So you want to get a doctorate…

Over the last three years a number of our MA students have come to me to talk about their plans for what to do after Tulane, and in particular about what career prospects look like in Classics. For all that I’ve been flattered they would want my advice, my own decision to leave the field has often made me feel awkward in this position, or at the very least ambivalent about what specific course of action I should recommend.  On the one hand, I’m happy that I earned my Ph.D. and want to see the discipline thrive, something that can only happen if good students keep taking their studies as far as they’re able to make it.  On the other hand, I’m keenly aware of the personal risks involved in that choice: about 70% of people who enter a doctoral program never finish the degree, and of the 30% that do only a small fraction–about 1/10–actually get a tenure-track job.

With the decision deadline for doctoral programs coming up this week, and after speaking to a Tulane alumnus about his own decision, I began thinking in more depth about what I wish all students could know or think about before pursuing an advanced degree.  I decided to write up my advice here not only to have a record of my thoughts at this moment, but also to begin a larger conversation about what past graduate students, whether they finished their degree or not, want to tell others before they start.  Feel free to leave your own ideas in the comments section below.

Here’s my top five:

1) If they’re not paying you to get your doctorate, don’t pursue the degree.  This one is common knowledge, but it’s worth saying again anyways.  DO NOT go into debt getting a PhD in the humanities.  The potential to pay it back just isn’t there, and you’ll limit your ability to take on other, more important types of debt down the road (e.g. a mortgage).

2) “Being a professor” cannot be your Plan A.  For all that this defies the experience of most people entering graduate school, the figures cited above should make it an obvious conclusion: if 97% of the people who enter a doctoral program won’t end up in a tenure-track job, then students need to make sure their primary career goal is in another area.  That might mean teaching high school, working in higher ed administration, or something completely unrelated to the content of your degree.  It doesn’t really matter.  The key thing is making sure you understand that you’re almost guaranteed not to be the exception to the rule no matter how good you think you are.  That said, if being a professor is a career you want the option of pursuing, then getting a doctorate is the only ticket to that particular ride.  This is fine, and is in fact true for the vast majority of applicants.  The trick is to make sure you establish a range of possible outcomes you’d be happy to see yourself in from the start–that way you won’t feel lost if the academic job market doesn’t work out.

3) Know what your life is going to look like if you do pursue a tenure-track job. It used to be that people could be hired to a permanent job before they completed their dissertation, but today that’s almost entirely unheard of.  Most people spend 3-5 years in temporary positions before landing a tenure-track job, and if they’re unsuccessful at that point they seek some other kind of work.  In practical terms, this means I can give you a pretty good glimpse into the future and sketch out your next twenty years.  Let’s assume you get your BA at age 21 and go straight into a PhD program.  For the next seven years you’ll be in grad school, earning a small stipend that should cover your expenses.  After that you’ll have a few years in temporary positions, moving every year or two, but with a slightly higher salary than you had before–something lower-mid five figures.  Unfortunately, you usually have to pay for the moves out of pocket, which cuts into that upside.  Assuming things go well and you’re one of the lucky few who gets a permanent job, you’ll be 31-33 years old.  This position is almost certainly not going to be in a place of your choosing, and may well be somewhere you don’t even like.  On the plus side, your salary now will be higher and you’ll probably have enough stability to buy a house and/or start a family.  The first six years of this job will require that you put all your free time into research (something it was hard to squeeze in earlier owing to the frequent moves): publication of a book and two articles is usually the minimum to pass your tenure review, which will occur a little shy of your turning 40.  Unfortunately, there’s anecdotal evidence that the pass-rate for tenure cases has been falling since the recession, so you might need to go through that six-year process a second time–assuming you can get another job–before it finally sticks.

Now the work obviously isn’t all doom and gloom.  Those who land tenure-track jobs often have rewarding careers and enjoy a reasonably good standard of living.  This is especially true for people in higher-tier universities that provide adequate funds for travel to conferences etc.  But the above scenario is about as close to a “best-case” as you can get these days.  Be aware that this is what the long, difficult road to tenure actually looks like, and that the people who enjoy it make up a very small minority of the total who undertake doctoral study.  If you think you’re able to take that on, then by all means forge ahead.  But do so with your eyes open, fully aware of what you will and won’t have control over during the critical decades of your twenties and thirties.

4) Pay attention to how a graduate program is going to train you to think.  People in the humanities love to talk about how they teach people critical thinking skills and prepare them for life–something that has always been true for undergraduate study and that is increasingly being applied to graduate study, too.  The problem is people often say this without having any idea of how they think it should work, and without structuring their program to produce the desired result.  This is why I advise people to ask questions obsessively when they’re choosing a program.  The goal is to find out what professors think about the education they’re providing.  Things you might ask include the following: How do they imagine the work you do as a graduate student (taking courses, teaching, doing reading lists, research, etc.) prepares you for the things you’ll do after finishing?  How intensive is the program?  Is it more focused on covering certain content areas or learning set approaches?  How much freedom does the student have to conduct research early on?  Does the department have a record of fostering collaborative work?  How often do students conduct research projects with members of the faculty?

The answers you get to questions such as these can give you a much better idea of what kind of a person you’re likely to become after six or seven years of study.  Highly structured programs train you to juggle multiple projects at the same time and develop strategies for overcoming the informational overload that can result from trying to do so many things at once.  Those with fewer requirements, on the other hand, normally give you more time for research early on; that freedom can let you develop greater creativity in your analytical approach and give you the opportunity to pursue side-interests that build additional skills (a friend at Princeton, for example, became an expert in database management while working on an archaeological dig).  Furthermore, inquiring into the relationships between students and faculty can give you an idea of how much personal support you’re likely to receive, and whether you’re going to gain practice working as part of a team or mostly laboring on your own.  None of these things is inherently good or bad, but many of them are mutually exclusive.  Your main job at this stage is to figure out the collection of attributes that’s going to work for you and select a program that’s likely to deliver.

Of course, it’s entirely possible the answers you get to these questions will be half-baked or won’t seem to add up with what you observe or hear from others.  If that’s the case, it means the faculty either don’t have well-defined goals for the program or are in so much disagreement among themselves that they can’t come to a consensus about what they want it to accomplish.  Either way, it’s a bad sign.  Stick with schools that have a clear sense of what they’re trying to do and can explain how the hoops they have you jump through contribute to that outcome.

5) Find out the success rate of people in the program.  This sounds simple, but it’s actually a complex piece of advice.  In order to know what percentage of people are successful, you need to know what range of outcomes are considered ‘successes’ and which are deemed ‘failures.’  The most important person in this determination is yourself.  Before you enter a graduate program, decide what you’ll consider a win, and find out the rate at which alumni at the prospective program succeed in those terms.

In order to get this information about a program, you’ll have to ask the faculty running it.  Doing this without indicating your own definition of success can be especially useful, since it will give you a better sense of what their values are and how much professional support you’re likely to get when it comes time to look for a job.  Is their answer mostly focused on people getting tenure-track jobs?  What do they say about the people on the other side of the statistical divide?  Can they tell you about people with an MA or PhD who are working outside academia?  Do they volunteer that information, or do you have to ask for it?  Either way, how do they talk about alumni who aren’t in the professoriate?  Do they fall into the ‘success’ camp, or somewhere lower on the hierarchy of outcomes?  All of this will give you crucial information about the people who will be responsible for evaluating your performance in the program and helping you transition into life beyond your doctorate.  If their values don’t line up reasonably well with your own, you might want to consider other options.

One last addendum to this point.  You should also ask what goals the program’s alumni set for themselves.  If everybody wanted to become a professor, but nobody recent has landed a tenure-track job, that’s a bad sign; on the other hand, if lots of people came in wanting to teach and many of them get placed in top high schools–whether they finish the degree or not–that’s a good indication that the faculty worked with them to help them meet their own definition of success.


If there’s one thing I appreciate now more than I ever could have as a college senior, it’s that most PhDs aren’t going to get work in their academic discipline.  Even so, the process of getting a doctorate is a rewarding one.  You get to throw yourself into a field of study you enjoy, master its intricacies, and add to the sum total of human knowledge that exists about it.  In the process, you’re trained to respond to the world and the problems you face within it in ways that are typical of your discipline. To speak from experience, let me talk briefly about what I gained from the highly-structured, content-driven program at UVA.  It was, in a word, absolutely back-breaking.  It forced me to work long hours, manage my time effectively, and slog through a lot of things I didn’t like in order to get better at things I really enjoyed.  More important, though, was the program’s emphasis on philology, the science of understanding larger themes in literature by studying the individual words that make it up.  That approach was drilled into me for seven years, and it’s now a reflex for me to try to understand the big picture of whatever I do through mastery of the details that comprise it.  On top of all that, UVA gave me lots of chances to teach from very early on in my graduate career.  It’s been nine years since I led my first discussion section, and I’m now totally comfortable at the front of a room–whether it’s one of five people or five hundred.  And this despite the fact that I think of myself as an introvert by nature!  So the person I am today is undoubtedly a result of my time in Charlottesville.  None of the skills or attributes mentioned above is one I’d want to give up at this stage in my life, nor is the collection of them something I think I could have gained doing anything but studying Classics at UVA.

As I hope that makes clear, there’s a lot you can get out of graduate school that is not strictly tied to the material you study.  You’ll develop particular ways of approaching the world and methods for solving problems that will become deeply rooted from giving them so much time and attention. But the question of whether you’ll find the experience rewarding is really one of defining expectations. Figure out what you want your own definition of success to look like, whether in academia, business, or something else entirely.  If graduate study can provide you with the skills and habits you think you’ll need to attain it, then by all means forge ahead.  You might not end up using your degree to do what you expect, but this way you’ll undoubtedly end up putting it to some kind of good use.

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