Grad school may not be best option

With an economic downturn and the prospect of a difficult job market facing recent graduates, some members of academia are urging students not to set their sights on graduate school.

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Michigan, argues that the personal risks, such as lack of job security, benefits and a livable salary, as well as the large amounts of debt students expose themselves to, make graduate school a less than ideal prospect.

The average debt for a student graduating in 2008 with a doctorate in the humanities was $16,917, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, a study done by the National Science Foundation. About 37 percent of graduates had debt over $20,000.

The problem for graduate students with high levels of debt is finding a well-paying job in the increasingly competitive market. The economic downturn has led to hiring freezes and early retirements, which in turn results in the hiring of an increased number of adjunct professors.

Rather than a secure job with a livable salary, the newly hired professors will work for almost nothing, Pannapacker said.

“It depends on the job. But in most cases, no. It can even be a handicap,” Pannapacker said in an e-mail about whether a graduate degree in the humanities will help in job applications.

Some of the highest nationwide unemployment numbers are those of the youngest workers. In December, when the unemployment rate was 10 percent, unemployment of workers between 20 and 24 years was 14.7 percent. For workers between 25 and 29 years of age, unemployment was 10.3 percent.

According to numbers provided by Cheryl Bailey, associate vice president for Academic Planning and Institutional Research, 45 percent of students receiving a graduate degree from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in May 2009 are employed either full or part time, while another 45 percent are seeking employment. Eight percent are considering further education and 1 percent are undecided.

Jennifer James, an associate professor in GW’s Department of English, said she agrees the pursuit of a graduate degree in the humanities is a financial risk for students.

“In the last decade, the cost of tuition and the cost of living have both risen exponentially as the number of years humanities students spend in graduate school has remained consistently lengthy,” she said in an e-mail.

“It’s also undeniable that there are not enough full time positions at the post-secondary level. These disparities need to be rectified,” she added.

Dave Kieran, who graduated from the University in May 2009 with a doctoral degree in American studies, said that students considering applying to graduate school in the humanities need to be aware of decreased number of tenure-track and full-time teaching positions available that are being sought after by hundreds of qualified applicants. He added that those passionate about a certain field should not necessarily let the job market be a discouragement.

“I don’t think that it is either reasonable or fair to tell a student that he or she shouldn’t pursue a degree if he or she is truly passionate about the field; I would instead encourage prospective students to realistically acknowledge the level of competition on the academic job market,” he said in an e-mail.

Kieran is currently the Post-Doctoral Fellow in the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis.

Pannapacker argued that many graduate students are motivated by the stark job market when applying to graduate school, only to realize after graduating that the job market is not greatly improved by their degree.

James said in her experience humanities graduate students have had a number of different motives for attending graduate school and, for some students, those motives outweigh the risks.

“My experience has been that most humanities students know what they are getting themselves into, but they have refused to reduce their lives to a cost-benefit analysis,” James said. “I believe that humanities students see worth in grappling with the intellectual, moral, spiritual problems of our world – the question of what it means to be human – and are unwilling to concede this pursuit to the values of the marketplace. It is nevertheless our collective loss that ‘the market’ has not rewarded this endeavor.”

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