other types of employment.
Now it almost goes without saying that a Ph.D. in the humanities, given opportunity costs and the long-term promise of modest salaries, hardly makes much sense for someone who wishes to maximize income. For one thing, the degree takes longer: the average Ph.D. recipient in the humanities spends almost nine and a half years enrolled in graduate school; the average student in the life and physical sciences under seven years. For another, securing a post-degree position takes more and more time. And, as is well-known, when they do secure their jobs, humanists are paid less than those in other fields. Like it or not, we live in a culture that rewards the production of applied knowledge far more than it does the preservation, analysis or critique of culture, the rare and exceptionally well-compensated philosopher or literary critic notwithstanding. Differential salaries, from this point of view, are merely the individuated results of market forces and sociopolitical values.
Perhaps we should mock students less and apply ourselves more to understanding the broader structural changes in the economy, including how these changes affect the academy. Numbers that show flat (or even slightly improving) job prospects for Ph.D.s in the humanities should not obscure a number of underlying patterns, the most important of which are increased "casualization" and job insecurity. One may justifiably lament that adjunct and full-time, non-tenure-track jobs now constitute about 70 percent of the academic labor force, and that the path to a tenure-track position increasingly takes a detour through short-term employment. But the problems are not unique to higher education, which is a microcosm of the globalizing workplace. The decline in tenure among faculty mirrors the loss of lifelong (or at least long-term) employment in other sectors of the labor force.
What makes higher education distinctive is not so much that labor practices are changing, much less that students have their heads in the sand. It’s that academic employees — the readers and writers who constitute a faculty — are such sharp-eyed observers of those practices and energetic advocates for their profession.
Chase F. Robinson is distinguished professor of history and provost of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.