grad school

Six Things I Wish I'd Known Before Getting a PhD

Potential graduate students sometimes ask me for advice about graduate school. For the last two years, I felt like I couldn’t give helpful advice because I was too angry over student debt, the job crisis, and the plight of adjuncts. My advice came out as a stream of invective that surprised even me.

I’m calmer now. Sort of.

I’m still angry about a lot of things about academia. I’m angry about structural inequalities that put academic positions out of reach for people who could make the greatest impact. I’m angry about what neoliberalism has done to higher education, transforming it into a glorified Walmart made up of ever-increasing numbers of adjuncts. As I wrote in my last post, I’m angry about the state of student debt. I’m still angry about feeling so rejected by the academic world.

Despite the anger, I’ve reached the point where I can give potential graduate students reasonable advice. Here’s what I wish that I’d know before starting my graduate program:

You don’t have to get a PhD.

I didn’t think very hard about why I wanted a PhD. I wanted to understand better the legacies of violence and racism that I’d seen when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer. The idea that I should think about how a PhD might get me a job never entered my head. I’m not saying that all decisions should come down to economic realities; if we all used market value to make life choices, we’d have no artists, writers, musicians, or (likely) historians. I’m not sorry that I have a PhD. In fact, I love having a PhD. On the other hand, I wish I’d put a little bit more thought into why I wanted one. Following my intellectual passions and interests didn’t mean that I needed to get a PhD. An M.A. might have sufficed. Graduate school is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Consider your end goal carefully.   

Ask a lot of uncomfortable questions.

If you're determined to go ahead and go ahead with a PhD program, be prepared to ask some questions that will make other people uncomfortable. I recommend that students visit the campuses of programs that they’ve been accepted to before accepting any offers. A PhD is a huge investment, so it’s worth seeing where you’ll be hanging out and meeting the people you’ll be working with for the next 5-7 years. You’ll want to do some research about the university, the program, and funding. Ask graduate students, faculty, and potential advisers some questions. How fast do students finish the PhD? How many finish? What are the graduates of the program you’re considering now working? Are they working in academia or other fields? How many graduates of the program are adjuncting? How does the program you’re considering prepare students for non-academic careers?  This last question will probably catch some people off guard because graduate programs don’t generally prepare PhD students for non-academic careers. If the program doesn’t have any plan to help PhDs with careers outside the traditional academic career path, you’ll need to do that work on your own.

Understand the academic job crisis.

Conduct some research about the academic job market. What has it looked like in the past? What does it look like now? What might make it change? In my case, I didn’t think to ask any questions about the job market, because it seemed so far away. A word of caution here: if anyone tells you that the job market is going to get better or that “good students” still get jobs, give them some serious side-eye and remain skeptical. Often times, faculty don’t know about the realities of the job market because they haven’t been on it for a long time or they’re the lucky few who recently got jobs. Both of these factors cause people to see the job market as much more favorable than it really is. Fortunately, you can do research about the job market and draw your own conclusions. Here, for example, is an article published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives, entitled, "The Troubled Academic Market for History." (Plot spoiler: the academic history job market sucks.) Take particular note of the graph: this does not look like a job market that will recover any time soon. During the research process, talk to some PhD adjuncts. (If don’t know any, I know lots and will hook you up.) Ask them about their experiences as adjuncts. They’ll have much to tell you. Above all, know that a PhD will not guarantee you a tenure track job in academia because those jobs are disappearing. What’s your non-academic plan?  

Decide what you think a PhD is worth.

Graduate programs often euphemistically call teaching assistantships “full funding.” In reality, full funding for graduate students doesn’t really cover basic living expenses. As I wrote in my last post, the lack of funding means that graduate students rely on loans to fund education that probably won’t result in the jobs they want. If you want a real shock, check out Karen Kelsky’s PhD debt survey. As I said, I’m not sorry that I have a PhD. I am sorry that I am in serious debt because of it. You need to decide upfront exactly how much money you’re willing to spend on a PhD, which will depend on your age, financial situation, and goals. What’s the PhD worth to you? $20,000? $50,000? $80,000? $125,000? More? I caution people against banking on potential external funding as a sure thing. Yeah, you might get some fancy fellowship to cover your diss research costs, but what if you don’t? Once your research gets rolling, you might be tempted to exceed your pre-set debt limit. It is not easy to abandon something that you’ll love as much as your personal intellectual journey and academic research. If you decide to throw all caution to the wind and get a PhD regardless of cost, be aware that it might get incredibly expensive and that you’re going to be paying for it for a very very very long time.

If you take out student loans, understand them.

Student loan debt sucks. If you decide to take out loans, be sure that you understand them. You’ll want to know the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Learn about the differences between private and public loans. Research the magnitude of the current student debt problem. Consider how you might repay your loans if you don’t end up with a tenure track job. You want to devise some way to keep track of your debt. I actively tried never to think about how much money I was borrowing because it gave me horrible anxiety (as well it should have). After a while, the huge amount of money that I owed ceased to seem real. Even though you might not start paying back the money for 5-7 years, student loan debt will be there waiting for you for the next ten or twenty years. Also know (among other things), that student loan debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Policies on discharge after death of the borrower also vary between public and private loans. If you don’t know what that means, you should. It’s unpleasant stuff to think about, to be sure. Education, above all, is an investment. Sometimes investments work out and you get an awesome job and a great return. Sometimes investments tank and you’re left holding the bag of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

You need knowledge AND experience.

The knowledge and skills gained through the PhD process are awesome. However, if you don’t end up with an academic job, you’ll need some non-academic skills to fall back on. The academic job market evaluates the “potential” of job seekers to become important and productive scholars. Experience, rather than potential, counts outside of academia and will win you non-academic jobs. Non-academic employers often have little understanding of what your PhD skills entail. A PhD on its own (especially in those amorphous fields like the humanities) isn’t going to win anyone a non-academic job. Even though the PhD workload will crush you, you need to develop some non-academic skills that you can put to use. Coding, language skills, teamwork (I’m looking at you, solitary historians), and web design skills all count. These, of course, are part of PhD skills, but unless you’re doing them outside of academia, employers don’t tend to think you have them. Volunteer and even temp work show that you have experience.

I wish I’d thought about even a fraction of this stuff before I’d started. I might have made different life choices. Or maybe not, but I would have gone into my graduate program better informed and able to make better choices.    

I'd be interested to hear what other people wish they'd known before graduate school. Ideas?