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Debunking Four Myths about a Ph.D. in the Humanities: a Sequel
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-12-08 11:57:03
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Serendipitously, after I had written and sent a rebuttal to a misguided article titled “Debunking the value of a Ph.D.” which appeared recently in Ovi magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education carried an essay  titled “Why Go to Grad School?” by Professor of Italian History at Stanford University Paula Findlen. As a sequel to my initial rebuttal, I’d like to share this lucid essay with the Ovi readership. I will merely outline and summarize it here. Motivated readers may then read the extended whole in the November 21, 2014 issue of The Chronicle Review (section B) of Higher Education.

Professor Findlen begins the essay with this opening statement: “The past few years have seen a flood of articles informing readers of the prospects for doctoral students in such increasingly unemployable fields as the humanities. The bad press is so unrelenting that it’s worth taking time to explain why the advanced pursuit of knowledge can and should be a worthwhile endeavor.”


She then proceeds to dispel the four myths currently being perpetuated in and out of academia:

Myth no. 1: There has never been a worse time to be a doctoral student in the humanities.

Dr. Findlen contents that in fact, in the last twenty years or so, there has been increased support for financial aid for doctoral students by institutions of higher learning such as fully paid tuition and stipends, teaching assistantships and even money for basic living expenses. I can testify to the truth of that statement; when I attended the Yale graduate school from 1977 to 1981; I had to pay tuition, books, room and board, on my own. What I receive in financial assistance from the Yale Graduate School was merely a dissertation fellowship and a teaching assistantship.


Myth no. 2: There has never been a worse job market for doctoral students in the humanities.

Dr. Findlen debunks this myth by reminding us that there were indeed worse times in academia: the disastrous market of the 1979s and most of the 1980s, the downturns of the 1990s, not to speak of the fact that even in the best of times there has never been the number of jobs that equal the number of Ph.D.s produced in any given year in academia. So it is a mistake for students to embark on becoming an expert in a sector of the humanities with the expectation of landing a job as a professor, never mind a tenure track position.


Myth n. 3: There will be no academic jobs in the Humanities.

Dr. Findlen debunks this myth by asserting that while it is true that some school administrators no longer see the usefulness of the humanities, the danger that they will disappear completely from academia is next to zero. Academia as we know is unconceivable without the humanities. I have already spelled out the reasons in my previous article on this issue. What Findlen predicts however is that Ph.D. candidates will be trained differently, in a broader way and under a different rubric. I find myself in agreement with such a prediction. Interdisciplinary approaches have become very popular lately, even interdisciplinary approaches between the liberal arts and the sciences.


Myth n. 4: We cannot in good conscience allow people to pursue Ph.D.s in the humanities.

Dr. Findlen answers the question as to why should someone get a Ph.D. thus: “For all the reasons that have always existed: for unbridled intellectual ecstasy; because you are curious and passionate about learning and want to acquire more academic skills; because you are unable to imagine yourself not doing this for some period of your life; regardless of what job will come later…You will be offered a period in your life in which to learn and think, and see where it takes you. That is a rare and valuable thing. We have begun to assess the Ph.D. as if it were an M.B.A. It isn’t.”


Finally Dr. Findlen offers all prospective graduate students in the humanities the following four points of advice regarding entrance into graduate school and beginning a Ph.D. program:

1. Unless you have personal financial resources, or will attend a well-funded program, don’t go.

2. You should go to graduate school because you want to have a unique educational experience, one that you can get only by pursuing a Ph.D., and to contribute to knowledge of the subject in the process. Wanting to be a college professor may be a secondary goal, but it should not be your primary motivation.

3. If you decide to go to graduate school, make a contract with yourself about how much time you wish to invest in this project of intellectual advancement.

4. Prepare yourself for jobs that may use your expertise—but not necessarily as a college teacher…Write and analyze better than the average college graduate, and you will see why a number of employers value that skill too… We need to see the Ph.D. as a flexible degree. At the same time, we should not diminish the value of advanced research that demonstrates unique skills and the ability to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and its translation. If we can manage to do both, we can ensure a future for this lengthy, uncertain path to a degree.


Always opt for knowledge. Ignorance is never a good alternative!

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Emanuel Paparella2014-12-08 14:24:10
Footnote for the Ovi readers: please stay tuned, in the near future there will be a third part to this series on the Humanities titled "Whatever happened to the love of ideas?"

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