I wanted to bring something up on my blog that I find myself explaining over and over again to people who are not familiar with how graduate school (at least in the humanities) works. Most people are astounded that my program is expected to take 6 years minimum, and many students stay longer than six years trying to find a job. Some realize the rigor of our programs, but can’t imagine how six more years of “being in school” could be worthwhile, let alone prepare someone for a profession. Others think of graduate students as evading getting a real job, lazily hanging around school trying to extend their undergraduate days.
However, there is an important distinction between undergraduate programs and PhD programs that many people outside of academia do not realize: coursework is not the main focus of graduate school. Being a PhD student is a job. We are expected to teach university-level courses; we grade papers, design lesson plans, and instruct students just like any full-time teacher. As for the dissertation, we are essentially expected to write book on a topic in our field. This is not your undergraduate paper on [insert canonical text] times twenty, but an original piece of work based on years of research. The topic needs to be specific enough to be unique, but also relevant to the issues academics are thinking about (and maybe even what people outside academics should be thinking about). The graduate program provides us with the training and resources to write this dissertation, and this work serves the basis for whether or not we get hired in academia.
Six years to write an entire book while teaching university-level classes part-time all of a sudden sounds like an incredibly short period of time. Not to mention, PhD students still do need to complete coursework in their field. The goal of passing coursework is not simply a means of demonstrating intelligence (as it often is for the undergraduate degree), but real, hands-on training in the academic profession. We learn to write scholarly articles, present our ideas at conferences, and hopefully get those ideas published. That is a lot to fit into six years, and many students need more time to finish their dissertation and secure an academic job.
This is precisely why I don’t view PhD programs as a means to an end. While the undergraduate degree can serve as a badge of intellectual ability competence, the PhD requires teaching at the university level and producing a publishable book in an academic field. I do not think viewing a PhD program as a means-to-an-end of becoming a professor is a particularly gratifying view, or even the right way to view graduate school.
It is not profoundly different from starting one’s own business: the work is extremely challenging and requires a good deal of dedication and original thought. It likely requires a financial gamble in which you will be earning a lot less than you could earn for years, just for the potential reward of earning money doing what you love. The percentages of those who actually achieve that dream job they set out to obtain are disconcertingly low – and those who become millionaire CEOs or famous writers in their field even lower – but in the end those who are driven and competent will find other avenues of success. Maybe those who take on traditionally cynical views of academia will disagree with me and see a PhD in a humanities subject as a frivolous pursuit of a dying vocation. But really, has there ever been a time in human history when professions in the arts and humanities were easy for anyone to obtain and never came under fire for being impractical? Either way, if you do not view it as a means to an end, the journey will not be a loss.