Saturday, January 9, 2010

Don't get a Ph.D. Seriously.

Thanks to John Hawkes for pointing out this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It deserves to be widely read. Here is a choice quote:
It's hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy — and lack of information — are an exploitable resource. For universities, the impact of graduate programs on the lives of those students is an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river. If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it's right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning.

These are hard truths that are seldom aired publicly. Though the article focuses on the humanities, most of what he says also applies to Anthropology.

In archaeology, things are a bit different. I would counsel anyone wanting to pursue a career in CRM to get an M.A. It is definitely useful. A Ph.D., however, while it may prove useful at times, will never pay for itself. For the past four years ACRA has put out a report on salaries in archaeology. If you look through the results you will find that for a similar position and responsibilities an archaeologist with an M.A. makes about $10k more per year than an archaeologist with a Ph.D. Add to that the years in graduate school in which you will earn no salary and gain no real useful experience in the industry, and a Ph.D. in archaeology looks like a pretty bad investment.

Unless you want to be a tenure-track professor somewhere. Good luck with that. As the author of the Chronicle piece puts is, "the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery."


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  2. Matt, I've seen many similar versions of this argument, and they're all solid, IF you look at the stats on all archaeology PhDs across all Anthropology departments. But the simple fact is that not all programs have the same placement rate. I chose my PhD program because of the success of its PhDs, and the particularly high rate of success of the prof who would be my primary advisor and chair of my committee. Fifteen years later, every archaeology student in my cohort and in the years before and after us that finished are in tenure track positions.

    The failure here is a) with students who choose their programs on criteria like campus location, charisma/reputation of faculty, etc. without doing basic research on placement; but mostly it's with b) undergraduate advisors who allow students to go to unproven programs and/or to mentors whose students don't finish or don't finish prepared for the market.

    And if a program offers you admission but not full funding over the expected duration of your studies, walk away. If none of the programs you apply for offer you such funding, take the hint and consider a non-academic archaeology career.

    Didn't realize you were blogging, Matt; I'll be following.

  3. Completely agreed! An ugly truth is that academia needs the money that goes along with grad students but could care less whether they ever join academia after they leave. Indeed, they blithely keep cranking out the Ph.D.'s in the face of fewer and fewer academic jobs. It is unjust in the extreme. I'm guessing that there are probably a few existing profs out there who care in a significant way about the job prospects of their students, but they are few and far between. Most offer little more than encouraging words about the job hunt after you finish and a significant number hold the attitude I remember well from one of my profs "Grad students will suck you dry."

    I would say a Ph.D. is worthwhile if you really, really want to pursue some research and can get someone else to pay for all or most of it OR if the only career you can possibly consider is being a university prof (and you are willing to accept the extremely poor odds that it will actually come to pass and you are willing to go through a terrible wringer to just maybe, possibly, make it come to pass if you get lucky). It really is more degree than most people need, although it can be fun to do the research to get one.

  4. This is so true. I'm working on my Masters right now, and keep telling my fellow students that in the CRM world, a PhD is not necessary and that in all reality, that's where most of them will wind up. They don't believe me, but hey, you live and you learn. I refuse to spend the next 7 years in school and accrue that kind of debt, particularly in this economy. I figure a Masters will up my salary a little bit and make it easier for me to live a better life, and pay off the debt I do have.

  5. I think that's a good decision, Marcy. The time lost from the workplace when one is in a Ph.D. program is bad enough, but going into debt at the same time makes no sense at all. Good luck with your thesis!

  6. I've been thinking about this a lot. I got two Masters (anthro and geological engineering) with the goal of eventually getting a Ph.D. after I paid off the Masters debt. Believe it or not, the anthro degree was much cheaper than the other. Last year, I decided that I couldn't afford a Ph.D. Unfortunately, it remains in the back of my just won't go away. I imagine that this is pretty common. I think that it is time we don't rely on academia and CRM to provide employment. Everyone is interested in archaeology, otherwise there wouldn't be so many specials, movies and murder mysteries surrounding the topic. There must be other options we can create, eh? Just throwing it out there.

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