Liberal Arts Degrees Need Better PR

Recently a “Latenight Rant” by Peter Wirzbicki was posted onto Ph.D. Octopus taking to task the mounting pile of “don’t go to grad school” articles that have proliferated everywhere from academic blogs to the Chronicle of Higher Education to major national magazines. Wirzbicki is tired of hearing about what a terrible decision he made, especially since the people telling him that are mostly people who made that same decision and who had the luxury of making it when the economic outlook wasn’t a re-run of the Great Depression. Wirzbicki argues that these negative-Nelly academics are writing these articles to assuage consciences that are guilty of not taking proactive steps to help their students. Although Wirzbicki’s solutions are political, I think there is something even simpler and more proactive that these professors should be doing to help their students. Professors need to start explaining to the world why a graduate education is important and what value it has outside of academia. They need to start providing grad school with some positive PR.

This is something that has become increasingly important – and dare I say obvious – in the past few years, as the economic situation has forced the academic world to start grappling with the fact that far more students enter PhD programs than will ever receive a faculty appointment. This realization has suddenly dawned on the academy, especially in the liberal arts, but the irony is that this has been the case almost exclusively for the past thirty years (for example, see this chart and article about professional historians). Yet, during this time, there has been little effort to prepare students for alternative careers or to investigate what benefits they would bring. There has been absolutely no attempt, so far as I have seen, to explain to the business world why these students would make strong employees. And this also goes for the undergraduates choosing a liberal arts degree as opposed to a “safe” science degree. There is no sense that anybody – professors, career offices, university administrators – is actually articulating to the public why these degrees are valuable. And don’t get me started on the fact that we can’t all be science majors. There are all sorts of people in the world and all sorts of jobs in the world, and liberal arts majors are actually necessary.

I won’t mount a full argument for this here, but there are certainly many extremely important qualities that educations in the liberal arts provides. There are even more useful skills that come out of the process of going to graduate school and meeting the requirements of a degree program. To start with the obvious, as Matthew Iglesias argued in Slate, anybody who receives a degree in a field based in reading, writing, and arguing in the English language (or any other language), has proved a basic ability to read, research, plan, and write. Even better if that person has gotten good grades in their program. As Iglesias says,

If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields. Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who’s pretty good at his job and a person who’s able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans.

These abilities are exactly what comes out of a liberal arts education, even one in a “useless” area like English or art history, just at the basic level of the undergrad degree.

I would argue further that graduate students, people with master’s degrees or PhDs, have all of these qualities but that the qualities have been sharpened even more. Add to that a critical thinking ability that is stronger than most people’s. These are just the basics. Somebody who has written a Master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation while teaching classes has proven their time-management skills, a certain level of managerial experience, the ability to function on a team (and hopefully to deliver useful but tactful criticism), perhaps the ability to budget, in all likelihood proficiency in at least one foreign language. The list actually goes on.

These benefits are, however, never talked about within academia. Career centers don’t tell students about these abilities, or how to market them to employers. Professors and other grad students don’t try to explain these benefits to the outside world. This needs to stop. Instead of writing “don’t go to grad school” articles, professors and other professionals at universities need to start articulating all of the reasons that their work is creating a skilled workforce for the future.