Putting Humanities Degrees to Work

The cliché is correct: timing is everything in life, especially financially. Economic success often depends on your date of birth.

If you were born in 1905 or 1910, you entered the workforce during the Great Depression. Born around 1990? Well, you dropped out of college just as the Great Recession hit, with lasting consequences for your life prospects – delaying marriage, childbearing, buying a house and moving up the ladder. careers.

And if you decide to become an academic historian, well… a shocking statistic that has recently spread through the Twitter sphere tells this unfortunate story:

“27% of 2017 history PhD graduates had tenure-track jobs four years later, compared to 54% of 2013 PhD graduates – yuck (and note how selection bias is probably present in the decision to finish – imagine the percentage of incoming students. [with tenure-track] employment statistics would look like)”

To be sure, the 2020-2021 job market has been particularly depressed, given the lockdowns caused by the pandemic and the dread among administrators about what the future might bring. But while the statistic accurately predicts the future, given a modest recovery after 2021, the long-term trend of placement in tenure-track jobs looks likely to remain depressed.

Ford Madox Ford’s classic 1915 novel about adultery and marital betrayal, The good soldier– a story of duplicity, deceit and empty, loveless marriages and friendships left in shambles by the reckless pursuit of passion – begins with one of the most famous opening lines of Edwardian fiction: “It is the saddest story I’ve ever heard.”

What happens to too many humanities doctoral students is deeply depressing: anguish, despair, despondency, dashed hopes and shattered dreams. In a heartbreaking and deeply poignant essay titled “Why I Left Academia (Since You Are Wondering),” William Deresiewicz, one of my favorite contemporary writers, explains why he is no longer an academic: “I don’t I had no choice.”

Despite editing, he now has four well-received and widely reviewed books, An Education of Jane Austin, excellent mutton, The death of the artist and The end of lonelinessand a series of trials in highly visible locations such as Atlantic, Harper’s, The nation and The New Republic—and a teacher for 10 years at Yale, he never got a tenure-track job offer, even after submitting 46 applications to 39 schools, from the most prestigious, like Brown and Dartmouth, to the lesser-known, including Ohio State at Mansfield and St. Louis University.

How is it possible ? As he admits, “With a name like Yale on my resume, plus a decent publishing record, I really had to screw it up to have known such dismal fortune. And I did. Oh, I did it.

How? He couldn’t professionalize himself: “I didn’t think that writing literary monographs and journal articles or attending university conferences would do anyone much good. Instead, he believed in “writing for a general audience”, “communicating with people beyond the narrow circle of other subspecialists”. In short, he tried to write his own rules.

This approach didn’t work well – until it did, when Deresiewicz left the academy to become a full-time writer.

Of course, the story Deresiewicz writes is not just his own. As he says in the subtitle of his essay, “thousands of people are driven out of the profession every year”. Remember the 73 percent doctorate in history. recipients who did not land tenure-track employment. Nothing can repair this loss.

Worse still, the mixed response from graduate schools and professional associations. Certainly, some have reduced doctoral admissions. programs, even as many schools expand master’s degree offerings that all too often don’t translate to increased income commensurate with student debt. Many now offer workshops on alternative careers, although the value of these programs is unclear. But there is no coherent plan to tackle the employment problem, for example, by insisting that community colleges hire PhDs. Certainly, a much deeper examination of conscience is in order.

Then there is a bigger problem: the number of college graduates, especially in the humanities, unable to find jobs that match their education or relate to their training and interests.

Although a bachelor’s degree remains the best guarantor of secure, well-paying employment, college pay and wealth bonuses have recently declined, and the fields these graduates typically seek have become oversaturated.

In short, as the supply of college graduates increases, the premium to a college education declines, with the outcome varying by major, institution, and other variables. The rising cost of attendance and high debt loads also make college an economic boon.

A university degree is no longer a guarantee of a higher standard of living.

Like Noah Smith, assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook and former Bloomberg opinion columnist, observes, a slew of humanities jobs have dried up. There is an overabundance of lawyers. There is a sharp decline in employment in newsrooms, books, magazines, many non-profit organizations and, of course, the academy.

So where do humanities graduates end up? Dispersed widely across the employment spectrum, as teachers, human resources and public relations specialists, technical writers, writers and editors, higher education advisers, media, marketing and sales, academic advisers, and even more. But the key points are these:

  • Only 28% of humanities graduates without an advanced degree found work in a field closely related to their training.
  • Only about 40% would major in the same field, a much higher proportion than those who majored in science, math or engineering.
  • A similar percentage said their upbringing had not prepared them for life.

Statistics like these fuel fears that the US is heading down the same path as Italy or Spain, with elite overproduction causing unrest, radicalization and protests – an argument made by Peter Turchin, the Russian co-developer of Cliodynamics, which mathematically models historical dynamics.

I think it’s fair to say that the humanities departments that I know of are doing less to help students connect their curriculum to the job market and offer fewer college-to-career initiatives and more career-oriented paths than most other fields. . This is the case despite the growth of programs in digital humanities, medical humanities, museum studies, public history, applied humanities, and policy history.

The big question facing our campuses is found in the title of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel: What is there to do?

  1. We need to do a much better job of providing students with career windows. Humanities majors need timely information about labor market trends, the skills required by specific jobs, and the post-graduation career trajectories of students majoring in humanities disciplines.
  2. Campuses need to recognize that many students, but especially those in the humanities, would benefit from a serious assessment of their interests, strengths, skills, and previous career-relevant experience, coupled with academic and career guidance. more intense.
  3. Humanities departments need to analyze, report, and take action based on the career trajectories of their majors. This will almost certainly force departments to rethink core requirements, offer more career-related courses, and create new career-aligned majors and put more emphasis on skill development and mastery.
  4. Humanities departments should consider working with other units to develop courses that can enhance the qualifications of humanities majors in the job market, by offering courses in digital communication; graphic, website and human interface design; human relations; marketing principles and tools; natural language processing; organizational management and leadership; and project management.
  5. Colleges and universities must integrate career preparation into the undergraduate experience, starting in the first year. It is more important than ever to offer certificate programs, workshops and training courses in areas related to employment and skills development.
  6. Humanities departments need to create more work-related learning opportunities. The key is in expanded experiential learning – in the form of internships, mentored research, internships, studio classes, community and service learning, creative spaces, and participation in problem-solving activities. team problems and project-based learning.
  7. Humanities programs should take steps to build students’ social capital, by providing opportunities to network with alumni and potential employers, by modeling and building professionalism, and by cultivating the soft skills that can contributing to greater success in job applications and performance.

None of these initiatives is a panacea, but taken together, these steps can help humanities students chart a direction in life and chart a realistic path to achieving their professional goals.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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