Now, my Uncle John, in his capacity as real estate czar of central New Jersey, might lack both tact and a heart, but his basic claim is true: I can't really do anything, at least as far as the business world is concerned. In boom times, those of us with degrees in English, history or philosophy can market our "critical thinking" skills. Indeed, critical thinking is a skill, but it's unfortunately not one most employers put a premium on when the economy contracts. But that's probably beside the point: the bulk of humanities major plan on pursuing some form of graduate study. In fact, many of my peers seem resigned to the idea that since they lack concrete job opportunities -- and, correspondingly, a chance to gain much coveted experience -- pursuing a doctoral degree is their best (and only) option.
If we feel prepared for anything with a humanities degree, it's more school. We've spent four years writing papers, analyzing texts and leading discussions, and even though graduate school ups the intellectual ante, it's definitely within the average humanities major's comfort zone. Plus, school's a pretty sweet deal. Why leave? Most everyone in the "real world" tells you to stay as long as you can, and from the outside looking in, tenure-track professors have pretty plum jobs that include health insurance, job security and intellectual freedom. What more could you ask for?
Unfortunately, the reality of the job market for doctoral candidates demands that humanities majors think long and hard about whether or not they want to make a serious commitment to graduate study. Higher education's confounding unwillingness to take on tenure-track faculty means that job market for those in the humanities -- an increasingly marginalized field of study -- means that the job prospects for newly minted Ph.D.'s are bleak. Let's use English literature (my major) as an example. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2007 -- 2008 only 63.6 percent of available jobs in English are full-time, tenure-track assistant professorships; that's a 4.1 percent decrease from the previous year, continuing a troubling downward trend.
But more significant is the fact that the humanities have both the lowest completion rates and some of the highest attrition rates in graduate study. The Ph.D. Completion Project, which tracks rates of doctoral success and attrition, found that after 10 years, only 57 percent of humanities doctoral candidates have finished their degrees. Part of this failure to complete a degree can probably be pegged to lack of funding or institutional support. But the data also suggests that those who decide to pursue doctoral work in the humanities do not fully appreciate the difficulty of the commitment they are making.
That's not to suggest that I think the humanities are a "worthless" or "impractical" pursuit. I firmly believe in the value of the humanities; I drank that Kool-Aid a long time ago. We need scholars and teachers to help us understand history, philosophy, literature and art; they are necesary and noble pursuits. But an idealized conception of the "academic life" or a lack of direction is not reason enough to throw yourself into a serious program of graduate study. Graduate work ought only be pursued if you're seriously invested in the subject matter, teaching and scholarship. The "real" world is scary and school is comfortable, but that just means there are exciting opportunities to take chances: start a business, volunteer, climb mountains, join a cult -- anything. And while you're at it, Figure out what you really want to do.