higher education

Humanities and Social Science PhDs - completion failure and job market failure
Humanities and Social Science PhDs - completion failure and job market failure

What needs work

Actually, the graphics aren’t bad, but the story is depressing for someone nearing the final year of a PhD in sociology. The first one is quite good. I might have added a horizontal line under which the ‘failures’ ended up and above which the ‘successes’ floated.

Many people who read this blog are academics and thus familiar with the concept that getting a tenure track job is tough. These graphics do an excellent job of contextualizing what might often seem like personal anxiety to present the problem as a mismatch between supply and demand. There are far more PhDs minted each year than we need and there would be even more if everyone who started down the PhD path actually finished. Who is to blame? For an answer to that question, link to the article (in references below).

Otherwise, just get depressed looking at the graphic story.


Cohen, P. (8 April 2010) The Long Haul Degree. In The New York Times, Education Life section.

Piled Higher and Deeper - PhD Humor
Piled Higher and Deeper - PhD Humor

What Works

Humor is a slippery animal, indeed. I like to think of it as the pinnacle of culture, not in a high culture kind of way, but in a cultural development kind of way. Just think of trying to learn a foreign language. When you can intentionally, subtly be humorous in that language, you know you’re really getting somewhere. If you have never gotten to that point in a foreign language, just listen to kids try to tell jokes. They kind of suck. You end up laughing along because they’re kids and kids telling jokes is funny in itself, not because what they are saying is actually humorous. This is a fairly long winded way to point out that one indicator that telling stories with graphics is thick culture (thanks, Geertz) is that things like the above image are actually funny in a way that they couldn’t be funny in another format. If you had to say to someone, “man, professors spend lots of time on service activities, but the administration really doesn’t reward that or even notice” nobody would laugh. They might sigh and wish the economy were better so they could find a job that didn’t involve sitting on committees.

Bottom line: this works because we have been immersed in graphic storytelling. We get it. It doesn’t work in any other format.

Relevant Resources

Piled Higher and Deeper, a comic strip by Jorge Cham online. If you are a student or professor and haven’t discovered this, I’ll warn you that it could suck away an hour or two of your day if you click through right now.

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The HERI Faculty Survey. There are fees associated with accessing the data but you can get an overview of how data about faculty time commitments is gathered.

This 2006 Obituary of Clifford Geertz in the New York Times does a good job of summarizing his life and work, for those who want to follow up on my parenthetical. His book “The Interpretation of Cultures” is a good place to start. If you want something shorter than a book, “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” is worth a read.