PhD Advice

If you are considering graduate study at GWU or another institution, please read the following carefully. It is designed to save you time, and, should you decide to apply, to help you craft a competitive application.

With thanks to Jolyon Thomas at Penn, whose wonderful advice page on grad school is my template here.

From Times Higher Education newsletter

First Things First: The Other Path

There are all sorts of ways one can be an intellectual. You can study/write about history and culture, the politics of empire, and/or the meaning of life while doing many types of paid work. American Studies in particular has a rich tradition of public intellectual engagement beyond the academy, carried out by journalists, filmmakers, artists, museum curators, bloggers, commentators, archivists, and activists. Or you can have a regular 9-5 office job and still keep up with ideas: write, tweet, and develop an intellectual community. It is a failure of our larger culture that in the US we place so much of our investment in intellectual life in the academy. This is certainly not the case in many other countries, where intellectuals exist in a number of spheres, and you don’t need a graduate degree to be an expert…much less to offer an opinion.

Getting paid a decent salary and saving for retirement at one job, while reading about history, culture, politics, and/or religion in your free time, can be an excellent choice–a way of living happily and contributing to a set of intellectual conversations that interest you without burrowing into an MA or PhD program.

The Cautionary Statement

The advice that follows focuses mostly, but not solely, on considerations for the PhD track. I generally think getting an MA can be exciting and worthwhile, if you can afford it. But don’t do it for just another credential. Grad school in the humanities, at any level, is too much work and too much time away from the rest of life to do it for any reason other than great intellectual passion.

Now, about the PhD: The truly grim reality of the academic track is that you probably shouldn’t do it. Only do a PhD if you absolutely cannot think of doing something — anything! — else with your life. Your undying passion for the material has to sustain you through somewhere between 5 and 8 difficult years in which you make little money and therefore make no contributions to your retirement, save no money for vacations, and live with high levels of stress, with absolutely no guarantee of employment in your field after you finish.

As much as PhD programs are intellectually rewarding — and they can be — they are also grueling, time-consuming, stress-inducing, and, even if you are fully funded, a major blow to whatever personal wealth you might have otherwise accumulated as a gainfully employed adult. A basic rule of thumb is to think twice and then thrice before you apply, because most people who get PhDs in the humanities don’t get tenure-track jobs.

(This does not mean that only the best scholars get such jobs. The number of people getting tenure-track teaching jobs is small and rapidly dwindling. For reasons that are entirely structural and have very little to do with personal aptitude, many people wind up working as adjuncts, teaching on a course-by-course basis and often living at or below poverty level.  The bottom line is that the math is not good for anybody, and the situation for most folks is quite demoralizing. Work as an independent scholar is possible; making a living that way is deeply difficult.)

A second rule is, if you must do this, have a solid career plan before you begin. Ideally, you will hold both academic and alt-academic tracks in your mind from the beginning. Even if you are determined that you want to be a professor, you must consider, seriously and early: If you don’t get a tenure-track teaching job in academe, what do you plan to do with your PhD? The answer should not be “teach as a radically underpaid adjunct on a course-by-course basis until a miracle happens.” There are jobs for PhDs in government, industry, museums, secondary education, and research institutes. Make sure you know what your options are so that you are not blindsided if and when you don’t get a faculty position. In fact, the best and most accurate approach is to look at these jobs seriously, not only as a Plan B, but as a potential alt academic track that can be as rewarding and meaningful as any professorship. At GW, we are proud to say, for example, that three curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture have their PhDs from our American Studies department, as do folks working all over the country in public history and culture, media, politics, and journalism. Of course, those jobs can be equally as competitive as tenure-track jobs, so you have to know that nothing guarantees that you will put your degree to work in the way you might hope.

Also, plan ahead. If you try for the professor route, you can expect to be applying for jobs for at least three years before you land a TT job, if you do. It has become common for humanists to do one or two postdocs or visiting assistant professorships before they land something more stable. If you have a family with children, this gets even more complicated. Kids need stability, and if your partner is also an academic, then you will also deal with the dreaded “two-body problem” in which one person may pull the other away from good employment opportunities. It can take years for academic couples to work out a way to live in the same place working in equally satisfying positions. Or, more likely, they might never manage it, and end up in unending commutes, or taking radically unequal job paths because of the limits of mobility. (Gender is a useful category of analysis here.)

If you do apply and get accepted to a PhD program, don’t go unless you get a full package that includes tuition and some stipend, whether that includes teaching or not. Assuming that you do get a full ride, if you discover that it’s not working for you after a year or two, there is absolutely no shame in choosing to do something else. But if a program won’t invest in you enough to offer you a full package, it may not have the resources or the reputation to help you get placed well.

Finally, choose your program carefully. Different faculty will tell you different things about this. Some folks say that you should probably attend an Ivy League school or equivalent. At GW, we have one of the best American Studies PhD programs in the country, and our placement record is actually quite good, but we are not an Ivy League school. So if you are looking for jobs in non-American Studies departments, it can be harder. That said, we have a good number of GW AmSt PhDs in tenured or tenure-track jobs in departments in English, history, African American Studies, performance studies, women’s and gender studies, and communications departments, as well as American Studies. And, of course, we have graduates working in many places beyond the academy.

Ask about relationships among the graduate students.

Your advisor will matter (more on that below), but the other graduate students in your program will be your true intellectual community for the five or six years you are in a PhD program and, if you’re lucky, for many years beyond that. Find out whether the other students are rigorous and committed, whether they are generous with each other, whether they have reading groups, writing groups, or happy hour groups (and, hopefully, all three). People from my graduate program read many drafts of my dissertation chapters, and then the best of my friends read several versions of the book that came out of it; there are sentences in my first book that are literally pulled from somebody’s marginal comments on a draft. My advisors were helpful; my friends were my community.

Prior Preparation

At GW, you are not required to have another language for the American Studies program except to the degree that you need such skills for your research. Other schools and other departments do have a uniform language requirement. And, as more and more people in US studies are doing transnational work, the need for language skills is increasing, whether required or not. We have students who do research in other languages, and people who wish they could. If you think your interest will take you in that direction, you should have a strong foundation in the relevant language before you arrive. We do not generally fund language study except the occasional summer program, so you simply will not be able to show up and learn Turkish on the side. You need to have a baseline.

Getting into a PhD program also means having a clearly articulated research question, which takes time to formulate. The easy solution to this is to do an MA before going to the PhD, but of course you generally end up paying for the MA, whereas you should be able to get a fellowship for the PhD. Still, more than half of our PhD students come in with MA degrees already. MA programs can give you time to develop language skills and refine your research interests.  And if you can find one that funds you, you are in great shape.

I personally think that it is better to do an MA at one institution and a PhD at another just so that you get a sense of different approaches to the field, and at GW we generally discourage our MA students from applying to our PhD program. (In most programs, people who go straight into their PhD do get an MA-on-the-way, so if you leave after a couple of years, you do so with an MA degree.) Although MA degrees are often expensive–many grad schools make money on MA programs so they can fund their PhD students– some schools do fund MA students. You should also know that many PhD programs do not give full credit for MA degrees. At GW American Studies, we give just a semester’s worth of credit for your year or two years of MA work. So an MA at one institution plus a PhD at another is a longer path, in general, on an already long journey.

The Application

There is a specific strategy to writing successful PhD applications. The personal statement is not a confession; it is actually asking you to outline a research program. Sometimes personal stories can illuminate your interests and your path, but they should be used to explain and underline your intellectual passions. You’ll want to be clear for your reader about what your interests are, what kind of scholarship you plan to do (historical, ethnographic, sociological, theoretical), and what prior training you have, without necessarily listing every course you loved in college.

For a guide on choosing your PhD advisor, written mostly by scientists but generally useful, see here.

If you know the field well enough, you can talk about how you think your research might overturn longstanding assumptions or otherwise contribute to the body of knowledge on the subject. Only include a statement of this sort if you know what you are doing. Otherwise, it’s fine just to say what you to hope to explore and why it matters; you don’t have to promise to shake up the universe and prove how wrong all current scholars are. Our admissions committee generally views statements of interest as just that–initial statements about where you think you might go. Once you arrive, we expect that you will need room to change and grow. This is especially true for applicants who are coming in with just a BA degree. Also, have somebody else read your statement carefully before you submit it. Your personal statement should reflect your best academic self, so no typos, no infelicitous word choice, no grammatical mistakes.

By all means do not forget to include a paragraph in your personal statement outlining how you plan to take advantage of the specific human and material resources at the institution to which you are applying. You should know enough about the faculty to say with whom you want to work and why. You can get much of this information from the web site.

Networking and References

It’s generally a very good idea to apply to a given program with the idea that you would work with more than one person. There may be one big name or main draw for you, but you will need more than one advisor to read your work, make suggestions, and help shepherd you through the program. Besides, heaven forbid, people get sick, or move schools, or die. So you never put all your eggs in one basket.

Most people who offer advice on grad school applications say you should contact everyone who would be a potential advisor and ask if you could speak with them by Zoom or phone about your research interests and whether you would be a good fit for their department. That seems like a perfectly good idea, but please know that many of us are rather overwhelmed by student queries and we may not answer. Or, in my case, I will likely send you back the generic letter I sent out to all potential students. It’s pretty helpful — I work hard to keep it updated and relevant — but it’s not a phone call. In my case, the fact that I probably won’t meet or talk to you prior to your application is not an indication that I’m a bad advisor. In truth, it’s just not the best use of my time to talk to somebody before I’ve even had the chance to read their essay, see their grades, and figure out if I am interested in working with them.

When the time comes, if you are admitted to our program, then all the faculty set aside time to invite admitted students for a campus visit to meet with us. You definitely should make sure you get to meet your potential advisors before you decide whether or not to attend a given program. After all, you will spend approximately six years in some kind of relationship with your key advisors; they will hold a great deal of power over you. You need to know that they seem not only smart and helpful, but also basically kind — at the very least, that they can be trusted to keep their promises to you. (One advantage of the campus visit is that you can talk to current students about the institution and the faculty. The seemingly ideal advisor could be notorious for making onerous demands on her students, for example, or a top-tier university may have structural issues that keep students from finishing.)

It almost goes without saying, but your initial communication with faculty members should be formal and usefully detailed. Briefly introduce yourself and your prior training and mention anybody with whom you have studied that the professor in question may know. Explain in one or two sentences what your research interests are, and ask them politely how you might best prepare an application for their department. The general rule of thumb with politeness is that you use more words to say the same thing, but don’t waste the professor’s time with an overly florid missive. Be courteous but to the point.

In your conversations with potential advisors, you may find that people encourage you to think about doing other things. Learn to distinguish between a message of “I think you have promise but nobody should enter the academy right now because the job market is terrible and it would be unconscionable for me to encourage you, even though, yes, we probably will admit you” and one of “Looking at your materials, I don’t think that you would survive or thrive in a PhD program at my institution.” Make sure you are hearing the message the person intends to transmit, and make sure that you take it seriously.

You should contact potential referees early about letters of support. Ask them if they are willing and able to write you a strong letter, not just write you a letter. Don’t be surprised if they try to dissuade you. Your advisor may think that you would be a fantastic teacher or researcher, but might think it would be ethically irresponsible to support an application to grad school. Listen to what she says.

If you are absolutely determined to apply, it is on you to tell the referee that you understand the risks and rewards of doing so. Here, too, it is important to be able to distinguish what message the person is trying to transmit if it seems like she is dragging her feet. If she says that she cannot write you a strong letter, it is time for you to think about doing something else. Hold in mind that your referees need to be excited about your application. If they write their letters begrudgingly, it won’t help you.

A Final Note—Life In The Academy

For me, one of the things that surprised me is how much life in the academy is a weird combination of intensely social and utterly lonely. If you are mostly an extrovert, you might find it really hard to sit and read and write for many hours each day, every day, for the rest of your life. But if you really don’t like being around people, then you will find it hard to do a job that also requires teaching and deep engagement with students and other faculty. Most people I know are somewhere in the middle of the Introvert/Extrovert scale, with a slide toward introvert.

Truth is, most people who are not professors don’t have much of an idea of what professors actually do, or what the day-to-day is like. There is much that is invisible, or that nobody thinks to tell you. Obviously, since I’m a tenured professor at a research institution, my life is a bed of roses — apparently, I hardly work at all.  Of course, things were tougher when I was a young professor trying to get tenure, but the truth is, the requirements for publishing, teaching, working with grad students, doing administrative work, reading manuscripts for journals and presses, working for scholarly organizations, etc. are demanding, and have remained quite demanding and stressful for the twenty-some years I’ve been in the profession.

I am very lucky compared to many people, but the increased use of adjuncts means that all departments have far fewer people available to do the work that it takes to run a department, from advising undergrads to directing the grad program, from filling out endless forms to helping the department chair prepare tenure cases. Most tenure-line faculty say they spend a significant portion of every week on administrative tasks — many of which would be done by administrative assistants or other staff if one worked in a law firm. And this doesn’t even count the things one does as “service to the profession”: reading book or article manuscripts, working on the program committee for a conference, reviewing tenure files or acting as external reviewer for a program.

Academic life also requires lots and lots of writing. If you don’t like writing, don’t go to grad school in the humanities (or social sciences)! You will generate lots of text, and you will throw away most of it. You must be comfortable with this. This is just about writing in general; there are also the very real and very difficult realities associated with publishing early and often, on a timeline that can be extremely stressful, if you are lucky enough to be on the tenure track. If you are not, and you are trying to find such a job, the demands of publishing can be even worse.

Life in the academy also involves teaching. You should be as excited about working with students as you are about sharing your research ideas in publication. If you like research but don’t like the idea of working with needy human beings who make multiple demands on your time, then teaching at a college or university—or at least, the humanities and social sciences part of it—is probably not for you.

If you do like teaching, make sure you know why. Some people are mistakenly attracted to teaching because they relish having authority, not because they genuinely enjoying helping students learn and grow. You may not have a lot of teaching experience at this point, but do your best to make sure that you know what motivates your work in the classroom before you start.

The good news is that, if you are lucky and land in a decent position, being a professor is also a really wonderful job, at least in my experience. I have enormous flexibility; I get to research things I am interested in; I like most of my colleagues; and I work with a generally wonderful group of graduate and undergraduate students. The stresses of this work are real, but there are stresses in many jobs. I also don’t make as much money as I would have made as a lawyer, grant writer, owner of a coffee shop/laundromat, or most of the other things I considered doing after I realized that I didn’t want to be a political organizer any longer. (OK, I’m not so sure about the viability of the coffee shop/laundromat idea.)  But I love my work enough that it makes all of that feel manageable, most of the time. In all of this, I know how very fortunate I am, and I know this path is becoming more and more hard to follow for younger scholars. (One day, we may simply have to shut down the graduate school pipeline until the universities realize that adjunctification is no way to treat scholar/teachers or to educate students for our future.) If you decide to pursue a PhD, make sure you have a plan for yourself that includes multiple job plans and a willingness to think very creatively about your own future and how you will thrive.