MAR 31 2014, 2:56 PM ET
There is a widespread belief that humanities Ph.D.s have limited job prospects. The story goes that since tenure-track professorships are increasingly being replaced by contingent faculty, the vast majority of English and history Ph.D.s now roam the earth as poorly-paid adjuncts or, if they leave academia, as baristas and bookstore cashiers. As English professor William Pannapacker put it in Slate a few years back, “a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma.” His advice to would-be graduate students was simple: Recognize that a humanities Ph.D is now a worthless degree and avoid getting one at all cost.
Since most doctoral programs have never systematically tracked the employment outcomes of their Ph.D.s, it was hard to argue with Pannapacker when his article came out. Indeed, all anecdotal evidence bade ill for humanities doctorates. In 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled several humanities Ph.D.s who were subsisting on food stamps. Last year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette eulogized Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old French adjunct who died in abject poverty after teaching for more than two decades at Dusquesne University, scraping by on $25,000 a year before being unceremoniously fired without severance or retirement pay.
Recent studies suggest that these tragedies do not tell the whole story about humanities Ph.D.s. It is true that the plate tectonics of academia have been shifting since the 1970s, reducing the number of good jobs available in the field: “The profession has been significantly hollowed out by the twin phenomena of delayed retirements of tenure-track faculty and the continued ‘adjunctification’ of the academy,” Andrew Green, associate director at the Career Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. In the wake of these changes, there is no question that humanities doctorates have struggled with their employment prospects, but what is less widely known is between a fifth and a quarter of them go on to work in well-paying jobs in media, corporate America, non-profits, and government. Humanities Ph.D.s are all around us— and they are not serving coffee.