A few weeks ago one of my students, a philosophy major wrestling with the ever popular “To graduate school or not to graduate school” question asked me, if I had it to do over again, would I be a MAPH student. My short answer was “no,” but to leave it there would have been both a disservice to him and to you, my reader—if there are any of you left.
In ten days I will have had my MA sheepskin for two years. That is, for two years I have been professing at the adjunct level while my salary miraculously decreased at an inverse proportion to my years of experience. Yet, I was fortunate. Professors that I knew and loved pulled all manner of strings on my behalf to get me into that two-year adjunct position teaching the courses I love. My students have, on the whole, been very appreciative of the work that I have done—awarding me some of the highest evaluation scores enjoyed by any professor currently working at that college. The last two years have been some of the most stressful, frustrating, and wonderful of any I can remember in my previous thirty-five.
However, despite the acclaim of my students, the overwhelming support of my former professors—now peers—and even my willingness to work for nearly free, my time as an academic is very likely over. Either the job market in the humanities is not what it used to be or it never really was very good, but it makes no difference because finding an academic job in the humanities with only a Masters degree is slightly less likely than jumping from a burning building and landing in a conveniently located swimming pool filled with feather pillows. Which is to say, it is not likely and should hardly be expected by any sane person as part of their five-year plan. Anecdotal stories from recent PhD grads and data gleaned from the scant “philosophy prof” listings that appear at philjobs.org suggest that the prospects are not substantially rosier for those with stoles and slightly less ridiculous hats. A friend of mine for UChicago’s divinity school continues to pretend that his doctoral thesis is not yet ready for defense despite the fact that its been written and ready to go for two years because, despite his myriad attempts, he has yet to even get a bite from the academy, anywhere. So, better to earn a TA’s stipend and enjoy discounted housing than find himself with as a freshly minted PhD unable to get even an interview. All of this is to say, if your son or daughter expresses interest in history, philosophy, literature, or any other humanities discipline, buy them a tool belt and send them to the nearest electricians trade school, nursing program, or teacher’s college. If I’d dedicated the last six years of my life to becoming a journeyman electrician, registered nurse, or sixth grade teacher, I could easily find a job in nearly any city in the country. Like every contestant on every reality show ever, my fifteen minutes of fame (or academic employment) are up.
But wait, it’s worse than that! My Hyde Park diploma beautifully framed and gleaming actually seems to be putting me at a disadvantage as I attempt to find a living-wage job. Before I returned to school to earn my degrees—when I was merely a high school graduate—I never struggled to find employment. With good references and a solid set of skills I easily scored positions in sales, middle-management, and even worked my way into positions more commonly held by those with MBAs. As I write this, I have applied for twenty-nine positions—from an entry level security guard to an admissions staffer at a community college—and I have yet to receive a single interview. Why? Well, doing a bit of research into the anomaly, my best guess is that graduate degree bearers with a bit of experience in their field suddenly applying for an entry-level position smell a bit hinky to human resource folks—bringing to mind images of mental break downs and sex scandals. As one hiring official put it, people with upper-tier degrees applying for lower level work are either burn-outs to be avoided or damaged goods to be handled with care. There seems to be the lingering, but laughable, perception by the general public that college grads with specialized training ought to be able to find work in their specialty. Therefore, failure to locate a Master’s level position with the requisite degree is perceived as a sign of some deeper, darker personnel issue—such as an inability to take constructive criticism or a taste for human flesh.
So, young sir or madame, do you believe that the MAPH will help you to secure a career? Perhaps, but not in the academy unless merely a stepping stone toward a PhD—but even then, don’t hold your breath. Most of the positions I see in my field are targeted at luring established professors with many years of experience from this school to that, and not, therefore, really open to a newly minted doctor of philosophy. I value my time at UChicago for its formative contributions to who I am as a person, but it is only hindering my ability to secure a decent paying job, a bedroom for a second child, and anything like professional satisfaction.
As always, your mileage may vary—and I sincerely hope that it does.