Thinking of Grad School? You’ve Got to Look at the Money

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John Fea was a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University back when my wife was. He has always been interesting — his book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? was a George Washington Book Prize finalist — and recently he has commented about graduate school in the humanities on both his Facebook page and his weblog. Darren Grem, on of his commenters, compared humanities graduate school to being in a rock band:

When students have inquired about grad school in the humanities, I’ve likened it to trying to break into the music industry as a start-up band. It’s about talent, connections, self-promotion, and hard work, to be sure. But it’s also about structural obstacles, timing, previous trends and predicting trends (and how you fit or don’t into them), money, and sheer luck.

Adding to that, I’ve often wondered what the comparative percentages are between landing a TT job for entry level grad students and landing the quasi-equivalent in the music industry – the record deal at a major label. I’d be willing to be they’re roughly in the same ballpark.

The analogy sounds nice, except that all the pros collapse.The odds are about the same, except that in the humanities you not only spend 10 years of your life trying to beat the odds, you also have to work essentially for free while paying someone else (the grad school) thousands of dollars for the right to be there at all.

The analogy also falls apart because in the Academy, once you get tenure it is almost impossible to fire you. The dead wood at universities is at the top. In music, you have to constantly keep producing to stay on top. Even meagastars like Johnny Cash have lost their labels because of declining sales. Tenured university professors are more like long-yeared blue collar workers whose union extorted some sweetheart deal years ago and who can essentially never be fired, at least not for not doing anything. Remember that almost all great academic ideas occur when people are under 35 and (if male) still single.

They are also the most clamorous voices advocating college kids going on to graduate school.

The fact is that most PhDs who are highly qualified and obtained degrees at top universities are not getting jobs these days. At least not ones that lead to tenure. And even those jobs often turn out to be dead-ends: denying tenure to a professor keeps down costs because tenure professors cost more and (as I’ve said) they do less. You work harder when you are trying to get something.

What adds insult to injury is that an advanced liberal arts degree makes you even less attractive to employers than your undergraduate liberal arts degree did. Advanced degrees in the soft sciences or even ministerial studies may be worthless but at least you won’t be pinged just for having them.

Even if you get an academic job, it’s mostly a popularity contest and only loosely tied to performance. It’s certainly not tied to Stratum, even when you use Warren’s adjustments for the disciplinary work domain..

There are two ways that advanced humanities degrees make sense these days:

  1. Your family will pay for it and they both value the degree for non-economic reasons and have the cash on hand.
  2. You need to stay out of the job market until things get better because people who start in a downturn earn less for at least the next 15 years.

Before you go to graduate school, you need to look at some key indicators:

  • Ratio of jobs in the field to graduates
  • Average total compensation earning potential of a job if gotten (includes benefits and extras, like the professors getting free college for their kids)
  • Total cost of graudate school to you, including all loans
  • Employment trend in the market
  • Number of Boomers currently holding positions (vital!)
  • How much money you can lose on graduate school

You have to think of the money. You don’t want to spend $150,000 to get something that will make you starve to pay it off. It’s just stupid to do.

Frankly, there’s a giant Education Bubble in the United States. I’ll spend some time this week dealing with the core issues so you won’t be caught by it.

Unless you already are.

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