Thoughts on life after the PhD
Disclaimer 1: I am not the Delphic Oracle of Grad School Decisions. The following Reasons to Go are simply culled from my eight years of experience as a humanities grad student, in the hope that potential applicants up late at night making that “Should I or shouldn’t I” list can see if any of these reasons apply to them.
Disclaimer 2: I received a PhD in the humanities (literature, specifically), so when I refer to “grad school” I am referring primarily to grad school in the humanities (literature, film studies, history, etc.). I think my perspective can in some cases be applied to law school or MBA programs, but obviously those are very different areas that I have no experience in.
Good Reasons to Go to Grad School
1. You have a very specific, innovative research interest. Simply “loving” your subject is not enough (though it’s a good place to start). As the little pigtailed girl in the “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video reveals, having “interesting” ideas isn’t enough either. Granted, most PhD students enter a program with a general idea of what they want to do that develops into something more specific over several years, often changing completely. I wrote my M.A. thesis on Japanese women’s fiction and am now writing a PhD dissertation on monstrous children in Japanese fiction and film–same country, and both deal with literature, but the topics are worlds apart.
But it’s better if you have a specific idea beforehand. And it can’t just be something you love–it has to be something that will make a significant contribution to your field, that lots of people will want to read about, and that builds on stuff that’s been written already (but doesn’t say the same thing). Also, you should have a good idea of what other people have said about your topic, and how your argument differs from theirs.
Of course you can enter a program with a more general idea and develop it over time (though this may make it harder to get in in the first place). But you’re going to be playing a lot of catch-up.
2. You have confirmed at least one, preferably two tenured professors who are familiar with said subject and are willing to be on your dissertation committee. Having the most brilliant ideas in the world won’t amount to much if there’s no one for you to work with. And one person isn’t always enough, because academics have a habit of leaving institutions when they get better offers elsewhere (at which point you can either uproot and follow them or struggle to complete your work with limited guidance–not easy under any circumstances). And they should be tenured, because if they’re not then their names won’t have as much weight on your CV (it’s hard to overstate the importance of your dissertation advisor to your future job search). And if they’re not tenured there’s no guarantee that they’ll get tenure, which increases the chance that they’ll need to leave at some point.
So how do you find people to work with? Read. Read a lot. Find some people whose work you admire, see where they teach, and look into applying to those departments. And while you’re at it, ask around and find out if they’re sane–spending six or seven years at the mercy of a lunatic (they’re more common than you might think) is no one’s idea of a good time.
3. You work well independently and without deadlines. It took me a long time to realize that this wasn’t true for me. I need structure, externally imposed deadlines, and I like a lot of guidance and feedback. The first year or two of grad school will be fairly social–coursework, at least, will give you people to talk to–but pretty soon you’re going to be on your own. And even the most dedicated advisor will not have time to meet with you as much as you’d like.
This can produce a level of anxiety and uncertainty that some people just can’t handle. While there are some brilliant people out there who are confident in their own abilities and will use a surplus of free time to produce great work, the rest of us tend to get easily distracted and have trouble accomplishing our goals. So beware of grad school if you’re not *extremely* self-motivated and confident in your ability to work independently.
4. You have thick skin and a sense of confidence in your own abilities. People don’t often consider the psychological toll of grad school (until they’re neck-deep in therapy debt, that is). You will be criticized constantly, not always nicely. You will constantly compare your work to that of others and usually come up short. You will fail repeatedly before you start to succeed. You will wonder on a regular basis if it was really the right decision. So if you’re already anxiety-prone and have self-esteem issues, be cautious.
5. You are as certain as you can possibly be that a PhD is essential for the only kind of career that you want to have. If you are absolutely certain that you want to be a full-time professor in your field, and that no other job in the world will make you happy, then yes, you need to get a PhD. But I always come back to something a drama teacher once said to me years ago: when it comes to a career in theater, if you can do *anything* else and be happy, do it. Because the amount of suffering that a life in the theater entails is only worth it if you are absolutely sure that you will be miserable doing anything else.
I feel the same way about academia. If you can be happy doing *anything* else that doesn’t require a PhD, do that instead. The suffering isn’t worth it otherwise.
6. You can complete your PhD without accumulating a significant amount of debt. There was a time when getting into debt for grad school seemed like a reasonable investment, one that could generate reasonable returns. This is no longer the case, even for somewhat more secure career paths like medicine, law, and business. When it comes to humanities PhD’s, *never* take out loans or pay for your degree out of pocket (this is actually pretty rare–almost every humanities PhD I’ve ever met had their degree paid for by fellowships, scholarships, and TA-ships). And even if someone else is paying for it, make sure that your stipend is actually enough to live on. The cost of your degree can end up being in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and your post-PhD salary will likely not help you pay off that debt within your lifetime. I really can’t stress this enough: Do. Not. Take. Out. Loans.
So there you have it. Of all those reasons, I’d say 1 and 5 are probably the best reasons to go, though I’m sure others would disagree.
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