Beware the small army of “angry, downwardly mobile English Ph.D.s” who “tend to lead revolutions”

#itchytweed #academia #highered

This paragraph from Noah Smith's late-to-the-party revelation about the overproduction of Ph.D.s made me laugh:

A handful of angry, downwardly mobile English Ph.D.s aren’t by themselves enough to overthrow the institutions of society, but they can make hugely outsized contributions to unrest and discord if they are so inclined. Remember, these are very smart people who are very good at writing things, and well-schooled in any number of dissident ideas. Those are the kind of people who tend to lead revolutions.

Riiiiighhhhtttt..... because upon leaving academia the first thing that Ph.D.s want to do is foment rebellion. Not feed themselves? Not do interesting work? Spend time with family and friends? Read some good books?

I particularly like the choice of English Ph.D.s, as that hints at a dig against social justice or various other hallmarks of English departments in recent years without actually saying it. To put it plainly, people leave academia for a lot of reasons. And they go on to do a lot of different things. Perhaps a few moments surveying Versatile PhD, Jobs on Toast, or simply recent columns in Inside Higher Ed (see, for example, years worth of John Warner and The Chronicle for Higher Education would provide a better picture.

The lead-up to this gem is a dubious line of argument about how discontent among elites leads to social unrest:

Many historians have advanced some version of the thesis that dashed expectations among elites can lead to social unrest. Most recently, historian Peter Turchin has warned that overproduction of elites is a harbinger of discord in modern America.

There are a few problems with this argument as it relates to Humanties and Social Science Ph.D.s (who are, let's remember, a tiny tiny percentage of the population):

  1. Are humanities Ph.D.'s nowadays really all that unaware of their prospects? The fantasy of a high paying academic job at an “elite” institutions is what is romanticized, but that's the myth of the professor, not the reality. That grad programs teach for a single career has already been changing, though it needs to be changed more. Those so-called “dashed” expectations have been around for a fairly long time and are even more the case if one looks outside the US. On the other hand, graduate students nowadays tend to know the contours of academia's bleak landscape, even if they think they are going to defy the odds. See, perhaps my favorite compendium of truth on this matter, 100 Reasons not to go to grad school, currently stuck at 98 (though I think that's just a tease to invite the reader to supply his or her own reasons). What's changed in the past decade and a bit has been widespread awareness of the contingency of the academic career path. It is not that everyone who got a Ph.D. 10 or 20 years ago was handed a job on graduation. There was plenty of attrition, plenty of people going off to do other things, and already a pretty widespread difference between the way that students from the most “elite” schools or programs got jobs relative to graduates of the less “elite” schools and programs. The paradox, such as it is, is that people know the job market sucks but still get pursue the Ph.D. anyway.

  2. Calling humanities Ph.D.s “elite” is fairly laughable. I strongly suggest checking out the Chronicle's data on faculty salaries. While there are plenty of high-end salaries for full professors at top-notch universities, that's not where most faculty are. Visiting positions (i.e. the entry market into professoring) can pay very little, fellowships even less. Most of my students who turn around and get jobs teaching in high schools with their modest BA or MA degrees make as much or more than entry-level faculty. This is not some new thing. You might say, on the other hand, that many Ph.D.s are trained at “elite” schools. Or you could say that being part of a group that constitutes around 1% of the population is “elite”. But Ph.D.s (and professors for that matter) aren't, on the whole, “elites” in the economic sense that doctors, lawyers and other highly educated professionals are. In fact, we tend to be acutely aware that our long years of education resulted in less financial rewards than those professional peers. Humanities and social science Ph.D.s don't tend to have illusions of great riches in their careers. (If you're looking for economic elites in the university ecosystem, remember, it's the upper administrators, not the majority of faculty.) Does that mean that professors aren't perennially bitter about the tight winner takes all market where professor x at rich college makes twice as much as professor y at big state U? Sure, of course. But that's a far cry from being “elite” in the way that the economic one-percent in the professional class is “elite”. If elite means “upper middle class”, then perhaps there's more truth to that, but in that case we might as well be talking about everyone who has a college degree from a fancy school and feels like they aren't putting it to its best use. Ph.D.s aren't different from BAs or MAs in that regard.

  3. People pursue Ph.D.s for a variety of reasons. To argue from the perspective that the only payoff is an economic one is simply wrong-headed. This paragraph is a perfect illustration of what happens when you try to perform mind-reading on people not like yourself and see your subjects as focused primarily on a single value metric (namely $$$).

Even more fundamentally, many doctorates are simply not worth it in purely private-sector terms. A history Ph.D. can go into a corporate personnel department or marketing or consulting or launch their own startup or do a million other things — but it’s highly questionable whether they’ll do much better than they would have if they'd just taken a job straight out of college or acquired a master’s degree. So while computer science or statistics Ph.D.s can probably hop up a few rungs on the corporate ladder as a result of their degrees, and engineering and biology Ph.D.s can go get a job in a private lab, doctorate holders in the humanities and social sciences are often going to be underemployed.

But what would make anyone think that that's what motivates Ph.D.s in humanities and social sciences?

In fact, I suspect (and I'll admit I have no hard data on this) that most Ph.D.s in humanities would agree that “many doctorates are simply not worth it in purely private-sector terms”; they would then likely say that they don't care and that this kind of thing misses the point.

I'm going to answer this with personal experience here. I will always have scars from academia. There are things that I'm angry about from that but on the whole that doesn't mean my expectations have been “dashed.” That's simply experience, that's life, that's learning, that's perspective gained. Along the way I also acquired some nifty skills, dug deeply for many years and achieved expertise in a subject which I loved, contributed something of value to the world at large through teaching thousands of students, met and interacted with (some) brilliant people, and experienced things that were worth it and valuable to me whether or not they feed into a corporate job or show up on my resume. Could I have moved faster, more directly to a career as an x or y or something else? Sure. Of course that's possible. Any Ph.D. could have taken an alternate path and done something straight out of college and started a different career. I knew that back then and I know it now. But that wasn't my choice. That wasn't the point. There's a lot I would have lost that way.

You can't have everything all at once. That's life. That's experience. That's common sense.

In the meantime though, keep an eye out for that army of English Ph.D.s and their impending revolution. They'll be the ones subversively loitering outside the shabbiest mid-century classroom building available, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes with fine imported tobacco while discussing Lacan's perspective on Pokemon, as mediated through Melville's minor epistolary works. ... Or possibly just talking about the weather and all the grading they have to do in intro composition courses. One or the other. Either way, you can't miss 'em. (And make sure to give them a wide berth as you walk past.)