A Letter to a Very Good Student Contemplating Graduate School

Every semester I find it more difficult to enthusiastically encourage students to pursue their dream of a Ph.D in history. You hope to become a professor some day, but the odds are long. I need to you to know that. This is no reflection on your talents, which I respect enormously. The job market is terrible, and I do not expect it to ever get better. Our work is neither valued nor understood by too many of our legislative leaders, which is a big deal for those of us who work in public higher education. Some of us work at institutions , like one I visited a while back in Missouri, where even the administrative leadership is entirely clueless about history and the liberal arts, and they luxuriate in their ignorance. Graduate school will consume some important years of your life when you might easily be doing something else that is more financially remunerative. Graduate school can be stressful. At its worst it can be demoralizing, depressing, and humiliating. It can beat you up.

It did all those things to me.

Yet, I loved my time in graduate school. I know it sounds crazy to say that. I feel immense gratitude to so many people who helped me along the way. I had a free ride with generous financial support, so I graduated without loans. I was very lucky. I had a fantastic cohort of fellow students, and I found in them incredibly important friendships and a mass of support. I look forward to seeing them when our travels put us in roughly the same location, whether that is a conference or merely passing through on an interstate highway. The professors with whom I worked, meanwhile, were fantastic, and I stay in touch with them to this day. I still draw upon them for advice. I know that I was one of the lucky ones. I found a tenure-track job right out of grad school. I have never worked as an adjunct. Admittedly my first job was at Hellhole State, but I was lucky again to find another tenure track job and escape. Things were so miserable at Hellhole State that I find it difficult to complain about things at my current college–I know how bad it can be elsewhere. I have been able to do my research, and teach basically whatever I want when I want. My teaching load is relatively light. I learned so much in graduate school.

And even with all this good luck, and how much I love what I do, I cannot be certain that I would be willing to pay the costs again. I want you to know that.

So when a bright and talented student like you asks me about graduate school, I am conflicted. Let’s say you have a kid someday and he tells you he wants to be a major league baseball player when he grows up. And he is pretty good. Great in little league, star of his high school team. You take him to private hitting lessons and travel ball tournaments. You encourage him, knowing full well that the odds of him making it to the majors are remote at best. If he loves baseball, and that is really what he wants to with his life, how can you not encourage him?

Sometimes I feel the chances of landing a tenure track job at a college or university where you will be happy are only slightly less daunting than making it to the Major Leagues and, unlike baseball, sometimes it has nothing to do with how good you are at your chosen profession. Academia is not a meritocracy. If your professors are honest with themselves, they will admit that this is true: there are many people out there with Ph.D. degrees in history who could do our jobs just as well as we do, but owing to the unfairness or bad luck, or macroeconomics, or a multitude of other forces, they never got the chance.

So I make sure a prospective graduate student like you understands the realities of the job market. Not just that “it’s bad,” but why it is bad, and why it is unlikely to improve.

I want you to understand that you should not take out loans if possible: if a graduate school is not willing to support you financially, it is not worthy of your talents. This is, of course, easier said than done, but given the state of the academic job market, I have to warn students about going into debt for a graduate degree that will tax them physically, financially, and perhaps emotionally.

There are some people you will meet who will tell you that your work is not good enough: one important way to avoid this trap is to never underestimate your self-worth and your value to an institution.

For me, there was enormous exhilaration that came with doing research, but not all graduate students feel like that at the end of their programs. Burn-out is real.

And consider this: the job does not always go to the hardest working or the most creative or innovative graduate student. Sometimes it goes to the person from an elite institution, or the person with an extraordinarily well-connected advisor at a college with a prestigious name, no matter how much that college seems in reality to be resting on its past laurels. Never, ever underestimate how elitist academia can be.

I hope you will think about these questions:

What is it about history that you love and how do you see pursuit of a Ph.D helping you with that?

How disappointed would you be if you did not find a job as a college professor? What else do you love doing, and might having a Ph.D help you achieve those alternative goals? (These cannot be considered “Plan B” options. I want you to think more broadly than the academy. When you finish you will have skills in research and writing, and a lot of knowledge. You will want to think creatively about how these skills can help you put food on the table and a roof over your head).

What do you think it is that professors do for a living? When you watch us, you may see the joy we take in teaching, and you may read about our scholarship and exciting research, but you may know nothing of committee meetings, scrounging for dollars to support research and travel, and the endless administrivia.

How important is it that you get to choose where you live? How important is it to be close to where you grew up, your friends, your family, and, perhaps, a significant other who may end up living someplace else? How adaptable do you see yourself: If you have lived your whole life in, say, western New York like my students, or in Southern California

In the Service of Clio: Blog CCXIII (213): Life in Hell Again
Though it need not be this bad an experience, it can actually take much more than four years.

like me, would you find it difficult to live in Texas or Billings, Montana, or some place that is so cold and snowy that you feel like you landed on the Ice Planet Hoth, or so hot and humid it makes your ears ring?

How do you envision your life five or ten years down the road? Do you want to have a family? Is it important to you to have the means to buy a house? Mind you, you can do all these things in graduate school if you have support and good luck, but I can tell you it is difficult. Do you have hobbies or other activities in which you engage which are so meaningful to you that it would be hurtful if you had to give them up? Do you like to surf? Or go see punk bands? Because that job in South Dakota may demand of you some important sacrifices. If you are in a relationship, and you want to keep that relationship going, your answers to these questions will inevitably affect your partner, too. Graduate school can be hard on relationships. You will be reading a lot. You will be writing a lot. Chances are you will need to be by yourself more than you ever have before. Are you comfortable being alone? You will have friends in graduate school, I hope, and they will nurture and nourish you, but it can be hard.

If you want to do this, I am happy to support you. I am honored to write a letter of recommendation in your behalf. If I have friends in the department to which you are applying, I will reach out to them and share my high regard for your talents. Do your research. Who are the best historians in the field that interests you, and do they work at a Ph.D granting institution? Write to that person, share your interests, and see if they are interested in working with you. Do they encourage you to apply or is their response lukewarm or uninterested. If it is possible to visit, or Zoom, or get to know them better, it might be worth an effort. That advisor will brag about your work if it is good, and the university to which you apply will benefit from your labor if you end up working for them as a teaching assistant. Do not be shy about investigating and interviewing your prospective teachers. Your advisor will be an important person in your life for the next few years. At the same time, remember, despite our howls of protest, that we to tend easily towards elitism. Remember that. I do not want you applying for a Ph.D at Slackjaw State University. People will judge you for it. I was once on a search committee with a Harvard Ph.D, who would not consider anyone from the South. It is wrong, totally, but you need to be aware of all that is wrong with this profession.

You were an immensely talented student. It was a joy to have you in my classes. I learned from teaching you. You have all the talent to succeed in graduate school. We would not be having this exchange if I did not feel that way. Knowing what I know of you, and what I have seen over the past four years at my college, you would make a fantastic college professor. I will do all I can to help you, and I encourage you to reach out to all of us who taught you here if you need help or encouragement. We will celebrate your successes and we are willing to buoy you up when you confront obstacles. You have a lot to think about. Eyes wide open, you know? I want you have a good understanding of what you are getting into. Remember always that you are always so more than what people think of your work, but that those of us here who knew you as an undergraduate are looking forward to celebrating each and every success you enjoy. It is a big decision. It cannot hurt to apply and see what opportunities present themselves to you. We got your back.

9 thoughts on “A Letter to a Very Good Student Contemplating Graduate School”

  1. All of that is exactly right. When you look at me, and want to do what I do, you need to KNOW just how uniquely lucky I was. Just the right intervention at just the right time by just the right people, PLUS my own hard work. You have to have both.

  2. But what about an intermediate step of an M.A. in History? Has the Master’s degree lost all of its value? Why not advise the interested student to pursue her Master’s degree first before continuing on for a Ph.D.? The research and skills acquired in a good Master’s program may help the student discern if they want to pursue further graduate work, or head off in a new direction.
    And lets not forget that there many opportunities for the advanced history graduate outside of academia. In my former field as an investigator it was learned after a lengthy national survey of employees and managers that history graduates made the best investigators and were the most valued. (Accountants came in at the bottom according the UC Davis study.)
    Recently I had the opportunity to talk with a young lady who was finishing her M.A. in History at the U.of R. who confided that she turned down the opportunity to complete her Ph.D. and had found an opportunity offered to her that would utilize her graduate school skills and was a well compensated position.
    Again, my question remains, is the Ph.D. the only viable alternative to the bright young history major who wants to pursue graduate school?

  3. Michael,
    I often read your blog posts, but rarely comment.

    This post, in particular, was one of my favorites.

    You provide excellent advice/guidance.

    I’d also encourage your students to consider alternative fields of study…
    To evaluate opportunities to utilize transferable skills…
    To consider taking a year or two to obtain work/life experience.

    Your post allowed me to reminisce…
    To reflect…
    To confirm that while I could have obtained a Ph.D in History…
    My chosen path was the correct one for me…

    My time at Geneseo–a BA in History & minor in Africana studies–taught me to…
    Think critically.
    Research thoroughly.
    To write well.

    My time at Geneseo prepared me for…
    Graduate school…where I obtained a Masters in Education.
    My career…in Health Care administration.
    Volunteer activities and service on numerous nonprofit Boards.

    Your students should…
    Consider their options.
    Heed your advice.
    Make an informed decision…based upon their analysis of the facts.

    The skills that they learned in your classes…
    In the History department…
    In their liberal arts education…
    Will serve them well…
    Both in making the decision…
    And on their chosen path.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Jen. I do not have all the answers, but I hope I can help students make some tough decisions and prepare for them with eyes wide open. I am glad things have worked out for you in the choices you made, and we (the people in my department who were around when you were and with whom I speak) are proud to call you a Geneseo alum.

  4. A second thought. What advise, Michael, do you give students studying to be secondary education history/social studies educators? While there is a shortage of qualified secondary school teachers throughout the United States, History teachers still appear to be the bastard stepchild of public education in many places.
    As you know, New York State now requires a Master’s degree for permanent teaching certification. Are History majors being encouraged to go to graduate school before searching the job market? Do you know if having a Master’s degree is a help or hindrance for those entering the job market for the first time? And what about those few History Ph.D.’s who end up teaching at the secondary level, where the pay and benefits are often much better than at the college level?
    This country needs good high school History teachers. Unfortunately many states treat History as an after thought and secondary to the STEM courses. The result is what we are seeing today with a country divided and millions of Americans unable to tell the difference between truth and lies, and totally ignorant about their own government and our nation’s history. I don’t know about the current job market, but years ago most postings for Social Studies/History teaching positions carried a caviet that the applicant must be qualified to coach sports also. I never saw that requirement in postings for science or math teachers. Such has been the sad attitude about the area of study that is most valuable to good citizenship and critical thinking.
    When giving advise to excellent students, as you have done very well in this blog, consider asking these students how willing to follow their passion are they to consider options other than eventually securing a college/university professorship. Having received one of the last M.A.’s in History from SUNY Geneseo (1976), I can assure you that those extra years of graduate school were not wasted in spite of the fact I did not end up teaching until decades later – and after retiring from a government career, and earning an M.Div. degree.
    Excellent History students have the ability to utilize their skills, and education, in many way, especially when boosted by graduate degrees, that can shape the future and become what are now called influencers. Your brutishly honest assessment of graduate school may be on the money, but a beautiful mind , while warned of the pitfalls, should be planted with rich nourishment and grown to its full potential.

    1. I agree with all of this, Jim. In the instance I wrote about here, I was responding to a very specific situation: a student who was considering a Ph.D degree in hopes of becoming a professor some day.

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