Why Graduate School?


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.


To Write a Research Proposal (SSHRC)


Or, the elephant in the room: what I’ve really been spending the last three months doing when I’ve been holed up in either my room or the library or UOttawa’s library.


Preparing graduate applications involves pulling together quite a few different pieces, all of which are equally important and necessary … but to borrow shamelessly from George Orwell, some are more equal than others.


For anyone who hasn’t dealt with the grad school admissions process, the list of important pieces looks like this:

1. Transcripts.

2. Letters of recommendation – two or three, depending on the application.

3. CV: teaching experience, research experience, and publications.

4. For schools in the United States: the GRE General test, and the GRE English Literature subject test.

5. A 15-20 page writing sample.

6. The statement of purpose (MA) or research proposal (PhD).


Most of these I don’t have to lose too much sleep over. My transcripts are great, sure, and so are the transcripts of every other applicant. All that’s required here is to remember to order them, and check to make sure they’ve arrived. My recommenders know me and my work well – and I don’t see what they write, so there’s very little point in worrying about it. The only difficulty here is making sure that they get all the information they need: CV, transcripts, the graded copies of the essays I submitted in their classes, forms, and so forth. My CV is, again, respectable, but it’s not likely to make or break my application. Many, many students successfully apply to graduate school without any research or teaching experience whatsoever. My test scores? Well, I wrote the GRE tests halfway through my second year of undergrad, well before starting MA applications, and did sufficiently well that there would be absolutely no point to rewriting them this year. So no headaches on that score!


That leaves arguably the most important entries on the list: the writing sample and the research proposal. For most schools, it would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the writing sample – it’s a graduate program in English, for goodness’s sake, they want to know if you can write. And if you can develop a logical argument and so forth.


But in the case of grant applications, like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)’s doctoral fellowships, an applicant doesn’t submit a writing sample at all – the only sample of the applicant’s writing that the committee will ever see is the two-page research proposal.


In other words, of all the entries on the list, this is the time-consuming one. Which might seem baffling, at first glance. After all, two pages? Single-spaced? That’s only a thousand words!


Well, yes, but in those thousand words you must convince the reader of your own thorough knowledge of all the existing work in your field, establish your credentials to carry out research in this field, describe your proposed thesis, identify how your thesis will extend current knowledge in said field and engage with current questions or debates in the field, discuss your methodology or theoretical approach, demonstrate that you have a clear plan for how you will carry out this research, and make a cogent argument for why this research is so interesting and so necessary that the federal government must provide up to $105,000 worth of funding to support it. It must also, practically speaking, be written in such a way that any moderately intelligent non-specialist reader will understand it, because it could very well be read by committee members who specialize in Chinese history or developmental psychology.


Hence the reason that when I was applying for MA programs, I started work on my statement in April, when it wasn’t due until October.


I didn’t get started quite that early for PhD applications, mostly because I was in Vancouver for most of May and June, but on the other hand I was able to build on the work I’d previously done for the MA applications, so I guess it balanced out alright. My main project, for the last half of the summer, was the literature review: it’s very hard to obtain a thorough knowledge of all the existing work in a field without, well, reading said existing scholarship. Mercifully the University of Ottawa did not cut off my access to their online databases over the summer, which meant I was able to consult articles online without any difficulty, and in early August, I made a special trip to Toronto to get my library card and subsequently to borrow about thirty volumes from Robarts Library. (At last count, I now have just over fifty volumes checked out and piled on my desk.)


… and I’m in a pretty obscure field, as fields go! I shudder to think of what writing a research proposal that had anything to do with Shakespeare would entail.


All that being said, it’s a really useful exercise in terms of focusing a research project – it forces you to clarify ideas, to be concise, and to delve quite deeply into one narrow subsection of a field.


Or, at least for me it has been useful, since my problem with graduate statements has never been that I don’t have ideas for a proposal. My problem has, rather, been that I have far too many ideas, and writing a proposal forces me to pick one, and only one, and focus it down to something that I could reasonably finish in three years. 


At the same time, it’s definitely a relief to remember that I’m not setting the next three-to-five years of my life in stone. I am writing an application, and most students will change topics entirely or even change fields over the course of their graduate career. Obviously I’ve picked a project that I’m very much interested in and would like to pursue further; obviously I’ve chosen something that I could reasonably see myself spending three years or so developing into a thesis. But if I decide in six months’ time that I don’t want to write on anything to do with the Old Norse sagas or Anglo-Saxon poetry, and want to switch to American modernism instead, the world will not come to a crashing halt. (Er, that is definitely not going to happen, but the point is still valid!) This is especially true of MA applications, but it’s also true of PhD applications: you’re being evaluated on your ability to research and write an intelligent proposal. No one, apparently, expects you to follow it to the letter afterwards.


It still has to be written. So I am very, very relieved to say that SSHRC, at least for this year, is over.


(Now I just have to rewrite it and tailor it to each individual school and program that I’m applying to …)