In Defense of the Humanities Ph.D.: It’s No Crazier Than Becoming a Journalist

As my own tenure decision loomed, in my darkest moments I consoled myself by noting that, even if I had been denied tenure, I would have spent most of my 20s studying what I love and most of my 30s drawing a steady salary teaching and researching what I loved, along the way managing, by frugal living and entrepreneurial application of my technical skills, to pay off most of a decade on my mortgage (and eliminating all my other debts), in a job that gave me great flexibility to be part of my home-schooling family life. Every March, I was given a contract for the next academic year, giving me job security plenty of folks would envy, and giving me a comfortable cushion (if not in terms of time, if not money).

I did end up with tenure, though several colleagues with whom I worked side-by-side did not.

I am very conscious, as I mentor bright students who are thinking of grad school, that my own career track has been much easier than it could have been — though truth be told, it has gone less smoothly than I imagined when I was a grad student.

one Atlantic editor with a doctorate put it, “When I was in my 20s, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I liked the idea of working in a video store and not worrying about a career. But I was also a little worried about not worrying about a career, and I was interested in the history of civilization. So I decided to do something I semi-joked about at the time as a plan to waste the rest of my 20s and get congratulated for it at the end.”

And it worked: He wasn’t particularly psyched about academia by the time he graduated, and he wouldn’t advise most people to follow in his footsteps, but he was congratulated. And then he went to work for McKinsey. And then he came to work for The Atlantic. He’s sitting five feet away from me and he’s my boss. Maybe he had a rough time living in the must-be-a-professor cult and then realizing it wasn’t for him, but he spent his twenties reading good books and having long vacations, and I’m spending my twenties working for him. (Because he’s nice, he lets me read good books in my work, too.)

I’m not trying to tell anyone to go start a humanities Ph.D.. But if you really want it, if it’s funded, if you think your abilities are a good match, and in particular if the choice is between spending your twenties reading Hegel while drinking or just spending your twenties drinking, then frankly there are worse ways of applying ones’ youthful passions. —The Atlantic.