There has been a lot of public debate about graduate studies, particularly in the humanities. Unsurprisingly, this is causing some anxiety for people either doing or contemplating grad school.
Here are a few things to think about when making this decision.
Why do you want to do the PhD?
- Are you excited about your research project and this seems like the best way to pursue it?
- Are you seriously considering an academic career?
- Are you considering other careers for which a PhD might be required?
- Are you unsure of what else you would do, daunted by the recession, and it seems easier to stay in school?
- Are your advisors and academic friends encouraging you to pursue one?
All of these are possible. In fact, I suspect the last two are very common reasons for people to do a PhD. Looking back, they probably weighed as heavily as number 1 for me.
The important thing is to have an idea of why you want to do it. That will enable you to figure out how much you might want to spend on it (or, how much you are willing to go into debt for it), whether there are particular things you need in a program, and whether there are other things you want to achieve simultaneously so that you are employable at the end.
How are you going to fund it?
- Will you have a full tuition scholarship and a full stipend? If so, for how many years?
- Will you have tuition plus TA and RA opportunities?
- Do you have another source of income compatible with being a full-time student?
- Will you have to borrow money? How much?
This can be very important. Clearly, if you have a full scholarship and stipend, you are less likely to feel like it was a waste if things don’t turn out as you planned in terms of career. You can treat it as a job in itself, fairly low paid but not that bad, in which you get to pursue your intellectual interests full time.
If you are planning to borrow, you probably want to have a clearer sense of what you might do afterwards and make sure you are getting all the knowledge, skills and experience you might need to successfully transition into that career. Also have a back-up. The academic hiring situation, especially in the humanities, is not rosy.
What else could you do?
I am increasingly aware of a cultural association between “intelligent” and “academic”. Maybe it’s also associated with class, but if you are smart, people think you should stay in school.
The longer you are in school, the more alienated you feel from the rest of the world. So by the time you are considering a PhD program, it seems like you are walking in a thick fog with this one clear patch (the university) and a lot of vague shapes. And you are pretty sure there are other things you can’t even see but …
Scary. That’s scary.
What if everyone is right and my book-learning is useless in the “real world”?
I suspect you have lots of options. To begin with I suggest going to the careers service at your current institution (or the one you most recently graduated from) and talking to a careers advisor about options.
Also go to the alumni office and ask them whether they can connect you with alumni who have a similar degree to the one you have now so you could talk to them and explore some career options. You aren’t going to ask these people for jobs. You are just going to ask them about what they do, how they got into it, and how it relates to the degree you did.
You could also get a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? out of the library and do some of the exercises. (There is a good section in there on information interviews, too.)
That should at least begin to clear the fog.
Your academic advisor should be only one source of advice
I’m going to assume your advisor has the best intentions not least because they usually do have good intentions. But we’re talking about a human being here. One who stayed in school and went on to an academic career and may never have explored other options seriously.
They like their job. They see some of them in you and think (possibly correctly but possibly not) that you would like this job, too.
They are also very pleased to have had such a great student. Not all students are as exciting to work with as you are. They can see the potential for you to do great academic work and contribute meaningfully to debates that are important to them.
Institutionally, the department looks good if their students go on to PhDs at prestigious institutions, particularly if they get nationally competitive scholarships.
However, your advisor is just one person, a good person to talk to about what PhD programs are like, what an academic career is like, where to publish in your field, and related questions. Your advisor is not making recommendations based on a full understanding of your situation nor a full understanding of all the options open to you in particular. Only you can do that.
You need to seek advice from several people with different experiences and different expertise.
In the end only you can make the decision. It’s a tough one. You are an intelligent person. You can do it.
This post was edited June 30, 2015.