TFD has recently featured articles from grads about whether or not they use their degrees and from a recent STEM PhD about the value of her diplomas. Now here is the honest truth from someone who got their humanities PhD.
My MA and PhD are in art history, which is one of those fields that tend to be the butt of jokes, which almost always elicits questions like, “what are you going to do with that?” or, “so you teach people to draw, huh?” It tends to be viewed as a luxury field, one without much practical value. And while there are certainly individuals who study art history that do live luxurious lives—Kate Middleton anyone?—it is also, like all fields, filled to the brim with students who finance their educations through student loans and graduate without defined career paths other than the notion that they might like to ~work in a museum~.
A frequent destination for humanities undergrads is grad school. A MA or a PhD seems, at first glance, to be the key to getting an actual job related to your dream field, whether that’s art history, philosophy, or comp lit. But, it is entirely possible to graduate with those extra letters behind your name or the right to call yourself Dr. without any more career direction than you had after your BA. You might’ve begun the process thinking you’d like to teach—wouldn’t it be amazing to be a professor?!—but the reality is those positions are so few and far between that the likelihood of landing one is nearly the equivalent of getting struck by lightning (for example, last year in my specialty there were five tenure-track professor jobs posted the entire year in the entire USA. Five in total. Each one received hundreds of applicants). The reality is university staff jobs and non-profits are littered with over-educated humanities MAs and PhDs, who can read in four languages but spend their time doing data-entry or answering phones.
A humanities PhD is no longer the ticket to summers off and years of deep thinking on esoteric subjects. And while I now work in one of those aforementioned university staff jobs and will almost certainly never be a professor or curator, I still think my PhD was worth it. Here’s why:
It gave me the chance to see the world. This of course depends on your field of study, but since I specialized in the Italian Renaissance, I got to go to Italy every summer for research trips and was lucky enough to spend a year in Rome on a fellowship. While living abroad is not always sunshine and roses, that time in Italy was invaluable to me. Every single humanities PhD student I know—even ones who study American topics—has traveled in service of their research.
I learned a few incredible and very practical skills. Humanities PhDs spend nearly all their time reading and thinking about the things they’ve read. That means their critical thinking skills are out of this world. This intensive level of study grants you the perspective to view issues, articles, even TV shows from multiple view-points and with a critical eye. But you also learn other practical skills. For example, I overcame my fear of public speaking. When I started grad school I was fearful of presenting in front of two people, let alone a whole class. After teaching for five years in classes that ranged from ten students to two hundred, I no longer fear public speaking. At this point I actually enjoy it.
You meet a lot of thoughtful, interesting people. Not everyone you meet in grad school will be great, and there can be a lot of competition. Like any situation in life, not everyone will be your best friend, but it’s almost 100% guaranteed that everyone there will be interesting. I loved when I got to grad school, and I was surrounded by people who were all into reading, travel, and really passionate about art. While academics aren’t always renowned for their social skills, they’ll almost always be thrilled to talk about their research. Even the most seemingly random, out-there topics can be super compelling when the person telling you about them is really into it.
While I still think my PhD was worth it, after surviving seven years of grad school (and that was fast, lots of people go for eight to ten years!), there are a few things I would want anyone considering a humanities PhD to know:
If you’re not independently wealthy or have parents who can fund your life, taking on extra student loans for degrees that won’t necessarily result in increased job prospects is a huge financial risk. Grad school makes the most financial sense if the school pays for you to do it through tuition remission, fellowships, teaching or research assistance-ships or other means. In fact I would go so far as to say ONLY go to grad school if the school is going to pay you to be there.
While in many ways grad school has a lot of perks including flexible schedules, summers off, studying the things you love, it is also very stressful. Frequently, you don’t know if you’ll have funding for the next academic year until April or May; you’re in competition with your classmates for attention, grants, publications, and teaching positions. You’re dedicating all of your time and energy studying something that not many people know or care about; even if you are a fellow or a TA and your education is paid for, you will likely have very, very little money. It will also seem like your non-grad school friends are leaving you in the dust with their house-buying and kid-having. Every grad school student I know shows signs of depression varying from mild to severe. Luckily, most schools have free mental health services which I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with ASAP.
Once you graduate if you aren’t able to find a job in your field, you might have to spend a lot of time writing cover letters and going on interviews explaining away your extra degrees. Very few jobs outside of academia require a PhD, and the conventional wisdom is such that those that have PhDs are “over-qualified” for most positions, would get bored quickly, or would only stay until they got that coveted professorship. When you’re applying for jobs that only require a BA, you have to figure out fast how to explain that yes, although you have that MA or PhD you ARE actually interested in doing mail merges or pivot tables and NO, your head isn’t still stuck in a Roman archive.
Humanities grad school can be insanely rewarding. But it is not a direct path to a guaranteed career. It’s not even an indirect path to a guaranteed career. At this point, it’s best to think of it as a few years focusing on a subject you love, mixed with some travel, some fascinating people, and the ability to gain some useful skills. And for me, that was enough.
Brenna Graham is an art history PhD writing and working in Wisconsin. She chronicles her travel adventures on her blog.
Image via Flickr