Students push for 'classical' Ph.Ds, despite uncertain job market

Despite the changing nature of the academy, many students consider study of the classics crucial to their everyday life

Even the most passionate ASU students will face an uncertain job market if they choose to pursue a Ph.D in classical studies. But many consider study of the classics an integral part of daily life. 

The University of Oxford classics department’s website defines classics (classical studies) as “the study of the languages, culture, history and thought of the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.” It is the oldest area of knowledge studied in the humanities, and it served as the cornerstone of an upper-class education for centuries (especially the study of Greek and Latin.)

ASU offers a bachelor’s degree in classics, but not a graduate program. A Ph.D is usually necessary to pursue a career in classics, and it's a requirement in order to have a career in academia. 

Joseph O’Neill is a current faculty member at Barrett, the Honors College. He was granted his Ph.D from the University of Southern California in 2015 and has been teaching at ASU since completing graduate school. He said stories like his are rare because the market is flooded with qualified post-docs.

“Know that the job market — not only is it very tight, not only is it very difficult, (but) the odds of getting a secure, lucrative, long-term position — those odds are very low," O'Neill said. "When I was on the job market, there were some 200 jobs in the United States ... for classics and related fields. You had not only the fresh cohort of newly minted Ph.Ds, but you also had people in the seemingly endless loop of the adjunct professors."

A search on Inside Higher Ed produced 22 results for “Humanities & Classics” faculty jobs. The same query produced only 10 results on glassdoor.com, a general job search website.

By comparison, the search query “professor of engineering” produced 490 results on glassdoor.com and 3,553 on Inside Higher Ed.

O’Neill said the solution is simple: “Hire more professors.”

“What is happening is that … enrollments are going up. The number of full-time, tenure-track professorships has stagnated or gone down,” he said.

According to O’Neill, universities are dealing with growing enrollments by hiring more adjunct professors who teach fewer classes. He said these do not typically include any health benefits or very much job security, and the pay is much lower than it is for tenure-track positions.

Many university administrations believe this is more cost-effective. The percentage of full-time faculty with tenure at four-year universities has steadily declined, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Graphic from Association of American Colleges and Universities

This doesn't deter many students. Thousands of graduates get a Ph.D in classics every year. And despite how small the ASU undergraduate program is, there are several ASU students who plan to do the same.

Abbie Bardales, a junior double majoring in anthropology and history, said she's been interested in classics since elementary school.

"I know for a long time I was primarily interested in Roman culture and daily life," Bardales said. She said she's gotten really interested in the Latin language itself since being in her program.

“There actually is a pretty high demand for Latin teachers," she said. "In classics you’re simultaneously at the bottom of what people want, but at the same time you’re in demand for niche things."

Bardales said she hasn't decided, but she's given the idea some thought.

“Yeah, I’ve definitely started considering it. That’s a really cool thing to think about for me: that a teacher had that big an impact on me in third grade," she said.

Alexa Rose is a sophomore studying anthropology and classical civilization. She said she's planning on doing an archaeology internship in Pompeii this summer.

She said people in her major, classical civilization, all have different reasons for studying classics. Some want to go to law school, others like herself want to pursue a Ph.D, and some simply enjoy studying the subject at an undergraduate level with no intention of going further.

Rose stressed the importance of classics in everyday life, even life at ASU.

“Latin is important for everyone,” she said. “Everything that is very rigid and old at ASU derives from Latin. You have the alma mater, (which) I think it translates to ‘mega mother’ and you have summa cum laude and cum laude, and those are all Latin terms.”

But despite the pervasiveness of classical civilization’s influence, Rose said she doesn’t think ASU will move to add a graduate program any time soon.

“Clearly they’re not getting enough students,” she said. Rose said the department is understaffed and not enough students go into the major.

O'Neill said that just to be admitted into a classics Ph.D program in the U.S., one must be advanced in both Greek and Latin and usually at least proficient in another pertinent language. 

Despite the languages being considered dead and despite the academic market being so heavily competitive, O'Neill said the skills one learns in a humanities program are valuable beyond just having some academic specialty.

“Everyone needs to keep in mind that the humanities are not only essential for knowing how to operate their brain, (and) in addition to generating more information about the past, I’m preserving the knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans," he said. “That is the essence of the humanities: What is our role? What is our job—not literally our job—but our place?” 


Reach the reporter at parkermshea97@gmail.com or follow @laconicshamanic on Twitter.

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