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.

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

  1. Having just finished a doctorate in a STEM field myself, I feel for you, especially since our life is posh compared to yours (better stipends, far better job prospects, etc.) I, like you, won the lottery in terms of finding an advisor that was absolutely golden, but I still ended up having a mental health break that came close to threatening my graduation. Luckily, I’m good enough at what I do that I managed to pull through, but there were a few hit or miss rough patches when the depression was particularly bad. Further, having seen the life my professor led, I hightailed it out of academia, knowing that a life of grant writing would be hell for me. I found my happiness teaching high school science (now of course I have to jump through hoops because they don’t accept that a doctorate is sufficient training for teaching the material, but c’est la vie,) but I must say that you hit the mark. It’s a shame our society has so lost its vision for greatness beyond wealth and business that things have come to this point, but here we are.

    1. I agree On the STEM side I always felt a sympathy for the Humanities side it terms of how poorly the RA/TA job was funded. My hours were longer but I did not have to take a loan till I think my last year when I stopped wanted to do TA.. Also I wonder it there is not a treadmill effect in Humanities you kinda jump off your BA/BS right into grad school you are really shooting for career. Vs say myself my wife and close family friends were kind a advised by mentors to do a year or two in industry in our fields before jumping back into College. Because you could now get a decent job, bench jockey in biotech or work on a FE in Engineering or something.similar. The break seemed really useful you could see what you could do with the undergrad degree and where it would go and was kinda relaxing really before jumping back into the post doc grind.

      1. Grad school is a glamor industry, like movie actor or drug dealer. (Most drug dealers still live with their mothers.)

        A lousy pay rate in money and most of the pay in the hope that you will be one of the lucky duckies who hits it big.

    2. I think the STEM/Humanities distinction can be a difference of degree more than kind. My experience getting a physics PhD was very similar to what was laid out here, but with more funding and better alt-ac job prospects. We didn’t usually have TA position shortages, but I found myself nodding along with a lot of this blog…

      1. Physics professor here…my stipend when I was a student (and the stipend we pay our students) is around double what Brett quotes. Time to graduation is half – five years is typical and four is by no means unheard of. You could say these are differences of degree rather than kind, but `factors of 2′ seem like maybe they should be considered differences in kind. The job market is also better, both within research and without…

        1. Coming from astrophysics, what’s a few factors of two between friends 😉

          In all seriousness, it’s a good point, and such large quantitative differences may be category differences, but the problems with advisors and departments and mental health and all really sounds a lot like what I saw and heard.

    3. I had a brief stint in econ grad school before deciding that finishing with the master’s was sufficient. I still recall vividly having looked online for advice about econ grad school and coming across what appeared to be the only popular guide, which started with warning that if you have any second thoughts or alternatives at all you should do them instead because you *will* do them. At the time, I brushed it off and thought it was ridiculous. To a T, every single one of us that started the program with any viable alternative dropped before completing.

      Probably the worst moment for me in grad school was when I got a kidney stone. A professor called me while I was in the hospital, with the knowledge I was brought to the ER that morning, and still asked when I was going to finish grading his exams. The school would not allow a medical exemption so I took my finals the same day I was released from the hospital. Everyone involved acknowledged this was a deeply perverse circumstance but no one could do anything about it either.

    4. As a counterpoint to the above, I’m a current PhD student (AI/AI Systems) and I’m having a great time.

      The publishing schedule is actually pretty good. AAAI and IJCAI, the two top AI conferences, take papers in Sept/Jan and get back to you 3-4 months later. The short publishing cycle means that its possible to have a real track record in a field after only a few years.

      The pay ain’t bad. My fellowship started out at $32,000/year and there are plenty of $40,000-$45,000/year fellowships out there. My program heavily encourages its students to intern at companies like Microsoft/Amazon Web Services/Waymo, which is another $14,000+/year. (All of these companies are happy to have excellent systems/networks/AI PhD students chew on their problems for a summer). $50,000+ a year to build the systems you want to build is pretty good.

      The job market isn’t terrible either. Sure, landing a job in academia is hard (although with everyone growing their AI/Systems Research Comp Sci departments, its not a terrible time to apply) but there are a bunch of jobs in industry which will let you keep doing what you’re doing. Often industry is actually the best place to do systems research: Microsoft Research has papers at all the top conferences every year, and Google/Amazon always have a bunch of AAAI papers. The start up world is also always a possibility, albeit much riskier.

      1. There are three things IMO all prospective PhD student should do to make their PhD go well:

        (1) Know EXACTLY what you want to do. This means more than just thinking “oh I’d like to study computer vision” or whatever. You should have the abstracts of your first papers in mind. I had a draft. You should too. This means knowing (a) what the state-of-the-art in your field is (b) what methods you want to use and (c) why those methods are novel.

        (2) Have a working relationship with your advisor BEFORE you accept an offer. Since you’ve already read a lot of the literature relating to what you want to do (see (1)), you already know who the top people in the field are. Send them some of your early results. Ideally, send them your draft. Ask them if they have time to collaborate. If they’re willing to spend an hour every few weeks working with you before you’ve even heard back from the school, that’s a sign they’ll be a great advisor!

        Make sure you talk to multiple students in your advisor’s lab before accepting an offer.

        (3) Make sure whatever you’re doing DOESN’T FEEL LIKE WORK. Feynman, famously, would annoy his wife by staying up late solving integrals for fun. (Feynman, to be fair, wasn’t a great husband for a lot of other reasons, but that was one of them!) Ramanujan would preface his papers with an absurd number of worked examples, because working examples is what Ramanujan did with his spare time.

        PhD students don’t have a work life balance for the same reason musicians don’t have a work life balance – both are doing something they love so much that to not do it would ravage their souls. If spending 12+ hours a day, 6-7 days a week studying “X” for years doesn’t sound like a dream come true, don’t get a PhD. Do something else. Be happy. But if there’s a question you MUST know the answer to, even if it means starvation, then a PhD might be right for you.

        1. Besides academia and industry there is government. DoD is doing a lot of research in AI at the present. There are also programs like the DoD SMART program that pays for grad school and places you with a lab. You tend to get responsibility a lot faster in government labs the other places. Also lost of job security. You will start somewhere between a GS7 and 11 usually depending upon degree / grades. Normal top out is a 13. If you are an active researcher you can make a 15 without going into management. There are some new behind 15 positions that were recently created but those are rare (~1% and split with management)

  2. If you don’t mind a question, I’m a senior who’s thinking about going to Grad school for IR. I really love the field and want to study it further but one of my goals is to work in some form of national security, my major is poli-sci, with minors in economics and International relations. I’m unsure though if I should just look into higher programs for agencies like the FBI and such or go to Grad school. Several Professors who I really respect have recommended getting at least a Masters, and one of the schools I’m looking at is where two of them did their Masters work. What do you think I should do? If you answer thank you in advance.

    1. I don’t know what the job situation looks like – or will look like – in IR for folks with MAs looking to move into government jobs, so I can’t comment on the specifics. I will generally urge caution: professors tend to advocate more schooling because it is what we did, so take that advice with a grain of salt. I might instead try to seek out people actually working for the agencies you want to work for and gauge both their credentials and also what they think the situation on the other end of the MA looks like. Your professors may be able to put you in touch with recent graduates (their former students) active in the field who might have a better sense of conditions on the ground.

    2. I have some government adjacent experience. The government pays more for better educated candidates so you’ll get an immediate pay bonus for doing the same job with a masters. You’ll also get a hiring boost. Because everything’s bureaucratic they’re often hiring on a points system so the masters is worth something. And in a lot of the analytics or think tank fields having a masters is considered standard.

      However, getting a government job is a huge pain in of itself. Especially in the foreign service or the FBI or similar high prestige services. It’s worse than what’s described here for grad programs. Much worse. It’s not really close. I’ve known multiple people who spent years trying to get an entry level position with the FBI floating around DC. Think tanks are a little better in that they keep you in limbo less. But getting in is still difficult.

      It’s also not especially well paid. But like academia you get influence, power, and prestige beyond the pay.

      So in short: if you want a national security job then a masters will help a lot. But have a backup plan if you can’t get a government job. And even if you do get a government job you’ll probably need a job to work while you go through the years long application process to get a government job. For a lot of the elite college types that’s consulting. Others have left soft landings.

      So, tl;dr, get a masters but be prepared for the government job to not work out.

      PS: Another backdoor is to be an intern staffer to a Senator. If you’re young and from the right partisan background for your state then a lot of graduate students can do a six month stint in their offices. Most senators have at least some foreign policy duties since the Senate has a lot of treaty duties. The White House is even better but much harder. Note that a Representative will probably have no foreign policy duties unless they’re specifically on the correct committees.

    3. I do political science but American politics, not IR.

      You should be getting advice about this from people who work in national security, not IR profs. I’ll second Bret’s advice that academics are likely to over-recommend immediate schooling.

      If you land an entry-level job in national security, I expect you’ll want at least a master’s degree at some point. Maybe that would be an MA in IR. Maybe it would be an MPP from a policy mill. Maybe it would be an MPA from a public admin school. I have no idea, and I don’t think very many IR profs have much of an idea about this either. In any case, it would very much depend on exactly where you were working at the time and where you were expecting or hoping to take your career.

      My honest recommendation would be to try very hard to get that first entry-level job in security or an adjacent government/nonprofit/thinktank place.

      1. Seconded. One of the ways we attract the best young talent is that we’ll pay for them to get advanced degrees after they come to work for us.

    4. If you want to work in the FBI, go to law school or get a CPA.

      The fastest route to the foreign policy establishment from where you are at may just be the J.A.G. corp. You can enter ROTC in law school and they’ll pay for it. Or you can apply and go OCS after law school.

      Next, I’d say go to a law school in a state with a member of a relevant (i.e. of your political party) FP committee. Almost all members of Congress take interns out of their home state law schools.

      Take the foreign service exam, using the practice exam to know what subjects to work on.

      And the if none of that works out… a JD is useful in practically any government job. And if you find yourself interested in criminal, family, or child law… there is a comfortable middle class job (60 to 70k) waiting for you in any county seat in the country. (The bar exam does only have a 70% pass rate, and a JD doesn’t replace an MBA, it prepares you to be an attorney and work on legal research).

      1. Read the blog ‘inside the law school scam’, and the books ‘con Law’ and “Don’t go to Law School (unless)”

        Basically, if you are not going to a T14 program you are hosed like in the humanities, plus you will owe $200K on up.

        1. I graduated from U of Oregon in 2018.

          If you think you’ll get a 170k job or use the degree for anything other than law/government don’t do it.

          Law school is not a ‘default’ degree. But government is everywhere. Criminal law is everywhere. Just don’t put all your eggs in the “elite” category unless you are top 5% or at a top school.

          But if you have good LSATs they’re are a lot of scholarships the schools will offer.

        2. As a practicing attorney in a biglaw firm, I basically agree, with a few qualifications.

          First, even if you do go to a T14 law school, biglaw jobs will be difficult to find unless you are in the top third or maybe top half of the class. (The current starting pay is more like $200K than $170K, FWIW.) Law school is not like grad school. Personal relationships with professors are not a major part of the experience. Most courses base the grade solely on a single term end exam. Schools enforce grade curves to prevent grade inflation and ensure that the top students can be readily identified, and the top employers are very grade-conscious.

          However, you can get a good job from a non-T14 law school if some or all of the following apply. The school is in the second tier (i.e., the next 20 or so schools) or is the top local law school (e.g.,, the state flagship) and you want a job in that region OR you are in the top five or ten students (not the top five or ten percent, the top five or ten people) at a lower-ranked school and you want a job in that region.

          Before you go, ask yourself why you think you will be in the top third or whatever of the students. Don’t say that you will work harder than you did in college: everyone works harder in law school than in college.

    5. I’m an FBI Analyst (and pray Bret will forgive the pseudonym, I’d rather not self-identify to all and sundry on the internet.) and I can definitively state the Master’s degree would be at best worthless. At worst you’d be at a competitive disadvantage versus someone with “real world” experience in a key area like Healthcare. Most higher educational degrees are when it comes to the FBI except for Law degrees or advanced accounting degrees. Fortunately for you we tend to look favorably on the humanities as an undergraduate degree, as it shows a basic ability to write and analyze what others have written. (I’m a history major myself and was essentially hired right out of college.) If you’re wanting to be an Intelligence Analyst or Staff Operations Specialist/Tactical Specialist (The FBI’s tactical analysist job title) your best bet is to apply as-is! If you want to go the agent route but don’t have the requisite age requirement I suggest applying for anything in the FBI or OGA of choice. Same if you get turned down for an analyst job. The reason being that all three positions look MUCH more favorably on someone who already has a TS clearance, especially if you’re already in the FBI. Background checks for Top Secret clearance routinely run into quarter-million-dollar territory, and Intel orgs are much happier letting in someone who can pass background with a BA than roll the dice on someone with a not-super-useful Masters. For example, when I got in a decade-ish ago of the 900ish people who went into background with me, only 68 passed! That’s a lost of money wasted, so the FBI does tons of internal hiring.

      Does the FBI pay more for a masters degree? Yes, but it’s the difference between a GS-7 and a GS-9. So basically one year’s worth of performing at a basic competency at your job. If you can’t get in for whatever reason a few years in a non-government position will make you much more interesting. Remember, the FBI works all sorts of things, from corporate fraud to terrorism to child porn. We are SLAMMED with polysci/terorrism/law enforcement undergrads. But if you have a couple years working as an analyst in a Healthcare company that looks REAL good, or child care, or a host of other tangentially-related jobs. A BA won’t teach you “the FBI way” and to a certain extent going to school for the FBI is counterproductive. We’d much rather get someone with out-of-the-box experience. We’ll teach you how to do your job, but we can’t teach you whatever non-law-enforcement skill set you’ve picked up before we get you!

      Last thought, even if you want to work Counter Intelligence or Terrorism or whatever, a few years in the health care field or something is still worthwhile. It makes you interesting and gets you in the door, and at that point the FBI pays as much attention to your skill set as any other government organization, which is to say essentially zero!

      1. Hear hear! Find a job that will get you a security clearance. That’s a huge hurdle to hiring entry-level people because it can often take a year or more before the clearance comes through and they can be productive. You can always go back for a masters later, many people do, but a year or two in a job and an active TS or higher clearance will make you a MUCH more attractive candidate than someone with a masters and no clearance.

      2. A friend went into the Army and went the MP route as an interrogator. After she was medicaled out, because of a field training accident, the FBI approached her with a job offer as an interrogator. She had 2 years of college at the time.

    6. In addition to the advice already offered, consider applying for one of the less-prestigious or well-known agencies in order to get the experience you want. The FBI can afford to be very choosy about who they pick; agencies like the US Marshals, Border Patrol, or Customs, much less so.

  3. Hard agree with all of this – I got a PhD in linguistics (the cognitive science side, so not pure humanities, and the mechanics were a bit different than that described here) and it took me 8.5 years and three medical leaves (because I have a chronic illness that, yep, got progressively worse over grad school) to complete. The last couple years I was reliant on family to cover my expenses since I was too ill to teach. I was also incredibly lucky in my advisor, who was the most patient, supportive mentor I could have hoped for, but if I’d had literally anyone else I wouldn’t have finished. So now I have a doctorate and no job prospects because the process of acquiring said doctorate directly contributed to severe disability. Would not recommend! The system sucks.

  4. 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’)

    In math, we actually have a website — the Mathematics Genealogy Project — for tracking this!

  5. So I’m fucked. Okay. If not grad school, then what? What other option(s) would you recommend for someone fascinated by history?

    1. Take a look at legal (non attorney) jobs. My undergraduate degree was history, and I ended up in consumer compliance (which rolls to legal in the company I work for.) A lot of my coworkers have similar degrees. The reading comprehension/writing skills you’ve developed help a lot there, and most of the time, they’re looking for ‘do you have a bachelors’, and ‘do we like you’.

    2. So the closest thing I ever give for career advice is “of the things you like, find something that pays, and get good at it.”

      My manager has a history degree. We work in an engineering field, but his writing, organization, and communication skills from his degree have served him incredibly well. Of course, he worked his way up from literally go out in the field to measure stuff, whereas I expect you would prefer to start in an office somewhere. Still, the skills apply, you just have to get you foot in the door somewhere that cares less about credentials.

      The other thing is, history is I think one of the easiest loves to have as a hobby. You might not be able to devote 80 hours a week to reading Cicero… but all of Cicero is still there for you to read! You can work your way through whatever reading lists of academic journals you like. Heck, it’s even very possible (especially in the age where whole collections are scanned and put online) to research from original sources. My dad has made half a career out of being an amateur historian.

  6. (Not only) from the financial aspect, I would recommend looking a bit abroad.

    There are plenty of countries with high-quality education with low or no tuition fees. Germany, where I am already studying for my third degree for free, is just one example. Free tuition is also extended to foreigners (although a surprising number of US Americans already hold German citizenship without knowing it, thanks to some great grandfather who once moved west).

    If you are looking for much lower living expenses than the US, many countries in Eastern Europe still offer a surprising bargain.

    And while non-English speaking countries offer more degrees in English in the STEM subjects, you will also find plenty of programs in the humanities. Especially for graduate and postgraduate degrees, where many universities in Europe need students from other countries to receive enough applicants.

    Lastly, when studying the Classics, wouldn’t you want to be closer to the classical world anyway? (Don’t limit yourself to Italy and Greece, either. You’ll find a lot of evidence of the Roman world in Macedonia or Romania, for example.)

      1. Hardly. The US allows multiple citizenship and not many countries have the military draft anymore.
        As a German citizenship lawyer, I’ve helped a lot of young people moving to Europe through that route in the past years, and none of them has suffered from any negative repercussions. In fact, some of them have meanwhile voluntarily given up their US citizenship, because due to FATCA, that’s the only citizenship causing global repercussions.

        1. That still leaves you with the problem of a lot of time and stress for a degree that may never give you a job.

  7. So what are some alternate ways to engage in history consumption and production? Or any humanities subject. What would you recommend for someone who’s intelligent and interested in a humanities subject but wants to take your advice not to get a PhD? Is there any path to contribute?

    My feeling is that PhDs serve like something of a guild or a union. That means part of their function, by design, is the exclusion of competitors and the privileging of members. This creates (again, as is common) a biased two tier system where the higher tier can freely descend into the lower tier but the lower tier can’t participate in the higher. The lower tier being the Dan Carlin style “popular history” and the higher tier being academic historians. So you’re shut out if you don’t go through the decade long process of earning your membership card by design.

    But I’m curious to here your view as one of the people who’s straddled that line.

    1. A guild limits competition not only by keeping non-members out of the profession, but also by keeping its membership small. But it sounds like membership in the PhD club is much too large.

      1. It may well be. But it’s the PhDs themselves making that decision. The dynamic where you get a large class of semi-members who are less well paid than full members is also pretty typical of the guild dynamic. Less so with unions who need solidarity to bargain. Though even there you sometimes see similar things.

  8. This was fascinating to me and brought back a lot of memories of my three years staff work as the Graduate Program Coordinator of the French & Italian Dept. at The University of Texas at Austin. I had forgotten a lot of these in-house terms since I left that job! It was incredibly rewarding to be the liaison and advocate for grad students between the dept. faculty and the Grad School admin office. I felt like a raw first lieutenant on the battlelines with a platoon of raw recruits that were my responsibility to take care of, watch over, remind and prod, hold hands and wipe tears when necessary. My students were almost always a joy to work with and work for; faculty, not always so jolly, but I could handle them, and for the most part they were decent and engaged. Only a few were toxic, hateful, or ultra-difficult. Every grad program at UT had a Grad Coordinator or even two, and maybe a part-time assistant in the case of large programs. It was a demanding and intricate job, but rewarding in the sense of I felt I was investing my time and energies in the future — I was making a real difference in peoples’ lives, and helping them build for coming days. I am still in touch with many of my former charges even after 12 years away. (A new, bad boss — toxic middle managers being a big thing at UT — drove me out, against my will, after three years, just when I had learned enough to be really good at my job and could anticipate all the needs of the academic cycle.) So I look back in anger AND gladness. It was a remarkable experience and I felt like I shared in the students’ triumphs and contributed toward their success, every one.

  9. “No, you should not.”

    To most people who ask I say that going for a PhD is a bit like aspiring to fight in the UFC. It is not a sensible career choice. Yes, there are those that succeed and do VERY well and it may be very rewarding, but as a general rule there are better paths in life.

    1. Or really like any career where tons of people work themselves to the bone for peanuts in exchange for hte possiblity of becoming one of a small group of highly compensated stars.

      It’s like becoming a model, rock star, movie star, director, screenwriter, producer, or now instagram influencer, youtuber or twitch streamer.

      Though I guess the UFC comparison is apt because the compensation isn’t that great even if you ‘make it’.

  10. What do you think of the value of aiming to do a MA in isolation, with no intention of ever going on to do a PhD? I work in a field totally unrelated to my undergraduate studies, and have often thought that I would like to go back and do a research MA of some kind, even though I have no delusions of going on to work in Academia. It would at least bring me closer to real “scholarship” and let me exercise my academic curiosity in the field.
    I know the UK model is not quite the same as the US model, and probably it differs field to field, but within Classics do you feel that studying for an MA brings any value in and of itself in terms of personal learning / development? Or could I get the same experience taking a year off work and sit in the garden with a Teach Yourself Latin and bunch of Loebs, saving a fair amount of money in the process? 🙂

    (Setting aside the question of whether there is any value monetarily in having an MA in a field unrelated to my work, because I’m already sure the answer is no, this would be purely for academic (with a small a) curiosity.)

  11. Interesting article on the US way, thanks.

    You mention that one of the problems is the prestige of the university, which basically serves as feedback-loop on bad practices: everybody must go to the Ivies because of reputation, so they can get away with treating graduate students badly.

    Where on this scale do degrees from abroad, e.g an EU country, where conditions at state-paid University might be a bit better, count?

    1. Scholarship is an international profession; universities and even departments within them have international prestige and reputations – at least for their research side, not so much for teaching (teaching tends to get assumed by research, ie a high-prestige research department is assumed to teach well).

      It’s certainly true that if you had a PhD from Oxford or the Sorbonne or Amsterdam or Munich or another top European university (though, note: you’d need to check the reputation of the particular history department; there are often specific departments that are rated far higher or lower than the general reputation of their university) then that would not be thought inferior to one from Harvard or Yale.

      1. Thank you! I do know that once a student starts looking into specializing – Doctor or now masters degree – that each subject has specialist Professor who builds their own department, so Art history/ history is a different University than biology, despite all German universities in general having no “Ivy/ 1st class” seperation.

        And while my University (or both) in Munich did get the “Elite” status several years ago from German govt., in international rankings, all non-native-English speaking Universities always rank far lower than the US Ivies and UK Oxbridge (because so much weight seems to be put on article output in English-speaking journals, which … is low for humanities), so I wondered whether going the European (non-Brit, since they’re also for profit) route is an alternative for Americans.

  12. I am astounded by your statement that PhDs in the US can take as long as 5 years. I was given a 4 year cut off point; if I did submit a bound thesis by that deadline I had failed. The situation in the UK may have changed, of course; I completed my PhD over 20 years ago.

    1. Insofaras I understand the difference, in the UK, you are expected (at least now) to get a masters before entering the PhD program, the masters is a two-year taught degree, and the examinations for the masters are equivalent to the US comps. UK bachelors usually cover more subject matter in three years than a US bachelors major does in four (because we have single-subject bachelors).

      As a result, two years of a taught masters can get you to the same place as 3-4 years to comps in the US, meaning that the UK PhD programme itself is the equivalent of just the ABD part of the US PhD. It’s still true that UK students will usually achieve the PhD after 3+2+3-4 years rather than 4+3-4+3-5 in the US – ie 8-9 years from high school in the UK, compared to 10-13 in the US. This is achieved mostly through A Level and undergraduate years – our 16-21 education is unusually specialised by international standards (the US is unusually generalist at 16-22).

      So UK PhDs are usually something like 26-27, American ones are more like 29-30. In both cases there are many ways to end up spending a year or two off the direct track – teaching, a year out, getting a job and building some savings or paying off debt, mental or physical health breaks, etc.

      1. This is about what I remember from my maths studies in the UK (I did a one-year masters there between undergrad and my PhD program).

        In the US, you generally have a four-year undergrad and a roughly six-year PhD, for a total of ten years. In the UK, you do a three-year undergrad, a one-year masters, and then a three-year PhD, for a total of seven years.

        But their students enter undergrad more advanced than US students do, and finish the three-year program more advanced than we do out of a four-year program. (I entered the masters with as strong a background as the UK students had, but I did literally _twice_ as many courses in undergraduate as was expected of me, including nearly a full year of graduate-level coursework.)

        But even with that advantage, a UK PhD with a couple years of postdoc is often considered equivalent to a US PhD freshly graduated.

      2. In the STEM fields, at least, a Masters is still not required in the UK (speaking as someone who has interviewed for PhD candidates in biological sciences in a Russell group university). PhDs still last 3 years, although that is just the funding – my university gave me up to 7 years to finish, but my funding only lasted for 3 years and I ended up taking a part time job to finish in 4 years – the extra time to finish is not uncommon. The difference that I have seen, on discussion with more senior people, is that American PhDs tend to move onto junior faculty positions immediately following their PhD, whereas it is common for a British PhD to do several years as a post-doc before trying to start their own group as a Principal Investigator. I don’t know how much that is STEM-dependent, though. The journey is rather different for humanities scholars.

  13. I did a PhD in Semitic Philology (Harvard 1996). The advice I give is to only do a PhD if the following criteria are met. And if you start, if you see after a year that they will not be met, drop out.

    – You *enjoy* it and continue enjoying it.
    – You have an excellent advisor.
    – You have or can reasonably expect *full* funding, with only a small fraction dependent on teaching.
    – You have enough financial fallback that you will not be desperate if you had to leave. (You don’t need a rich family, but well-off and supportive enough that you wouldn’t be on the street while you look for a job.)
    – If you have dependents, all these criteria become even more essential.
    – You will be completing the PhD as fast as possible, no more than 7 years. Five is better, and reasonable if all the other criteria are in place.
    – Have a fall-back plan for a successful career in another field (not just a fall-back job). Some go into law, many go into high-tech, which is always hungry for brains.
    – You are not so old that another successful career is too difficult.
    – If you don’t have a very good tenure track job within two years of the PhD, go into another career, full steam.
    – It is a top-3 university in your field. (You might relax that criterion a little, if you are really just doing the PhD as a hobby and have a strong career fall-back.) Having a PhD from Harvard is nice resume decoration for any future job (though still, not the best of career assets); a PhD from a school with less luxury-brand cachet, not so much,

  14. Thank you for yet another informative and enjoyable post, this one brings back a lot of old and perhaps repressed memories and prompts me to comment for the first time here. In the UK, back in the 90s, I had the great good fortune to travel the royal if rather scruffy bed-sit style road of graduate studies in the humanities by being funded for three post graduate degrees in 20th century literature in English.
    I spent 10 lovely years reading poetry at government expense and I remain ever grateful for the experience, though it didn’t turn out as I then hoped. At the end, I had money for three years to complete my PHD and half way through discovered that I wanted to write a history of Irish journalism, rather than a study of Irish poetry, and everything went downhill from there. Around the same time my department recruited a recent PHD on a 9 month per year contract at a salary that was ridiculous, something like 12,000 pounds. Even if my thesis was workable, that was the best I would probably look forward to. When the money ran out I ditched my thesis and went to work in a call centre in IT sales and earned 19,000 pounds, alongside all the other young guys there, almost none of whom even attended university.
    Funnily enough, I would argue that my subsequent alt-literature career in public sector accounting actually does allow me to utilise what I was trained for, none of my accountant peers can write and organise material with equivalent ease. And parsing poetry is surprisingly useful in the hermeneutics of accounting standards. Much of my experience chimes with your observations in this and other posts extolling the virtues of an education in the humanities. I don’t regret the masters degrees for a second but I for sure was one of the clever guys just not built for the humanities doctorate. Glad you soldiered on, and keep up the excellent work!

  15. I was an undergrad at Yeshiva University. For the first two years there, I was entertaining going into history academia. What persuaded me otherwise wasn’t the workload (YU had and I believe still has a mandatory 2 degree workload, so I was doing something of the equivalent of 21-24 course credits a semester. I was actually okay with it. Looking back, I’ve no idea how I managed.) To me, the killer was language. A religious degree in a Jewish institution is necessarily going to involve a lot of study of biblical Hebrew, and I was never that good with it. At the end of my four years, I attained just enough mastery to be irritated with how bad a lot of supposedly professional translations are, with Genesis 22:2 being an especial pet peeve of mine (Stop ignoring the נא!), but for instance I can’t get called up and read the Torah without preparing the parsha I’d be reciting, let alone keep up to the standard of academia. And I knew pretty much any history degree was going to be heavy on some language or other.

    I see now that I dodged a bullet, even if it was for mostly the wrong reasons. That’s unbelievably rough for the field and a damn shame. I wish I had a set of ideas for how to help.

      1. For context, this is the start of the binding of Isaac narrative. Masoretic Hebrew:

        ויאמר קח נא את בנך את יחידך אשר אהבת את יצחק ולך לך אל ארץ המריה והעלהו שם לעלה על אחד ההרים אשר אמר אליך

        I would personally translate it as follows:

        And He said “Could you please take your son, your only* son, the one you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of Moriah and burn* him as a burned offering* on one of the mountains that I will tell you”.

        “He” in this context refers to God described with האלהים, in the immediately preceding verse. Only gets an asterisk because with the social conventions of likely time of composition, an “only son” means “only son when considering the mother, not the father”, which would mean that both Isaac and Ishmael count. The triconsonantal root of the words I translated as “burn” is עלה. That literally means “to go up”, in the context of sacrifices it’s in the sense of going up in smoke, completely burned to ashes.

        The big takeaway here is the word נא means “please” and recasts the diction as a request, not a command. It is as far as I’m aware the only time you have God making a request in the Tanach instead of barking out imperatives and usually using extremely haughty diction to do so. By the way, I did not come up with this, I first came across it while studying Rashi, an 11th century commentator. And while I think his resolution for the interesting textual note is beyond stupid, as usual he’s very good when it comes to the basics of Hebrew language.

        I should note that at least according to this https://churchanswers.com/blog/the-top-ten-best-selling-bibles-compared-to-ten-years-ago/

        As of 2020, the top 5 selling Biblical translations in the U.S. have been the NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, and NKJV. None of them cast this as a request, it’s always as a command. To be fair to them though, I’m not all that well versed in the chain of documents used to translate these versions. They might not trace back to the Masoretic at all, and for instance what version the Septuagint was using for its translation has been lost to time, as far as I’m aware.

        1. Bible Gateway has dozens of English translations, and only the International Standard Version includes “please”.

        2. As a native hebrew speaker, but not a bible expert of any kind, I would say that נא is maybe the least “please could you” of all forms of request.
          It is more like “please pay attention”, so not so much a request, and more a n emphasis.

  16. As someone who’s completed a Bsc in chemistry I know I can’t really understand the issues you experienced but I’m not sure it’s specifically a plundering of the Humanities.
    In my first year a popular professor who was leaving laid out his greivences, how the university was treating lecturers as an afterthought or as contractors. And as the years progressed you could see this, sure we had fancy labs and equipment but the amount of lecturers was steadily dropping.

    Hell one course on thermodynamics was taught by an IT professor who bungled up an entire year so badly they had to cut all of his material from the exam.

    I don’t necessarily know what the root cause is but it looks like money is being diverted from lecturers to HR and expensive buildings that barely get used. Humanities not requiring much in the way of equipment just suffers more as it’s necessary lecturers aren’t replaced. STEM fields requiring expensive analytical machines get that need met while sharing a lack in their lecturers.

    This lack of lecturers basically means that everyone available is needed to teach the ever expanding number of lucrative undergrads ready to be milked. And so adjuncts get used because they are ‘junior employees’ or even ‘interns’ to the administrative department. And so people who become professors to push the bounds of science are stuck teaching the basics to students while themselves being wracked with emotional disorders (certainly knew a lecturer or two who seemed to hate teaching). All the while shit rolls downhill on the adjuncts who are now no longer ‘customers’ of the university and are now effectively ‘trainee lecturers’ with THEIR education being essentially training now.

  17. Great essay! Graduate school is brutal. It was also life changing for me. Though I finished my dissertation I have ended up in the technical field instead. I use the skills I learned in history grad school all the time btw.

    Finding a good advisor is the #1 thing I recommend to people seeking grad school (other than dont do it). I had a terrible experience in my masters program so when I started looking at PhD programs I asked around among faculty at the university I was at as well as friends in the academic field and got frank assessments of various scholars in terms of ability and ease to work with. I chose a superb advisor at a state school and she made the graduate experience 100x better.

  18. I have a very nice letter from an undergrad professor who encouraged me to pursue a doctorate in the humanities. I am very glad I did not, as much as I enjoyed it my Humanities major.

  19. One point you did not mention is that students who are children of academics have a higher success rate in PhD programs than students who are not. Among the reasons for this is that their parents are aware of facts that callow undergraduates are not; sometimes they can even guide their children toward good advisors. In any case, the corollary of “X has a comparative advantage” is “~X has a comparative disadvantage”, so that headline 1% probability of finding a job is not as good as it seems if you are in the ~X category.

    “The committee will then either approve the project or send you back to try again (the latter is rare …”

    I have a friend who is ABD to this day (in a STEM program, not the humanities) because his committee rejected his proposed research project completely and asked him to choose another, which he refused to do. Many years later, several papers were published in prestigious academic journals along the lines that he had proposed. He hasn’t suffered for this financially; on the contrary, he earns considerably more than a full professor (did I mention this was a STEM program?) Nevertheless, he is understandably somewhat jaundiced about the process.

    Several of our mutual friends thought he ought to have accepted the committee’s command and continued in the program. I disagree, because I think that a burning desire to solve a particular research question is the best possible reason to pursue a PhD; and possibly the only good one. He has my admiration and respect.

  20. As a European, it was a bit difficult to understand all the American academic terminology. I imagine it is also a lot worse to live in a country where studying costs money by itself

    1. Not just that the studying costs money (students here pay the fee for Students union each semester, too), but that the whole mindset of College is geared towards making money, not teaching and research like European tax-funded University.
      Plus the whole Sports … debacle: exploiting players to make money, while showering coaches with money, but neglecting the rest of college is not how 3rd level education should be done. At all.

  21. Only because you mentioned political science in the “adjacent” range and I’m a polisci prof —

    Except for political philosophy, polisci isn’t a humanity or humanities-adjacent. For political philosophy, my advice has long been very simple: unless the top 3 or so departments are competing over you as a grad student, go do something else with your life.

    Otherwise, polisci should get lumped in with the other quantitative social sciences like econ and sociology.

    Some notable differences in the path towards a phd between polisci and a humanities discipline:

    *Many students complete their phds in 5 years if they don’t have to do field research.

    *Coursework is 2 or 3 years

    *Almost no serious program requires a thesis before advancing to candidacy, though many will require the kind of seminar paper that translates smoothly into a conference paper and eventual article. I accept that the difference between that and a thesis is something reasonable people could argue about, but the main point here is that the student would have already completed that paper during coursework rather than it being an additional step.

    *Most serious programs and graduate committees operate under the driver’s-license model of dissertation, not the huge magnum opus model. It’s very common for “dissertations” to be three vaguely-connected conference papers with an overall intro and conclusion crudely clamped on. This is probably where polisci phd students save their time.

    *People who complete their PhDs have decent offramps into market research, financial analytics, and related fields that use their quant skills. To be clear, it would be foolish to enter a phd program with that as a goal — if you know you want to work in industry, it would make way more sense to get an MA/MS in stats, data science, etc.

  22. In undergrad, when considering pursuing a PhD in history, I was lucky enough to speak with one of my profs (not advisor) who likened the process to being an “academic migrant worker” – moving from school to school hoping for a decent role and someday tenure.

    So I went into tech 🙁 Good pay, but not nearly as interesting as my real interest in history.

    1. @Bret Devereaux I just want to say that reading this was really, really, really sad. It is a pity that it ended in so absurd situation.

      If you are willing accept pay cut (though may be still above than non-tech stuff) it is sometimes possible to catch something actually interesting.

      I though that process of doing this was frustrating, but after reading this the process seems luxurious.

      1. I think the issue is too many grad students –
        The University gets a low-paid worker, the advising Professor gets prestige, but hte grad students gets shafted.
        If there were less grad students, I mean, almost guaranteed job for every grad student numbers, so much much lower number than today, then it could somehow make sense.

  23. Thank you very much for writing this. I really needed to hear this right now.

    (For other PhD students or prospective PhD students reading the comments section)

    One other big thing you need to know is that once you get into a PhD program, it will be almost impossible to get yourself out if things go wrong. Finding the energy to do /extra/ work to help yourself get out, and the courage to explore other options after you’ve invested so much and the brutality of grad school will have conditioned you to be so risk averse, is extremely difficult.

    I’m currently in a PhD program for quantum optics, not history, but aside from the job market prospects my experience has been almost identical to what’s described here. Down to, unfortunately, the distractedly callous advisor, a difficult and drama-filled transition to a new advisor, and then finding out that the new advisor is actively malicious. It’s been brutal, filled with overwork, and I think I already stumbled into a couple of those mistakes that get you black-balled.

    (A: I was hired by my current advisor (a Big Name in the field), for no academic credit, to do work for him over the summer, and when he suddenly changed what I’d be payed from full-time pay to half-time at the last minute, I assumed that meant I’d be doing half-time work. He was expecting 60-80 hrs/wk, as it turned out. B: I was given undocumented code from a former post-doc and expected to work with it, forbidden to spend any time validating it, and then of course it turned out to be broken. The frustration around this got blamed on me, not the post-doc who handed over broken code or my advisor who forbade me to validate it, and one of the people frustrated at me is the other Big Name in the field.)

    I’ve got the option this semester to get out with a Masters instead of continuing my PhD program and I think I might have to take it, but it’s obviously an emotionally difficult decision. I’ve invested a lot of time and self-image into the pursuit of a PhD. Making the decision to attempt to get a job in industry is scary, compared to the relative surety of continuing the same academic course. And putting in the bit of extra work I need to do to get that Masters is daunting when I’m already so badly overworked.

    But this is the thing. Once you’re in a PhD program, you will be overworked to the point of depression and anxiety. You will have no financial security. And every exit strategy will require extra work and financial risk. (And that’s if you’re like me and in a lucrative STEM field, where getting out with a Masters is an option at all). So add this to the list of cons: If you do end up having a bad experience, you might find the exit doors wedged shut.

  24. Thank you so much for this. My family still sometimes have a low key view me as a failure for deciding my mental health couldn’t stand up to grad school and it’s oddly comforting to have a confirmation that it was absolutely the right choice for me. Still contemplating the MLS, but that’s very different beast and could use the same brutally honest breakdown!

    1. I have an MLS, but I’ve worked as a software engineer (also have an MSCS) for the past 40 years.
      If you plan to make a living in library science, look carefully at the available jobs and pay scales in your region. And who gets the good jobs: I would hope that after 40 years it is not still the case that the small proportion of male librarians still somehow end up as the heads of most academic libraries and large public libraries. But I am not hopeful.

      The pay in smaller public libraries assuming that you were married or a retired school teacher with a pension and did not need to survive on it may have been a regional/generational thing.

      Also think about what kind of library work you are interested in. Be aware that a lot actual librarian work is mostly managerial and they computerized most of the fun stuff about library management around the time I was getting my MLS… hopefully they have come out the other side of that. If you are interested in something like search technologies you might want to look at other routes to that.

      In the terms used in this article I am an alt-librarian: my specialty is management and customization of software configuration management systems and related tools, which involves a lot of archive-adjacent stuff.

      1. Thank you so much Elyse!

        I’m afraid some of your concerns are still very current. At this point I work children’s because it gives me an alternate way to share the things I like with kids, but the pay does assume we’re married. (And the least active and best paid department head is male, good guess.)

  25. Alternate title: “Boy, if you thought that trench warfare series was depressing, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

  26. It is right and proper that the studies of history should be returned to those who are from it, and who can appreciate its progress in the proper light. The West experimented with a classless model of academia, and it resulted in grievance studies and bolshevism.

    1. I was going to comment about a return to the bad old days of great men history that might happen if only the wealthy can afford the insecurity of a history doctorate. To save time, i’ll just say “the exact opposite of the above comment”.

      1. A history of petty men, where envy is taught in place of glory? Where mediocrity is taught in place of mastery?

  27. As someone who just started his first semester of grad school hoping to be able to spread his love of the past with other people someday, this is…mighty discouraging. Are there other ways for me to potentially be able to teach, or should I follow the last line’s advice and want something else?

    1. It depends on the level you want to teach at. If you want to teach at the college level, no, there is no real substitute for having a PhD; other routes to being a college professor are things like ‘win the 2020 Pulitzer Prize’ or ‘win the Iowa Democratic presidential caucus.’ Not really practical. In the past, one could teach community college with an MA or ABD and ‘job guides’ will often still say this is possible, but it typically isn’t anymore. A few older teachers at that level with those qualifications are still around, but if you tried to do that today, you’d get passed over because you’d be competing with dozens of PhD holders flowing in from the main academic job market.

      If you want to teach at the secondary (high school) level you can do so with an MA or a BA, but many school systems will also want to see a BA in education.

      Alternately you can just take your history direct to the public. Write books, make YouTube videos, whatever. Nearly all of the YouTube history content is produced by amateurs, so there’s no degree barrier there. But then very, very, very few people actually make their primary living doing that kind of thing.

      1. You might also teach at a private school. They are much less enamored of education degrees as compared to substantive degrees in the field being taught.

      2. The way to become an amateur historian is to take a day job, preferably one that does not use up the energy you need to do history work, and which does not demand much if any overtime. That way you have the time to do it.

  28. In 2003 a man calling himself Thomas H. Benton wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “So You Want to Go to Grad School?” as a response to the recession that was going on at the time causing people to want to hide out from the economy in grad-school. He argued that the difference between undergraduate and graduate studies is substantial with grad school being way more difficult than people imagine. This fact is hidden from undergraduates by mollycoddling and survivor bias. Meanwhile the probability of getting a tenure track position and an income sufficient to pay back student loans is so minuscule that students should avoid going to grad school for the sake of their mental and financial health.

    In 2009 he took a second bite at the apple with the article “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” Apparently the situation had deteriorated in the intervening six years. In the 2003 essay he said that only one in five English Ph.Ds was able to secure a tenure-track position. Meanwhile the 2009 essay contains paragraphs with sentences like this.
    “For example, the American Historical Association’s job listings are down 15 percent and the Modern Language’s listings are down 21 percent [from 2008], the steepest annual decline ever recorded.” and “Some responsible observers expect that hiring may be down 40 percent this year [2009].”

    This video here might be fun https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obTNwPJvOI8

  29. Hello, Thank you for this post! I am an undergraduate pursuing a degree in the humanities. I love them, but I have struggled reading at the pace of my peers. I am not very social; so I don’t talk to other classmates or profs about improving my reading speed and increasing my reading comprehension. If I want to go to graduate school, I will need to improve my reading comprehension and reading speed. I took a graduate class as a sophomore; it was on a topic I was very interested in, and it kicked my butt. I didn’t realize how different they were until after add/drop ended. This didn’t help my mental health, which was poor due to other difficulties I was facing, and I decided to take a medical leave from the university. I want to avoid doing that again, especially in grad school where I have heard they are not as supportive. What are some of the tips that you have on reading books or articles quicker while retaining more information? Maybe you have a different blog post on this that I missed. Sorry if I did. Thanks for reading my post!

      1. You should. It would be a useful skill to talk about when thinking about why professors do the things that they do, It would be helpful for any prospective student of nearly anything, and it may even be a good skill for hobbies that require a lot of reading.

    1. Of you’re struggling with the pace of the reading as an undergraduate I think that the best advice to give you wrt graduate studies in the humanities is to RUN. Personally, I have a hard time organizing long term projects and I’m sure that writing a graduate thesis would have destroyed me. As much as I love the humanities and read about them and study them a good bit all the time, I’m so very very very happy that I never went to grad school in them.

  30. I’m a PhD student currently on indefinite medical leave because after 4 years—right when I was starting my prospectus—I developed depression bad enough to be considered totally and permanently (predicted to last 5 or more years) disabled by the government.

    I had amazing health insurance at my school, but the school mental health programs themselves were also pretty bad. Since then, I’ve come to learn that an appalling amount of them have strict 10-12 week limits on therapy sessions. Unless you purposefully go into therapy as a stopgap measure for them to help you until you can find another therapist, I’m pretty sure most graduate (and some undergrad) students aren’t going to get adequate care from them, as they are willing to work with struggling students for less than a semester.

    Before my depression started I knew I was struggling a bit, but in general, I had a therapist and I was more than keeping up. I was loving the work that I was doing. I knew it would be hard, although not to the degree it turned out. I knew job prospects would be awful. But I still felt unquestionably in the right place, trying to get to and past the edge of human knowledge. I’ve had multiple people suggest working at a community college “when [I] get better”, which sounds satisfying enough as a backup plan, but I’m not sure about my prognosis. And this isn’t “just” a persistent sadness and negative thoughts, either. I can no longer read papers, or even moderately complex fiction due to memory and concentration issues. But despite all the shit I’ve been through, the worst part is the loss of being on that cutting edge and glimpsing what could be in a better world.

  31. Quite an interesting article. Having gotten a PHD in a STEM field from a tier I research institution, it was interesting to see the similarities and the differences. I had an outside program funding my research so I never had the poverty problem. The post coursework phase appears to be shorter for STEM. The importance of the adviser is still there though as is the graduate student as indentured servant (unless you have outside funding). Also the job prospects are much better. Even in STEM programs I have always encouraged people to get a master’s along the way just in case something goes wrong later. My program didn’t require qualifiers (comps) if you had a high enough GPA, though they have now added them back in.

  32. I think that this is a very valuable discussion of the realities of grad school. A few random comments based on the other comments on this board, if I might.

    As you note, the choice of advisors can be critical, but if shopping for a grad program it might be useful simply to start with noting what courses are in fact offered before getting into the granularity of shopping for advisors. When I was looking for moving on past a Masters (in International Relations) to a PhD program, I was somewhat torn between history and political science. When I looked at local PhD programs at the R1 (for those who aren’t attuned to academic jargon, this is a major research university) I wanted to attend, their history department focused their courses on social and women’s history. Neither was of interest to me, so I shifted back to political science. I was able to link up there with an advisor who also focused on qualitative (case study) approaches that sort of enabled me to mix history and political science.

    Checking out course programs might be particularly critical for anyone looking toward the classics. Someone else certainly is more qualified to judge than I am, but in looking at some op eds in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, there seems to be somewhat of a push by some academics against studying classical civilizations (i.e., Rome and Greece), charging that it is “White centric” and/or “colonial.” How severe this might become is really up in the air.

    In large measure, knowing what you want to focus on before going into the PhD program can be critical in surviving the process and making it (somewhat) less painful. After finding a really great advisor and mentor who was very supportive, I started fleshing out my proposal and doing research (together with publishing a couple chapters in academic journals) well before finishing the courses. This made the ABD period much shorter than otherwise would be the case. It also helped in the defense. When one member (who also happened to be the department chair) expressed the sentiment that the topic might not be important — the dissertation was written in 1999 and was on Islamically-based insurgent movements — my advisor quickly noted that some if it had already been published, and this rather quickly won the day.

    At the risk of sounding as though I’m a recruiter, I might also mention that for a number of students, there is one other viable approach to funding their grad education: the GI Bill. This really can be a lifesaver, and it typically will provide at least a survivable income. I found that between some other consulting work I was doing and the GI Bill. I was able to turn down a grad stipend and still make things work (and have a happier existence).

    Finally, though, I think that the basic lesson of the posting was absolutely correct: for most people, graduate school in the humanities or most social sciences can be more of a trap than a start.

  33. One minor correction: The University does not “love” its undergraduates. It *wants* them. It sees them, accurately, as customers– even when the tuition is coming from a parent or the government, the student is the one making the decision to purchase, and there’s also alumni giving to think of– and wants to keep them satisfied. This is not the same thing as wanting what’s best for them; if that were the case it would, for example, put much more emphasis on pedagogy and less on research in its hiring and operational practices.

    The University does not see grad students as customers. It seems them, accurately, as entry-level employees who are paid partly in kind. I’m saying this not to justify their treatment– there are plenty of reasons to want structural reform here!– but to point out that the University’s behavior is explained by very straightforward incentives, not some kind of mysterious malevolence.

    And the grad students and profs are responding to incentives too! As with Prof. Devereaux’s advisors I have known my share of wonderful outliers who showed genuine care and generosity toward their students, but my impression is that they are mostly in the job because they want to do research and are more interested in that than in teaching. I don’t mean to imply any judgment here– the preference is understandable and I’d probably have a similar one– but to point out that the opportunity to do open-ended research on a salary is another form of non-monetary compensation, and that the University is striking something of a balance, however unsatisfying, between the interests of its members in this respect.

    1. I am in Canada. I noticed that the graduate students at the local, very prestigious, university unionized a few years ago. A least one university I recall had a union 30 years ago.

      Does this happen in the USA?

  34. I have to say that my graduate experience (going towards an MBA) was certainly different than this, likely a difference of business vs. Humanities. It was very much like Senior Year 2.0, and it wasn’t too hard to obtain a 4.0. Of course, I didn’t come out of it feeling like I was very enriched either, more like “that was something, not sure what”. I obtained some additional perspective on business, but not a whole lot more than I had working for 15 years in Accounting, and the efforts of studying for and taking the exams to become a CPA were certainly much harder than anything I had for my Master’s.

    I have to agree about grad students getting the short end of the stick compared to Undergrads for graduation, though. The Undergrad ceremonies were scheduled throughout the weekend at different times, whereas the graduate students got 7:00 on a Sunday night, in a small college town over an hour away from the nearest city, so I’m sure not attractive to be getting home around 10-11 at night before a work week.

  35. My grad school experience (English) at a top-tier university was fifty years ago, and I read this essay saying “Oh, yeah” after most paragraphs. I was lucky in my advisor and equally lucky that after teaching two survey sections in my second year, it was clear to me that classroom teaching was not something I enjoyed, so I took my MA and left. Secondary to that reason, though, was the unpromising state of the academic job market: people of approximately my age were looking at positions occupied by folks who were often twenty or thirty years away from retirement. My brothers–one older, one younger–are both PhDs in the sciences, and neither one ended up in academia even though that was the career they’d had in mind.

  36. Anyone who would like the points of this post in convenient comic-strip form may consult a search engine for Matt Groenig’s “Life in Hell” treatment of “grad school”. Apparently the only large change since 1987 is the collapse of the job market.

  37. I am not American. Thus, I am asking out of curiosity. What about a Master’s in History Education? I skimmed through your post and didn’t see it mentioned. With it, you can become a History teacher. It’s certainly not as competitive as academia.

    1. Things are different in the States. High School teachers have primary degrees in education not in the subject areas they teach. If you have a Masters in History you cannot teach until you complete the required education courses (dependent on which State.) Yes it is stupid but it’s another closed off environment.
      When and if I advise young people, I tell them to get a tour in the military. (USAF or Navy) Get that Top Secret clearance and GI Bill (its called something else today) and you will increase your options and employability. Oh and get that Honorable Discharge DD214.
      The Cold War and the War on Terrified Brown People were good to me.

      1. That’s similar to my plan, finished my degree and so going to give joining the navy a shot. Hopefully ww3 doesn’t get me.

  38. I got a PhD in 1994 in sociology and am fascinated to see how much of the experience remains the same from this account. A word on professional positions– several years ago there was a biology conference in town, and my husband and I, my step-brother, and his wife all went out to dinner with biology grad students (they were students of my step-brother’s wife). We noted that of the four of us, all with PhDs, the only one who was an academic was my step-brother’s wife. My step-brother works mainly in private industry, I work in government, and my husband could not find a job in his field at all and converted an IT hobby into a career. We were all socialized that the best positions were in research universities, but the reality of the job market that we all faced in the mid-90s was far more expansive. I don’t think any of us have regrets.

  39. Someone posed the question on alternatives for those who want to teach the humanities. If you enjoy teaching at the entry-level undergrad and below (at the top level, you’re working with high school upper classmen capable of college-level work), freelance teaching to homeschoolers is a growing market. Not any more lucrative than other freelance humanities work, but far more pleasant than about any other teaching gig out there. You get to the write the course, set the parameters, decide *whether* you’ll even offer grading . . . it is an absolute pleasure. (You can of course contract teach for someone who’s developed a more standard-issue course as well.)

    You’d have to be very entrepreneurial to make a living at it, though a few people do. But if what you want is a way to scratch the intellectual itch, it’s an option that is compatible with just about any state of life, day job, etc. Definitely a market where teaching ability, rather than formal credentials, is the make-or-break.

    Adding on the related topic: My experience with teaching in private schools is that although you can get hired without the formal teaching credentials (education degree, etc.), the school will usually need you to pursue certification.

  40. Five months ago, I graduated a two-year course in respiratory therapy. The courseload was light enough that I was able to work part-time the whole time and not feel terribly stressed out; honestly, you could probably have cut/compressed the material into three hard semesters and still had students come out knowing what they needed to do the job. When I got out, I found I had by one means or another locked myself out of the local hospitals, and I felt compelled to take a suboptimal job at a distant hospital that didn’t pay very well to avoid an awkward gap on my resume. And by “didn’t pay very well” I mean “I’m embarrassed to tell my classmates how little I’m earning.”

    I’m still making substantially better pay than that typical adjunct professor. I was making about that much working full-time as a pharmacy tech (a few years of experience following purely OTJ training) before I got into the program in the first place. And I didn’t have to grade any papers as a pharmacy tech; my work stayed firmly at the pharmacy, and when I clocked out I was done. Same thing with my current job.

    It’s horrifying that anybody would put themselves through that for so very, very little.

  41. This was a fascinating read and good advice. I got my PhD in US history in the late 90s and sounds like not much has changed, except for the complete collapse of what was a pretty bad market even back then. But I am wondering: if the market was already terrible in the 1990s, why hasn’t this news become conventional wisdom? Why doesn’t everyone know the humanities market has been a disaster for more than two decades?

    1. If you look at the AHA data (here: https://www.historians.org/ahajobsreport2021), you’ll find that jobs and PhDs granted actually tracked with each other quite well through the 1990s. As mind-bending as it might seem, that was a good job market. The situation post-2008 is much worse. Since 1987, the seven worst years in terms of total job offerings have been (worst to ‘best’) 2017, 2019, 2020, 2018, 2016, 2010, and 2015.

      The worst PhDs-over-Jobs gap in the 1990s looks to be in 1995 and the gap is about 150 more PhDs granted than jobs available. Between 2012 and 2019, it looks like that gap was never much smaller than 300 and sometimes (in 2016, for instance) larger than 400.

      This is something I find difficult to communicate about with more senior scholars. They hear about ‘bad years’ on the job market and assume that today’s bad years are like the bad years in the 1990s or 1980s. But in history, at least, they are much worse and even more importantly, *every* year since 2009 has been a bad year; it’s an unbroken string of them.

      1. Thanks for that! In the mid 90s there was a huge oversupply in some fields, like British and modern American history, but still jobsto be found in other fields, like Chinese history. I wonder if what has happened now is that every sub field is glutted with good candidates?

        1. Yes, to the point that most graduate students now learn to market themselves in multiple different fields. I have different version of my cover-letter to use depending on if I am selling myself as an ancient historian in a history department, an ancient history in a classics department, a military historian in a history department, a military historian in professional military education, or an economic historian.

    2. I don’t have the specific figures at hand, but the situation in political science is nearly as dire, and I believe the placement figures for PhD’s in English are even worse. In answer to your question, I think that the universities are interested in keeping up the revenue and status for maintaining a large cohort of graduate students, and the individual departments want to keep their numbers up for similar reasons. This also is in the interest of individual tenured professors who have teaching assistants and graduate research assistants. At the risk of appearing to blame the victims, finally, there are too many PhD candidates who simply won’t pay attention to the odds of success (as defined by getting a tenure track position). Some schools have announced that they are sharply reducing the number of acceptances for PhD programs, and, although seemingly somewhat brutal, this might be the only near term solution.

  42. I’ve been reading articles that warn against getting a humanities PhD since before I started mine (just defended, and I will never stop being happy about that even if I never get an academic job). I wish those articles had been more like this one. The feeling I always got was that the author was trying to scare me into accepting their authoritative proclamation that a humanities PhD is definitely not worth it. Your tone comes across much more as trying to help people make an informed decision, and then you give a recommendation but don’t try to make their decisions for them.

    I won’t say that I would’ve made a different decision if I’d read this during my undergraduate studies, because I have no idea if that’s true, but I at least would’ve had a much better understanding of what I was getting into. It also boggles the mind how much fear, guilt, shame, and exhaustion I could’ve saved myself if I’d known about those tricks for getting through unmanageable amounts of reading.

    On another note, the hardest of agrees on the point about therapy. One professor on my committee who (bravely) wrote a public blog post about his struggles with depression pointed out that mental health issues for grad students are analogous to overuse injuries for professional athletes. If it seems ridiculous to imagine a pro soccer player feeling ashamed about visiting a doctor for a torn ACL, well, maybe we ought to think that way about going to therapy too.

  43. This is a fantastic post; really great stuff that I hope reaches a lot of undergraduates thinking ‘what next?’.

    You say, “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.” — this is really a humanities thing that is baffling and contemptible to the natural science PhDs I ended up working with (and most social science PhDs too, I think). I’ve known quite a few people (in biology-connected fields) who completed their degrees in less, and have heard of people in math and physics completing them in as little as three.

    Which gets to the language burden thing… man, you Classics kids are WIMPS! 😉 For my program I had to ‘demonstrate a mastery’ of classical and Modern Chinese, Japanese, Mongol (modern and literary/classical), Manchu, French, German, Russian, and at least a little Italian. And for the ‘tool languages’ I was expected to be able to deliver lectures and write papers in several of them. Meanwhile, grad school buddies from the Near Eastern department sneered at how lightly I was getting off…

    1. I think the difference in timing has a lot to do with the difference in what a dissertation looks like. Most if not all of the sciences have a pretty significant collaborative aspect, and the difference in timeline for “work* in my lab until I think you’re good enough” and “go away and don’t come back until you’ve written a book of new stuff” is pretty massive.

      *(very hard, desperately learning new things, trying to justify getting your name high enough up on the authors list that you can claim credit for it later, etc – it’s not like it’s easer)

  44. I cannot comment beyond assuring Bret that he has provided both an interesting read and a useful summary. Now…if only I could convince my email client that the subscribed mail is *not* spam, I’d be good.

      1. Thanks! Apparently after I ported over all the emails about new posts by IDing them as “not spam,” that was sufficient.

  45. Let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of dreams…

    May as well add my tale of woe to the pile, particularly as it differs in some regards to what Bret is describing. As noted elsewhere, the UK system is somewhat different to the US one, in that graduate degrees tend to be categorised as either taught courses or purely research courses. A PhD is among the latter, and consequently I can’t really relate to Bret’s account of being constantly overloaded with assignments and deadlines. If anything, it’s the opposite; a UK PhD student in the humanities isn’t really required to do anything at all other than write their thesis, and if you want experience of teaching work you usually have to badger someone for it. In essence, the university gives you a library card, then tells you to sod off and come back in four years with a book you’ve written.
    This freedom may sound idyllic, but it comes at a fairly heavy price; namely, it dials up to 11 the pressure of being entirely self-directed and self-motivated, without any real benchmarks against which to measure your progress. You may get some feedback and hints from your supervisor (adviser, in US parlance), but this is sharply limited; I’m fortunate to have one of the most responsive and proactive supervisors in the department, and our interactions usually extend to one hour-long meeting per term. You have no structure or routine, no office or permanent workspace, no colleagues or coursemates (I’ve met lots of wonderful people socially via the university, but we aren’t working together in any meaningful sense), nothing really standing between you and the sword of Damocles that hangs there 24/7 whispering “work harder, or this could all end in failure, and you will have no-one to blame but yourself”.

    Unsurprisingly, this tends to take a toll on people, and I’d endorse Bret’s view that humanities PhDs are excellent tools for turning happy high-achievers into miserable wrecks. Given this and the risible job market, I really couldn’t advise that anyone begin one unless (a) you feel overwhelmingly driven to study the specific research question in your proposal, and would consider the chance to do so a sufficient reward in and of itself (b) you know yourself to be very mentally robust, and sufficiently self-disciplined to plan and execute every aspect of your work life for four years (c) you have fulfilling, realistic plans for what you will do instead if and when academia does not work out. Sad, but there it is.

  46. I think this problem is basically similar to why it is that aspiring actors in Hollywood are treated like garbage, or for that matter why food service workers are often treated like garbage. Your ability to demand fair and equitable treatment is a function of how difficult you will find getting another job weighed against how easy you are to replace for your employer.

    For grad students in the humanities, they’re hosed on both counts– legions of students want to replace you if you’ve got a scholarship, and professors are only somewhat inconvenienced by any given student’s departure. How humanely you’re treated is more or less a part of your pay package for any job, and is driven by the same market forces that are pushing wages downward for humanities grad students.

    I suspect grad students are treated much better in disciplines where they know (and their advisors know) that if they’re treated too poorly they’ll just leave and get a job at boeing/google/microsoft/amazon/blue origin/whatever and make a hojillion dollars.

    1. At least in computer science, there’s something similar to Bret’s story about how education degrees work – similar to public schools paying more to people who bother to get a Masters in Education, most Big Tech Companies will just straight-up offer you a higher rank & salary on signing if you have a relevant Ph.D, and maybe even a Masters as well. It helps offset the lost wages from the years spent in the Masters program at least somewhat. (Flip side, this is not a guarantee of an offer – plenty of people with Masters who will botch the interview.)

      1. On the flip side, it is still possible to get a tech job without any college degree, let alone a higher degree. It will be more challenging, especially if you apply to a bigger company that has the usual HR processes, but a code portfolio or open source contributions can do a lot.

  47. Dr Devereaux, a great post as always. I had the advantage of coming from an academic family, but this post still had many things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD (in Engineering). I notice that we both were extremely likely to have amazing advisors who cared about their students both as scholars and people, and that we both took the requisite 2π years to graduate.

    A couple observations from my experience. I’d be curious to hear if they fit the experience of others.

    1. In my experience, the current students in a department know what’s what, and are often quite generous in sharing that information with prospective students, particularly after a few libations have been consumed. In fact, I (tried to, I don’t know if they listened) explain to prospective students that visit day is not to impress the profs (the students are already accepted). Rather, it is a chance for them to get current students drunk, and find out what life at the department is actually like. Prospective students don’t necessarily need to fly blind.

    2. The incentives for advisors in the sciences are fundamentally different from the humanities. The way a science/engineering professor gets glory/funding/publications/tenure/etc is through the publications produced by their students. Although there were cases I knew of where advisors ignored their students (mostly in favour of a startup they were trying to get off the ground), in most cases if there was a problem it was that advisors were too involved in their students work to the point of micromanaging. I wonder if there is a way to adjust the incentives in the various disciplines to find a happy medium.

    1. Yeah, in my comp sci department, one prof would reportedly call up his grad student (only had the one) on Friday nights. It’s comp sci, I doubt there was anything critically urgent, not like an animal lab or beam collider time.

      OTOH my own advisor was more of an umbrella for us to do our own thing in, there to talk to us if we wanted him, but if you avoided him, he’d be more of “hmm, I haven’t heard from you this year, maybe I should worry”. He didn’t live in the usual world of paper publication, though.

  48. Well, that was a singularly cheerless article.

    And not just for prospective grad students: Whatever priority the university ascribes to acquiring undergrads money (or their parents money), it seems to be quite happy to delegate their education to the overworked, sleep deprived people who are meant to have been recruited to do another task entirely.

    And if one of the primary requirements of an apprentice is to say yes to any demand, however stupid and outrageous, of the important people, it is hard not to think that what they really want, or are going to get, is a monoculture of yes men. You get the behaviour you require, after all.

    This does not seem like a good way to run either an educational institution or a research institution.

    1. With marginal English skills!

      Back when I was an undergrad, it was a common complaint that foreign TAs had such strong accents we had difficulty understanding them.

    2. Yes, revising slightly what Prof. Devereux said, the university cares about its undergraduates, but what it cares about is amenities, social life, creature comforts, bread and circuses, etc., not their education. (In fairness, that is also what the undergraduates themselves care about.) Poor teaching (and inability to speak English comprehensibly is only one of several problems my daughter encountered) is common and something the typical university has no interest in addressing.

      My daughter had it worse than I, because she was a math major. In math (and I think in most STEM disciplines), there is a prescribed sequence of courses, and a major can’t decide to take two courses in differential equations and none in linear algebra. It’s different in humanities and social sciences, where past the introductory and possibly intermediate-level courses, most programs require only a certain number of courses, so for example an econ major can decide to take more courses on financial markets and none on labor markets. The result is that it is harder for STEM majors to avoid bad professors.

      1. To be fair to the undergrads: They have no obvious means to tell how good their university is at teaching them. To do that you would need some kind of standardised tests, used by all universities. I understand there is little support for that kind of thing from the more prestigious universities.

  49. Good post! Tangential question: What techniques *did* you learn to read quickly and assimilate the knowledge well? Where would you suggest going to learn more about doing this? I’d absolutely interested in learning to read academic material more quickly.

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