Grad Humanities Interest Still High

Daily Pennsylvanian
September 21, 2010

By Becki Steinberg

With many seniors contemplating whether to apply for graduate school and fellowships, experts are once again debating the value of a graduate degree in the humanities.

Though graduate school tuition continues to rise every year and higher-education degrees in subjects like English and History have not traditionally yielded the highest salaries, humanities students continue to follow their passions to graduate school.

“In bad economic times,” English professor Peter Conn explained, “applications to both graduate school and professional schools tend to go up.” Conn published an article describing the dwindling prospects for humanities students in The Chronicle of Higher Education this past spring.

According to School of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Ralph Rosen, this trend is magnified in Penn’s liberal arts graduate school admissions data. Rosen said this year SAS received 13 percent more PhD applicants than last year, for example. Of those applicants, 2,300 were humanities students.

“Applications in the humanities are generally up a little,” Rosen said.

Though statistics for Penn’s class of 2010 have not yet been released, 25 percent of the class of 2009 chose to pursue graduate school. Of those students, 11 percent were studying “arts and humanities.”

Educational Consultant Steven Goodman said rather than forgoing graduate study, more students are choosing to take time off and return to school later.

Some are “taking a little more time to just make sure” they want to pursue the humanities, though ultimately “the trajectory is the same,” he added.

At the same time, Rosen said the harsh job market actually may have reeled humanities students into advanced-degree programs. Some may view graduate school as the “alternative” to the job search.

Some experts argue that higher-learning institutions themselves may be contributing to students’ continued interest in graduate school as well, even though the cost of higher-education continues to rise.

Rosen theorized that competition among graduate programs puts pressure on those programs to offer appealing aid packages, making graduate study a more sustainable lifestyle.

Saraleah Cogan, a College senior pursuing a double major in Cinema Studies and Communication, said she is seeking a job at talent agencies in California, but has friends applying to graduate school “because the job market is so hard.”

Though she thinks experience will be the most valuable criteria in the television industry, Cogan added, she too would consider graduate school “if all else fails.”

Goodman said humanities students continue to pursue graduate degrees largely due to their dedication, as well. “These are students who have committed their lives to an academic field – despite the economy,” he said.

Indeed, Paul Mitchell – a College sophomore who submatriculated into a physical anthropology master’s program – said undertaking this accelerated track was a “no-brainer,” as he always wanted an academic job. Though he noted physical anthropology is classified more as a science than an area of the humanities, Mitchell said he would likely remain “undeterred, even given total economic arrest.”

At the same time, prestigious fellowships can ease the financial burden on humanities graduate students.

This Monday was the Fulbright application deadline and the next few weeks are peppered with deadlines for others, representing a wave of funding opportunities.

The Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships aids students through their fellowship application process. Though these students are passionate about their fields, CURF Associate Director for Fellowships Cheryl Shipman said, some students hope to pursue post-graduate study abroad if they receive the fellowships, which offer both financial assistance and “a career boost.”

Otherwise, however, “they’re going to get on with their lives,” Shipman said.

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