I have often thought I would like to go back to graduate school to study something wonderful: like, late Victorian children's literature, or E.M. Forster and the coming of the Great War. (Great War! Who says that!?) Studying the humanities in depth seems like the most noble of pursuits; I always think of John Milton and what Wikipedia calls his "six years of self-directed study." (He was, of course, LIVING WITH HIS PARENTS. No wonder that damn poem is so long. "No, I can't take the trash out. I'm figuring out free will.") Well, one of my favorite writers in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has delivered a smackdown so intense, that I can barely move the right side of my face. Writing under the pen name Thomas H. Benton (good taste in pen names, eh?), he explains some of the reasons that people think they should try grad school. My favorite:
They can't find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don't interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. There are no mentors to guide and protect them, and they turn to former teachers for help.
Reader, I am that person. (And it's true, no one is impressed! I can practically recite the whole first chapter of P&P!) He goes on to point out why this is folly. (Grad school, not P&P.)
Most undergraduates don't realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other fields requiring as many years of training). They don't know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession. They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect — a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete — and, as a result, they don't make any fallback plans until it is too late.
It's well worth reading the whole article — a trip through the last few decades in the hallowed halls of academe, and why they don't gleam the way they used to. Me? I'm going to stay home and begin my own self-directed period of study.