Tenured Radical has had some (as usual) fine posts recently about going on to graduate school. The latest of them explains that, yes, the market is bad, but that grad school isn't the "Ponzi scheme" that one of her commentators called it.
If you get the MLA Newsletter, you've seen this graph already. It represents about 30 years (1975-2007) of the job market in MLA fields, which by traditional accounts tanked after the 1960s and never recovered. I am not saying that the job market is good; it isn't. What I am saying is that if the oral history is correct, there would be a diagonal going from the midpoint of about 1500 jobs advertised in 1975 down to 0-100 in 2007. What the graph shows is that there are peaks and valleys, the latest valley being circa 1993-1997. I leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.
One of the questions that you need to answer for yourself before you apply, and on the application as you apply, is this: why do I want to go to graduate school? The following are just some additional things to think about in answering this question.
- Because I'm good at theory and analysis, and I enjoy my classes in (English or history or whatever). Having this kind of aptitude is a wonderful thing. Can you envision yourself putting this toward any other discipline? This is a little like having a talent for acting: more people have it than there are jobs for professional actors.
- Because I want to be a professor. Why do you want to be a professor? Is it because you want to teach? If so, think seriously about secondary education. The pay is the same, or better, and jobs can be easier to find. Is it because you want to work with college-age students? Have you thought about administration?
- Because I want to do research. If it's research that attracts you, there may be other jobs (public history, as TR notes, or working at foundations) that may be a better fit. An ADE report from a few years back showed that something like 80% of people in Ph.D. programs had "professor" as their career goal. Only 43-50% ended up as professors in tenure-track positions 10 years down the line, yet the survey showed that those who didn't become professors were still satisfied with their career paths.
- Once you have the Ph.D., are you ready to move anywhere for a job? Like Willie Sutton robbing banks because "that's where the money is," job seekers have to move where the jobs are. This sounds obvious, but people sometimes won't or can't move for family reasons. Those aren't bad reasons, of course, but it's unrealistic to think that you'll get a job in a particular area.
- Do you have an alternate plan in case you don't get a tenure-track job? In other words, will you regret spending the time in graduate school if a job doesn't materialize?
- Can you envision working more hours than some of the people you know? The demands of research and teaching take a lot of time; even if you're mowing the lawn, to use the news media's favorite example of academic slackertude, you're thinking about your work. To quote from an old post: if you can't envision working on your research as a pleasure as well as a duty, you should rethink what you're doing and maybe get into another field.
- Can you imagine spending your vacation money going to conferences and archives instead? Travel budgets will never fund the amount of travel to conferences that you have to do. Are you ready to make the conference/vacation travel tradeoff?
Edited to add: I'm not trying to say "go to graduate school" or "don't go to graduate school." Graduate schools need bright, interesting, and committed students with good ideas, and so does the profession. All I'm trying to say is this: if you want to go, know why you are going and what you want to do when you get there.