Putting Humanities Degrees to Work
How to better prepare humanities graduates for the future of work without diluting the value of a humanities education.
The cliché is right: timing is everything in life, especially financially. Economic success often hinges on when you were born.
If you were born in 1905 or 1910, you entered the labor force during the Great Depression. Born around 1990? Well, you exited college just as the Great Recession struck, with lasting consequences for your life prospects—delaying marriage, childbearing, home buying and your rise up the career ladder.
And if you decided to become an academic historian, well … a shocking statistic that recently spread across the Twittersphere tells that unhappy story:
Certainly, the 2020–21 jobs market was especially depressed, given the pandemic-driven lockdowns and administrators’ terror over what the future might bring. But whether the statistic accurately forecasts the future, given a modest post-2021 upturn, the long-term trend in tenure-track job placement seems likely to remain depressed.
Ford Madox Ford’s classic 1915 novel of adultery and spousal betray, The Good Soldier—a tale of duplicity, deceit and empty, loveless marriages and friendships left in ruins by the reckless pursuit of passion—begins with one of Edwardian fiction’s most famous first lines: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
What’s happening to all too many humanities doctoral students is profoundly depressing—anguish, desperation, despondency, dashed hoped and shattered dreams. In a heart-wrenching, profoundly poignant essay entitled “Why I Left Academia (Since You’re Wondering),” William Deresiewicz, one of my favorite contemporary writers, explains why he is no longer an academic: “I didn’t have a choice.”
Despite publishing—he now has four well-received, widely reviewed books, A Jane Austin Education, Excellent Sheep, The Death of the Artist and The End of Solitude, and a string of essays in such highly visible venues as The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation and The New Republic—and teaching for 10 years at Yale, he never got a tenure-track job offer, even after submitting 46 applications to 39 schools, from the most prestigious, like Brown and Dartmouth, to the less well-known, including Ohio State at Mansfield and St. Louis University.
How could this be? As he acknowledges, “With a name like Yale on my CV, plus a decent publication record, I must have really screwed things up to have experienced such dismal fortune. And I did. Oh, I did.”
How so? He couldn’t bring himself to professionalize: “I didn’t think that writing literary monographs and journal articles or going to academic conferences does much of any good for anyone.” Instead, he believed in “writing for a general audience,” “communicating with people beyond the narrow circle of fellow subspecialists.” In short, he tried to write his own rules.
This approach didn’t work out well—until it did, when Deresiewicz left the academy to become a full-time writer.
Of course, the story that Deresiewicz writes isn’t just his. As he puts it in his essay’s subtitle, “Thousands of people are driven out of the profession each year.” Recall the 73 percent of history Ph.D. recipients who didn’t land a tenure-track job. Nothing can repair that loss.
Making matters worse is the half-hearted response on the part of the graduate schools and the professional associations. To be sure, some have reduced admissions into Ph.D. programs, even as many schools expand master’s offerings that all too often fail to result in earnings boosts commensurate with student debt. Many now offer workshops on alternate careers, though the value of such programs is unclear. But there’s no coherent plan to tackle the job problem, for example, by insisting that community colleges hire Ph.D.s. Certainly, much deeper soul-searching is in order.
Then there’s a bigger problem: the number of college graduates, especially in the humanities, unable to find jobs commensurate with their education or linked to their training and interests.
Although a bachelor’s degree remains the best guarantor of entry into a secure, well-paying job, the college wage and wealth premiums have recently diminished, and the fields that such graduates typically seek have grown oversaturated.
In short, as the supply of college graduates increases, the college education premium declines, with the outcome varying by major, institution and other variables. The increasing cost of attendance and high debt loads also make college less of an economic boon.
No longer is a college degree a guarantee of a higher standard of living.
As Noah Smith, an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook and a former Bloomberg opinion columnist, observes, a slew of humanities jobs dried up. There is a lawyer glut. There’s a sharp decline in employment in newsrooms, books, magazines, many nonprofits and, of course, the academy.
So, then, where do humanities graduates wind up? Dispersed widely across the job spectrum, as schoolteachers, HR and PR specialists, technical writers, copywriters and editors, higher ed advisers, media, marketing and sales, academic advising, and much more. But the essential points are these:
Just 28 percent of humanities graduates without an advanced degree found work in a field closely related to their training.
Only about 40 percent would major in the same field, a much higher proportion than those who majored in science, math or engineering.
A similar percentage said that their education failed to prepare them for life.
Statistics like these fuel fears that the United States is headed down the same road as Italy or Spain, with elite overproduction sparking unrest, radicalization and protest—an argument made by Peter Turchin, the Russian-born co-developer of Cliodynamics, which mathematically models historical dynamics.
I think it’s fair to say that the humanities departments that I’m familiar with do less to help students draw connections between their degree program and the job market and offer fewer college-to-career initiatives and career-focused pathways than do most other fields. This is the case despite the growth of programs in the digital humanities, the medical humanities, museum studies, public history, the applied humanities and policy history.
The big question facing our campuses can be found in the title of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel: What Is To Be Done?
We must do a much better job of providing students with windows into careers. Humanities majors need timely information about labor market trends, the skills that specific jobs require and the postgraduation career trajectories of students in who major in humanities disciplines.
Campuses need to recognize that many students, but especially those in the humanities, would benefit from a serious assessment of their interests, strengths, skills and career-relevant prior experience, coupled with more intense academic and career counseling.
Humanities departments should analyze, report on and take actions based on their majors’ career trajectories. This will almost certainly require departments to rethink major requirements, offer more career-connected courses and create new career-aligned major tracks and place a greater emphasis on skills building and skills mastery.
Humanities departments should consider working with other units to develop courses that might strengthen humanities majors’ job market qualifications, by offering classes in digital communication; graphic, website and human interface design; human relations; marketing principles and tools; natural language processing; organizational management and leadership; and project management.
Colleges and universities need to embed career preparation across the undergraduate experience, beginning in year one. It is more important than ever to offer certificate programs, workshops and course-based training in areas related to employment and skills building.
Humanities departments need to create more work-related learning opportunities. The key lies in expanded experiential learning—in the form of internships, mentored research, practicums, studio courses, community-based and service learning, maker spaces, and participation in team-based problem-solving activities and project-based learning.
Humanities programs should take steps to build students’ social capital, by providing networking opportunities with alumni and potential employers, modeling and reinforcing professionalism, and cultivating the soft skills that can contribute to greater success in job applications and on-the-job performance.
None of these initiatives is a panacea, but taken together, such steps can help humanities students chart a direction in life and plot a realistic path toward achieving their career-related goals.