Going to Grad School

I have been neglecting posting links to other articles (“scribbles”), but here is a short (ok, not so short) round up (I briefly comment at the end as well) of a very interesting week of blog posts about deciding whether or not to go to graduate school and proposed reforms to graduate school.

Larry Cebula’s “No, you cannot be a Professor” provides an overview of some of the main reasons that students ought not to go to graduate school.

The reason you are not going to be a professor is because that job is going away, and yet doctoral programs continue to produce as many new Ph.D.s as ever. It is a simple calculation of odds–you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.

While his reasons are valid, graduate students have (hopefully) heard this before. I received similar warnings when I talked to professors as an undergraduate about graduate school and there are numerous other jeremiads about graduate school.

Holger Syme offered a nice response to Cebula’s post, saying, “Yes, You Can Be a Professor”.

I don’t mean to suggest that the academic job market isn’t really so bad. But Cebula’s blanket “don’t go to grad school” advice is extraordinarily short sighted — both as a guideline for students and as a strategy for academic humanists.

While a more optimistic view (and one equally valid), Syme’s post only contributes to the “Don’t Go” vs. “Go” (or rather Go if…) debate. Undergraduates do need to hear this debate. Anyone taking the risk of entering graduate school needs to be informed. But, in terms of helping solve the structural problems facing academia, these posts add little to nothing.

Thankfully, a conversation proposing real reforms seems to be emerging. MLA President Russell Berman presented several concrete changes this week.

It’s time to proceed with a long overdue reform of humanities doctoral programs, not only to meet the current economic realities but also to respond to the intellectual changes of recent decades. We must start to work, in our departments, with higher education leaders and through foundations to reshape graduate education. Here are some key points.

To maintain a place for humanities doctoral education, we have to bring it in line with other professional programs and target a four-year time to degree.

We need to design a wider array of capstones to doctoral programs and to move beyond the traditional dissertation.

We should design graduate programs to provide the broad professional development and skills that, while central to an academic career, can also be transferred to other paths. Although some fortunate graduate students land tenure-track positions in research universities or liberal arts college, many do not.

T. Mills Kelly offers a similar proposal for history in “Shaving Years Off the PhD in History”:

I have a modest proposal for changing the PhD degree–a proposal that puts the onus on us rather than on our students or the administration. Assuming they come to us with an MA in history, doctoral students could follow a curriculum that includes:

Year 1-2
12 credits of course work
6 credits of advanced reading
Qualifying exams

Years 3-5
Dissertation research and writing

Bethany Nowviskie also proposes a bold reforms in “it starts on day one,” including killing the traditional “methods” course:

Kill them, that is, to clear room for something more highly evolved — or simply more fruitful — to take their place. Think: asteroids clobbering dinosaurs. Choking weeds ripped from vegetable gardens. The fuzzy little nothings and spindly cultivars in this scenario, squinting cautious eyes or uncurling new leaves into the light, are:

-those research methodologies and corpora (often but not exclusively gathered under the banner of the “digital humanities”) that address hitherto unanswerable questions about history, the arts, and the human condition;
-and the new-model scholarly communications platforms we can already recognize as promising replacements to our slow and moribund systems for credentialing and publishing humanities scholarship and archiving the cultural record on which it is based.

Yes, tough love is needed for undergraduates. Professors need to inform potential graduate students about the grim realities. But undergraduates are adults and once informed should be left to make a decision. Instead of trying to make up the minds of other people, we (academics) ought to give ourselves tough love. We need to admit the system is broken, find ways to fix it, and then push for those changes. Instead of worrying about students making the wrong choice about graduate school, we need to make a graduate school that can be a correct choice for the vast majority of the applicants, not just the lottery winners.

4 responses to “Going to Grad School”

  1. Agree completely with your thoughts summing it up. The same is true for law school. The current fad of articles about law school right now is to talk about why people shouldn’t apply to law school, how the system is deceiving, etc. Instead of telling people not to go to law school, people just need to be informed of the realities of it. And the biggest problem that needs fixing is not people going to law school who shouldn’t but the fact that the system is incredibly broken and reliant on the traditional way of doing things.

    Instead of required courses about old feudal property law and the theories of punishment law schools need to teach people how to be lawyers in practice. Why is Criminal Law required but not Criminal Procedure? And since there is an extreme excess of lawyers, the solution is not telling people not to go to law school, but ensuring that those who do will have jobs. There needs to be limitations on the number of accredited law schools like they do for med schools. Limiting the number of law schools and providing real practical training would solve a lot of laws problems.


  2. […] Sarnacki has pulled together some of the recent discussion of grad school reform that has been taking place […]


  3. As a PhD candidate, I agree that the United States needs humanities education reform. Because PhD’s are becoming more that “just professors,” however, I disagree that we need to hammer out a “one size fits all” PhD program of study. I took two years of coursework, one year for exams and proposal development. I expect that my dissertation will take 3 years, predominantly because I need to pay my way through with adjunct teaching on the side. And, yes, I intend to become a “professor.”
    As a professor in training, I disagree with the idea that we should shave down course work, and I vehemently disagree with dropping historiographical methods. Professors need to understand the development and usefulness of the traditional methodological tools which, among other things, should provide us with the historical context of the field, encouraging our sense of contingency and change within historiography itself. Are we not, after all, all about “context”? Historical Methods should be one full year. The first semester should focus on traditional methods of study. The second semester should prepare us for the digital age of research and presentation. Further, we need to study the politics of the field, understand how the public views history, and how political leaders use it for social control. We need to understand archival management, so that we can interface with archivists as partners in historical preservation. Finally, as professors in training, we desperately need training in pedagogy. Two years of coursework, in my mind, is a bare minimum.
    Because I am focused on professorship, I have a better idea of what I will need to succeed. Because the history profession creates more than just professors, however, alternate/parallel forms of training could be useful as well. Perhaps the Ph.D. could have 2-3 qualifying distinctions, with an intention towards congeniality across the PhD’s, not hierarchy.


  4. […] blog post on the whole why you should/shouldn’t go to graduate school. I’ve harped on this before but I am so sick of hearing people talk about graduate school as if it’s a place that is only […]


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