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Should You Get a PhD in the Humanities?

Apr 16, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Planning a career as a humanities professor isn’t considered as risky as planning one in show business or professional sports—but maybe it should be. With shrinking opportunities for tenure-track positions, you may find yourself obligated to move anywhere in the country or accept a part-time adjunct position without benefits and with inadequate pay. Humanities PhD’s often graduate with no job prospects and immense debt due to the cost and the length of their programs. Here are a few things you should consider before entering a PhD program in the humanities.

Cost of the degree program

Humanities degree programs can cost upward of $30,000 per year, for as long as six years. The tuition costs can be partially alleviated by grants, low-interest government loans, and work-study programs—many doctoral students rely on work-study programs to pay for their tuition. But in the humanities, work-study opportunities are more limited than they are in the sciences.
Amount of money you’re likely to earn once you graduate

PhD Grad

Due to serious funding shortages at even the top universities, many tenure-track humanities positions are being replaced with adjunct positions.






It’s true that some professors can earn over six figures. But this is much more likely if you’re in the sciences, economics, business, or another field where people with graduate-level expertise also have high-paying options outside of academe—colleges need that money to attract qualified professors. In the humanities, six-figure non-academic opportunities are few and far between—and the median earnings for full-time humanities professors comes in at about $50,000 per year.

Availability of jobs

The sad truth is that there is a shrinking pool of opportunities for professorships in the humanities that offer tenure, benefits, and a decent salary that will pay your bills and your loans. According to the 2007-2008 Humanities Departmental Survey conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, only 38% of faculty members in the Humanities departments surveyed had tenure. And due to low turnover rates among tenured professors, as well as hiring freezes at many schools, fewer opportunities are opening up in the Humanities.

Quality of jobs available

Due to serious funding shortages at even the top universities, many tenure-track humanities positions are being replaced with adjunct positions. These positions often pay much less than tenure-track positions, and they may be part-time, without benefits, and under at-will employment conditions—so you could be fired for a range of reasons. Many new PhD graduates take these positions with the belief that they’ll move up to a tenure-track job someday, only to find themselves stuck in adjunct professor positions for years.

Trailing Spouse syndrome

Many PhD students meet their spouses in graduate school. If that’s the case with you, consider the chances of both you and your spouse getting a tenure-track humanities position at a university. “Trailing Spouse syndrome” is well known in academia, and it refers to the second spouse in a highly-educated couple, following a partner who accepts a job at a university. The second spouse may be able to arrange a work-share program with the school or—with luck—land a full-time job of his or her own. Sometimes the second spouse may take a job at another university many hours away—some couples even find themselves living in two different areas of the country to pursue their careers. With job prospects tough enough for individual job candidates, can you be reasonably sure your spouse will be able to get a job in his or her field—in the same geographical location as yours?

Length of time it will take you to earn the degree

It can take a long time—as much as six years—to earn a humanities degree. That’s a long time to be out of the workforce. Weigh that against the likelihood that you’ll have a job with decent pay waiting for you when you graduate—and what your pay scale over your career is likely to be. It may pay off more to enter the workforce sooner, without losing those earning years.

It’s not easy to land a successful career as a Humanities professor—as many PhD graduates find out too late. Do your research before going to school to earn your doctoral degree in the Humanities—and determine whether you have other options for a happy and fulfilling career. Consider all your options before making a permanent decision.



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