The Big Lie About the Life of the Mind

Earlier this year Thomas Benton wrote an essay The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind, skewering academic humanities in the United States. His thesis is that there is effectively a conspiracy to produce many more PhDs than there are faculty slots, and to keep the carrot of the tenure-track faculty position just out of reach so that graduate students and PhDs will work for little or no money and without job security.

Is there a Big Lie? A conspiracy? The conspiracy angle doesn’t ring true for me; rather, it’s a flawed system. But really, it doesn’t seem so difficult to be more or less completely honest with students about the realities of academic life, though undoubtedly this is easier in a field like mine where PhDs who fail to get faculty positions still have bright job prospects. Although a professor’s ethical position can be a bit complicated — requiring a balance of loyalty between the students, the institution, and the field — simple human decency seems to demand that students get straightforward advice when they need it.

An ethical conflict that comes up fairly often is when an undergrad asks whether she should go to grad school somewhere else, or stay at her current institution. The accepted wisdom, at least as I learned it, is that a student in this situation is always encouraged to leave. Not all professors agree, and also some who agree in principle are perfectly willing to bend the rule in practice to keep a talented student on the local team. Of course the situation can get genuinely murky when a student has good reasons — family or whatever — to stay local. Other examples where people differ: when an undergrad asks if he should go to grad school, or if a PhD student asks if she should pursue a faculty position. Many profs reflexively answer “yes” to both questions, but it would seem that a more nuanced view is called for. Would this person really benefit from an advanced degree? Would it give her a happier and more productive life than she’d otherwise have? I’ve actually caught a bit of flak from colleagues for creating a “should you go to grad school?” talk that doesn’t portray the PhD program in a sufficiently positive light.

In terms of advice for students, you first must find people you can trust and get their advice. In my experience most faculty will not lie to a student’s face about their prospects. If you’re exceptionally unlucky and find yourself in some sort of den of liars, use the Internet. Second, you have spent the last N years learning to think critically (if not, you’re sort of screwed); use this ability to answer some important questions:

  • Are you smarter and harder-working than the average grad student in your field? It’s no fun to be below average. Related question: Would you rather be in the dumbest, laziest 20% at MIT or the smartest, most diligent 20% at a lower-ranked school? (Not trying to be snooty here — I didn’t apply to MIT and wouldn’t have gotten in if I had.)
  • Are people in your field getting the jobs they want? It should be possible to find data, not just anecdotes.
  • If you were highly successful in grad school, would that lead to a life that you want?
  • If grad school doesn’t go well for you, are you going to be really mad that you wasted a few years?

A bit of economic thinking can go far towards understanding the lay of the land. Is your field expanding, contracting, or staying the same size? A non-expanding field makes it extremely tough to get a tenure-track faculty position since a slot only appears when someone retires. What are the magnitudes of the various sources of money (state salaries, government grants, tuition, etc.)? What are the magnitudes of the various money sinks (faculty / postdoc / staff salaries, student stipends, etc.)?

In summary, I’d like to think there is no Big Lie about academia, although there may well be plenty of little lies and white lies. Combat this by not being a Pollyanna. Being a professor is a pretty good job and all good jobs have significant barriers to entry. Find people you trust, ask them hard questions, and think hard about the answers. If you don’t like the answers or if things smell fishy, there’s probably a reason.

[The Truth About the Life of the Mind is a loose followup to this piece.]


  1. I think most undergraduates have NO idea how competitive it is to get a tenure track position. I certainly didn’t.

    This doesn’t mean that they were lied to, or even that they regret it, but it does seem there is a lack of information.

    So it would be good to explicitly state that the likelihood of getting a TT job in a desirable location at a desired institution is either slim or very slim (depending on their field). There are simply many more applicants than positions. They might also have to do several years of low paid post docs or adjunct positions (all the while under tremendous pressure to publish) before they get that position. I am not saying that academics are worse off than other people, just that many undergraduates are not aware of these realities.

  2. Hi Postdoc- You’re right on all counts. Making things a bit more complicated, the academic job situation is worse than it’s been in years and it’s hard to keep re-tuning the message we give to students. Of course that’s what we need to do.

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