These quotes are some of the responses made on the Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation. The quotes are sorted by discipline. You can see the response from other disciplines. These quotes supplement an article of advice for selecting a doctoral program. Students responded to the question: "Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give others entering or in the early years of graduate school? "
The quotes are sorted into six categories. Generally, there are a half dozen comments per category, the alternating colors are different student's comments. These categories were applied by us, as we read through the thousands of comments. They are the most common categories of advice pertaining to the selection of a doctoral program. The frequency with which various kinds of advice emerged varies by discipline. You can see the relative distribution here.
31.8% of the English students surveyed offered advice about this topic.
Only go to graduate school if you have a clear sense of purpose, a clear sense of what your work is about. Donít go simply because you donít have a sense of what else you might do. If you don't know why youíre going to grad school and what sort of work (at least roughly) you're going to do once you get there, don't go. Wait until you know. Being a doctoral student isnít like being an undergrad, only more so. Itís a massive commitment of time and a guaranteed sentence of poverty. It is, arguably, no way for a self-respective grown-up to live. Moreover, the rewards are extremely uncertain.
Be sure you can cope with it financially, and don't expect anything to be smooth, easy, or without great sacrifice. I have almost no sense of peer support and--definitely--the faculty simply use us to stave off the work they should be doing. Because grad school draws in a workforce of eager and highly-qualified people, the faculty need not take any steps to ease the problems that the grad student encounters. Grad students allow faculty members to pursue their pet projects and are not at all rewarded for their efforts.
I, however, must make a distinction. While I regret the terrible state of academic life for graduate students, I do not regret going to grad school. In part because of faculty indifference and in part because of the better aspects of grad school, I have myself lived a decade knee-deep in rich and complex intellectual pursuits. These experiences may not lead to a job, but I have had them. I can read and think and write all day and for that I will always be thankful. Grad school will allow you to grow intellectually even if you must do it in isolation.
All entering students should assiduously research the schools they are considering, and should be absolutely sure that they are interested in their field and in earning a Ph.D., whether or not doing so leads to any further career advancement. For most people, I would say that a Ph.D. in the humanities probably should not be undertaken, especially without an extremely clear understanding of the financial and professional difficulties thereof.
Just be sure that you're there because you want to be and not to get a job.
Don't go to grad school in English with the sole goal of getting a teaching job. Only go if you want to fulfill a personal goal, if the means is the end. You will be disappointed otherwise!
If you want to be a professor, being a great teacher is not enough (actually it doesn't matter at all), only research/scholarly skills and achievements can secure you a teaching job in this field (paradoxically and wrongfully so!).
Know what you are getting into! I did not expect many of the personal challenges of graduate school, in terms of time commitment (6 years for Master's and Ph.D. work) and how different my life would be from others I know who did not go to graduate school. The delayed gratification of graduate school (not getting a permanent job or starting a family until later in life) was a surprise to me. However, I have greatly enjoyed my time in grad school, and I know that grad school has made me a vastly different person than I was when I first began my program of study.
Make sure you're focused and committed; it can be lonely and isolating particularly after you've completed exams and coursework. Many students seem to lose their momentum at this point and have difficulty finishing.
Make sure you are clear on funding, whether you will be supported throughout; and find out if funding has been cut over the years.
I think I would just be very frank about the pressures and sacrifices of graduate school. My intention would not be to be cruel, but I would want to disillusion them, basically, of any romantic notions they might have. On the other hand, I would also give them advice to try and keep hold of the (often idealistic and excited) reasons they elected to attend graduate school. There are plenty of difficult days (years!), and it can help to remind yourself of what this all used to mean to you and still does at times.
Know that an English Ph.D. commonly takes seven or more years to complete, not the five I was expecting.
If you go to grad school because you love studying (your field), beware, graduate school is not designed to foster that passion, but rather to train you for a career in academia. During my first two years of coursework, when I was being ďforcedĒ to study things I wasn't as interested in, I lost the passion for literature that I had had upon matriculation. Many people I know left grad school for this reason. What I found helpful was the realization that those early years are a kind of intensive ďtraining camp,Ē where you learn to revise your vision of the field and see it as a professional, a scholar rather than a student.
Grad school is a place for self-starters. It is often very isolating and for many (actually everyone, I think) it affects their self-esteem, self-respect and general overall view of life. Academia is not, as if often assumed, free of petty locker-room talk or competitiveness or even slander. It has its problems just like any other profession. In short, you need a strong sense of yourself and your goals (as well as your options) before you get to grad school. It is not for the faint-hearted.
Recognize that, whatever one's career goals are, graduate school is about the dissemination, creation, and sharing of knowledge. It is not 13th grade.
Donít do a Ph.D. in the humanities--not because the learning experience is not worthwhile, but because the profession is so troubled--even those who succeed have to make unhealthy sacrifices to do so, and academia inculcates students with the idea that the real world is too coarse for them, thus preventing them from making the discovery that their insane sacrifices are not worth it. Of course this is easy for me to say, having spent my 20ís reading and hanging around, not at an office.
I would advise students in the humanities to make sure that they want to enter a doctoral program since about 55% of people in my field don't get tenure-track jobs.
Donít enter a doctoral program unless they were fully funded for the majority of the estimated time to degree.
24.3% of the English students surveyed offered advice about this topic.
Choose a program that is both rigorous and humane.
Make sure you receive a broad education covering all of the sub-fields of your discipline during your undergraduate education. It's often too late to fill in gaps later, and a broader knowledge of my entire field would have helped in my first year.
Talk to faculty about what graduate school entails.
Find out about course requirements and funding commitments ahead of time
Find out which sub-fields particular schools have focused on.
Research grad schools seriously before committing to a particular school. In particular, try to find a school that can best serve your plans and goals as a scholar/teacher. For instance, I knew from the start that I wanted to teach at a small, preferably church affiliated, liberal arts college, but when I was looking at potential programs, I didn't consider what kind of institution would best train me for that kind of school. I focused too much on the overall reputation of the university and the "names" of faculty in the department and not enough on the department's commitment to pedagogical training. Perhaps this advice is more important for those who know they want to teach at small liberal arts colleges or community colleges.
Ask yourself how much you truly want a doctorate in English and why do you want it. Would you be willing to endure the time and life sacrifices to obtain the degree, knowing that a tenure track job may not be the result? I would still want the opportunity of further education for it's own sake, but I know that this is not true of everyone.
Be very aware of the number of years and the level of commitment that your program will take, as well as the very distinct reality that graduate students in the humanities will not be able to find satisfying jobs in the academy after completion of their degrees.
Be aware of the hermeticism of the academic world and the extent to which the institution reproduces itself by denigrating not only other professions (i.e., we are better, smarter, purer than other jobs) but also the people in those professions. Graduate school is an extraordinarily isolating experience. One should also really ask oneself about what types of social and professional roles they are suited for/admire before entering one as hermetic as that of the university.
Research available programs carefully. Then research the faculty. Then call the program to ask for students you can call to ask about the program.
Choose a school where TA-ships are available to all grad students.
Choose a school where mentoring is a established process.
Be prepared to be aggressive about financial support and especially funding available to dissertation writing.
Know why you've chosen your field of interest, because it will be your determination to get you through graduate school. Very few people finish without determination, and encouragement from others would be helpful.
Get as much recent information as possible on placement of recent doctoral graduates from your program, how long it takes for average completion of degree, how much money (are student loans necessary), cost of living in area. Be as knowledgeable as possible about your professional and financial prospects in their particular program. This, of course, is also dependent on the will or ability of the program itself to track and furnish that information.
Spend a lot of time researching the program you are considering. Figure out what fields tend to be privileged and which faculty are tenured, as much as you can about levels of advising, and make sure to talk to many different students (both in and out of the field you are considering).
Talk with other grad students just finishing to ascertain their perspectives on the whole ordeal.
Look up statistics on faculty turnover, percentage of students who finish the Ph.D., recent dissertations, support in publishing and in writing, for a Ph.D. is essentially a license to write, not a certificate of finished knowledge--but writing is never taught as an intellectual enterprise.
Find out if faculty in one sect or program despise the other.
Find the average and mean length of years to finishing and the percentage of students who actually get hired within one year of finishing.
Find out if there is a grad student esprit de corps, a sense that we are in this together--that will tell you, indirectly but accurately, if there is a sense of collegiality among faculty. If there is not, don't go if you are expecting to learn what to do; go only if you have a research plan already in place, titles of articles you can write and/or have written, and a rough sense of your dissertation topic and a bibliography already shaping in your mind. In other words, don't go into a political mess if you expect to develop as a learner and scholar and writer.
Know in advance why you have chosen to enter grad school; also, what your expectations are; also, know what you want to study, even if, say, in course selection, you pick a lot of electives.
Do everything you can, *before* you decide on which program/university to enter, to ensure that you will be funded for as much of your degree as is possible.
The culture of a department, between/among students and faculty, is very crucial to your well-being, and directly impacts on the quality of the work that you do, and even on the interest that you will ultimately have in your field/discipline. A significant factor affecting this departmental culture is the economic pressure it feels it is under, in relation to the rest of the university, and of the university to its funders.
For me it was a surprise to find that grad school and my own intellectual development and life are two separate things. Grad school involves students in coursework and projects which, when successful, earn them an advanced degree. That is all. I wish I had been more mercenary and practical, less dreamy, naÔve and idealistic; as an entering grad student my hopes and expectations were off base.
33.5% of the English students surveyed offered advice about this topic.
Know exactly what you want out of your degree. If it's a career in academia, take time to assess the possibility of never finding a full-time position. Will the degree still be valuable to you if you don't get the teaching job you hope for? What else might you gain from your grad program?
If you're not absolutely sure you're in the place you want to be, with a strong support network around you, think about alternative career paths once you reach the masterís level. The rewards, at least in the humanities, are not commensurate with the pay we receive, nor job prospects, nor the sacrifices we make to get the Ph.D.
Knowing everything that I know now, I would recommend that the number of available slots in graduate school would be so small that there wouldn't be any need for more advice. Graduate school in the humanities is a low-rent economic and employment system that is in crisis. It demands far more graduate students than it can possibly support as full-time career teachers. The job itself is too demanding for the pay scale. The emotional environment is often terrible, often much worse than real world jobs (in many of which I have worked, before, during, and after grad school). Grad school does create expectations that the professors have to know in some sense are false. If there are 17 people admitted each year and only 2 to 3 jobs being found, there is a problem.
Consider carefully the state of the academic profession before spending years in penury as a graduate student. If there's anything else you would be happy doing, do it. If you decide to stay in the graduate program, do it--quickly. If there's anything you would be happy doing with your graduate degree besides being a college/university faculty member, do it.
Keep non-academic career options open. Use summer vacations and winter breaks to explore career opportunities and to develop life skills rather than use the time off simply in academic pursuits.
I would strongly advise students who plan to pursue teaching careers to have a Plan B in case they cannot get an academic job or if they should decide that academia just isn't what they really want after all. Holing up in a Ph.D. program in the humanities is the perfect way to insulate yourself from alter- native career opportunities. Faculty members in my program acknowledge that there is a job shortage and make this clear to incoming students, but do precious little else to encourage students to consider just what else they might be good for outside the ivory tower. The longer I'm in this program the more burned out on academia I become and the more I wish I had done more to prepare myself for alternatives outside of college/university teaching.
The job market is very bad in the humanities, and although many incoming students are vaguely aware of this fact, I think more should be done to really let people know the current state of employment in academia. I don't think it is wise to go into a Ph.D. program unless you are really committed to a long job search (3-5 years at least), and the possibility that you won't ever get a job in your field. I would still have made the choice I did, but I think a lot of students are fully aware of the realities of the academic world when they enter graduate school. They just know that they are good at being students and want to continue being students.
Carefully research job opportunities in the field before you invest so much time and lost income. Be a good consumer--what is the department's placement record? How do they help students get jobs? Most people get Ph.D.ís because they love teaching and/or research and expect a career in it. That's not the case for a large percentage of Ph.D.'s--even from ďtop 10Ē schools. Departments need to take more responsibility for this: being clear about the situation during recruitment, lowering the number of incoming students, etc.
23.8% of the English students surveyed offered advice about this topic.
I would not advise anyone to enter this field generally. I especially would not advise anyone to enter graduate school in English unless they have a commitment to 5 years of funding. (Ideally of course one would get 6, and some of that in fellowships, but let's be realistic...)
If they still were committed to going, I would advise being very aggressive in researching outside sources of fellowship funding to supplement teaching awards.
Don't go to a school without a tuition waiver; investigate local cost of living and teaching stipend/salary.
I would encourage students in the humanities to go to grad school only if they are fully funded-- particularly programs where everyone is funded. Be prepared to have no money anyway.
Avoid taking loans for grad school in the humanities.
Don't go to graduate school on your own penny--find funding, reapply, or don't go.
16.0% of the English students surveyed offered advice about this topic.
Pick your advisor based at least in half on his/her record as an advocate on the job market and his/her record on moving people through (while maintaining high standards). Do not pick an advisor who is hands-off about deadlines. Youíll be in trouble--I've seen too many unhappy graduate students in their n-th years with advisors who are practitioners of benevolent neglect. Avoid large egos.
There are some great faculty out there. Seek them out when choosing professors. To work with, value a good teacher who cares about students over the latest hot theorist -- even the big shots can't do much for your career in these troubled times, and often (although not always) the best profs aren't the biggest names.
Select a dissertation chair who can be supportive of the "process," not one who only thinks in terms of "product," one who can care and encourage your growth as a full person, not just as a scholar, one who is nurturing, not one who thrives on conflict, status, and power.
Select a department in which the faculty take time for mentoring the students, a department where there is a true community of scholars rather than just a group of individuals competing against each other.
Find faculty members you can get along with, if not like, with similar interests and develop a relationship. Although the best relationships grow on their own, you should aggressively seek out opportunities and people that can help you in your program. Professors will rarely seek you out or take notice of you of their own accord.
Enter a program with at least two faculty that you plan to work with and to develop a relationship with them as soon as possible. Also, to check with the department about faculty retirement and hiring so that you don't enter a department only to have your advisor(s) leave or planning on leaving.
Choose your advisor very carefully and talk to other students who have worked with her/him about their experience with her/him. Try to find someone who you can really enjoy working with, who you respect, and who respects you. That's more important than working with a big name who will not treat you well and make it more difficult to finish your degree. Don't allow yourself to be infantilized by faculty members or your fellow graduate students. Youíre an adult. Act like one and expect to be treated like one. Don't calmly suffer abuse or exploitation.
8.7% of the English students surveyed offered advice about this topic.
Take some time off before grad school.
Get some real world professional experience prior to graduate school.
Do a terminal MA first, this provides opportunities to be more certain about research and commitment.
Definitely take time off before going to grad school, and be positive that you are dedicated to your studies.
Consider taking time off before enrolling in a graduate program because people who have taken time off usually have a clearer sense of direction, a better support system outside the program, more confidence in themselves and finish more quickly.
Quotes from other disciplines. | Article of advice for selecting a doctoral program | Distribution of quotes in all fields. | Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.