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Friends Don’t Let Friends Get PhDs in Humanities

State of the Union: Harvard’s Emma Dench is correct about the graduate job market. 

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Credit: Public Domain Media

Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Emma Dench, niece of Dame Judi, recently said in an interview with the student newspaper the Harvard Crimson that students should “pursue graduate degrees out of passion for their research rather than a desire for professorship.” To seek a higher-education degree with the aim of being a professor is “too narrow a view,” Dench said, adding, somewhat as an afterthought, that one should be “realistic” about post-education job prospects. 

“Over GSAS as a whole, about pretty much 50 percent of our graduates are going to not end up in academia,” she said. “And they’re going to do everything else and there’s a whole lot of brilliant options that are available to them.”


The interview is very interesting and is highly recommended. She is, at the time of writing this, being ferociously “dragged” (to use the parlance of our times) all over social media—which is absurd, because this is surely not the batty-est thing she has ever said. (She once declared that she hates the Romans because they were “violent, sexist, racist, arrogant, and not very nice to anybody who got in their way”—but that she also loves to hate the Romans.)

Regardless, turgid though her managerial expression may be, she actually makes a valid point. In fact, what she did not explicitly say is far more notable than what she did. The subtextual is, as always, far more interesting than the overt. 

There are hundreds of thousands of words written on the state of the discipline of history in higher ed. Long story short, it is not good. The field became bloated as the job market shrank. Tenure is down; scholarship has become insufferable, dogmatic, unreadable, and unmarketable to Johnny Public; funding is ideological, and research potential is in perpetual decline. Most importantly, the field’s perception has declined: A significant portion of the population does not view history as a neutral field, much less job-worthy, and they do have a point. Just take note of the historical research coming out of academic presses. Looking beyond history, other humanities and social sciences are far worse; they also skew overwhelmingly towards the left, alienating a significant chunk of those who might otherwise prefer to fund and support academic research. 

Historically, both humanities and history were domains of the elite purely because they could afford the time and money to pursue their academic and artistic interests without actually worrying about the next time they had to get food on the table. One can also argue that their studies allowed them to have the usual elite detachment from the subject matter, given that independent wealth often guards one from external influences and conditioned thought processes.  

But more than that, whether or not to go into higher education is a question of pure mathematics and economics. Talent cannot be mass-produced in some fields; nor, if it could be, would the job market keep up with the supply. It is one thing, for example, to have hundreds of thousands of engineers or mechanics. It is another to have hundreds of thousands of poets and historians. You cannot possibly have thousands of Lords Byron or Herbert Butterfields—and churning out thousands of writers or historians doesn’t automatically mean there will be thousands of jobs. There is a reason that a specific portion of the academy was always hierarchical, and that, from Thucydides to A.J.P. Taylor, the discipline of history itself was always considered a higher calling compared to others. 

Unfortunately, our society and current culture does not allow one to speak hard truths, regardless of how common sense they are. Of course Dench, dean at Harvard, scholar from Oxford, knows all the above—but is not allowed to say it out loud. What she meant, but perhaps cannot say, is not that one should do something because they love it, but that some fields are only for those who can afford them. The love is secondary and stems from the fact that it can be pursued without worry, fear, or desperation. 

Here are the hard facts: People should not pursue a PhD (especially in history, social sciences, or humanities) unless they are independently wealthy or have an inheritance, a full scholarship for doctoral research in a field which has a steady demand, or have a job lined up somewhere—preferably all three together.

This advice may not sound appealing to generations who grew up with the motto that you can be whatever you want, if only you wish for it. But it might save them from future debt and disappointment.