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Law school grads in debt, PhDs bussing tables, and Bart Simpson with a ponytail

February 16, 2011

The topic is hardly new, and is well-known to anyone who’s ever attended law school.  But last month it got a little more visibility with an article in The New York Times.  The piece by David Segal featured the headline “Is Law School a Losing Game?” and spotlighted a 27-year-old recent law school graduate, essentially unemployed, who was saddled with student loan debt to the tune of a quarter million.  The article notes that those graduating with a J.D. these days are hit with a double whammy: law school bills that have never been so expensive, and a job market that has never been so competitive.

Photo from the Library of Congress (public domain)

Of course, the dilemma is not limited to law school, but confronts almost anyone who pursues a graduate degree.  Even in those rare (and fortunate) cases where student loan debt is not a major issue, there is still the matter that most grad students expect a return on their investment of several years’ hard work and voluntary servitude.  Yet for many, the sought-after oasis of living the life of the mind turns out to be a mirage.

The situation is perhaps most acute for those pursuing doctorates in the humanities.  Here, grad programs take many years to complete, and those who are able to dodge all the slings and arrows and reach the finish line, if they seek a career for which their degree is a prerequisite, are fairly pigeon-holed: it’s pretty much college teaching or bust.

The problem boils down to a simple law of supply and demand: there are far more qualified applicants than there are available jobs.  That’s especially true for tenure-track jobs, which indeed are being phased out at many institutions.  As a result, many Ph.D.s in history, political science, English literature, art, philosophy, and the like are left trying to make ends meet by bussing tables or driving cabs, all the while wondering how their 20s went by so fast.  (A few also work here at Knowledge Mosaic, this blogger included).

But there is a bright side to this tragedy of Greek proportions: it is rife for comic exploitation.  A recent post in the wonderful blog 100 Reasons Not to Go To Graduate School (the blogger is anonymous, but is clearly someone with a Ph.D. in the humanities) offers a compendium of examples in popular culture in which the naïve aspirations of would-be eggheads and the futility of the academic enterprise are richly parodied.  The clip from The Simpsons, in which Bart dons a ponytail and pretends to be a 30-year-old graduate student, is classic.  The “Honest Grad School” ad from College is amusing (“Its humor is of the mocking variety,” the 100 Reasons blogger notes). Ah, but it is the Xtranormal video that is not to be missed — whether you went to grad school or not.  Well worth four and a half minutes of your day.

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