Pay to win: the cost of a professionalised humanities PhD

There are many hidden costs associated with PhD study, writes Alfredo Cumerma, particularly if you want to land that dream job on graduation

December 8, 2017

Having finally passed my comprehensive examinations, I look at my PhD experience thus far and realise that for this new generation of humanist professionals (as I like to call them), mounting student loan debt is unavoidable – particularly for those of us who pursue a career outside academia – as more than half of us will.

A quick definition. The humanist professional is someone who chooses to put their pyrrhic skills (as in the Greek general Pyrrhus, who defeated the Romans at too great a cost) to work in the public or private sector. They are supporters of the critical thought and analytics expected of any humanist today and they are ambassadors of the impact the humanities can have on public life. Yet like Pyrrhus, their success is costing too much and such professionals face an uncertain future. 

In US humanities study, the numbers are not new: an average PhD debt of $22,405 (£16,600), with 7 per cent of graduates exceeding $90,000; a completion rate among doctoral candidates of 42 per cent, and a declining undergraduate enrolment rate (just 6.1 per cent of all degrees awarded are in the humanities). This latter number is particularly alarming, since undergraduate enrolment is largely what drives the availability of teaching assistantships and fellowships.

The more undergraduate traction that a department has, the better the funding for prospective PhDs overall.

That said, there is a new challenge for humanities departments seeking to boost the employability of their PhDs and it comes in the form of professional barriers to entry. Even at Johns Hopkins University, where I have been fortunate to receive stipend support for internships, the funding package does not take into account the hidden costs of professional development, which is necessary in order to break into a sector on graduation. Thus, anyone who takes their career seriously is forced to supplement traditional departmental support with student loans – a situation that I call “pay to win”.

The term comes from the world of online gaming, a community that has buttressed my social life during the lonely semesters of preparation for exams. I was the only candidate admitted in my year, and while I am grateful for that, I also recognise that the practice of admitting ever fewer PhD students takes a serious toll on graduates’ ability to work in teams – a critical skill in the professional world.

In any case, “pay to win” (P2W) refers to online multiplayer games that have experienced a significant drop in their server populations due to age, quality or lack of development. When compared with the aforementioned panorama of the humanities, you can see why the analogy might fit.

The players who you find in these games are usually “legacy users” who continue to play for reasons of nostalgia or loyalty to the community that they first befriended when the game came out. To compensate for the decline in players, game developers begin to issue (for a fee) character improvements, special items, status in the game, or other incentives to capture new interest. The reasoning is that by offering new players “advanced placement” in the game, they will feel at home with their higher-level peers who have been around for years, instead of languishing alone at the bottom of the ladder.

What this leads to is a top-heavy structure, where the majority of players hold high status in the game, while those who resist paying for a premium account lack community and are left to wander the vast empty fields.

Although not perfect, the analogy illustrates our position. As PhDs entering the professional world, we are competing with candidates who have already worked for four to five years in our chosen sector of employment. This puts us at a disadvantage, since our competition has the skills, knows the people and speaks the lingo of their workplace.

We, on the other hand, are starting from the bottom at an average age of 33 and to even enter this “game”, we must pay to win.

The barrier is not insurmountable. To date, I have completed two significant internships during my PhD, both in my chosen field of international affairs. The first, as a content writer for The Borgen Project, a small non-profit organisation that fights global poverty; the second, as a research analyst for The Carter Center, Latin America and Caribbean Program. Both were unpaid yet necessary stepping stones for my upcoming internship with the Maryland General Assembly, which will mean that I have accomplished slightly more than one year’s worth of work experience during my PhD.

The costs of professionalisation

Here is a ledger from my experience. Last summer, I completed an Adobe Photoshop mini-course that cost $1,495. The summer before, I completed an InDesign course, which cost $1,495. Then, I completed an Excel course, three levels, at $295 each. A WordPress course cost $895.

Since my target career is in foreign affairs, I have to stay on top of developments in some of the major professional organisations that provide links and networking for jobs. My student membership with the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) costs $153 per year, plus another $695 to attend their annual fair.

Add NAFSA workshops on visas, immigration and international student recruitment and the cost of the annual fair triples. Professional resume writer? $295. And this last fee was some of the best money that I have ever spent.

You can easily see how this adds up over a period of five years, however, all of this was essential for me to come up with my internships. Thanks to those NAFSA workshops, I have been able to talk to employers about the importance of educational training programmes here in the US. I was able to produce a fancy infographic at The Carter Center that documented the political crisis in Venezuela (for that I owe a thank you to Erica Burman, special projects officer at the Department of State, who gave her social media management workshop at the EducationUSA Forum in Washington – another $625).

And so the question beckons: as humanities departments begin to improve the employability of their PhDs, how can they better support students on their quest for well-compensated work? How much funding is necessary for the humanities professional to be successful?

A starting point for well-funded programmes such as my own would be to open up stipend use for internships. Despite my apparent success, I did have to work around several bureaucratic restrictions that constrained the use of such funds. Because we make about $2,200 per month as PhD students at Hopkins, I would say that for departments that don’t provide this type of competitive funding, the investment would need to be about $6,000 for a typical semester internship.

For those who prefer to wait for that “golden” paid internship, I can tell you that it will never come without unpaid experience. For instance, nearly everyone who I met during my internship at The Carter Center had already completed some other kind of unpaid opportunity. Many had worked at governors’ offices, thinktanks, or other political organisations. Lamentably, this is the economy that we live in, as documented by Ross Perlin in his 2012 book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.

I should add, though, that I disagree with Mr Perlin. I have learned and grown significantly through my internships and I am looking forward to my next one.

For the moment, the humanist professional is fighting an uphill battle. Like Pyrrhus, they must sacrifice even more men and money to break through the lines of an academic culture that is slowly beginning to accept extra-academic employment. Eventually, these professionals will earn the cache of both undergraduates and faculty alike, but until then, we need to do a better job of supporting them.

Alfredo Cumerma is a Gilman research fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Spanish language and conducts research on Latin American culture and American foreign policy. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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