Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor
[2014 Update: So what can you do with your history degree? My friend and former student Lee Nilsson offers some great tips in No, You Cannot be a Professor Part III: Survivor Stories .]
In a way it is the greatest compliment a student can give. I ask them what they want to do with their history degree. They get all passionate and earnest and vulnerable as they answer, "I want your job. I am going to be a college professor!" Then they turn their smiling faces towards me, expectantly awaiting my validation and encouragement of their dreams. And I swallow hard, and I tell them.
No, my esteemed student, you are not going to be a history professor. It isn't going to happen. The sooner you accept this the better.
This is not because you are not bright enough. You are plenty bright. In any case, finishing a Ph.D. program is more a matter of persistence than intelligence. The reason you are not going to be a professor is because that job is going away, and yet doctoral programs continue to produce as many new Ph.D.s as ever. It is a simple calculation of odds--you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.
First, let's look at the odds. Tenure track jobs are declining. The AHA recently reported that "The number of job openings in history plummeted last year, even as the number of new history PhDs soared. As a result, it appears the discipline is entering one of the most difficult academic job markets for historians in more than 15 years." And the job market was terrible 15 years ago. Very few of the people in history PhD programs right now are going to get teaching jobs--the Economist recently concluded that "doing a PhD is often a waste of time."
Ah, but you say, I am special. I am a 4.0 student (except in your class where you gave
me that 3.8 and ruined my life). Every teacher since kindergarten has told me how delightfully clever I am. I have interesting ideas and I really really love history. I know how hard it is to become a professor, but I am willing to work hard, so those odds do not apply to me.
Yes they do. The thing about grad school is that everyone else is at least as special as you, and most of them are more so. They all had 4.0 GPAs, they all have gone through life in the same insulating cocoon of praise, they all really, really love history. Hell, some of them shoot rainbows out of their butts and smell like a pine forest after a spring rain--and they mostly aren't going to get jobs either.
I know that some of your other professors are encouraging your dreams of an academic career. It is natural to turn to your professors for advice on becoming a professor, and it natural for them to want to see you succeed. Remember though that we 1) mostly have not been on the job market lately and 2) in any case are atypical Ph.D.s in that we did land tenure track positions. To return to the lottery analogy, it is like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket. For our part, there is a lot of professional satisfaction in mentoring some bright young person, encouraging their dreams, writing them letters of recommendation and bragging of their subsequent acceptance into a good doctoral program. Job market? What job market?
Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promises to provide education with far fewer teachers--and whether you buy into this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won't be that lucky.