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Unlike trade schools, most graduate programs do not offer prospective students detailed data on job placement, which varies widely from program to program. Tri-State Semi Driver Training School in Middletown, Ohio, for example, guarantees a job before you even start driving, while the American Language Institute in San Diego promises lifetime placement assistance to its teachers of English as a foreign language. Your local Ivy League English department can't offer the same deal: Last year, the Modern Language Association expected some 965 Ph.D.'s to be granted, while only 422 assistant professorships were advertised, a drop of 20 percent from the year before. In the foreign languages, there were only 263 positions advertised (for the 620 Ph.D.'s projected), a drop of one-third from the previous year. The MLA estimates that students who entered English programs in 2003 had a 20 percent chance of coming out with a tenure-track position. The situation is better in history, where the number of new Ph.D.'s in 2003 almost equalled the number of new jobs, after a decade of "overproduction," with growth coming in trendy specializations like the Middle East.
But numbers like these do little to deter the best students. "Top undergraduates are arrogant; they lack perspective," says Benton. "They've been fawned over all their lives, and they think grad school is there to help them realize their potential, not to use them up and toss them out."
Dan Friedman completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale University this spring after 10 years. He now teaches at a private high school in New Jersey, making twice the $25,000 he was offered as a university part-timer. He says that as a TA back at Yale, he tried to warn his favorite students. "I've had a few bright students, majors, who are often interested in carrying on and I've said to all of them, 'Don't do it.' I really wanted them to stop and think. And without exception, they thought I was joking. Only one of them came back to meshe ended up at NYUand said, 'Now I know what you were talking about.'" Friedman says, however, that he isn't sure he would have taken his own advice back then. "I didn't know what I was getting into. It would have been different if I had known. You're committed to your subject and you think, I want to study literature. You don't think of yourself as a 40-year-old trying to support a family."
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As a scholar of contemporary theory, Friedman quotes a cultural critic's perspective on the economic impact of the love of learning. "As graduate students get more and more exploited, people believe in it more and do it despite the difficulty." He refers to the 2001 book The Invisible Heart by feminist economist Nancy Folbre, which describes how the work that is most important to a society tends to be the most undervalued. "Teachers, nurses, people who do things they really care about, get shafted."
Devotion to the academic world, however, is not necessarily healthy. "People develop this identity," says IA. "They say, 'This intellectual work is who I am.' And it's hard to give that up. Even though there are two jobs in your field this year and 300 candidates, it still feels like you've failed."
Ironically, defining herself as essentially an academic cuts off the humanities Ph.D. student's best shot at making a decent living: a job outside the academy. Last year, Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo created the website Beyond Academe, whose purpose is to profile history Ph.D.'s, like themselves, who've found satisfactory employment while still practicing their disciplinewith museums, nonprofit foundations, government agencies, or as researchers for companies.
"I've been stunned by what people have said at some of the blog sites," Lord says. "They seem to believe that working as an adjunct and earning $19,000 and having no health insurance is preferable to working outside the academy. I think this prejudice is even stronger with people in grad school now than it is among older faculty." For her own part, Lord has no regrets. "I was a single New York woman teaching in a small rural town in Montana. I could go days without speaking to my colleagues, and all my social contact was with 18- to 20-year-olds. I felt that I had sacrificed my personal life for a professional career and I didn't see a reward." Now a public historian in Washington, D.C., Lord has peers she can talk to and makes $37,000 more than she did as a tenure-track professor.
The Invisible Adjunct is herself headed beyond academe. After making a final pass at the academic job market, she is leaving the academy, and her blog, behind this spring. "I'm finishing up my semester of teaching and then I'm just going to have to figure out what my next move should be."
Like Lord, Friedman has no regrets at leaving the ivy-covered walls. He currently teaches literature and an interdisciplinary seminar to high school freshmen four days a week and coaches soccer. "The best phrase I've heard for us is the intellectual lumpenproletariat," he says, using the Marxist term for the ground-down members of the underclass who lack the class consciousness for revolt. "If something happened to empower those people, there would be an incredible efflorescence of culture in this country, because there's more of them now than there ever has been. But they are too busy scuttling around getting shitty jobs."