Is The PhD Trap a Trap? (I)

Thomas Benton’s Chronicle article on the trap of academic life describes the hopeless professional situation of graduating Ph.Ds in the humanities accurately enough, but I agree with some of the more skeptical commenters that he overstates the structural or conspiratorial aspects of the problem. To summarize his depiction of the liberal arts Ph.D. as a professional decision: Getting a Ph.D in the liberal arts is the stupidest f***ing thing a person can do. Even with a degree from an elite program in hand, a new Ph.D. faces grim job prospects (stable academic jobs are wickedly elusive, and returning to the private sector leaves you at a disadvantage against the dumb undergrads you were justing giving B-minuses to, or so Benton tells it). But then Benton puts the pedal to the vaguely conspiratorial metal:

Most departments will never willingly provide that information because it is radically against their interest to do so.


Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students….

The implication is that graduate programs keep accepting too many grad students for financial reasons. This is a familiar line of argument by now. Grad students provide cheap labor, freeing up tenured faculty to do research and freeing universities from the budget burdens of replacing old professors. One of the problems with this line of argument is that it paints a picture of institutions so vested in these backwards practices that they will never change. But I think a key feature of the problem exists outside of this self-reinforcing circuit of material incentives and is thus amenable to the type of criticism Benton is leveling.

A big reason why academic departments maintain Ph.D. programs in the liberal arts and resist shrinking or eliminating them – beyond all the hard-headed talk about money – is that professors like having graduate students. A common selling point of jobs at “research universities” is the opportunity to “teach graduate students.” Why, given the low esteem in which we hold the sniveling grad student?

Because unlike a lot of faculty colleagues, graduate students are driven and eager. The dissertation process is a bitch, but it often forges real friendships, and who doesn’t want to be a mentor? Who doesn’t want a protégé? Graduate seminars let you teach within your deeper scholarly interests. This link between teaching and focused research can be enormously fruitful and satisfying and, for many academics, helps refresh interest in the teaching of more basic subject matter to much less motivated and sometimes downright dismissive undergraduates. For a lot of professors, the fond and fuzzy ideal of scholarly friendship is much more closely approximated with graduate students than with other professors. Removing graduate students from their professional set-up would perforce sever the link between their research and their teaching, deprive them of their most agreeable colleagues, and throw them back to face the undergraduates alone, as it were.

I don’t want to idealize the grad student-professor relationship. In most departments there’s also a healthy commerce in resentment and contempt. But those students who reach their dissertation defense with a minimum of overt pathology and desperation usually have some good relationships to show for their effort. I want to toss the considerable human and intellectual satisfactions attaching to these things into the mix of “interests” Benton talks about, and suggest that he shift his aim from the quasi-conspiratorial “structures” that sustain superfluous graduate programs to the human relationships that grow within them. He complains about the radio silence that rises from professors when he issues one of his challenges. And it’s true. Academics are usually so voluble…. But maybe he, or the graduate students he’s looking out for, might get a better answer if he guided his critique towards the simple question, What would a real mentor do?