Tag Archives: should I go to grad school

PhD Programs: In for the Long-Haul

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.


Meet the Elitist, the Realist, and the Optimist

The big question circulating around soon-to-be college graduates is whether or not graduate school is worthwhile. In the spirit of debate, I’ve outlined caricatures of the perspectives I see/hear most often. The moral of the story is that in order to tackle all the strong opinions out there, you first need to figure out where you stand. Well, enjoy.

The Elitist

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

You’ll find the Elitist trolling the Internet, spreading his unsolicited wisdom about which schools are THE top ranked and why degrees from only these schools hold any merit in the academic world. She also might be that faculty member at your undergraduate institution who is still obsessed with her Alma Mater, constanty reminding everyone that even though she is working at University of State, she got her degree from Ivy U.

Elitist camps are divided on whether successful up-and-comer schools can stand up to the tried-and-true prowess of the original Ivies. Some radicals will even try to throw a public school in the mix, to the disdain of their Elitist brethren. The Elitists are like the “cool kids” in the high school cafeteria; everyone gets irritated by them, but secretly wants to join their club all the same.

Elitists have a general disdain for flyover state schools and often argue that only one region of the United States is capable of producing elite scholars (usually East or West Coast, occasionally Midwest, rarely deep South, and wait, there are universities in that big barren northwestern part of the country?).

This doesn’t mean that everyone from a top-ranked school is an Elitist, in fact, many Elitists are not even from any of these schools but are instead bitter would-be graduate students or Ivy League groupies. One thing is certain: the Elitist will try and convince you that the only factor that matters when it comes to choosing a graduate school is school reputation and prestige, and that academia is best left to the big boys in the hallowed halls of Ivy U. The worst Elitists won’t even concede that a small, lesser known school can have a top ranked program for a certain discipline.

Don’t let the Elitist talk scare you away from applying to graduate school, or give you false notions that the graduate school crowd is a privileged, snooty lot. When it comes down to it, we’re all different. We don’t all come from wealthy families, nor do we all go to school for the same reasons.  And if you do take the plunge to apply and get accepted: don’t let it coax you into turning down a good, successful program because it is not your idea of “prestigious” or go to program that really doesn’t fit with your personality or academic interests just because they have a reputation.

The Realist

Hand load money to bank

The Realist will remind you that in spite of which schools have a historical reputation for prestige, they aren’t always the top ranked schools in each field. Each program has a different set of “top” schools with different reasons as to why they are ranked highly. If the official rankings do as they should, they should give you an indication of the quality of resources a particular school has to offer, such as faculty, publication opportunities, funding etc. For these reasons, rankings should definitely factor into your decision, but only if you do your research properly.

Despite the Realist’s far more reasonable outlook on the necessity of earning a badge of prestige along with your degree, the helpful pep talk stops there. If the Realist is truly being realistic, graduate school isn’t a low-risk investment of your time and money. If fact, it’s a pretty foolish investment if your object is – like the mass consumer – to earn as much money as possible with the least amount of effort.

Even the so-called top programs can’t offer students the certainty of finding a tenure track job. Your potential difficulties finding a tenure-track job coupled with the debt you might be carrying from your degree leads the Realist to conclude that the humanities are dying and only perpetuated by a bunch of old, moth-eaten tenured professors. Why didn’t you just major in computer science? Jeez, oh well, you better find a corporate job quick.

The Realist is often an embittered graduate-school dropout. Sometimes she is a history-major-turned-business-tycoon who likes to offer the public her opinion on how the best and brightest of humanities graduates should go into the business world instead of holing themselves away in PhD programs. The Realist is a good opinion to keep in mind, because frankly, you might be a realist when it comes down to it. If going down a path that comes with a high-risk for failure and requires a lot of hard work doesn’t not sound like your cup of tea, there’s no harm in being realistic about it.

What the Realist rarely acknowledges is that the self-imposed “poverty” of graduate students can be an educated choice. Poverty calls up images of uninformed, desolate souls who are dealt a limited set of choices in life. There seems to be this underlying belief that graduate students are passing up a life of high-earning corporate success with tons of benefits and the ultimate social life to go to graduate school.

Well, Realist:
Entrepreneurs fail in their business ventures everyday and end up in more debt than graduate students. For every exorbitantly wealthy professional athlete or actress, there are thousands working at a local fast food joint in L.A. trying to get noticed for their talent. For every rich, wealthy, successful business guru, there are probably many more who are unable to climb the corporate ladder and wake up every morning dreading the cubicle. Starving artists get the worst lot and usually only get recognized postmortem. Some people are just willing to take the risk for the potential benefit and some aren’t.

The Realist is looking out for the average American. Do yourself a favor and be true to your goals and what makes you happy.

The Optimist

Squirrel in birdfeeder 2

The Optimist is the easiest to listen to of our three perspectives, because the Optimist tells you what you want to hear. The Optimist sees the trend that the more education you have completed, the higher your salary, and assumes that a PhD is a one-track path to six-figure earnings. The Optimist could also be the professor who writes “excellent!” and “brilliant” on all of your papers and fluffs up your scholarly features, but never offers a real critique of your work. To the Optimist, a 5-7 year graduate program could be just the thing to ride out the dismal job market for a bit longer.

What the Optimist lacks in cynicism, he compensates for in over-inflated confidence in the ability of a graduate degree to cure all his problems. The danger of an overly-optimist view of graduate school is that it can lead otherwise intelligent and reasonable people to make choices that aren’t right for them. Choices that they can’t deal with financially and don’t end up turning out as they’d hoped.

Another unseen pitfall the Optimist stumbles into is the hardship of receiving rejection letters. Having assumed their high GPAs and GRE scores made them a shoo-in for a PhD program, optimists naturally assume every admissions committee will be as smitten with their work as their undergraduate professors were. They gave me As, didn’t they? The truth is that your undergraduate professor could hand out as many As as she felt the class deserved. An admissions committee at a top-20 school will potentially be dealing with hundreds of applicants and the money to only fund 10-15 of them. The Optimist who goes blindly into the application process doesn’t come out unscathed.

The internet’s most vocal Realists are likely former Optimists who see themselves as shepherds preventing other sheep from going astray. Like the Realist and even the Elitist, the Optimist isn’t trying to confuse/hurt/anger you. But the choice to go to graduate school isn’t for everyone and the Optimist isn’t willing to acknowledge that until it’s too late.

The Conclusion:
The conclusion is that discerning graduate applicants won’t let the Elitist scare them away from applying or convince them that a school is not a good personal fit just because its not an Ivy. They also won’t set aside their aspirations because a disgruntled Realist claims that the recession marks the end of our education system as it is. And they won’t go to graduate school just because the Optimist leads them to believe it is the easy way out of the real world. Know yourself enough to make an educated decision!