There is an awful lot of material out there on the Internet about graduate school, the basic drift of which is that doing a PhD in the humanities is absolutely pointless because you’ll waste years that you could be working, and you’ll probably end up hating the program and your thesis, and you’ll very likely not have a job afterwards because the academic job market is horrible.
Having read the wisdom/negativity that the Internet has to offer, and having been given frank assessments of graduate school and academic life more generally by a number of professors and fellow students, I am still planning to do my doctorate.
Because the worst-case scenario actually goes like this:
I graduate with my doctorate at twenty-four (or twenty-five, or twenty-six, depending on the length of the program), with no student debt whatsoever. I don’t find a tenure-track job. I end up as an adjunct while pursuing a theatre career on the side, or end up switching back over into editing or journalism or writing or publishing or library science or any of a few dozen other related fields that I enjoy – where my MA might be handy, but where I certainly wouldn’t need a PhD. Or I go back and finish a physics degree and do something else entirely. (I have done crazier things!)
I will also have spent three to five years living in a great city, at a world-class school, with mind-blowingly fabulous library resources, being paid to study and research what I love in the company of professors and fellow students who love it as much as I do. (And who can give me a run for my money in discussions!) I’ll know an awful lot more than I do now about a group of languages that I have been fascinated with since about age fourteen, and about the English language more generally. I’ll have grown as a writer and as a scholar.
I’ll also have had three to five more years to show up at all the physics and astrophysics and math department colloquia in my spare time. And I will have been paid to spend three to five years living in or next to a city that is at the heart of its country’s respective theatre scene (Toronto / NYC / London), with all the accompanying opportunities for training and auditioning and performing and building my artistic résumé.
… now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Now, I am also optimistic enough to imagine that I do in fact have a shot at an academic job afterwards, but if that Plan A doesn’t happen, I can also produce plans B through Z, in none of which do I see myself regretting the years spent doing the PhD.
(Or, to sum up rather simplistically: I like reading and studying and writing. Someone’s offering to pay me a salary to do just that for the next five years? Seriously? This sounds like an awesome idea! And though I’d love to be a professor, and will work towards that end, I won’t consider myself to have wasted my time if that doesn’t happen.)
So my own thoughts on the “graduate school in the humanities” problem:
– Don’t do it if it’s just something to do while you’re figuring out what you actually want to do.
– Don’t do it if it requires getting into debt. (Aka: it should be funded.)
– If you want an academic job afterwards, the reality of the situation is that you should be going to a top school. I applied to some “safety net” schools for my Masters, but didn’t bother for the PhD – because if the only schools I could get into were the “safety nets,” then I figured I should probably be re-evaluating my choice to pursue the doctorate in the first place. Also, the academic job market is such that you need to be willing to move. I’m not tied down to any one location, but that is obviously not the case for everyone.
– Get as much information as you can, so that you’re making an informed decision. I already know what being a teaching assistant is like, so I know exactly what I’m signing myself up for when a university tells me that part of my funding is dependent on working X number of hours as a TA. I also know what working on an independent research project is like – again, I’ve done it. And I know I enjoy it.
– Be realistic: if you only want an academic job and think the world will end if you don’t get one – you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Keep your other options open.
But if you have a field of study that you love, where you excel, where even the most minute of details are fascinating, and where “work” and “what you like to do for fun” are essentially synonyms?
Then go forth and prosper.