Anybody who majors in the humanities has heard the speech a million times: “Are you crazy? Do you know what the job market is like right now? The humanities? You might as well buy your cardboard box and start life on the streets right now. You will never get a job.” The tone of pessimism rings true, and all the stuffy academics agree: If you plan to go for a degree in the humanities, especially a Ph.D., prepare yourself for a whirlwind of disappointment and utter despair.
I may as well have told them my dream was to become a rockstar.
And the tone was no less bleak as I walked along the sidewalks of the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus. All of the professors seemed to be in agreement: graduate school is great, but one should not expect it to yield a job in the ever-narrowing halls of academia.
Now, when everyone you know from your parents to your advisor and all the way down to the professor you introduced yourself enthusiastically to five minutes ago tells you that your job prospects in the field in which you want to study are close to zero, that is necessarily a bit discouraging. And I must admit, it has given me pause on more than one occasion. I found myself rethinking my resolve to attend graduate school in the quiet moments between observing classes and walking around Boulder, and during that time, I came to some very important realizations about my desire for an advanced degree.
First, trying to attain a Ph.D. was never about getting a job in academia, nor should it be. While that would certainly be a rewarding outcome, it is not enough to pursue a degree for the job at the end. Shaky as the job market is these days, there are no guarantees for the future. So, if the job is not the aim, what is? For me, the answer was the sheer joy of learning. My undergraduate experience here at STAC, I realized, is just the beginning. I am only scratching the surface of all the things there are to know, and four years just is not enough time to learn it all. The truth of the matter is that there will always be jobs for the people willing and wanting. It may not be the job I think I want now, and it may not even be ideal, but I will always find a way to support myself, whether the academy wants me or not.
Second, a decade is a long time. It takes years to get through a Ph.D. program: generally at least one or two for a master’s degree and then another five or more for a doctorate. At twenty years old, academia seems like a dream job to me. What could be better than getting paid to learn more about a subject I love, write books about it, and then teach that very same information to unsuspecting students like myself? Answer: just about nothing. But when I am 30 years old, my Ph.D. finally in hand, I might change my mind. Academia as a career is difficult on women, and it can be a hostile environment to a marriage or a family. Those things might not matter much to me now, but somewhere down the line, they may become important. What I mean to say is that my plans may change in ways I cannot anticipate now, so it will not do me one ounce of good to worry perpetually over the state of the job market. While it is important to remain realistic, the goal, as I previously stated, is not the job, but the degree itself, and the great acquisition of knowledge that will occur along the way. And, who knows for sure: the job market might even change in my favor over the years.
Third, there is much more to an education than the acquisition of facts. People ask me all the time: “What on earth do you plan to do with a degree in Religious Studies? What can that degree possibly do for you?” Well, the answer is this: I have acquired, just over the last year and a half as a religious studies major, critical thinking skills that far transcend the reach of academia. I have become a creative, out-of-the-box thinker, a cynical analyst, a stronger writer and a better reader. I have learned to communicate effectively (with a fancy new vocabulary to boot), to formulate an argument and support it, to anticipate its shortcomings, and not to mention, how to spot my own B.S. from a mile away. These skills are important, not just as a student, but in any career. That is correct: any career, including business, physics, biochemistry, politics, public relations, computer science, robotics, education, and anything else you can think of. All of these fields require critical thinkers, people who can anticipate problems and draw up creative solutions, and it will be thanks to my years of study in a highly theoretical field that these skills will remain sharp and ready for whatever career I eventually choose.
The point I am trying to make here is that for every reason not to pursue a more advanced degree, there is an equal or greater reason to stick to my guns, as my favorite high school teacher used to say, and keep pushing forward. And for anyone else considering a Ph.D. in the humanities: Do not let the naysayers discourage you. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by continuing your education. There are endless streams of knowledge to pursue, facts to know, skills to gain, and an advanced degree is just one exciting step on the road to a flourishing career, in academia or beyond.