As we near the end of the academic year, I’ve been mulling over what college graduates should be thinking about as they consider their future plans. If you’re about to graduate with a four-year degree and your plans include graduate school, here are a few things you should consider.
First, a Master’s degree is always a good thing. Employers understand and appreciate them, and in some fields they are required. But doctoral degrees need to be very carefully considered. Employers might look askance at overqualified candidates.
Your first consideration is the amount of debt that you will need to take on during the course of your study versus your likelihood of employment and your potential income. This consideration is important for any graduate degree, but is vital when considering a Ph.D., as debt for many programs can approach or exceed six figures. If you’re likely to graduate with $100,000 worth of debt or more, you need to be very careful about the field that you pursue and your employability within it.
I would only consider advanced (doctoral) study in any field, but especially law and the humanities, under four conditions:
- Expectation of low debt exiting the program.
- Closely tied to the “low debt” condition is time to complete.
- Name recognition of the school — sadly, the name brand on your degree is often much more important than the quality or originality of your thought.
- Employment opportunities in the field.
Tenure-track positions in humanities fields have been declining for some years now. I would advise against pursuing a Ph.D. in any humanities field unless you can attend a Tier 1 research school, an Ivy League school, or make it through the program with less than $10K to $20K in debt.
What’s been in the news a great deal this year is law school. A recent Salon.com article provocatively titled “Law School is a Sham” reports dismal employment figures for law school graduates: every year, approximately twice as many law students pass the bar exam as there are jobs available for new lawyers. This article follows on the heels of over a year of reporting on law schools’ misreporting of graduates’ employability and ensuing lawsuits against them, especially in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Articles such as “Law Schools on the Defensive over Job Placement Data” (October 2011), “Law Professor Gives Law Schools a Failing Grade” (May 2012), “Reinflating the Law School Bubble” (October 2012), and “A Law-School Lesson, Learned the Hard Way” (January 2013) do not paint a flattering picture for law school hopefuls.
This timeliness of this issue has been reinforced by the American Bar Association, which reports which law schools have the highest and lowest employment, underemployment, and unemployment rates for their graduates. The Atlantic usefully reported in “The Jobs Crisis at our Best Law Schools is Much, Much Worse than You Think” (April 2013) that only 56% of law school graduates found employment but many racked up about $100,000 in debt.
So, what should you do?
If you’re interested in law school, I’d recommend either applying only to schools with top employment rates (see the links above), considering a different field, or pursuing that goal wherever you can so long as you keep your debt to a minimum. Keep in mind, though, that tuition and fees and then, afterwards, debt (interest payments on your student loans are also part of the cost of attendance) are only some of the costs of attendance. While you are in school full time you probably won’t be working in jobs that meaningfully contribute to a future career, so lost wages are also part of the cost of your attendance. If all of that doesn’t add up to significantly increased wages soon after graduation, then you’re cutting yourself out of your own retirement and greatly hindering how much you’ll be able to do for your own children later on.
If you’re interested in humanities study, I would recommend attending a school with an M.A./Ph.D. program, getting your M.A. first, and then looking at your prospects, your amount of debt, and the job market before pressing on to a Ph.D. If you get an M.A. within a state system, odds are most or all of your credits will apply to a Ph.D. program within that state system, but they will certainly apply to a Ph.D. program in the same school. If you get any Master’s degree from a private institution, odds are only six to nine credit hours of coursework will transfer to any other institution (one semester), so unless that institution also has a Ph.D. program, you will have to duplicate about two years of coursework or more. I would only pursue an M.A. at a small private school if it has a Ph.D. program that you want to attend, or if you were a mediocre student at the undergraduate level and need to re-establish yourself to move forward, or if you’re pretty sure you want to stop with an M.A.
But no matter what you do, watch your debt. What is particularly sad about this situation is that our system provides disincentives for principled academic advising (such as I’m trying to give here). Every undergraduate institution wants to be able to say that many of their students have gone on to advanced study. Every graduate institution wants to enroll students. They will all say, “You can do it,” or maybe, “It’s what you do with the degree that matters,” and, “I know these three or four graduates who found jobs just fine.” Or, even worse, “I’ve done this and had a great career.” If they graduated with their Ph.D.s before the 2008 crash, they were living in a different world. None this advice is principled as it doesn’t reflect the ways that the deck is already stacked against you. ABA data and MLA jobs data is what you should be following regarding the financial aspects of your decision. Your advisors should be able to tell you about your possibility of success within the program, but you need to know about the scarcity of jobs out there. Remember, schools will admit you, advise you, and recommend you, but you alone will carry your debt into the job market.
In short, you probably shouldn’t consider law school or humanities Ph.D.s, as you will be left with high debt and low employment prospects unless you can get into a top school and graduate with low or no debt in a relatively short amount of time (less than six years for a Ph.D.).
Your best bets for humanities Ph.D. programs right now are rhetoric and composition or digital humanities. Those are hardly guaranteed fields either, but you have much better odds of getting a tenure track position in these fields at least for the time being than you do in other areas of the humanities.
I’m only talking about the financial aspects of study, of course. The personal aspects of advanced study are enormous for those who are both interested and capable in terms of sense of accomplishment, intellectual and creative development, and personal identity. Advanced study is always a good thing. But, someone always has to pay for it. Carefully consider how you plan to pay for it before you start graduate study beyond the M.A.
P.S. I’m only discussing the situation of higher education in the United States. Other nations may fund advanced study differently.