PhD Job Hell: An Open Letter to Thomas H. Benton A.K.A. William A. Pannapacker: How Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go Destroyed My PhD and Saved My Life


The PhD job crisis is often obscured and ignored by many professors. This is an article about Thomas H. Benton (AKA) William A. Pannapacker, who wrote several articles about why you shouldn’t do a PhD in the humanities.

This is an open letter to Thomas H. Benton.I’m writing you to thank-you for being the only professor to straight out tell me that there are no jobs for PhD’s in the humanities.

This is to thank-you for not hiding behind fuzzy ideals like “education is worthwhile for its own sake, education prepares you for life, education makes you a thinker which is a valuable skill for any employer.”

Instead, you made a simple point.  If there are no jobs for PhD’s, then why go to grad school?

That’s because you knew that you can’t pay rent with ideals.  You knew that you can’t cite your understanding of Wallace Stevens as the reason why you should be hired for the sales position. You knew that 30 is a depressing, challenging age to be thrown into a search for a new career outside of academia, especially after spending 10 years slaving away to become a scholar.

You thought about the practical consequences of such ideals: life-long poverty, frustrated ambition, and hard, long years of work that gave nothing in return, except a full library and an empty resume.

I’m writing you, most of all, to thank-you for saying this:

There should be a special place in hell for the professors who–at the end of an advisee’s 10-year graduate program with no job in sight–say, ‘well, academe is not for everyone.”‘

–Thomas H. Benton, “The Big Lie of the Life of the Mind.”

These words changed my life.  They made me walk through the hallways of my department different.  They made me wonder why, when I told my supervisor I was thinking of dropping out, he encouraged me to continue.  Why did he encourage me to continue?

Your articles made me realize that the lack of jobs for PhD’s wasn’t going to end soon.  Nobody was willing to admit that the humanities needed drastic changes. “The good ones always get jobs.” Build a life on that, young man.

This is to thank-you for being the only professor who said it was alright to find success outside of academe.

Most of all, thank-you for your empathy.  You stood up for individual grad students, rather than the system of academe which needs to eat us to survive.

Because of your articles, more grad students than you ever will know have gone on to live better lives outside of academe.

I’m one of them.


A humanities major who got lost in grad school.

James @


“If you are smart enough to do a PhD., then you are smart enough to not do one.”

Thank-you also for that.

How William A. Pannapacker Changed My Life

It was Thursday morning. I had two things on my mind. The first was how I was going to support myself now that my department fellowship had run out.  The second was an offer to transfer to McGill: a chance to continue my path to being a professor, with a generous financial package and a very supportive research cluster.

The future on the one side seemed bright: finish my doctorate degree and continue to live the life of the mind.  The future on the other was unknown: suddenly change career directions with no practical skills, no work experience, and a resume stuffed with unemployable academic awards.

I had been in grad school for two years.  I was 75% percent sure that I would make it through a doctorate and get a tenure track job. I rationalized the other 25% as healthy fear, motivation to keep me running for the goal.

Then I began to read some of Benton’s articles, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” and “The Big Lie About the Life of the Mind.” I later wrote him and asked for advice.  I’m sure he received hundreds of e-mails like mine, but he responded personally within a day and gave me helpful advice. Twice.

It was as if one professor in the world was saying what others only gestured at: there are no jobs for PhD’s in the humanities, there are little chances for employment for PhD’s, there is a terrible ethical abnegation by professors to let bright young people study for 10 years and then fall into the cracks of unemployability and depression.

There is a sad trap of prestige with grad school, a path which talented young people chase, only to find at the end a lack of any real achievement, social prestige, or financial reward–the very things that they thought grad school would bring them and for which they made unhealthy personal and financial sacrifices.

Something is structurally wrong in the humanities.  Yet few have the guts to straight out say it.

The job crisis as told by grad school recruitment

Yes, professors would say things like “the supply of PhD’s outweigh the demands.” Or, as the official website to my program read: “Only 50% of PhD graduates can expect to find employment within the university.” But these numbers are ambiguous at best. 50% of each graduating class?  That would mean half of your class won’t get tenure and if, you are in the top 10 university pick for a program, then you will get a job. Right?

I was 6th overall pick for my recruitment and received one of the largest fellowships available. The website said that those who receive the large financial packages tend to be the same applicants who eventually get jobs.  It was a risk, but I didn’t know exactly how big of a risk.

A different story emerges when you actually look at the official placement records posted by universities. The prestigious Canadian university I was accepted to had about two pages of successful placements over the past 15 years (which if you did the math, was a success story every 4 or 5 years).

But a closer look revealed that many of these “successful graduates” included post-doctorate fellows (not quite there yet!), adjuncts (the janitor probably makes more than the adjunct, works many less hours,  has job security, vacation pay, and benefits), and visiting professors (one year then you are on to the next town).

At the career talk for PhD’s, my university had a list of their PhD graduates who found jobs: a graduate who had gotten a PhD and now was in law school at the University of Toronto (What???? How is that a successful life path, 15+ years of school to get a job?); a PhD who was now teaching part-time at the university (which she would have been doing for her entire doctorate degree anyways); and a PhD who now worked in a prestigious high school. You don’t need to devote 2 years of your life to pass comp exams, to teach at a nice high school. In fact, I’d bet most humanities undergraduates go into PhD programs for the precise reason of not wanting to teach at a high school.

I should have asked whether even one graduate had gotten a tenure job.  Sorry, did we forget to tell you that no graduate in the history of our department has ever landed a tenure track job? Must have slipped our minds. And this is a university which ranks in the top 50 schools on the planet.

Ten years of education, little freedom or money in their twenties, delayed families, ignored spouses, and a research skill-set that would eventually sit on a shelf, useless, unemployable, unwanted.

That was not what I signed up for.

So if there are no jobs for PhD’s, why stay?

Because being a professor had been the theme of my life.  My friends even called me “the professor” (mostly due to my purgatorial stay at university). My grandfather, a McGill man.  My other grandfather, a McGill man. They had thrived in the post-war era, where education meant possibility. Everyone in my middle class family believed that more education could only lead to more success.

To give up this dream is to give up both your career path and your identity. You have to tell Old Grandpa that you decided after all not to get a PhD and work at Wal-Mart instead because financially it makes more sense.

“What good,” asks Thomas Benton, “is professional training for a job that you are not likely to get, after a decade of discipline, debt, and deferred opportunity?”

That is really something grad students refuse to think about.

They procrastinate until the day they are on the job market, hoping the situation will fix itself.  Unfortunately, the captains of the ship, their wonderful professors, are doing the same.

The Future of the Job Crisis in the Humanities

The job crisis in the humanities will not fix itself. The best defense is to bleed it dry.  Don’t worry about the statistics.  Just save yourself. Don’t become a martyr for a discipline that will turn its back on you after your dissertation has been signed.

But the reality is that very few conversations take place among grad students about the future.  They rarely think about the fact that there is about a 30% chance they will get a job with a PhD. They take solace in their awards, in their publications, the praise of professors, and in the identity of being a professional intellectual.

They lie to themselves. They tell themselves that they are here for the right reasons: they are here because they are thinkers, readers, and special citizens with intellectual powers.

The truth is that nobody really wants to go to graduate school for 5 or 6 years to then end up landscaping (my current job) or working in a bookstore or teaching at a high school.  They want a good income, a prestigious job, and a chance to be rewarded for their highly developed skills. After ten years of labour for the university, I believe that they deserve this.  Otherwise, the system is a fraud.

If there are few career opportunities for PhD’s, then what are the other reasons why you would do the degree?

Thomas Benton made me go back to my original reasons for going to grad school.  Originally, I had wanted to get a PhD because it would offer me:

Money (at least a comfortable income, enough to buy a home, support a family)

Security (a job that would last)

Prestige (a job that was hard to get)

Passion (the ability to do something I was interested in)

Delayed gratification (In ten years, I wanted to feel like I made the right choice, to feel like my sacrifices and labour was worth it).

With the current state of jobs in the humanities, I went back over that list. Without tenure, none of those would be satisfied. Sure, I might end up teaching at a small college.  But teaching English comp classes is not my passion.  And it doesn’t pay well.  And it is harder than you think to wait around for one of those few college teaching positions to open up. Look at a community college website.  Are you supposed to keep hitting refresh for a few years till one of the other faculty dies?

Even worse, somewhere along the line, the tune changed.  Suddenly, professors would drop little things like this into conversations: “well if getting a job is the only reason why you are in grad school. . .” What? Of course, you get a PhD to get a job.  Call me vulgar, but getting a job with the education you receive (all 10 years and heavy debt) is a reasonable exchange for giving up bright youth and all other opportunities which might have arisen outside of a decade spent in a library.

Why grad students refuse to give up the Ph.D. career dream

As Thomas Benton tells us, most people who go to grad school in the humanities do so because of two reasons: (1) they come from middle-class families which equate more education with more opportunity (2) they don’t have many other options with a BA in art history, drama, or any other humanities degree.

In other words, they are smart and hard workers, but don’t really have many options.  Work at the community newspaper.  Or take the $100,000 scholarship to the University of Chicago and become a professor.

They truly believe that whatever the future holds having a PhD won’t hurt them in the long-term.  It will increase their employability in a variety of different fields.  Who wouldn’t want to hire a PhD over an undergraduate?

The reality is that it does hurt you.  It robs you of practical job experience and skills: the things that employers use to make money off of you and pay your salary.  You can’t bill someone out for prestige and future job proficiency potential.  You have little to offer an employer in the next year–they aren’t going to hire someone with the promise that in five years your PhD  is really going to make you good at the job.

That is really what I would like to thank Thomas Benton for.

Because he told me to rid myself of “all prestigious affiliations.”  Don’t go to law school after your PhD, don’t try to hang around the university attending international conferences, don’t try to simply get more prestige in the hope it will translate into opportunity.

You have enough prestige.

You now have to create your own success. You have to do it without a university to validate you.

You are out on your own. It might be frightening. But the only other option is back into the university, which I hope you see, isn’t much of a future.

Just don’t go.  If you are there, leave and devote your energy and work-ethic into something that will reward you.

Articles by Thomas Benton On The Overproduction of PhD’s

If you’d like to read some of Thomas Benton’s articles, here are some I learned a lot from:

“The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind.’”  Thomas H. Benton’s article which was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in February, 2010.

The article talks about why graduate education is a trap, showing that the system can’t accommodate the amount of PhD‘s it produces.  The best part of the article is Benton’s attack on the myth of graduate education for education’s sake.  Although there are few jobs for PhD’s, many professors still wax philosophical about the inherent merits of advanced education and the “disinterested pursuit of knowledge.” Benton takes a much more practical and humane approach, taking into account the hordes of young men and women that are lured into the prestige PhD trap with the mistaken belief that more education will breed more career opportunities.

“Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.” This is the most famous article, a blunt warning to young undergraduates thinking about pursuing a PhD in the humanities. It argues against the biggest myth about career prospects for new PhD’s: the myth that there will always be jobs for the good students. Benton’s intent is to warn prospective grad students with the bleak numbers of tenure positions, showing that getting a PhD involves taking a massive gamble on your future.

It also points out that PhD’s who try to find employment outside of academia after giving up the tenure dream are at a disadvantage to undergraduates who, rather than going to 6 to 7 years of doctoral school, have built up their careers and skill-sets.

As I’ve tried to make clear, I admire Benton’s bluntness.  Just don’t go.  Too many academics would have tried to present a nuanced view.

But nuance isn’t much consolation to a 33 year old scholar who has finally given up on finding a good job in academe, lives in a one bedroom apartment, and who has at the end of his great accomplishment of getting a PhD another mountain to climb: the difficult transition back into the world he left behind.

Also, check out Benton’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go Part 2”

  1. To be fair, the discipline of English Literature (Pannapacker’s field) is glutted beyond belief, far more than ANY other discipline.

    I work at a community college and when we have openings in English, they receive quintuple the number of applications of most other disciplines. Most openings will garner 50-75 apps. English, easily 200.

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