Is graduate school a mistake?

Nancy Anderson
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If you want to get a job in higher education, you almost always need a Master’s degree or higher – whether you want to be an administrator, faculty member, academic adviser, adjunct instructor, or any other job, an undergraduate degree is not enough.

There is a huge population of people in the job market who would love to work in higher education. After all, college campuses are some of the most exciting and fulfilling places in the world, where people learn new skills, chart a new course in life, and forge lifelong relationships with mentors and peers.

But what if there’s a dark side to all this? What if the higher education job market isn’t as sunny and life-affirming as it seems?

In January 2009, a college professor named William Pannapacker published a provocative article in the Chronicle of Higher Education saying that for graduate students in the humanities who are hoping to become college professors, going to graduate school is a losing proposition. The title of his article was “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.”

In his article, Pannapacker lays out a compelling argument for why it is often a bad idea for students to pursue a graduate degree in the humanities. For example:
• Less than half of all doctorate holders in the humanities will ever find tenure-track teaching positions.
• For years, aspiring college professors have been told that “there will be teaching jobs opening up once the Baby Boomers start to retire,” but these long-anticipated waves of retirements have not taken place.
• Many colleges and universities are replacing full-time tenure-track professor jobs with adjunct faculty positions – lower-paid and often with no benefits.
• Hundreds of qualified candidates apply for every open tenure-track position.
• 23 percent of humanities students end up with more than $30,000 in student loan debt, and more than 14 percent owe more than $50,000.

Most people’s dream in going to graduate school is that they’ll be able to get a job teaching at a university, study a subject they’re passionate about, and spend their careers shaping the leaders of tomorrow.

But the reality, for many would-be professors, is far different – instead of a full-time tenure-track teaching position, they find themselves cobbling together low-paid adjunct work with no health insurance. But they can’t get another job because all of their skills and experience is centered on academics – so it might be hard to transition to a “regular” job outside of higher education.

Although his article is focused on students who are hoping to become professors in humanities fields like History, English and Philosophy, I wouldn’t be surprised if the statistics about future academic job openings hold true for other fields as well. Faced with a deep recession, cutbacks in state aid to higher education, and a drop in charitable donations, many universities have been cutting their budgets, implementing hiring freezes, and replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts – and while those trends might be more powerfully felt in the humanities, these trends are likely to continue for academia as a whole.

So should you go to graduate school? No matter how sincere, passionate and talented you are, in many ways the odds are against you. As Penelope Trunk says, “Graduate school forces you to over-invest: it’s too high risk.” The old system of stable, tenured teaching jobs with comfortable salaries and benefits is under severe pressure by the new realities of the economy and the workforce.

If you do decide to go to graduate school, make sure you go in with your eyes wide open – be aware of the risks as well as the potential rewards.

Ben Gran is a former teacher, freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Des Moines, Iowa. He is an award-winning blogger who loves to write about careers and the future of work.
It’s never a mistake to look for teaching jobs at

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