Thursday, April 20, 2006

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.



At 3:23 PM, Blogger jess said...

Most of this looks pretty accurate from the other side. Humanities students don't get postdocs (and usually don't get jobs), though we do have to promise not to get other jobs during graduate school if we want financial aid. We do it anyway, because nobody can live on what a TA makes, but we're not allowed.

You'd be surprised, though, how little it helps that everyone knows what a book is. At least scientists get respect from smart non-scientists. In the humanities, everybody is going to assume that they know how to do what you do, and how hard can it be, since anyone can read or write a book? The field of literature is complex, politicized, often arcane, and requires you to know not only literature but psychology and cultural studies and economic theory, and most of us don't love it but we toil at it because goddamit we've gotten this far, and yet constantly some jackass (often a student) thinks he can do your job. I don't really know that it's better than having people know that they don't understand what you do.

I'm in total agreement about the problem of students thinking their major makes a damn bit of difference. Most of my students aren't lit majors, and they definitely consider their education to have direct monetary value: for the time they spend, they want an equivalent number of employability points. I don't know how to get them to realize that you don't declare your identity and your career when you declare your major. Maybe encouraging more humanities majors is the way to go, but so (I would think) is encouraging more pure, not-necessarily-career-oriented science majors -- say, physics as opposed to engineering.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger trillwing said...

Interesting post. Lots of food for thought, so I'm going to let it digest a bit before I respond.

As far as statistics go: Unfortunately it's only available to subscribers (unless you can find a copy in your library), but the Chronicle of Higher Education tracks degrees awarded. If you're a subscriber, you can see a rundown of doctorates awarded in 2002-03, by field, here.

I may be wrong, but just eyeballing the Chronicle chart, it looks as though the number of doctorates handed out in the humanities and social sciences about equals those in the sciences. But it depends on how you define disciplines and doctorate. For example, educational doctorates (I'm guessing mostly Ed.D.s, but also many Ph.D.s), blow the groups of sciences out the water--almost 7,000 awarded in one year, compared to 5,000 degrees in what the Chronicle terms the "biological and biomedical sciences." "Physical sciences and science technologies" disciplines awarded only 8 more doctorates (3,858) that year than did "social sciences and history." Psychology, which is hard to define in terms of social science or science, and which I imagine would have to be broken down into counseling vs. experimental fields, weighs in with a heaping 4,831 doctorates.

English and foreign languages, which to me have always seemed to be producing way too many Ph.D.s based on available jobs, conferred only about 2,300 degrees together.

Enough. . . I'll try to write more later. Thanks again for a thought-provoking post!

At 7:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read here on and off, so perhaps I missed a previous discussion about this, BUT... have you ever thought about a career in science policy? I know one woman who finished her PhD at my institution with a big name researcher and, instead of doing like most of us think we ought to do, headed directly to the NIH to do science policy. I don't know what it pays, but it may be better than what a post-doc makes, and if it's a government job, the benefits are pretty damn good and the job is secure. For instance, another friend of mine recently graduated with her PhD and headed straight to a national lab to her first post-doc where she'll be making 60K PLUS lots of benefits.

I'm just saying this because it sounds like your passion is both for science and the way that things are run in the sciences... and a policy job is a GREAT way to use your science background to make things better for other scientists.

Just a thought. As usual, your post was incredibly interesting!

-soon-to-be post-doc

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and one more thing to salivate over (at least for me): my friend with the post-doc at the national lab has REGULATED HOURS! Oh my God, I almost got a heart attack when I heard that. I mean, what grad student or post-doc has THAT luxury in academia! Above average pay, awesome benefits, job security, and you HAVE to take evenings after 6PM off. Just twist my arm so more, will ya? : )

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good god, that last anonymous comment was by me and it should read "some more" in that last sentence.

Damn this exhaustion!: )

By the way, my husband is a humanities academic and what you say is right. Also, he jumped right into a tenure-track position after graduation (which is, admittedly, kinda rare for them folks, but he's good at what he does), and his starting salary beats the pants off what my wimpy post-doc salary will be. He can take summers off from teaching, half his conferences are overseas at gorgeous, exotic locations (he's taking me to Greece for one conference and last year he got to hang out in England for another conference, all paid by his institution), AND he has the ability to work from home, damn him. No, wait a minute - damn me! : )What was going through my brain when I thought that stripping my life of all free-time and hanging out with machines in a windowless, tiny labspace would make me love science all the more? Humanities husband likes to point out how devoid of anything beautiful my lab space is. But the fluorescence images kind of make up for it. : )

-soon-to-be post-doc

At 1:23 PM, Blogger ponderer said...

From what I have read from your blog so far, I generally like it.

You are largely accurate, especially about Bush 's dumbing down of America.

Having been a science nerd (proudly) most of my life, perhaps I can offer a slightly alternative view on your frustration.

I think their are few opportunities for the things that YOU and your fellow doctorates would LIKE to do. This is largely because as you correctly identify, society does not have enough basic education to demand more of its educational elite.

Myself, I earn a very good living using the skills I learned in the first two years of university. In my entire working career, I do not think I have gone beyond what I had learned in 3rd year.

Since I have been earning a salary that rivals many tenured professors, since the age of 25, I can see why those who remained in the academic line feel frustrated.

I think this is part of an over all trend which is being exacerbated by globalization. Don 't get me wrong, I do not see this as a bad thing.

What you have described, basically an explosion in the bioscience field should make us re-examine our whole educational process. If you look at undergraduate education, most of it has not changed for nearly a hundred years BUT all of this knowledge is necessary. This true of ALL undergraduate programs (humanities as well). Why does it take four years to learn this material. Many of these courses are delivered through video lectures. With the advent of CD technology, these courses should almost be made available through self-study (MIT is beginning to explore this venue). Let this knowledge be available widely ie high school level.

This would drastically increase the number of educated people who would now demand the skills of the senior academics like yourself.

I believe this the only way our society can stay competitive in the global market place.

I suspect with the existing trend, we will fall behind within one generation. What I mean by one generation, is the generation in the developing world that will grow up with 100 dollar laptop.

Once this generation reaches adulthood, they will be capable of academic and information society achievements equal to our own present day.

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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