Humanities and Social Science Grad Students: Really Smart Suckers?

The case is now being made, quite strongly some might argue, that a humanities or social science Phd is not going to get you very far in life.  In fact, the analysis of graduate students by the most strident critics suggests that they are “really smart suckers” for a system that is going to screw them in the end.  That’s the argument of William Pannapacker in this piece.

If you’re in graduate school and you need to vent, you can check out the website  called “100 Reasons Not to go to Graduate School.”   The following post describes how 100 Reasons is hitting a nerve big time:  Website offers regular debates on wisdom of going to grad school | Inside Higher Ed.

13 thoughts on “Humanities and Social Science Grad Students: Really Smart Suckers?

  1. This topic fascinates me and has for some years. As someone who has and still “produces,” “guides,” “encourages,” graduate students, what becomes of them really matters. The same is equally true of almost all my professional colleagues with graduate students. Of course, the purpose of a “liberal education,” in the classical sense and at the graduate level is not to find a job, but to get educated. I concur that someone who has not been exposed to history, art, literature, the classics, science or religion is not someone who is even remotely “educated.” This is not elitism or smugness, it is just as much a reality today as when Thomas Henry Huxley wrote about a liberal educatiuon more than 100 years ago. The public schools have largely failed miserably despite huge dollar amounts spent each year. “Trade” schools that at one time trained mechanics, electricians, plumbers, carpenters have lost favor as the popular mythology of anyone and everyone is entitled to a “college” education. Is it any wonder that the worth of a college education has been so diluted as to be almost valueless careerwise.

    The difficulties of the world today are very different from my time as a graduate student. To be sure, largely because of my rather esoteric less than “useful” field, careers with pay and facilities were always difficult to find. Today’s cadre of new graduates face much more competition, if only because there are so many more people. U.S. population has more than doubled since John F. Kennedy was President, for example, and many, many morre very well educated, equally energetic and determined, scholars are generated each year from around the world. The have always been Ph.D. folks bagging groceries, or driving cabs, and in the past, there were manufacturing openings here, to get folks over the hump and earning. The world only needs so many English Literature, or Art History, or Paleontology specialists, and there are way, way too many of each. The U.S. has some 80 million non-working folks of employable age, an astounding number, and millions of all educational backgroundshave simply dropped out of the work force. There are only 9 million manufacturing jobs left in the U.S.; we have declined that far. We make hardly anything any more. The days when work imparted dignity, and Eric Hoffer was at once a longshoreman and a philosopher of some importance are over. However, formal education continues to have value, and the mistake is to consider education, undergraduate or graduate, as trade school.

  2. I think post graduate education is vitally important in the fields of science,medicine(really part of science),law(grudgingly),and a few other disciplines.
    In the case of liberal arts,if one has learned the basics as an undergrad,further education can be self supplied.
    I finished a history major and a criminal justice major as well as a zoology minor.
    I took the BS in Criminal Justice instead of the BA in Historybecause of applicability to what I was doing for a living.At the time I was a a NY State Court Officer.
    It served me well as a Federal agent also.
    What I didn’t need was an advanced degree-I have friends with advanced degrees who know less than I do about quite a few subjects.
    Self education is very important.

  3. Somtimes I feel like one of those “suckers” with my masters degree in social work. It’s frustrating that despite my education, I get paid less than nurses with associates degrees and engineers in bachelors degrees. People in both fields tell me that this is because science classes are more difficult, and hence graduates in science fields are worthy of more pay. It also doesn’t help that most of my engineering friends with bachelors degrees seem more rounded and know more than me in quite a few subjects (which I blame on a poor education foundation from attending a high school with some of the worst API scores in my state). I even had them proofread my papers in grad school.

    It’s depressing that in our society, students have to pick lucrative degrees or risk getting stuck in debt forever. It makes me sick, especially since I am morally opposed to picking a profession for the sole purpose of making money and being pretigious. A world where humanities and social science graduates are considered “second rate” is a sad, sad place. I’m worried our society is headed in that direction fast.

    1. I hear you, Burntout! It’s a tough road to be in a profession where you advocate for those with the least, and you end up being among those with the least. It helps with building genuine empathy, but it doesn’t help with getting on with those adult goals like buying a house and raising children, not to mention paying off student debt. All I can say is, be thrifty! It’s the only thing that makes it possible. Own a really cheap phone. Never buy a new car. Always wear clothes to threads. Skip jewelry and haircuts. Don’t buy that $3.00 coffee or muffin! Figure out how to enjoy your days in ways that cost little or nothing. (I play guitar for my cats and take fabulous walks). There is little hope that salaries will improve for social workers in the near future, so we have to figure out how to live well with less.

      1. Also, it’s important to think about other ways to make money with your social work degree. You could look into teaching as an adjunct or doing CEU courses. Acute work usually pays more, although that’s because it’s quite stressful. You probably know a lot of this….it’s tough, and a question I’ve been trying to answer for myself and my family.

      2. Kiersten-really?Are you among those with the least?You don’t live in a shelter,a cardboard box,or even a crappy apartment in a tenement.
        You’re not rich-I’m not rich,but we’re not poor.
        There still is a middle class,in spite of the 1%/99% blather.

  4. I was speaking in the general sense as in many people I’ve known in the social work profession, particularly in their early years, having a lot of struggles with not making much money.

    1. As in many fields-we barely had a pot to piss in during my early years as an INS agent-we lived in an apartment on the far North Side of Chicago-most of our neighbors were immigrants(how appropriate) and we had such niceties as frequent home invasions.Things wound up ok though-and we got nothing handed to us.

  5. I suspect there is much confusion over the purpose of education, and a difficulty separating education from learning a trade or profession. There can be a debate over the cost of education, whatever the purpose, in an environment that pays college coaches million dollar salaries, or the purpose of getting an education, if education and a trade are confused. Mr. Lincoln became an attorney by self-stufdy and as an apprentice. The same was true of most professions and certainly trades. I suggest the notion that “college” should prepare one for a trade or profession really is a new invention and obscures the real goal of being educated.

  6. Got 2 master’s and a PhD in the social sciences, then didn’t get tenure at a real college because of a combination of politics, lack of knowledge of those politics, and inexperience in teaching. After 7 horrible years of minimum wage work I was hired at a for-profit “college” that was part of a bottom-line driven 80 school chain. I think that I did a little bit of good in teaching the students who didn’t realize they could have gotten better educations cheaper at community colleges.

    Anyway, the system began to collapse, particularly after the CEO was caught faking placement numbers. (He was also the one who introduced the ethics class.) He left with $5 million, and the company is now collapsing under numerous investigations and lawsuits. At my school they told me our workloads would go up 30%, vacations would disappear, all the courses would be canned scripts, and salaries (mine was roughly what my mail carrier made) would stay the same. The spirit turned into “The Walking Dead” and for my sanity and self-respect after 18 years of pretty happy teaching I just walked out. Naturally at age 61, obsolete in a dead field all I can find are adjunct positions that come and go. But you know what the sad things is? I’ve talked to some of my old grad school professors and they are still oh so positive that their field has tremendous need and virtually everyone in it can get well placed. This disconnect is truly amazing.

    So if you want a Ph.D. get it. There is rgenuine challenge and satisfaction in the process, and you can learn a lot. But unless you’ve got some real in-demand skills don’t expect to use it like you might want to. From what I’ve read of others’ experiences that just seems to be the way it is.

  7. Thanks for your thoughts and for sharing about your experience, Dr. Richard. The part about the “lack of knowledge about politics” really struck me — sometimes there are unwritten rules for how certain systems work, and if you don’t know those rules, you’re kind of out of luck.

    I see our higher education institutions getting degraded by this process of schools hiring mainly adjunct faculty.

    1. Yes, department politics can be, as one dean later said to me, a “snake pit.” Some people naturally know how to play the game, for others it’s tougher. And when you have the added pressures of declining budgets and larger numbers of job applicants the faculty can get even more proprietary about what they control and who they will share it with. (I couldn’t even use a certain statistics textbook because another department had already claimed it.) Read some of the blogs from people who didn’t get tenure and see what they have to say.

      Right also on adjunct faculty. According to some figures I’ve seen thrown around, in 1970 something like 57% of all higher ed faculty either had or were on track to get tenure. Today it’s about 31%. Cost cutting of course, and I understand it’s happening in the professions where attorneys or accountants may be hired for just one project. While students may benefit from teachers with real world experience, the faculty’s continuity of scholarship and commitment to teaching will suffer. The interesting thing is that outside of academia this trend seems to be almost completely unnoticed.

  8. Well, from the beginning as a social worker, there was no “tenure” to be had. Agencies hire social workers “at will” and can fire them fairly easily, as far as I can see. I have also been given notices upon being hired at some social service agencies saying that they are not unionized and don’t want to be. I believe in one agency, I had to sign something pledging that I will not join a union or try to start one. Our wages have not gone up much in the past 10 years, and benefits have been chipped away.

    But thankfully my profession has a viable option for self-employment, and I happily use that option to my satisfaction. I just worry that most social workers can’t function as small businesses and really need good agencies to support them. As agencies lose funding, social workers have less good job options. They are expected to produce more billable hours in some agencies than is really healthy long-term, imho. When I started practicing in 1996, the expectation was to do 17.5 face to face hours a week with clients. I now see agencies that list full time expectation as 25 face to face billable hours.

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