Although Kate’s a professor in the Humanities and as such adds to the archive of material addressing Why Get a PhD in the Humanities?, she also opens up the question to PhD or No PhD? In response to her excellent post, I desire to take the opportunity to extend a call more broadly to faculty across higher education to share their reflections on the topic by leaving a comment/reflection below or by contributing a post of their own. To learn more about posting on the blog, click here. Note: if you are a student who has a significant faculty mentor who you desire to recommend as a contributor, please email me. Thank-you. — Thomas B. Grosh IV, Editor
Every year, as a new crop of seniors realizes that the end (of college) is in sight, there are those who consider going straight on to a PhD. For some of them, college has been a time of growth through exposure to new ideas. They may have conducted independent research or joined honor societies or attended conferences where they had deep conversations with intelligent people who shared their interests. They don’t want to lose that. I don’t blame them! Others, perhaps, don’t know what to do with their lives, but figure they’re pretty good at school, so they may as well continue. For others, there are simply no job opportunities in sight, and further education lets them defer student loans.
There’s no consensus among faculty whether to encourage or discourage these often idealistic dreamers in their quest for higher learning. It’s popular these days to discourage them, pointing to their (often) unrealistic expectations, the inadequate funding of higher education, and the poor job market. By encouraging them, are we setting them up to fail? I’ve encountered the argument that, given the limited resources for higher education, it should go to only the very best, who will advance the discipline. And even they aren’t guaranteed employment.
But there’s also pressure to encourage our students to pursue PhDs. At my university, we have an entire office devoted to helping students apply for prestigious fellowships. If our students get into recognized graduate programs, our rankings go up. Our department looks good if our recent graduates are pursuing PhDs. It certainly beats the alternative, which may be moving back home and working at Starbucks.
But frankly, as a Christian, I believe in higher education. Not that it makes us more valuable as people. And it certainly doesn’t make us any better Christians. Not everyone is called to do what I do. But understanding God’s world and the people God created is important. And frankly, I have devoted my life to my field because I think it matters. We need more people trained in the kinds of issues my discipline addresses. I sincerely believe this.
So do I encourage my students to apply to graduate school? Often I do, although I ask them some difficult questions first. My advice to them would often go somewhat like this:
- Are you most interested in the career or the education? If the career is most important, then you may wish to think again. Professional programs, not PhDs, provide career training. Graduate school is not a hoop to jump through to get to what you really want to do. It’s a commitment that will last for many years, probably changing the direction of your life. And there’s no guarantee you’ll find a job when you finish, a job within your field, or a job in a location you like. Even if you do find a job, there’s no guarantee that you’ll like it. My predecessor in the department did not; that’s why the position opened that I have now. (I remind my students that I applied for approximately 70 academic jobs and only got one offer. If I hadn’t been willing or able to move across country or teach outside of my specialization, I would have joined the ranks of the unemployed Humanities PhDs).
- So you’ve decided you really want the education. What are you willing to sacrifice for it? Are you willing to give it many years of your life? To live at or below poverty level? To possibly go into debt? To live with roommates into your 30s? Marriage and family are not impossible, but difficult while in graduate school. Are you willing to relocate to go to a good grad school? Are you willing to be separated from your spouse or significant other, temporarily while conducting research, or perhaps for the duration of your coursework? A former student of mine was recently accepted into a top graduate program, but turned it down to take part-time work near her fiancé, delaying or even giving up her own academic career. While she would have been a great academic, I’m impressed that she knew her priorities and put the relationship first.
- Have you tried something else? Almost anything else is good. Don’t go to graduate school because school is all you know. Do something else for a while. This is a great opportunity to see the world (try Peace Corps, teach English in Japan). Or what about Teach for America, or the Episcopal Service Corps? If you have student loans you’d like to take care of quickly, try working on an oil pipeline or fishing in Alaska (I have students who have done both). The experience will serve you well in grad school. After being away from academia for a year or so, if you’re still interested in writing papers and spending long hours in a library or lab, then you’ll know you’re ready to move on.
- What do you like to do on your Friday nights? That seems like a ridiculous question, but ask yourself that. Frankly, the person who makes it in graduate school is the one so passionate about his/her research that s/he works on it on Friday nights simply because it’s so cool. On a related note: What do you talk about with your friends? What’s on your Facebook wall? Do you seek out people who share your enthusiasm about your research? Not every Friday night, of course. That wouldn’t be a healthy lifestyle. But if you resent devoting time and energy to your field, then think twice about a career in academia. It seldom is a 9-5 job.
- Finally, what do your parents say? I know; you’re an adult now, and don’t have to ask your parents’ permission. But frankly, your parents know you better than almost anyone else, and they care about you. If they discourage you from applying, they may have good reasons. They may recognize traits that you don’t see in yourself. (Overconfidence? A tendency to make rash decisions that you regret later?) Or they may recognize the drain it would be on you, or on your family, if you move far away and can’t visit regularly. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your future with your parents—and I know students who do not—a PhD program is unlikely to be a solution. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue it, but if you’re looking for something to do to avoid difficult questions from Mom and Dad, there are easier options. Be really careful.
But in the end, I generally tell my students not to stress about it. I personally really liked grad school (most of the time), and I like being a professor (most of the time). But I really liked being in ministry as well, and I really liked the job I had for several years before becoming an academic. I know many people who have found fulfillment in life as a stay-at-home parent or working freelance or starting their own businesses. I’ve even had jobs I didn’t like so much, but they paid the bills, and I still had fulfilling things to do on evenings and weekends. A fellow church member pointed out to me recently that even unemployment can be a blessing in disguise. (Of course, that’s not what I tell students to strive for!) In the end, what matters isn’t how well we’re educated or how successful our career is, but who we are – human beings created in the image of God, whom God loves so much that He sent His Son! And that won’t change no matter what we decide.