Saturday, January 09, 2010

"....most of them are just plain out of luck."

Marketplace: Liberal arts job market looks bleak:

The 124th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association is in San Diego this weekend. It's probably not the wildest of conventions even in good times, but the mood is a good bit more somber than usual this time around. It wasn't specifically reflected in today's jobless numbers, but new history PhDs looking for work -- most of them are just plain out of luck.

It just seems that PhDs are not worth it anymore. But what do you do if history or some other liberal arts major is your talent and passion? And aren't even college students already lacking in knowledge about history? On the other hand, given the revisionist history many students are learning these days, maybe it's for the best.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was in college, we had a guest speaker (I can't remember who he was any more than I can remember the velociraptor I dated during my junior year).

Anyway, he said that all liberal arts majors had to face the reality that their fortune in life had to be self-determined. Unlike other majors, who could earn a living while they learned their trade, success in the liberal arts was based on making your own luck. You had to finance yourself, write a book, create something or find a niche that nobody else did. In short, you couldn't join a group and work your way up.

Looking back, that advice has proved pretty true. It also reminds me of a cartoon I saw in the New Yorker during a bad recession in the 1980s. Two guys dressed up as scarecrows and hanging from planks are in the middle of a field. One says to the other, "English major. And you?"

A liberal arts major with the entrepreneurial spirit can live a great life; without the spirit to do it yourself, you are one more overeducated burger-flipper.

9:08 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Cham said...

Given that reading tablets are one of the hot items at CES this week, I wouldn't count those history and English majors out so fast. Right now we all like the computer, but the computer isn't really set up for extensive reading, it's more a picture book device.

With all the bad information that has been placed on the Internet in the last 10 years, our society has learned the hard way to ask about the source. As electronic reading devices become cheaper and easier to use, the market for competent written information may explode in the future.

9:12 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Dr.D said...

There is a serious question as to whether PhD degrees have ever been "worth it", at least in the quantities that they have been granted in recent years. As American universities have adopted the business model, rather than the previous scholarship model, the production of more and more PhDs has been simply business expansion. They have flooded the market, in many cases with a "low quality product." It should be no surprise that eventually there is no market.

I think that there will always be a place for a few, truly well educated people in the liberal arts, but not in the quantities that they have been cranked out in recent years. This is simply a natural market reaction, and unfortunately, a number of people are going to get hurt in the process because they bought into the false value system. It is unfortunate, but it is reality.

9:30 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

During my college days, one of my history professors pointed out that Harvard alone produced enough Phds in history to meet the demand for history professors in the entire country. I doubt that is entirely true but the Ivy League schools combined probably do.

A Phd in history, and many other areas, from a mid-level public university or lower is not worth much. A friend of mine earned a B.S. and M.S. in nuclear engineering. I asked him is he was going to get a Phd. He replied no, it would hurt his job opportunities.

9:42 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger SGT Ted said...

"Liberal arts" implies a life of the mind, not a life of the fat wallet. People seem to forget that when going to college. Hence the liberal arts major joke with "do you want fries with that?" as the punchline.

9:58 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...

Picking right up where the homeowners thread left off, people have been buying in to a cultural myth that a highly-educated person can "write their own ticket" to lifelong success.

The "union man" concept - that you can learn a skill, trade or white-collar profession, hawk that skill for a steady job and get the benefits and security without having to work your ass off 60hrs/week or start your own business - was really only true for a tiny subset of history.

Likewise, this idea that people should "find themselves" in college and do what they love has always been tenuous. (I am very lucky that I love engineering, which also happens to be a high-demand, decently-compensated field.) People who thought they would be able to woo an employer with their ability to analyze Joyce or wax on women's studies are delusional; the point is hopefully that a liberal arts education advances your overall communication, analysis, information processing and flexibility traits.

Many people get generic English/history/whatever degrees, and become very successful in business or whatever. The key is they don't take their degree too seriously and expect a job in

The sad thing is that for many professions, you do have to have the piece of paper to show you've been trained in the field. You can't substitute for that, especially not 20 years down the road when every prospective employer is going to see an English degree on the resume of someone applying for a specialized middle-management gig in a field where base knowledge is a requirement.

10:18 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

A lot of people need to get hit with, as a friend of mine put it, a clue-by-four.

If you want to get money, it has to come from somewhere. This money can either be given freely by people who consider your work to be of value to them, or it can be taken from them by force.

Too many people have both an ignorance of basic economics and a sense of entitlement. They think that if they want to do something, they deserve to be able to; if people won't pay them for it freely, the money should be taken by force. This is the mindset that spurs government funding of artists and the like.

These are the same people who think it is scandalous that athletes make so much money, completely ignorant of the fact that athletes draw millions of people into stadiums, to their televisions, or into stores, thus creating millions upon millions of dollars worth of value for their employers.

When choosing a career, you must ask yourself three questions: 1) What do I like doing? 2) What am I good at? 3) How can I get someone to give me money for this? For most of us, there will be compromise; this is why hobbies exist. But this imbecilic idea that kids can be whatever they want to be has got to stop.

Life is acceleration and reality is a brick wall - the longer you wait until hitting it, the harder the impact.

10:30 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Doom said...

I wonder if the lowered expectation and the muddling of facts and impetus of history have lead to the decline in demand itself? It might be a treasure to have someone on hand who really has an idea about what happened, why it happened, where and when it happened, and in a real way. But no one really wants to hear history as liberals would have it when that way fails in every manner. Not only that, but much of the revisionism is less romantic and often downright offensive. Truth may be harsh, but lies, especially obvious ones, are just that.

If only news media, and the rest really, weren't dying (for similar reasons?), there might be work in the mail room for such. Ah well, I'll shed my crocodile tears in private. :p

10:40 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

Cham --

"As electronic reading devices become cheaper and easier to use, the market for competent[ly] written information may explode in the future."

That kinda precludes liberal arts indoctrination don't it? Seriously, some of the most tortuous and illogical prose I've ever read has been from liberals. All that agenda couching.

10:58 AM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...

I'm not an econ guy, but so far as I can tell how much money you make rests on the following triangle:

1. How advanced/training-intensive are your skills?
2. How many people want to, or can, do your job?
3. How much overall money is involved in what you do?

I'm an engineer. Our skills are very advanced (professional engineering at a high level normally requires a master's degree), not THAT many people want to go through the education and do the work day-to-day, and the market for well-engineered products is huge. Ergo, lots of engineers make decent money. You don't get rich unless you invent or start a company, but the middle-class wages can be comfortable. (Things are changing with globalization, so the overall benefit is shrinking.)

Let's counterpoint with, say, teachers. They have tried to make their skills advanced (by requiring M.Ed. degrees) but the requirements aren't _really_ that high, lots of people want to get into teaching because of the benefits, and large sums of money (property taxes) are involved in the school systems. Point #2 is why teachers don't get paid more; commodity labor is banging down the schoolhouse door.

Teachers also have unions that protect their jobs, which should drive up wages but has the collateral effect of keeping lame teachers from getting fired. This leads to a widespread apathy towards the wages of teachers by the public - since everyone in the US probably needs two hands to count how many boneheaded, incompetent teachers they had growing up. Since teachers get paid by political process, widespread apathy is bad for their wages.

12:27 PM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger DADvocate said...

widespread apathy towards the wages of teachers by the public

I would add widespread antipathy towards teachers.

While my kids have had a few good teachers, the stories I could tell you about the bad ones, bad administrators, the institutionalized idiocy of schools, etc overshadow them. I'm sure any commenter here with kids school age or better or who remembers their school days can do the same.

12:40 PM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Arclandia said...

I'm in this boat. I love history, but there's no way it will become my full-time job.

Here's how I cope.

1. Admit that this will not be your primary goal in school.
2. Major in something that will get you a job (MBA, etc.). Use history as your elective classes or a second bachelor degree.
3. Keep up your job skills.
4. In your free time, read history. I'm currently reading Dr. Ives book on Lady Jane Grey with lay historian Alison Weir's book on Anne Boleyn next.
5. Plan vacations to visit historical sites.
6. Keep up a blog about history. (My blog debuts in February.)
7. Write a book about history.

Yes, you will get some lay historian who will sniff that only doctorates should be relied on, but generally if you utilize primary sources, you will be fine. Alison Weir's career is an excellent example.

Note steps 1-3 keep you on a nice job hunt while step 4-7 keeps you doing what you love (if lucky, money will follow).

2:44 PM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger David Foster said...

Management consultant Michael Hammer argued that preparation for an executive career should include *both* a strong undergraduate liberal-arts education *and* a rigorous undergraduate program in science or engineering. His arguments are excerpted here:

4:44 PM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Cham said...


Your comments are interesting. Right now I am also reading a historical book: "Porte Crayon: The Life of David Hunter Strother". This is a biography of an artist and writer whose career spanned 1840-1870. The artist was encouraged by his friends and family not to pursue an arts degree because nobody in that era could make any money at it, they wanted him to be a lawyer. Since David couldn't do anything else he bucked the trend and studied art. He didn't make money at the beginning, he practically starved trying to do portraiture. He went to work as a woodblock cutter and traveled when he could. Harper's Weekly came into existence in the early 1850's. David Hunter Strother was the only person at the time who could do 3 things: adventure travel, write well and cut woodblocks for printing. He ended up becoming quite rich writing exciting short stories and illustrating them for a newly increasing literate American audience. You never know what is going to happen in the future.

5:11 PM, January 09, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of liberal arts types simply couldn't pass a rigorous course of studies in something like engineering, hard sciences or math.

5:13 PM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Cham said...

But, then again, many engineers can't write.

6:00 PM, January 09, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I hate to burst your bubble, but a lot of liberal arts types can't write.

The stupidest people at a university are not in engineering, law, medicine or the hard sciences.

Some of the stupidest people are in broad liberal arts programs, a whole lot are in the "studies" programs (like women's studies) and a whole, whole, whole lot are in "education" (especially elementary education).

6:03 PM, January 09, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I did tutoring in college, I ran across football or basketball scholarship guys who actually could not even read or write. They stuck them in phys ed or liberal arts or elementary ed. Somehow they passed.

6:06 PM, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Aime D'Tact said...

It seems there is a general feeling that these history majors haven't done any real work with 'hard' skills. I hate to burst any bubbles, but keep in mind that history PhDs who study anything outside the United States have to learn a rather wide collection of languages.

In my field (Ancient History) it is quite simply impossible to proceed without good literary in English, Latin, Greek (multiple dialects, ancient and modern), German (for research), French (for research), Italian (research and travel). How many people do you know who know at least six languages?

And the language proficiency is not the core of the historians skill. It is simply a prerequisite to doing anything meaningful in history. One cannot write about anything without reading it in the original language. One cannot intelligently comment on an event without reading the accounts in the original language.

In addition, one has to be literate and conversant in up-to-date economic and demographic theories and models. If a historians wants to discuss architecture or technology, he or she must be knowledgeable in that as well. Proper history thus blends vast language skills with complex and detailed knowledge of a wide variety of fields which would be professions in their own right. Economics, Demography, Sociology, Architecture, military science, theology, philosophy are all essential.

And of course the hard sciences, both the old ideas we have moved beyond, and current ideas we may move beyond at any moment.

The practice of history does require skills. It is not an easy job. Perhaps some other humanities are. And perhaps some historians are not as diligent in acquiring the many skills required for the task. But let us not pretend that the study of history, done in a language other than our own, in a time other than our own, about people who did not think nor did they see the world as we do, let us not pretend that is an easy task. It is not.

12:59 AM, January 10, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:40 AM, January 10, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aime D'Tact:

It may well be that history and other programs are much more rigorous in certain foreign countries.

This statement I heard from a woman sums up what I think about "soft" Ph.D. programs in the United States:

"My dad said he'd pay for it, and it beats working".

A few universities today even offer Ph.D. programs in women's studies. There is no rigor to those kinds of programs at all.

7:40 AM, January 10, 2010  
Blogger george said...

The Funny Viking is right. Society can only support so many liberal arts majors. Generally they are a drain on society so there has to be a lot of surplus wealth to make it possible for an economy to pull the extra dead weight.

It doesn't help that in many of these fields people will be more ignorant after their education than they were before it. My economics classes were taught by a guy who said he was a Marxist --- which is roughly the equivalent of having a numerologist teach calculus or an astrologer teach astronomy. They may use some of the same words but they are lacking on the concepts.

George - The Humorless Celt.

3:57 PM, January 10, 2010  
Blogger Topher said...

Gotta give some props to an indispensable history PhD - KC Johnson, history prof at Brooklyn College. He first challenged the CUNY tenure process when he was denied tenure (he won and in effect busted the "collegiality" racket.)

His most important contribution, however, is that he took on a primary reporting role very early in the Duke lacrosse rape hoax, filling out an extensive blog at and coauthoring a book. He outperformed almost every "professional journalist" on the case, and exposed the wackjob faculty at Duke and other schools who wanted to send innocent white men to jail to "make up" for previous injustice.

9:40 PM, January 10, 2010  
Blogger Jeff Y said...

The government intervened in the labor market intentionally lowering PhD salaries and increasing unemployment among scientists and engineers. It's done on purpose and it is advocated by the NSF.

National Bureau of Economic Research Paper

Professor Matloff's summary of the problem

In the midst of this terrible 17+% (real) unemployment, the US government has issued over 1 million green cards to foreign workers. Think about that.

Your government hates you. It wants to reduce R&D costs for big business at your expense. Advocates for unfettered immigration hate you. They are willing to impoverish the people to satisfy their ideological idea of social fairness or laissez faire economics.

These organizations and people hate you. I suggest you hate them right back.

2:08 AM, January 11, 2010  
Blogger Manos said...

At school history was my passion and ended up getting a BA in History when I went to college.

For the past 13 years I've worked in IT and I have never regretted my History degree. A good Arts degree taught me a lot more useful skills then a computer science degree would have.

Ten years on into IT, all but the uber-coders have burnt out. So either you work in project management or used car sales. Being able to speak in public, write papers, understand world politics (off-shoring) is vital. CS graduates aren't prepared for the real work environment.

My two cents.

1:29 PM, January 11, 2010  
Blogger Jeff Y said...

Evan M Thomas wrote, "CS graduates aren't prepared for the real work environment. "

There is no work environment for CS graduates. The government has admitted 80,000+ H-1B high-tech workers into the US --- each year for fifteen years! It's tanked the entire labor market for CS graduates.

If you think project management is safe, then you better think again. Remember all those people who told you, "the design jobs will stay here." They were wrong. Jobs in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics are going to leave the country or be done in the US by a foreign worker. PRogramming and engineering is a dead end for US citizens.

This is an intentional policy of your government, abetted by misguided liberals and stupid free immigration advocates.

They hate you. Hate them back.

1:40 PM, January 11, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Evan M. Thomas sez "Being able to speak in public, write papers, understand world politics (off-shoring) is vital."


Yes, and all history majors can do all of that stuff and no computer science major can do any of that stuff.

1:48 PM, January 11, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have not conducted any double-masked, double-blind empirical studies on who the stupidest people in college are, but at the college I went to, if you wanted to throw a dart in a room and hit am imbecile who thrived on alcohol, late-night partying, getting laid and skiing all weekend, you went to the dorm where the business majors lived.

I have nothing against business majors or even MBAs, but my experience with them both at school and throughout life has been decidedly less than charming.

A close second are education majors. Wow! Those people are too stupid to even win a stupid contest.

[All business and education majors reading this are, of course, excluded from this observation for strictly self-serving purposes.]

2:47 PM, January 11, 2010  
Blogger SultanOfSuede said...

Hey, women ain't happy.

3:29 PM, January 11, 2010  
Blogger Mario said...

This is a pet peeve of mine, which explains why I point it out at every opportunity.

Please consider of the following. A bank will not lend you money for any crazy pipe-dream business opportunity. You have to present a viable plan, in other words, demonstrate that you have a reasonable expectation of enough success to be able to pay back the loan.

But, howsoever poor the job prospects are for whatever college degree you wish to pursue, banks will loan you money. In this case, the borrower is usually somewhere between 18-22, a young adult who has spent something like 12 years in school -- usually public school -- having the importance of a college education (any college education) preached 185 days a year.

Why do banks do this? Because the government guarantees the loans. Why does the government do this? Because it will hound the borrower to his or her grave to repay the loan.

A failed businessman -- be it a clueless restaurant owner or a disreputable building contractor -- can discharge his debts through bankruptcy. Student loans, however, can't be discharged.

Banks have to be careful when they lend money, except when they make student loans. Any fool English major or whatever can put himself tens of thousands of dollars into debt. This should not continue. It's not that borrowers shouldn't repay, and it's not that people shouldn't be careful not to borrow more than they can repay; but our legal framework -- but for student loans -- works to second guess the borrower, with good reason.

It's a laugh that liberal arts majors, at college, will be taught all about the "military-industrial complex." They should be taught about the education-banking complex.

7:41 PM, January 12, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm applying to History PhD programs for the fall. I want to study military history, which is a tough sell in academia but is probably the best type of historian to be outside of it - the military employs hundreds of historians, and I'm betting more and more counterterrorism-oriented think tanks will want people with a strong background in military history. So hopefully I should be all right...

8:16 PM, January 12, 2010  

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