Grad School Vs. Living Abroad

by Heather Carreiro May 14, 2010

OVER A dozen application due dates were posted on my wall. Multiple notebooks full of information on graduate assistantships, tuition, grants, course offerings and professors’ research interests accompanied them. I was ready for Ph.D. application season. Since my senior year of college, I had planned on pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology or linguistics. Then, after six months of relentless fact gathering, I tore down the due dates, ripped up the notebooks and threw the shreds in the recycling bin. Instead, I decided to pursue a career that would allow me to live and travel abroad now rather than in the distant future.

I’m an organized person, and I tend to err on the side of learning too much about things before making decisions rather than learning too little. My personality on the Myers Briggs is dominated by the J (judging/planning) trait, and I’ve resorted to imposing “research” bans on myself when I feel like this trait is getting out of hand.

When it came to pursuing a Ph.D., I decided to not only learn about the individual programs and funding options, but also what opportunities exist for anthropology and humanities Ph.D. grads and if investing five to seven years of my life into a program would be practically worth it in the long run. What I found out led me to a few days grieving over the loss of my academic fantasy, a six-month period of denial and finally the episode with the recycling bin.

The major problem with Ph.D. programs in these fields is that they focus on training students for one career: academia. In recent decades more and more people have been pursuing higher formal education, and this has led to Ph.D. overproduction. Couple this with University of Pennsylvania English professor Peter Conn’s warning that “full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term,” and pursuing an academic career seems a risky choice.

In a 2009 case reported by the New York Times, recent Ph.D. graduate Chris Pieper was competing in pools of over 300 applicants for tenure-track positions. When I looked into the job placement of anthropology graduates, some programs showed the majority of their Ph.D. grads getting jobs as high school teachers – jobs they could have gotten several years earlier with their undergraduate degrees. Those who do enter academia are more likely to work as adjuncts, with no benefits or job security, than secure a tenure-track position.

Associate Professor William Pannapacker, under his pen name Thomas H. Benton, elaborates on these problems in The Chronicle:

Most undergraduates don’t realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other fields requiring as many years of training)…They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect — a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete — and, as a result, they don’t make any fallback plans until it is too late.

I didn’t want to spend almost a decade pursuing a Ph.D. only to go back to what I could have been doing during those ten years. For me, part of the draw of studying cultural anthropology and linguistics is travel, language learning, and original research. I can do all of those things by living and traveling abroad, and I can earn money while doing them rather than racking up tens of thousands of dollars worth of student loan debt.

If I pursue a Ph.D., I would be holding off on starting a family, living on a student budget for at least seven years, unable to travel without winning grants to pay for it, and so wholly focused on academics that I’d have little time for creative writing, friends or anything else. Doing a doctoral degree takes sacrifice, and I realized that for me the returns would not be worth it. Yes, I would enjoy the intellectual challenge and the scholarly community, but there are other ways to feed the academic bug.

English professor Peter Conn admits the consensus that:

As a profession, we are enrolling too many Ph.D. students, we have been doing so for decades, we spend far too long in guiding them to their degrees, and we then consign them to a dysfunctional job market.

Yeah, thanks Peter Conn, William Pannapacker and all the other professors who have spoken out about the bleak reality of the humanities Ph.D. job market. I’ll pass on that, and I’ll help spread the word.

Do you think doing a primarily academic Ph.D. is worth it, or do you think the time would be better spent living and traveling abroad?

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