Home > The Historical Profession > Graduate school, is it the right path?

Graduate school, is it the right path?

An article from The Chronicle of Higher Education poses some thoughts for me about what I am doing with my life. Thomas Benton examined the continued encouragement of professors to students to enter graduate school. Now, when I was an undergraduate, my advisor encouraged me in my desire for graduate school, but stressed that law school was a better option. He felt this way because a law degree offered a better chance at gainful employment, along with a better salary. While there are times I have thought what might have been, I am not unsatisfied with my choice. However, I have to agree with Benton’s overall analysis of the situation.

The job market in academe is tight and there are an overabundance of Ph.D’s out there all looking for the dream job. While Benton advocates avoidance of graduate school, I would say that one can still pursue a graduate education in humanities, but with a little awareness. I offer my tips for those thinking about graduate education in the humanities:

1. Be realistic. Do not get sucked into the tenure-track trap. By that, I mean that you must not go through your graduate school experience thinking that you will get that tenure-track position straight off your Ph.D. Benton correctly assesses the job market and notes that only a lucky few get that position on their first try. You must be prepared to be on the bottom, as with any profession. Benton, I believe, incorrectly characterizes the adjunct situation, as while schools are more willing to use the adjunct system more to save money and exploit labor, such beginner-level experience does matter. Keep in mind, which I believe the article fails to do, that despite having an advanced degree, you still have (for the most part) no job experience, and very little life experience. If you love your field enough, which you better, if you devoted so many years of your life to it, you should take any position in it, if it is what you love and strive to gain experience and set yourself up as a strong candidate for future positions.

2. Do things during your graduate education to provide flexibility. While I would like to teach college, I also am pursuing work in Public History to prepare myself to potentially run a museum, or do other historical work outside of strict academic history. Doing such things that prepare you for other careers within your field. History is good for this, while English may not be as suited (those of you in English programs are welcome to enlighten me) for such flexibility.

3. Love what you study. Don’t pursue an advanced degree for the sake of avoiding life. I am not pursuing my degree simply to get a job in history, as while that would be nice, I love the study of history enough that I want the credentials to do it on the side and be taken seriously. Plus, I see the Ph.D. as the culmination of personal educational achievement and if I get a job in the field, all the better, but if not, I still have the highest degree possible in a field I love deeply. Graduate school is a serious committment, as you begin to engage others in a scholarly research and debate, and should not be a side trip in life.

Overall, if considering graduate school, make sure you are doing if for the right reasons. Be aware that the job market is tight and positions may not be what you want. Make sure you love what you do if pursuing study. I look forward to interacting with all of you entering the historical profession and wish you luck in your studies. Have a Happy New Year everyone.

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  1. thefrogprincess
    January 26, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    Interesting post (and nice blog). I’d be very hesistant though to ignore the nasty side of adjuncting. You’re right that many new PhDs don’t have enough experience, although that certainly depends on the program. I know several graduate students who have significant teaching experience, including lecturing. But I think Benton’s right; the vast majority of positions in academia are adjunct positions and a lot of PhDs never get out of adjuncting. I think it’s highly dangerous to consider adjuncting as a necessary, entry-level stepping stone and not a place where one’s career may end. After all, the longer people are in adjunct positions (and are moving to different parts of the country each year, without benefits, earning a few thousand per course), the less likely they are to keep up the kind of research program that’s going to get them a decent job. There’s a lot out there on this in the blogosphere etc. but Benton (as I read him) isn’t saying that it’s unlikely a new Phd get a tenure track job in your first try. He’s saying it’s getting less and less likely said PhD will get a tenure track job, period. As in, ever.

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