Brett Foster: Why Get a PhD in the Humanities?

In two recent columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas H. Benton (the pen name of William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College) warned students against getting a PhD in the humanities. Just in case anyone missed his point, Benton’s first column was entitled “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” and his follow-up column, “Just Don’t Go, Part 2”. We recommend reading both articles, but here was a key passage from the first:

As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:
  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk, the full consequences of which they cannot assess because they do not understand how the academic-labor system works and will not listen to people who try to tell them.

We weren’t satisfied with Benton’s advice, because we felt he left out important reasons why one should attempt a PhD in the Humanities. Rather than write a response ourselves, we contacted several Christian faculty in the humanities and asked them how they would respond to the question:

“From a Christian perspective, why should anyone pursue a doctorate in the humanities?”

Below, Brett Foster of Wheaton College offers his response to the question. We've also published responses from Carmen Acevedo Butcher of Shorter College and seven other Christian faculty and postdocs.

“Teach me thy way, O Lord, and I will walk in thy truth,” says Psalm 86, in Miles Coverdale’s elegant translation. “O knit my heart unto thee, that I may fear thy name.” Professors today may not do much knitting, but we are certainly wringing our hands more than usual, as we graduate majors from English departments and other humanities disciplines and send them off into an economic climate even bleaker and more daunting than usual. Which way should those students walk? Where is their way? Professors at liberal-arts institutions such as Wheaton College, where I teach, must wrestle all the more with how best to guide and encourage our students as they approach commencement. I say “wrestle all the more” because this question of how professors can best help — or not help with respect to urging graduate study, as William Pannapacker’s columns have recently urged — squarely involves foundational questions about liberal-arts teaching and the purpose of liberal-arts education.

Do we focus exclusively on developing students trained in the humanities, ones equipped with a general range of skills and sensitive to issues of character formation? Or should we seek to do more, acknowledging that many students do not have the leisure or luxury to undertake such formation free of concerns for looming (or often simultaneous) employment needs, long-term debt management, etc.? Thus, do students (and parents of students) expect liberal-arts teachers to pave that path on which they will walk in their early careers? They increasingly want, not only teachers, but also networkers with potential employers, job coaches, and career counselors. Shall we even become decision-makers (and as recommenders, we are already, to a significant degree) about which of our students, if any, should next confront the intellectual opportunities and obstacles of doctoral study? In defense of the liberal arts, perhaps we should seek out a middle way, and make a better case to students, parents, and employers alike that graduates with a broad range of skills and more sensitive than usual to issues of character make for ideal young employees.

In truth, some of these expectations reside beyond the immediate, diverse set of duties usually associated with a college teacher. Yet we do better by our students by becoming more sensitive to the challenges our undergraduates are facing due to the rising cost of higher education, the broader vagaries of our economic climate, as well as more personal, individual circumstances such as learning challenges and family complexities.

Faculty Encouragement — and Discouragement

We in Wheaton’s English Department recently had a wide-ranging discussion about what we owed our upperclassmen and graduating majors regarding professional preparation, and with specific regard to Pannapacker’s columns, we asked one another if we were acting responsibly in encouraging certain students in their interest in pursuing doctoral study. Of course, individual cases complicate these questions tremendously: what of average students whom we’re clearly not encouraging, who nevertheless remain stubbornly intent on spending the time and money to apply? What of those more lukewarm types who are intent on pursuing not doctoral study but simply master’s-level graduate study? These students pursue this path of less commitment rarely aware of the increased cost it will involve, lacking the stipends and tuitions waivers often made available to doctoral candidates.

The meeting was sobering. We admitted that we do students no favors when we allow them naively to march off to a demanding doctoral program armed only with their collegiate “love of literature.” Moreover, Pannapacker is certainly not without some support when he discusses the exploitative, sometimes downright inhumane environments that some experience as graduate students. Everyone, no matter their course of study and career path, must become beware of the “congregation of naughty men” (that’s Coverdale’s translation of Psalm 86 again) whom one will always confront, in some form, in professional life, and in various other social settings.

Wisdom in a Time of Transition

Cold comfort it may be, but it may be valuable for students to realize that, yes, they too will face professional, as well as personal, difficulties, setbacks, and sometimes even tragedies in their lives. Can we help them to grapple with this hard wisdom without being dour about it, or is this sort of life lesson simply incompatible within the promising, youthful, protected confines of college learning? I hope not. Similarly, it may be a particularly trying time to find employment, but for these young adults there should be some comfort in the fact that the time just after college is an invariably challenging time of transition. Once this fact is conceded, maybe students can take a deep breath, and begin to look ahead to their futures, at once exhilarating and harrowing in their uncertainty at present. So it goes.

I know one thing: as much as I appreciated the understandable concerns of my English colleagues, I am glad I wasn’t sitting in that seminar room during the spring of my senior year. Back then, I was broke, newly engaged, and knew enough about my professional future to know I wanted to learn more about the highly impractical art of poetry writing. I applied and was accepted to a one-year M.A. program in poetry at Boston University. Soon I received a thrilling phone call from Robert Pinsky, a prominent American poet and one of the main advisors in that program. I remember most clearly his shooting straight with me — you should definitely understand, he said, that this is not a terminal degree. You will not, he further explained, be able to graduate and go right out and teach at the college level. As I look back, my appreciation for this clearly worded disclosure grows, and it provides me as a young professor some model for coaching my own students marked by that improbable notion that they must, simply must, pursue their own love of literature and writing and perhaps even try (most improbably!) to make some kind of career of it. This will only be one small part of your path, Pinsky was telling me, and he turned out to be right. It was a long path indeed, full of odd jobs, fellowships, TAing, doctoral work, family demands, job hunts, and so on. I haven’t regretted it, but I have been grateful for others who helped me to know what to expect, and to have reasonable expectations. I hope some Christian students today will continue to hear and heed this call, however increasingly foolish it may seem.

In the past, skeptics about my academic calling would bring up the phrase “opportunity cost”; why pursue scholarship in the humanities when the time-to-degree is so long, compared with say, a law-school degree; when the work was so demanding; when the jobs were so scarce and unpredictable? Today, in this more severe climate where the high odds for admission to top doctoral programs and eventually for tenure-track employment have become even higher, the phrase has been reduced to a single word — “cost.” And yet sometimes we must become fools to the world. I hope there will remain students who will pursue doctoral education in the humanities. This much is clear: the humanities will continue to need them. And may these students continue to ask, along with Coverdale in Psalm 86, “Show some token upon me for good,” and to ask that of greater counselors than merely their college professors. Yet I hope we teachers are right there too, offering what we can, and doing the best we can on their behalf.

Photo credit: centralasian

Brett Foster

Brett Foster is Assistant Professor of English at Wheaton College. He was also a 2008 recipient of a Christian Scholars Foundation Grant to Advance Christian Scholarship.


From 2006 till 2012 Micheal was the Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). Tom Grosh recommends that, if you haven't already done so, please be sure to check out his phenomenal "Best Christian Book of All Time" Series!

Micheal graduated summa cum laude from the University of Louisville with a BA in English, and completed a Masters of Christian Studies, concentrating in Christianity and the Arts, at Regent College. His poetry has been published in The New Pantagruel and Uprooted. Having become convinced of the importance of local community, Micheal and Elizabeth returned to Kentucky after their time in Vancouver in order to build community among her family and the local church while raising their three children.

The Emerging Scholars Network is especially important to Micheal, because he wishes something like ESN had existed when he was graduating from Louisville. With the idea of getting a PhD in literature, he contacted a number of Christian English professors to ask them where he could earn a PhD that integrated his love for Christ with his love for literature. After several discouraging responses, the last professor suggested that he do a theology degree first, to provide a foundation for later integration. While his degree at Regent turned out to be a perfect fit for Micheal, he hopes that ESN will provide a more encouraging path for students who want to serve God in the university. Micheal blogs at

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