Once again, Dean Dad has taken on a great question from one of his readers, and answered it as well as he always does. In this case, the question is from a history/second ed major who's thinking of going on to graduate school in History; Dean Dad quite reasonably recommends against it.
And Dr. Crazy weighs in with some further considerations. I think she hits the mark especially well in her point 3, where she recognizes that students from elite, especially private, schools will continue to have the means and support to go on to graduate school and that discouraging students from non-elite backgrounds means we're basically "advising diversity out of the academy."
Like Dr. Crazy, evidently, I got my encouragement to go on to a PhD program at a teaching-oriented state university. And I think we need a lot more diversity in academia rather than less, not only in terms of race/ethnicity, but also in terms of academic and socio-economic backgrounds.
When I talk to students who are interested in an English PhD program, I try to give them a realistic sense of how much dumb luck is involved in getting into a good program, surviving, finding a good advisor, and especially getting a job. I also try to give them a sense of how competitive such programs are in all sorts of ways, how both wonderful and deeply unpleasant they can be, and how horrible it is to have friends who are brilliant scholar-teachers living on the edge as Freeway Fliers (our term for adjuncts who drive long distances between different schools trying to cobble together a bare living while striving to get a tenure-track job, or just something a little more secure). I make sure they realize how much I love my job, but also how lucky I am to have it at all.
If they still want to go on, I advise them to look at their chosen programs' placement rates, and to try to talk to students already in the program about funding, teaching, time to degree, and so on. I also try to give them a sense of how much the system favors people from more elite schools, but I find it difficult to communicate this without sounding like a bitter Bardiac.
The point I'd like to add to the discussion is that we in academia have created the problem and continue to create it by enrolling a vast number more students in PhD programs than can realistically get jobs in what we train them for. PhD granting institutions enroll extra students for some compelling, if unethical reasons.
First, they need cheap teaching. It's no secret how much teaching grad students in PhD programs do, or that they're paid poorly with relatively lousy benefits. (I posted about the NYU strike the other day; the basic conflict from the students' point of view, as represented by the union, is about benefits.)
Second, faculty in these programs want to teach graduate classes and to reproduce themselves by turning out PhDs. So they put pressure on departmental and campus committees to admit more students, especially more students interested in their subfield.
Let me give you an example (my first year writing students would nod in approval, I hope). In my graduate institution, one year we suddenly had an entering class made up of about one third students interested in a particular era (many English departments are roughly divided by nation/era: English Renaissance, 20th century American, and so forth). The students already in the program were surprised, and started asking questions. The basic answer we got through the grape vine was that several faculty interested in this era had gotten onto the admission committee and pushed the admissions in their era into the ozone because they wanted students to take their graduate courses (which hadn't been filling or "making" for the previous several years) and they wanted dissertation advisees.
The problem we recognized was that students weren't taking classes (from these several professors) because they were less than stellar teachers with reputations as sexual harassers, jerks, or whatever.
Even in fields (like, oh, say, Shakespeare and early modern English lit/culture) with an abundance of students in the program, certain professors ended up with a bunch of grad students and classes that always "made," while others had few or none, and didn't teach grad classes because they didn't "make."
There was noise at some point in my graduate department that they should cut PhD program admissions (which they did, slightly) in order to be more ethical and realistic about the numbers. (The nearly hidden "benefit" was that they needed more of their own post-PhD students to work as adjuncts, thus giving some people a few more years of "hope" on the market.)
Such a strategy will only work if PhD granting institutions around the country make a similar commitment. But they have to do it in a way that won't further restrict the diversity of the academy; it's no good if they simply limit PhD program opportunities to Ivy or near Ivy grads.
This doesn't mean PhD granting institutions should make up the teaching difference by hiring adjuncts, and paying them poorly. I know the cost differentials between hiring adjuncts and tenure-track faculty, but depending on poorly paid adjuncts to teach an increasing load of regular courses weakens departments in all sorts of ways, especially in curriculum development and governance. (But that's a whole different post...)