On Grad Students in the Humanities
I'm going to say this once, but like most topics here, it will likely come back in a year or so when the readership has shifted.
I don't make a habit of comparing science and humanities grad students because it's not the same. Yes, we have some of the same concerns re: quality of life, time-to-graduate and lack of jobs, but the similarities stop there.
First, the humanities, as fas as I know, have NEVER paid well. So anyone going to get a PhD in literature knows that they're doing it because they love it, and they know the sacrifices involved. (This has the added effect that the numbers of humanities PhDs are self-regulating. As far as I know, there are now more science PhDs than humanities PhDs, but feel free to correct me if you have the numbers.)
In science, there was a time, actually until pretty recently, when science PhDs did short postdocs- or they were optional!- and then were assured of a job in academia or industry. It goes up, it goes down, but in general we've always been better off than humanities students in the employability department. Until recently.
Second, in the humanities, there is no money to pay postdocs. So as far as I know (and I really only know the statistics for my university), there are very few postdocs in the humanities. They get a PhD, and go on to whatever job prospects there are for teaching or writing professionally. They're considered professional when they graduate, thesis in hand. In some ways, I think they're better off because they couldn't do a postdoc even if they so desired (mostly). Moreover, there are alternative, and in some cases more employable degrees in the humanities, such as the MFA. Sure, you have to go into debt to get one, which brings me to another point:
Third, the humanities traditionally select for three kinds of people: 1) Those coming from rich families, and 2) The truly passionate bookworms who wouldn't notice what kind of house, clothes, etc. they have, or 3) The extremely hard-workers who are willing to take assembly-line jobs during the day so they can write their thesis at night.
Scientists have the first two categories, sure, but we aren't allowed to have that third category. We all sign contracts with NIH and NSF agreeing not to work extra jobs to help pay for the house we want to buy.
What I've been saying here for a long time is, science has the potential to be more diverse than the humanities, because we have enough money to employ a lot of people from different backgrounds. In most places, you don't have to go into debt to go to grad school in science.
But the ivory tower is getting higher, and kids from blue-collar families are looking at it and saying, "No thanks, I'll do something else."
That choice gets made at the level of choosing a major, because nobody tells them they'll be able to get a job with a BA in Folklore. There are still idiots out there claiming we need more science majors. Just the other day I saw a poster on my campus advertising an event telling undergrads how majoring in science would help them get jobs some day (???!!). What a joke!!!
And another thing. If you want to write a book, anyone can do it. It doesn't require special equipment beyond a computer and access to some (really good) libraries. Yes, having contacts in departments can help, and if you want to be a literary critic you probably need to have taken some courses in LitCrit and have a good reputation in the field. But it's not like science because you don't need thousands of dollars worth of reagents and equipment to do it: there is no way to do biotech research at home.
Oh and another thing! Science moves FAST. The humanities have been moving, more or less at a steady pace for, say, hundreds of years. People write books. I hope that this will always be so. But nowadays, the rate of writing a book depends more on the writer than the printing press. Still, this has been gradual.
In contrast, molecular cloning revolutionized bioscience so much that bioscience is now completely different every 5 years or so, the way almost every cell in your body turns over at least once every 7 years. As grad school and postdoc lengthen for scientists, this means that science is literally a completely different place by the time you get out than it was when you started.
Choosing a thesis lab and thesis project then becomes something of a crapshoot, except for the very far-sighted (and the very lucky). Consider our current situation: the presidential election was rigged (twice!), and suddenly everyone is out of funding and out of a job. That goes in four-year cycles. We're really at the mercy of some very rapidly-changing variables.
Boy, now that I've started this, I could just go on and on. Here's another example: everybody knows what books are. You're at a cocktail party and somebody asks you about your job. In the humanities, the tools of the trade are mostly ordinary objects that everyone can relate to, even if their particular contents are probably beyond most readers' reach. But in the sciences, we use pipettes and eppendorf tubes and centrifuges, things that sound like futuristic fiction to your average person on the street. So not only is what we do a total mystery to most people, but how we actually do it.
Last night I saw that Red Bull commercial where they're trying to film the Moon Landing and the guy keeps floating away, so they say "That's okay, we'll just shoot it in the studio at home". This stuff makes me furious because it encourages the lunatics who claim we're actually just making this all up. This sort of bullshit, like people claiming the lunar landing never happened, only works because basic science knowledge in this country is so poor.
Thanks again, George Bush. Keep the education level down --> brainwash them -->
I guess my point is, yes we could sit and write a long essay comparing the humanities with the sciences. I guess if I were in the humanities, I would enjoy that sort of thing a lot more! But I always liked Anthropology the best, and even that field benefits from using population statistics. I don't know if there are valid statistics comparing the two groups, because, as someone pointed out, where do you draw the line? At psychology? And because the sample size is so skewed, with (vastly?) more PhDs in science than in the humanities, that's going to make it hard to know how accurate the analyses could be.
Labels: grad school