Collections: So You Want To Go To Grad School (in the Academic Humanities)?

Graduate school application season is upon us and so I wanted to take this as an opportunity to talk about it. Every year, I talk with undergraduate students who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in the humanities, who mostly come to me because they know that my graduate school experience was relatively more recent and so they hope I can offer some useful advice beyond what they might get from a more senior academic who attended graduate school decades ago. So this week I am going to give all of you a version of the advice I offer those students. Starting with:

Have you tried wanting something else?

I should note that I am of course talking mostly about attending graduate programs much like the ones I went through, which is to say a graduate program with an academic (rather than professional) focus in the humanities broadly construed (that is history, languages and literature but also political science, archaeology, anthropology, etc.). As background, my own higher education experience was a BA in History (in a history department), a year spent as a Post-Bacc. studying Greek and Latin (in a Classics Department), an MA in ‘classical civilizations’ with quite a lot of language work (in a Classics Department) and then a PhD in ancient history (in a history department).

And I suppose at the outset I should warn you that this may be a bit more raw of a post than normal, as it is based on my personal experience and what I’ve observed in the experience of many of my close friends and colleagues (although I have data to substantiate the core points). That said, I really hope this serves as an informative essay both for people contemplating graduate school but also for folks who want a sense of how we currently train professors.

But first, as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

(Also, if you are one of my current or former students and thinking, “Oh no, is this about me?” No, it is not. I planned writing this months ago, during the summer (and have Patreon updates to that effect as proof), long before the annual raft of grad-school related conversations started.)

Onward!

The Life Cycle

We should start by establishing the baseline of expectations about what grad school, as an experience looks like. Here I am going to make the simplifying assumption that we are going the full nine yards to a Doctorate (PhD) in an academic field (professional graduate degrees like JDs, PharmDs, EdDs, etc. work differently and I am not qualified to speak to that process) that is in or at least adjacent to the humanities. Fortunately for anyone contemplating simply getting a Master’s Degree (MA), that process is included in this, so we’ll still catch all of the options.

First, let us dispense with the first lie1 you will hear: ‘this doctoral program is a five year program.’ What that actually means is that the program has five years of ‘guaranteed’2 funding. I am sure that somewhere there is a student who went from having a BA to a PhD in five years. I have not yet met them. Fortunately, actual professors and departments know this and so most (effectively all?) departments have other funding sources or additional ways to bridge students over those last few years, though this often means applying for and getting sources of funding that are competitive (grants, awards, fellowships, etc.).

We’re going to assume a much more normal, seven year schedule, starting without an MA. Actual completion times that I know of for a PhD program range from six years to a little more than a decade (sometimes plus an additional two years on an MA). Now some graduate students may have already earned an MA and thus enter their PhD program skipping the first few steps. I did this and it still took me six years and change (I started on a fall semester and completed in a summer, so 6.33 years) to finish the actual PhD program (in practice that means, with the MA included, it took me 8 years, though it it wasn’t eight uninterrupted years; I taught as an adjunct for the department where I got my MA for a bit while applying to PhD programs. This is unusual, though). That said, we’re going to assume no MA at the start. Here’s the schedule:

Years 1-4: Coursework (we’ll talk about course load in a moment). Note that this coursework will mostly be in your specialist field; you are assumed to have all of the generalist knowledge already from your undergraduate degree. If there are primary languages you need to know (like Greek and Latin for ancient history or Russian for Russian history, etc) you will be expected to already have at least several years of instruction before starting graduate coursework (at least in my field). If you are in a discipline that doesn’t require foreign languages, the rest of us are going to make fun of you, but don’t worry, we’ll do it in languages you don’t know.3

Typically at the end of your second year, you’ll be expected to have completed a thesis,4 a research and writing project roughly on the scale of an academic article in a peer-reviewed journal or a chapter in a book. A thesis of this sort is not just a super-charged research paper: the expectation is that this paper should do original research, that is push the bounds of human knowledge. Note that you are still doing coursework during the thesis-writing process, though some programs may drop the course load by one to facilitate thesis writing.

On the completion of the thesis and your first two years of coursework, you’ll be awarded an MA and move on to being a PhD student, either in the same program or, if you got your MA at a program with a ‘terminal’ MA5 after applying to and being accepted to a different program. This sort of program-hopping seems fairly common to me, especially in fields that have heavy language demands; students can use the MA as an opportunity to acquire more years of language instruction.

Depending on the program, you’ll be reaching the end of coursework at either the end of Year 3 or Year 4. That brings with it two more major milestones. The first are comprehensive exams or ‘comps.’ The exact content of comps varies by discipline, but these are generally both the last test you will ever take and the toughest test you will ever take. My comps involved reading approximately 160 different modern scholarly works (books and articles, split roughly evenly) – a working knowledge of the Greek and Latin primary source tradition was assumed – and taking a pair of six-hour essay exams which had to be within a fairly narrow time window of each other. Comps in many fields will also involve language examinations (Greek and Latin comps in Classics are often brutally difficult, to be frank). This might sound like more hazing (and some of it is) but comps also serve important purposes: they both verify that you have a good grasp on the shape of scholarship in your field (and thus are qualified to teach it!) but also the reading lists the process creates are meant to bring you up to speed rapidly on what may be decades-long (or in ancient history, centuries long) disputes in the scholarship. Comps – when administered well and used properly – both provide and then prove the foundation of the general knowledge you need to function in your field.

Following comps, the doctoral student is going to assemble a committee of scholars (typically 5 members, the chair of whom is the student’s advisor) in their field and present them with an in-depth proposal for the research that will make up the dissertation; the proposal is often called a prospectus, which is Latin for ‘proposal.’6 The prospectus is generally a chunky document which presents a literature summary detailing what research has been done by others to date on this topic, how the proposed project will break new ground and advance human knowledge and also the research method proposed and why it will bear fruit. Assembling a prospectus is a serious project; my prospectus was 21 pages long. The committee will then either approve the project or send you back to try again (the latter is rare7), often making modifications to the outline of the project they think will be helpful. My committee added an entire chapter to my project and I am still working on learning forgiveness.8

Generally programs are set up so that your required coursework is complete at the end of the same year you take comps (usually in the fall) and present your prospectus (in the spring), making that last year of coursework a bit of a trial-by-fire before the more self-directed dissertation phase. At this point, with the prospectus approved and classes complete you move from being a doctoral student to being a doctoral candidate. This is also what is known as being ‘ABD’ – ‘All But Dissertation’ – a phrase that sounds informal but is actually a formal designation.

The doctoral candidate then marches off to complete their dissertation, which typically takes between three and five years. In theory this process is watched over by the committee and especially by the dissertation advisor. In practice this sort of work is often quite solitary and isolating (though remember you are almost certainly teaching for the department while doing it). A major part of the challenge here is that you need to be taking actions on, say, Day 14 of your research project which you will turn into a written chapter on Day 718 which will finally become part of a completed book on Day 1,800. Self-motivation and the ability to break big tasks down into smaller, manageable tasks are necessary skills here. A lot of graduate students founder at this stage because while they were very intelligent and driven in conditions where someone else was setting clear goals and timetables (as in a classroom environment), the task of organizing and then self-motivating a massive project like this proved very difficult.

The end product of that effort is the dissertation, a roughly book-length research project which expands the bounds of human knowledge on your subject through original research (that is, you need to have found something new; you cannot merely have summarized the work of others). My dissertation ended up being (tables and appendices included) 788 pages long but between 200-350 pages is more typical. You then defend your dissertation. The defense is a meeting with your entire committee (whose feedback ideally you have been soliciting throughout the process) where the committee members essentially ‘stress test’ your arguments, asking probing questions about your methods and results (having had a chance to study your dissertation and prepare their questions; you have to answer on-the-spot). After an hour or two of that, you leave the room so the committee can confer and, if all goes well, you are invited back into the room a few minutes later to hear your advisor say “Congratulations, Dr. so-and-so” as she or he reaches out to shake your hand.9. Failed defenses are extremely rare; no advisor should allow a dissertation to go to this stage unless they are confident it will succeed. It is far more common for projects to sputter out before they reach the defense stage. ‘Wash-out’ rates for programs vary; my sense is the best programs hover around 20-25%, with figures rising to 50% for worse programs.

The Advisor

The most important person in the process is your advisor, who is generally a senior member of the faculty in your department who shares your specialization. I struggle to find words to communicate how important this person will be during your graduate experience.. Graduate study at this level is effectively an apprenticeship system; the advisor is the master and the graduate student is the apprentice and so in theory at least the advisor is going to help guide the student through each stage of this process. To give a sense of the importance of this relationship, it is fairly common to talk about other academics’ advisors as forming a sort of ‘family tree’ (sometimes over multiple ‘generations’).10 Indeed, the German term for an advisor is a doktorvater, your ‘doctor-father’ (or doktormutter, of course) and this is in common use among English-language academics as well and the notion it suggests, that your advisor is a sort of third parent, isn’t so far from the truth.

If you are considering graduate school with an eye towards continuing in academia who you choose as your advisor will be very important: academia is a snooty, prestige conscious place and your advisor’s name and prestige will travel with you. But there’s more than that: your advisor, because they need to check off on every step of your journey and you will need their effusive letter of recommendation to pursue any kind of academic job has tremendous power over you as a graduate student. You, by contrast, have functionally no power in that relationship; you are reliant on the good graces of your advisor. My advisors, in both my MA and PhD were fantastic, generous scholars and great people, but I absolutely knew colleagues laboring under advisors who were either distractedly callous or worse yet actively malicious.

Once caught in that position, there is often unfortunately very little that a grad student can do except either leave the program, switch advisors (and this can be a difficult and drama-filled process) or soldier through; efforts to hold graduate advisors accountable even in situations where they have clearly violated university policy or sometimes even the law typically fail. There’s a feedback effect here where the low rate of success in holding advisors accountable discourages any effort by graduate students to do so; the attempt is often career suicide even if you succeed and almost certainly so if you fail. I’m sorry to say that, but it is true; of the professors I have known directly (that is, from their own advisees) to have been toxic or even abusive advisors, exactly zero have ever suffered any kind of meaningful long term censure or repercussions for it that I am aware of.

The tricky thing here is that no undergraduate senior is likely to be able to make a truly informed choice of advisor (which is often tied up with the choice of program since your advisor has to be in the department you are in). At best, a prospective graduate student may know their potential advisor by reputation (typically by the reputation of their scholarship, not their personality) and a brief conversation. Meanwhile, with the exception of truly notorious advisors and departments, there is basically no way for a prospective graduate student to sound out what a potential advisor is like; no one with that informative has any incentive to be direct or truthful about it (there are exceptions; I was warned off of certain graduate programs by their recent graduates. In every case what I later learned showed that advice to be wise and I am glad I heeded it).

So the choice of advisor, by far the most important single choice after choosing to go to graduate school, has to be made effectively blind. You might get a wonderful, generous, kind-but-also-helpfully-demanding advisor, like those I had. Or you might get an indifferent advisor who barely remembers you exist between their own research projects (which, to be clear, is quite bad; you need someone helping you through this process. An advisor that is AWOL is a serious problem). Or you might get a toxic, wrathful abuser. In narrow sub-specialties, you are rolling the dice blind with little chance to change course because there is probably only one professor in the department who covers your specialty (and remember that attempts to change to a different program after entering one will read to admissions committees as failure, so you are often well and truly stuck). In a larger department, you may have 2-3 different people in your field and so may be able to balance advisors or switch from one to the other. In either case, you are picking your small hand of cards almost entirely blind and betting the next seven years of your mental health on it.

So that is the broad outline. But what is it like?

Graduate Student Life

Many undergraduate students drift towards graduate school out of a degree of inertia. They have been proceeding from one grade to the next all of their lives and have been very good at school and so graduate school seems the logical ‘next thing.’ Moreover, they really liked the college experience and graduate school looks like ‘more college.’ This is a terrible reason to go to graduate school, both as long-term life planning but also because graduate school is not actually very much like undergraduate college education at all. Let’s talk about why.

Graduate student course-loads initially do not look heavier than undergraduate loads. Indeed, in many programs, a three-course (9 credit) load is typical in graduate school, compared to a five course (15-credit) undergraduate load. This is deceptive, because the courses in question are much more demanding; it is not a question of being smart enough (the admissions process may not always choose the best candidates, but it is fairly good at selecting folks who have the raw intellectual horsepower to get through; character, curiosity, drive and prudence are less certain) but a question of being demanding in terms of time and willpower.

By way of comparison, the first advanced undergraduate Latin course (intended for third-year Latin students) I took during my post-Bacc. we read two speeches of Cicero (the Pro Archia and the Pro Caelio, which are some of the easier speeches) and most of book II of Vergil’s Aeneid, in both cases with a student commentary with notes to help us along. If I had to put a number to the mount of Latin there, I’d suppose it represented the equivalent of maybe 100 OCT11 pages.

In contrast, in the 700-level seminar I took on Cicero during my PhD, we read six speeches of Cicero (the Pro Milone, Pro Roscio Amerino, Pro Murena, Pro Ligario, Philippic II, Philippic VII) plus large parts of two additional prose works (the Brutus and de Oratore). By my estimate (more exact as I have the OCTs for most of those) that was a bit more than 300 OCT pages, read in critical editions (that is, texts designed for scholars with no helpful translation notes but a fuller discussion of different manuscript traditions; even the notes in OCTs are in Latin). On top of that we read 17 scholarly articles over the term and wrote a research paper. Conservatively then, the work-load for the 700-level course was something like four or five times the workload of the advanced undergraduate course (and to be clear, this was a great class though the professor himself, now retired, once only half-jokingly called it ‘the Bataan death march through the de Oratore.’ A hard course is not necessarily a bad course!).

We can do the same exercise with history courses. Advanced undergraduate courses might assign three or four books over a semester alongside lecture material. By contrast, a common structure for graduate history courses is the ‘book a week’ structure. I had one course where the reading assignment for the first meeting (as in the first time we’d met as a class; we hadn’t even gone over the syllabus yet) was an 30-page article, and the entire text of Thucydides (which to be clear, is 548 pages in the Landmark translation. This was translated, mercifully, this was a history class; it was also a great class). Part of this is an instructional method in the humanities whereby graduate students are assigned functionally impossible amounts of reading and so forced to learn to read quickly (I wish professors were a bit more explicit about this and the tricks and methods one learned to manage that kind of reading load, but the skills are necessary to thrive in academia). All of which is to say that the work load of graduate school is not like an extension of the undergraduate experience, but a quantitative change massive enough to be a qualitative change; the work-load is massively heavier.

In addition, you are likely to have some sort of extra responsibility as a condition of your tuition remission and stipend (discussed in a moment), such as being a teaching assistant or research assistant. In theory, these responsibilities are usually supposed to add up to about 20 hours a week, though there is a lot of variability from week to week and assignment to assignment. I actually kept track of my work hours in the first year of my PhD and found they ranged from 60 to 80 hours a week and that was with all the tricks I had learned to read and work faster during my MA (for comparison, I rarely felt seriously stressed about schoolwork during my undergraduate degree, which I finished in three years). First year students often do not have all of those tricks down and that first year is often really tough as a result.

Even once classes are done, the workload doesn’t actually subside because all of that coursework time is simply replaced with the work of the dissertation (and frequently greater teaching responsibilities as you may transition from being a TA to being ‘instructor of record,’ which is to say the actual ‘professor’ for the class, though you lack that job title12). While an ABD graduate student has a lot of control in what work they do when, the amount of work stays fairly high though the lack of structure and clear milestones can be anxiety inducing.

That workload has downstream effects on the rest of your graduate life experience. You will almost always be tired. The graduate social scene is also very different (and almost entirely disconnected) from the undergraduate one: you all have demanding work-schedules, tight financial constraints, and the responsibilities of adult lives. That’s not to say it is bad; you can form really powerful friendships in conditions of shared suffering. I have very fond memories of hanging out with my colleagues at The Baxter. But that’s my point: graduate school is a condition of shared suffering, whereas undergraduate education is a condition of shared freedom.

To be clear, while I think some of the workload here is academic hazing, a lot of it is important. It simply isn’t possible to get out to the edge of human knowledge in a field without a ton of work. If you want to do that even remotely quickly, that means a lot of long hours. That terrifying Cicero class up there was hard, but it was a good class and the reading load wasn’t unreasonable for the level it was at. But the warning needs to be made: graduate study is not like undergraduate study.

Oh, also you will be poor for all of this.

Graduate School Finances

Before diving into the finances, we need to separate two kinds of graduate programs: funded and unfunded. A funded program is one in which the school is paying your entire tuition bill, along with a stipend that in theory covers fees and living expenses such that it is in theory possible to live without an external source of income or loans (many students still find loans necessary to make ends meet even in a funded program for reasons that will swiftly become obvious). An unfunded program is any program that doesn’t guarantee all of this for the entire duration of your time there. There are many degrees worth pursuing in unfunded programs: law degrees at elite law schools, medical degrees, degrees in dentistry and so on.

Under no circumstances should you ever, ever, ever go to graduate school in any humanities or humanities-adjacent discipline unless you are fully funded.

I don’t care if they told you this 2-year program will be a good springboard into a 4-year program or that it is a good networking opportunity or whatever else (they’re lying, by the way; such ‘bridge’ programs rarely work effectively as bridges to prestigious graduate programs. If you need more coursework to get ready for graduate school, do it in a cheap, pay-per-course post bacc. program; often you can do this through your undergraduate institution as a continuing learner). I also do not care if you can get the money from loans or your grandmother or what have you. A program that isn’t willing to fund you won’t be willing to spend other resources – instructor time, reputational capital, etc. – on you either. That means no face time with key professors, no support for research activities, less investment in helping you build a professional network and so on. If they’re not investing in you, then they’re just taking your money.

If you are going to give them the best years of your life, for the love of God don’t let them make you pay for it.

(Exception time: If you are getting a degree in education, these are rarely funded because they are in practice treated more like professional degrees (which is why they are EdDs instead of PhDs). Fortunately, you can do some quick math on this one, since degrees in education are generally taken back to public school teaching at the grade school level; school systems typically have rigid pay schedules based on seniority and degrees. You can thus quite often simply do the math to determine if an education degree is going to pay off and how quickly (but be sure to account for interest on loans you take for classes and interest on the loans you take to pay for basic living expensive alongside classes). My general impression is that the return on education degrees is generally low and frequently negative and so these programs are frequently – but not always – a bad idea. Sure, they may make you a better school teacher, but why should you pay for that if no one else will? Obviously all of this calculus changes if, for some reason, your employer is willing to pay for you to pursue the degree.)

While many graduate students do take on additional work to make ends meet, most graduate programs are going to expect that they have your full and undivided attention (see the workload above). Many professors will react to students trying to maintain work-life balance or a second job as a sign of a lack of commitment or even something of a betrayal; this is bullshit (pardon my language), but it is also a thing that happens and unfortunately the good opinion of key professors in your department is not a thing you can afford to waste. Consequently, there will be a great deal of pressure on you as a graduate student not to do this but instead to take out loans (which is a terrible, but often unavoidable, idea).

On the other hand, graduate stipends are often fairly low, especially given the time demands of the program. Looking at my own information, in 2016 during my PhD, my gross pre-tax income from my stipend was just short of $16,000 a year, though some of that was taken off to pay fees (tuition was ‘remitted’ but fees were not); mercifully healthcare was included (it is often not). That is fairly close to what one would earn working full time (that is, 40 ours, not 80) at minimum wage, but keep in mind that most college towns are meaningfully above the average cost of living in the United States and also minimum wage is, well, minimum wage. At points in my graduate school experience I qualified for various anti-poverty programs like the EITC (a thing that doesn’t frequently happen to workers with college degrees!).

I am by no means saying that graduate students have it the worst, but I don’t think I knew any graduate students who felt financially comfortable (unless they had a spouse or family backstopping their finances) and for folks coming from backgrounds that didn’t involve making ends meet at close to the minimum wage, it can be quite a shock. Worse yet, for graduate students whose own background is poor, they can struggle because they do not have the family support and background savings the low stipends essentially assume. Of course if you already have student loans from your undergraduate experience, all of this gets even worse. If you have not been poor, you will experience a poverty-like substitute in graduate school; be prepared for that. If you are already poor, making this work financially is going to be extremely difficult.

Now I should note that this is not, strictly speaking, the fault of the departments in question. Graduate funding, stipends, health benefits and so on are generally set by either the university’s Graduate School (an administrative unit within a large university) or the individual Colleges (other administrative units within a university, like the College of Arts and Sciences, etc). I am sure that most faculty wish they had the institutional support to better fund their graduate students (and adjuncts). That said, it is also the case that every time I have ever seen a graduate student union attempt to strike or otherwise put pressure on the university, the bulk of the faculty (in the university, not on a department-by-department basis) has sided with the administration, typically citing concerns that whatever action is planned will adversely impact the undergraduates. Because, as we’ll see, graduate student interests are always sacrificed when they conflict with undergraduate student interests.

This is a problem because…

Pressure

So you are working anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week, while economically precarious, often within hollering distance of the poverty line. Your coursework, in addition to being heavy, is high-stress and high-stakes. You are not going to be an anonymous voice in a large class; classes are extremely small (often single-digits small) with professors who know you and whose good opinion is essential to actually moving forward in your career post graduate school. Expectations are also higher: at my MA program, we used to joke that the grading scale was, A(cceptable), A-, B(ad)+ and F because any grade below a B+ was effectively failure (and even a B+ was a bad sign). At my PhD program, they had already institutionalized this and simply graded graduate students as ‘High’ ‘Pass’ or ‘Low (=fail)’ – and having too many ‘passes’ was also bad thing. The pressure not to merely pass but to excel is very high (and also professors generally feel a lot freer to put graduate students ‘on the spot’ in front of their peers in ways that would be inappropriate with undergraduate students. Surprise questions I have gotten include being able to rattle off the names of a dozen of Alexander’s companions13 name the Roman provinces in order of acquisition (though this was a round-robin class exercise so each of us was on the spot, one by one in turn) and offer a brief summary of the character of the Roman economy, all done in front of an entire class in which, I must stress, I was a student. This is not an invalid thing to do! Academics often have sharp elbows and so getting used to pressure is important; but it is pressure and that matters).

So you are going to always be tired, working under conditions where you need to be at your best, your sharpest every day. I think for most graduate students this is also combined with a nasty shock of no longer being the smartest in the room (and no longer being able to occasionally ‘coast’ on that). In a graduate class, everyone is exceptionally intelligent and exceptionally driven – the entire class is going to be drawn from people in the top 5-10% of performers. And everyone is trying hard to distinguish themselves, to stand one head above the rest and so on. This can be a wonderful experience, of course: an entire class made up of the wiz-kids produces great discussion and learning! But it can also produce emotionally difficult imposter syndrome (the feeling that you aren’t good enough but are merely ‘faking it’ and in danger of being ‘found out.’) even among the smartest people. Even the very sharpest colleagues I had reported fears of inadequacy (and the programs I was in were very collegial in a ‘we’re all in this together’ sense; many programs are structured to be much more competitive, which makes this worse), made worse of course in that everyone is trying to look – especially to the faculty – like they have a firm handle on all of this (when no one does).

That tends to mean that effectively all graduate students suffer from some degree of anxiety and imposter syndrome, often quite severe degrees. And unlike in a real job where you have things like regular performance reviews and promotions to get a sense of how you are regarded in your job, there really aren’t any functional systems for this kind of reassurance in graduate school, beyond an advisor pulling you aside and saying, ‘you’re doing a good job.’14 Which of course just circles back to ‘the most important choice you make is made blind’ because many advisors will never give you that kind of reassurance, either due to indifference, toxic narcissism or just the fact that while they mean well, they’re not a therapist and watching out for your mental health isn’t part of their training.

There is also no real expectation of any sort of work-life balance. You are increasingly expected to structure your own workload (because note even as your in-class hours shrink, your reading and homework hours massively expand), which in practice means expanding it to almost every corner of your life. The often glib response is for graduate students to enforce a 9-to-5 work schedule (or something like it), but this is rarely possible. First, few programs provide the kind of work-spaces to facilitate this (in my PhD program, I had an office with four desks and six or seven graduate graduate students; we obviously couldn’t all keep banker’s hours!) and moreover no one is going to make any allowances for the variability of the workload. Some weeks you will just have 80 hours of work to do (especially during grading crunches) and few graduate students, for the reasons already discussed, will feel they can say, “look, I’ve put in my 40 hours, these papers just aren’t getting graded this week.’

(There is, as an side, ample research showing that ‘crunch’ is simply ineffective under these conditions and does more harm than good in terms of the final product, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be given the choice to avoid those sorts of conditions.)

The result is fairly predictable: one study has indicated that 39% of graduate students show signs of moderate-to-severe depression (compared to 6% of the general public). Another study suggested that 32% of PhD students “are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder,” several times the rates observed in the public. Rates of mental illness among graduate students in these sorts of studies regularly match or exceed those for active duty military personnel (to be clear, I am not saying graduate school is at all like war (I lack the experience to make that call in any case), merely that it – as the studies show – seems to produce the mental disorders tested for at comparable rates and I think it should go without saying that studying Old English Literature should not come with the same stress level as the potential of being in combat). I present these statistics because I want to be very clear that this isn’t just whining (and also worth noting that these statistics are not from the GenZ generational cohort which already shows elevated rates of depression and anxiety, so expect these numbers to get worse).

Graduate school takes emotionally well-adjusted, ultra-high-performing students and through a combination of stresses largely turns them into anxious, depressed and neurotic wrecks. It will exert those pressures on you too. If you are already emotionally fragile, have complicating health issues…I cannot recommend graduate school. And that makes me sad; there are a lot of great contributions waiting to be made by scholars who are neuro-divergant or have health problems or what have you. But right now, with the graduate experience we have it seems reckless to suggest that anyone risk their mental health in that way.

Of course, while you are at once spending your time in an environment where fully a third of your colleagues are developing serious mental health problems, frankly no one is going to believe you that it is hard. The popular vision of academics as pampered elites means that generally speaking your non-academic friends and family will not take you seriously; most actual academics won’t take you seriously because after all they got through, so why can’t you? Sure, there is hard data now showing what a toxic emotional environment this is, but getting anyone but other graduate students to care is, in my experience, next to impossible. And your fellow graduate students have no resources with which to help you, because they’re in the same sinking boat you are.

And the further bad news is that the university certainly isn’t coming to save you (no one is).15 Universities, as institutions, care deeply about the well-being and happiness of their undergraduates. They spend money on amenities for them, they hire academic advisors for them, they engage undergraduate student government which sets up all sorts of social groups and clubs for them. The University – the institution – loves its undergraduates.

It does not love its graduate students. And when you go from being an undergraduate to a graduate student, you will find it does not love you.

I can think of no starker example of priorities than how my PhD institution handled commencement this past spring. For the undergraduates receiving their 4-year bachelor degrees in 2021, commencement was split into five different ceremonies so that it could be carried out, in person, in line with COVID guidelines. Heaven and earth were moved to make sure this happened. For PhD candidates, receiving their PhDs after on average around 7 years of work at the cutting edge of knowledge in their field, an event that represents the capstone of their education because there is no higher educational achievement in the United States…the in-person ‘doctoral hooding’ for 2020 and 2021 was first merged and then cancelled (while the undergraduate in person commencement went on!) and replaced by a 20-minute pre-recorded YouTube video.16

This same attitude is broadly typical of how the university as a whole treats graduate students as both students and researchers. Resources for things like mental health, work-life balance, and childcare (because many graduate students are in the years of their life where child-rearing has to happen if it is going to happen at all) are often functionally non-existent or very limited. The university doesn’t care and while good faculty members17 do, your dissertation advisor isn’t a therapist. And of course affording a therapist is hard because – as noted – you make very little money.

Meanwhile, everyone will feel very free to make demands on you for the sake of the department, the field, the students (by which, to be clear, we mean the undergraduates, the people the university actually loves) or the university. The public performance of a comedy in Latin at a small academic conference (in tunics and togas!) as an unlisted-in-the-syllabus-but-mandatory part of the class because the professor was the conference organizer? Yup, had that happen. Classes that began before the actual start of the semester? Indeed, had that happen. Classes that extended beyond the actual end of the semester? Yes, in fact.18 Classwork that takes place over Spring or Fall Break? Yes, that too. Optional-but-actually-very-mandatory attendance at department events? That too!19 Did graduate students20 get shuffled under the bus to make things easier on undergraduates doing COVID? You bet!21 In my experience graduate students are only rarely extended the luxury of boundaries.

(To be fair, I have also had faculty mentors who used that flexibility in positive ways: buying their TAs pizza after a hard push of finals grading, holding seminars in informal settings which were frankly a lot better for discussion, informative informal ‘field-trips’ (which may have included a black-powder live-fire exercise), graduate student BBQs hosted by senior faculty members, opportunities for social introductions to other scholars and so on. The Talbertini have an annual dinner at our big annual conference which I always look forward to. One of the bittersweet things about all of this is through all of the unnecessary hazing and exploitation, you can glimpse what the relationship here should be and indeed could be (though it sure seems like I have more of these happy stories than many of my colleagues, so I may have more than my fair share of quality mentors).)

And of course underlying all of this is the inability to really say no because again the good opinion of the (often eccentric, mercurial) faculty governs your life. Absolutely, I know graduate students who were black-balled in their field because they offended the wrong member of a department, often in completely innocent ways. And at the point where you’ve invested close to a decade of labor (undergraduate + graduate), what kind of fool would take that risk by saving no to an out-of-line demand? Speaking of the departments I’ve been in, the answer is no one. No one refuses. Everyone smiles, says yes, and groans privately over drinks with other graduate students later.

And if you are thinking, ‘Woah, this sounds like the kind of place that is going to also have some seriously awful #MeToo type s*** going on’…yes, it is. It really is.

And as an aside for faculty or university administrators reading this who think perhaps they might push for something to be done, here is my one clearest suggestion: without lowering stipends further, include mental health therapy in your graduate student’s medical benefits (cover it completely) and then make sure they know it is included and then make sure (since many of them have just moved to your town) you have a list of qualified therapists. Many universities have at least some of these services, but often they are not really pitched at graduate students or not really affordable on a graduate stipend (checking the current iteration of the health insurance plan I had as a TA, it covers mental health visits but with a deductible of $500 and then a 20% coinsurance in-network, which might as well not exist for someone working 80 hours a week to make $16k a year).

So Should You Do it?

This is a tough question for academics to answer. Our profession runs on an apprenticeship system and so on a fundamental level we want younger scholars following in our footsteps. We’re excited to learn that our students are thinking of going forward in the field because we are excited in the field. Some of my past undergraduate students are doing their graduate studies now and it makes me smile with pride thinking about the great things they will learn, do and write. So it pains me to say that, in most cases, the answer is pretty clearly:

No, you should not.

I doubt graduate school was ever easy (although it is hard not to notice that since the 1980s, few graduate stipends have kept up with inflation, meaning that graduate students have been slipping closer and closer to the poverty line as a function of time), but it used to function as an apprenticeship system towards an actual career. Graduate students put up with the hardship and difficulties as part of the training process meant to produce professors at the end of it. I am not pardoning the academic hazing involved here; I think hazing is bad in all cases. But you could at least recommend someone put themselves through the difficult, lean years of graduate school, through the stress and academic hazing, the delayed life milestones and all if it held the key to unlocking the sort of career where you could teach and live the life of the mind. But the grim part about all of this is that at the end of the process, the chances of landing an academic job (be it professor, or museum curator, or another equivalent actually-requires-a-doctorate position) are slim. This is true even in the very top programs (and attempting to get there in anything less than a top-20 program is often pointless).

When you make the decision about graduate school, make it assuming there will be no job at the end of the tunnel for you, ever. Because there probably won’t be, no matter how driven, intelligent and capable you are. Those things don’t matter much at all; the academic job market in nearly every field in the humanities is so full of qualified candidates for whom there are too few jobs that the job search has become almost entirely random (this mostly has to do with a collapse of hiring, not a surge in the production of PhDs; note that hiring has collapsed even as enrollments have risen. This is not a demand problem, but a pillaging-of-the-humanities problem). I have found it easier to become profitably famous on the internet than to get a permanent job in the field I have a doctorate in; let that absurdity sink in for a minute.

I was asked on Twitter what steps someone should take if they are contemplating graduate school in the humanities and I laid out the ‘success sequence:’

Step 1: Start learning the languages you will need in undergrad or even high school if possible.
Step 2: Know that you plan to go to graduate school in your tweens so you can have the kind of GPA and extracurricular profile which will win you admissions into the top tier of selective private schools. This isn’t the only way to do this, but prestige is rewarded at each stage, making it easier to go from a high GPA at a high income High School to a prestigious private college (read: the Ivies) to a top-5 graduate program which will also mostly be at prestigious, private colleges (who like to admit their own undergraduates or the undergraduates of their peer institutions).
Step 3: The iron law of academic hiring is that no one works at an institution more prestigious than where they got their PhDs. There are exceptions, but they are fairly few. The current pressures on the job market have also tended to mean that a PhD from outside the top-20 programs in your field is practically worthless. Select graduate programs accordingly.
Step 4: Doing steps 1-3 correctly do not actually guarantee you a job either. Failure to do them can lock you out, but success does not lock you in. And finally:
Step 0: Be born into a wealthy family who can help you in doing (1) and (2) and then financially support you through graduate school and provide a safe, soft landing when the job market doesn’t work out anyway.

And the thing is this long process, beginning in your teens may do nothing, even if followed perfectly, to actually enable you to land an academic job at the end of it. Nor do I think that ‘alt-ac’ (the term for jobs outside of academia one can get with your academic PhD) is any kind of solution; for one most of these are jobs one could get with any advanced degree (or without any advanced degree at all). It is, in essence “jobs we don’t have to train you for and can’t- or won’t – help you find.” If you spent ten years training to be a carpenter, we would not consider working retail to be ‘alt-carpenter’ and so just as good. There are easier ways to become mid-level university administrators or secondary school teachers that involve less debt and a lower rate of workplace induced mental illness. I know people who are very happy with their alt-ac careers, but none of them pretend that this is what they were trained for.

And so at the end of all of this I am afraid to say my best advice is “don’t go” or at least “don’t go if you are not already wealthy.” I’d like to say that there are wonderful alternative avenues for exploring the humanities which have the same level of rigor as the graduate school process such that you could learn the trade without putting up with the system, but I don’t actually think that is true, by and large. There are some exceptional individuals who can self-teach themselves to that level, but looking at the bulk of, for instance, history ‘scholarship’ produced by the self-taught is not encouraging. Perhaps that will begin to change as more of the products of this system are forced to make careers outside of it and create more public spaces for really rigorous humanities discussion. But for now, at least, this is not a collapse without costs; if you wanted to make a living doing rigorous, path-breaking work in the study of the humanities, I’m sorry. That future was stolen from you and squandered. It is gone.

If graduate school in the humanities is your idea of an interesting leisure activity – the way elites in ages past read Homer and Vergil to pass the time and impress their elite friends – then it can still serve that purpose. But increasingly I fear that is the only service it really serves for most graduate students, who will finish their programs with no real hope of nabbing one of the fleeting remaining academic jobs. As one report noted, the typical college professor is an adjunct paid just $3,500 per course, where, to be clear, a 4-4 (eight courses a year) is a full-time teaching load at most teaching-focused (that is non-research) 4 year-institutions; most research-focused schools have 2-2 (four courses a year) loads. And yes, every graduate student will come up with a whole host of reasons why they are special and the job fairy will favor them, but the numbers don’t lie: you’re not special and the job fairy died years ago.

From Benjamin Schmidt’s recent data-dive of job market data in History. History as a field has been harder hit post-2008 than some of the other humanities, but this is largely an artifact of history having been much less badly hit in the humanities contractions of the 1990s and thus having further to fall.
That collapsing blue line are jobs as assistant professors, the standard ‘entry level’ tenure track position.

I love the humanities. I hope you love the humanities too. This is most absolutely not a case against majoring in the humanities in your undergraduate, something that still produces good life prospects and is also enriching to both the country and the soul. I am I fully intend to keep soldiering away trying to promote the study of the humanities (and my little corner of it, ancient history) because I think these are important fields with important lessons and values. But I think it is profoundly irresponsible for me to advocate that you should take that love of the humanities and then spend the next decade of your life ruining your mental and physical health in intensive, specialist training for the privilege of a career where the most common outcome is that you work full-time (honestly, almost certainly more than 40 hours a week) to earn $28,000 a year ($3,500 per course, times 8 courses) with no benefits or job security.22 Worse yet that this system will effectively demand on top that you take out loans you’ll have to try to repay on that pitiful adjunct income.

At least flagellants, in theory, got to go to heaven as the reward for their self-destructive purification. The only thing pursuing a PhD in the humanities offers is the opportunity to go on the academic job market, which is frankly probably closer to hell at this point. It shouldn’t be this way and it doesn’t need to be this way. But it is.

I am truly sorry. But you should try wanting something else.

  1. A caveat here. I am going to occasionally declare things ‘lies.’ These lies by and large do not come from faculty (that is professors). No professor ever told me that a program was a five year program. But university materials absolutely say this. This, you may note here, is going to be a trend: while professors will often offer the best information they have (it is frequently out of date though), universities are far more willing to fib, in part opportunistically and in part because the way the administrative structure of the university has evolved, the people writing the admissions material or representing the university typically have little knowledge, connection or concern with how the actual academics function.
  2. Not actually guaranteed. If you are not making the grade they will suggest you leave the program before five years are up, though this is very rare.
  3. As an ancient history, the general expectation was that I’d have at least a couple of years of Greek and several more of Latin before beginning graduate study. I learned to read (badly) French and German during my graduate career; single semester crash courses ‘for reading knowledge’ so that you can read scholarship (but not your main sources) in other languages are a common fixture in graduate school. That standard Classics-package (often with the admixture of Italian or Spanish) is, to my knowledge, one of the heavier language-learning-loads (reflecting the origin of Classics in language-study (philology)), but there are sub-fields of history where the language demands are also fearsome.
  4. Note that this usage is country-specific. In the United States, the capstone project for a MA is a thesis while the capstone for a PhD is a dissertation, whereas in the UK the capstone project for a PhD is often called a ‘doctoral thesis.’ I will be using the US terminology here.
  5. A ‘terminal’ MA means a degree which is the intended end-point of that program; such MAs are typically offered by graduate programs which do not grant PhDs. An important warning here: you can also walk out of a PhD program early, but after the MA is awarded; you keep the MA. But while a terminal MA is a useful springboard into further graduate study, an MA gained in a PhD program without completing the PhD program will read as failure to other academic programs (the faculty of whom are likely to know full well which programs award PhDs and which only have terminal MAs) and may thus be fatal to efforts later in life to complete a PhD
  6. Technically it means ‘a look forward’ but I couldn’t resist the joke.
  7. And is often a signal that what the committee may actually be telling you to do is take the MA and run
  8. I am kidding of course. About the forgiveness. My revenge was that the chapter in question ended up being about 80 pages long and they all had to read it.
  9. As an aside, it is academic tradition that it is after a successful defense, not the formal graduation date which may come later, that a person is entitled to the ‘Doctor’ honorific.
  10. This makes me a member of the gens Talberta or as we actually call ourselves, the Talbertini. Our symbol is the Tabula Peutingeriana which is, by the by, extraordinarily hard to render on a shield.
  11. Oxford Classical Text, one of the major series of critical Latin texts and a decent enough proxy for text-length here since the pages tend to have roughly the same amount of text on them. I haven’t the time to do a word-count analysis, alas.
  12. Universities, by the by, lie a lot about the scale of the role that graduate students (and also adjuncts) play in their teaching, assuring parents of incoming freshmen that the graduate students don’t really do any core instruction, which is almost always untrue at a ‘research’ institution (which is to say any institution that has a large graduate program). But parents, do not fret: your little special student will get a fine education delivered in part by their TAs; little Johnny-freshmen does not, in fact, need tons of face-time with senior professors to manage French I and Intro to American History.
  13. I believe I managed Parmenio, Cleitus the Black, Hesphaestion, Aristobolus, Nearchus, Ptolemy, Eumenes, Seleucus, Antigonus, Perdiccas, Antipater, and Lysimachus.
  14. My advisor would say ‘Be of Good Courage!’ but then he was known for being quite direct in both his praise and criticism; most academics aren’t. I saved positive comments from members of my committee so I could look back at them later to fight off the anxiety. I still have some of them stashed away.
  15. To be clear, I think this is a bad thing; I do not think that ‘academic hazing’ has any value at all. For what little it is worth given my low standing in our collective academic enterprise, my door is always open to graduate students – or any kind of student, really – who are struggling. My first, best, most important advice: start therapy. Do not put it off. Seeking help is not bad, or shameful or an admission of weakness. Get the professional mental health help you need.
  16. I was extraordinarily upset by this. I had completed my defense a few years prior, so I didn’t miss out on my ceremony, but a group of us had made a habit of attending the ceremonies as each of us finished; 2020 and 2021 represented the last of that group and I was one of the few folks still in the area and so was determined to make a point of coming out to congratulate the last of us to finish and then…nope. No doctoral hooding to attend.
  17. But many faculty members are not good; as grim as the picture I am drawing here is, I should note I had excellent mentors – I was fantastically, uncommonly, preposterously lucky in the cards I drew at every stage to get advisors who cared deeply about me as both a scholar and as a person, but many faculty advisors do not or alternately do care but just due to their own personalities and goals aren’t well equipped to turn that caring into actual help
  18. Both of these things are comically in violation of university policy, but who is going to report it and burn their bridge with that professor?
  19. These examples did not all happen in the same department, but they did all happen to me.
  20. Not me, this time, I was done by then
  21. I feel I should note that at both my current institution and my previous institution, department faculty pushed hard to make sure TAs were not asked to do anything the professors would not due in terms of COVID exposure risk. My chair last year also put his foot down against the idea that adjuncts might be pressured into teaching in-person when the tenured faculty dared not. But I am also aware that the administrations of both universities pressured classes to be taught in person in Fall 2020 at effectively all costs and that included suggesting that classes might be run with the professor remote but the graduate students in person to facilitate. Again, many of the worst things about the graduate student experience are products of university policy not faculty actions.
  22. And one last time, before the you rush to the comments with the predictable response that this is all ‘elite overproduction.’ No, it isn’t. Enrollments are still rising in US colleges, which is precisely why universities that downscale their permanent faculty have to hire all of these adjuncts to teach their students. What is happening is that university administrators are – and have been for a long time – transferring resources both from instruction generally towards student amenities and more administrators and also from the humanities specifically towards the STEM fields, often despite the fact that humanities courses remain popular and are frequently cheaper to teach as they do not require lots of expensive equipment or more highly paid STEM professors. You should be furious that the public institutions your tax dollars pay for are being systematically pillaged, but of course so many Americans harbor an anti-intellectual animus against the university that they don’t care that they and their children are being actively ripped off by this new (post-2000, mostly) model of higher education or if they do care, they falsely attribute the problem to the faculty rather than the administrators their own elected representatives have put in charge of most major state universities.

128 thoughts on “Collections: So You Want To Go To Grad School (in the Academic Humanities)?

  1. I made an attempt at grad school in PoliSci about 20 years ago. Much of what was written her applied to what I had done.

    I had the advantage of being slightly older (I turned 30 the day I submitted my MA thesis). I had spent time in the workforce before returning to complete my undergrad, and I knew that 5 more years of academic grinding was not going to work for me. Job prospects in academia were pathetic, and one can only get so far on the ‘learning for learning sake’ motivational speech before reality becomes unavoidable.

    I was also so appalled and disappointed at the quality of my post-grad schooling that I chose to get out while my optimism and bank account were intact. I got more actual education out of the last 2 years of my undergrad than out of my MA – and all the value I gained from my MA was in courses I essentially had to design for myself and pitch to a willing prof, since the entirety of the courses for which I had picked that school were not available in the time I was there.

    The MA did open some doors, likely almost as many as a Phd might have. No regrets 2 decades later, and I occasionally muse about doing an other Masters in a field related to my current work, but it would be almost entirely for interest/hobby sake.

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