If I ever go to another school, you should run away from it as fast as you can. That is the practical implication of Felix Salmon’s post a few days ago rounding up arguments for why you should not get a Ph.D. in the humanities or go to law school.
Thomas Benton’s article, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” nails the basic reasons why I went to UC Berkeley nineteen years ago: excitement in the subject, a history of high grades, the comforting structure of academia, romanticization of university life, and no practical application of academic skills. (See the six bullets halfway down the article.) When I left Berkeley in 1997, I could not get an academic job that I wanted … and the rest is history, I guess. If you do get a Ph.D. in the humanities these days, the numbers are even more heavily against you than they were then. First, American universities as a whole are shifting from tenure-track jobs to untenured adjunct positions; second, within universities, the jobs are shifting from the humanities into vocational fields like accounting and nursing. The ongoing bloodbath in state finances is only making things worse, since most of the good universities in the country are public.
Law school (where I am now) is probably a better bet, but it could be getting worse. This is the money chart, from the National Association of Legal Professionals (commentary by Bill Henderson here; on the reasons for that distribution, see Henderson here):
(Those are starting salaries after graduation, not current salaries.) There are some caveats here. 9.6% of the people in that distribution are judicial clerks, which means they will probably be leaving those jobs in one-two years, and many of them will move from the left-hand mode to the right-hand mode (which, these days, is around $170,000). 5.4% of them are public interest lawyers, which means they may have been planning to have a modest income all along–but that doesn’t change the fact that they have a modest income and, most likely, a lot of debt. (Some might be independently wealthy, but this post indicates that the proportion of public interest lawyers is actually higher among people with high debt loads than among people with no debt. Which also implies, indirectly, that the people who have money most want to make more of it.)
In other words, law school is no guarantee that you’ll make enough money to pay off $45,000 of tuition per year. And the trends, though weaker than for the humanities, are probably negative. That right-hand mode is based on the ability of top-tier, big-city law firms to bill out associates at outrageous rates. The trend is for big corporations to refuse to pay those rates for people right of law school, which is putting pressure on the system as a whole. (I don’t think this trend has a ton of momentum behind it yet, though, so it may fizzle out.)
Of course, no individual’s prospects are perfectly represented by the aggregate distribution. If you can get into a top school, your chances are better. When I went to Berkeley, the history department was essentially tied for the top position in the country, and I couldn’t get a good job; however, one of my closest friends in graduate school got tenure early at Harvard and another friend recently won a MacArthur “genius” grant. But nothing is guaranteed. At the very top law schools, if you want to be in that right-hand mode, you will probably get there. But you may not stay there for long enough to pay off your debts. At one school, although about 70 percent of grads go to law firms (most of the rest to public interest or government work), by five years after graduation slightly less than half are still at those firms. Job satisfaction is higher among the people not at law firms, not surprisingly.
Personally, I think law school is great: the classes are moderately interesting, the people are great, it’s super-non-competitive (at least at Yale), you can do whatever you want, … So I wouldn’t necessarily counsel people not to do it. But prospective students should know what the numbers are, they should be aware of how much debt they’re taking on, and they should know what type of lifestyle it takes to make the whole thing pay off financially. And, as always, they should watch out for optimism bias. It’s easier to say that you will be the person working late nights through your late twenties and early thirties than to actually do it.
B y James Kwak