With Their Eyes Wide Open: Guides to Graduate School and Beyond
Mary Ann Fitzwilson, December 1999
As recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Perspectives, Lingua Franca, and even the New York Times indicate, there is a crisis in academe, and especially in the humanities. The limited number of tenure-track jobs for a growing number of history PhDs, the exploitation of adjuncts, and unionization efforts by graduate students and part-time faculty all underscore deep, structural problems in academe.1
Many graduate students now working on their dissertations have grown disillusioned with academe and wonder if they were misled by rosy predictions of the job market back in the early 1990s. Most wish they had been better informed about the realities of graduate school and the job market not only at the beginning of their master's degree, but also throughout their programs of study. This article examines a number of guides and manuals that purport to help graduate students survive the process and to understand what being a graduate student entails—intellectually, financially, and psychologically. Although guide books cannot prepare students for every hurdle and hoop along the way to a history degree, a few books address the different stages of graduate study—the preparation involved in choosing departments and determining sources for funding before the MA, dealing with the hardships of years of graduate study, and advice on life and employment after the PhD. For those deciding to enter graduate school, or for graduate students who already feel like seasoned veterans, honest information about these topics can mean the difference between careful decisionmaking today and regret in the future.
Before the MA
For the prospective master's student concerned with the three big questions of whether to go, where to go, and how to pay for it, Robert L. Peters's book, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or a PhD (Noonday Press, 1992), provides a wealth of information. In a refreshingly honest and thorough manner, Peters covers every possible hurdle and experience, and includes frank discussions on the difficult nature of graduate study, how to choose a department and adviser, and how to apply to graduate school and for financial aid.
For example, for those students who might approach a master's degree with too much idealism and too little realism, Peters warns that although book smarts are a necessary component to successfully completing a degree, "you will also have to play a smart political game to maximize future job or academic options." He then gives advice on how to recognize and deal with departmental hierarchies, faculty egos, and intracommittee relationships. He also addresses the nature of graduate study, which often proves difficult and foreign. Peters cautions, "The work is harder, costs are high, and the chances of success uncertain. Your undergraduate friends will be gone, and the social environment will probably be neither as lively nor as supportive as when you were an undergrad. Particularly for PhD programs, the solitary nature of the work makes students feel isolated." And after assessing the average time-to-completion rates for every field, he warns, "Every year you spend in graduate school means a year without job experience or savings. It may mean that you will put off having children, or if you have them during graduate school, the financial and emotional strains will be greater. Before starting a PhD, try to look ahead and think about how it will feel to be five to ten years behind your peers in terms of finances and life stability." For current ABDs, the accuracy of this kind of advice sends chills up the spine. For incoming master's students, who are deciding whether or not to embark upon such a long, arduous, and uncertain path, it paints a clear picture of what to expect.
Finally, Peters gives detailed information on the application process, the various types of financial aid available to students, and what to expect in a master's program from the first year through the thesis defense. Although Peters's cautionary advice applies to incoming graduate students across disciplines, his advice concerning specifics such as degree requirements and qualifying exams is frequently broad and not applicable to students of history.
Another excellent resource for incoming graduate students is The Real Guide to Grad School: What You Better Know Before You Choose Humanities & Social Sciences (Lingua Franca Books, 1997), written by Lingua Franca editors Robert E. Clark and John Palattella. Offering more specific information for prospective history students than Peters, Clark and Palattella also give a more biting assessment of current problems in academe. The authors get straight to the point in the first sentences of the book. "No matter what your motivations," they write, "to decide to get a PhD in the humanities or social sciences in the late 1990s takes guts."
The Real Guide to Grad School is not so much a "how-to" manual as it is a frank and informative guide to the inner workings and expectations of graduate school. The authors give a year-by-year overview of what a student can expect, how graduate school differs from undergraduate work, and how the application and selection process works. The authors provide quotations from tenured faculty on what departments look for in candidates and what some professors believe are the problems with higher education today. For example, the debate over the relevancy of the apprenticeship model is discussed, as is the issue of teaching-assistant unionization. Thus Clark and Palattella do not sidestep the thorny problems in academe today and provide an accurate description of graduate school.
For students in history, perhaps the most informative chapters are located in the second part of the book, where Clark and Palattella examine fully each discipline in the humanities and social sciences. In the chapters on American and European history, the authors give an excellent account of the history profession in the United States, then offer a guide to current departments—complete with the names of top professors in each university.
For undergraduates who have only a hazy and tentative understanding of the profession, such detailed information can mean the difference between choosing the right graduate program and languishing for a year or more in the wrong department. They also list numerous books and articles for further reading, directing the readers to a wide range of topics and sources.
The Real Guide to Grad School and Getting What You Came For offer sound advice. An introduction to graduate school through these books might not be preferable to lengthy and honest discussions with an adviser or other students, but it's better than a gradual awareness after four years and thousands of dollars in student loans.
Surviving the PhD and Beyond
From my own experiences and from talking with other graduate students, the three biggest concerns for doctoral students are money, burnout, and the job market. Dealing with the psychological stress that accompanies the lack of funds to survive the dissertation stage and the slim chances of finding a teaching position after graduation is hard enough. When coupled with the isolating nature of ABD graduate work, the stress causes many students to suffer from depression, mental exhaustion, and disillusionment with the profession. In this final culling stage, some students persevere while others make the difficult decision to abandon the dissertation in search of a more secure future. A few of the guidebooks help prepare students for the long haul of the PhD process and the job market beyond graduation.
Peters's book, Getting What You Came For, discusses the psychological effects of the dissertation stage in a chapter entitled "Dealing with Stress and Depression." Of course, as the author makes quite clear, there are no "brilliant cure-alls, partly because the problems are inextricably part of graduate school." Yet there are ways in which students might recognize the symptoms and deal with them adequately. Peters suggests that students exercise, socialize on a regular basis, maintain a healthy perspective, and seek medical help if the situation becomes unmanageable. He even suggests a final solution to continuous stress and depression: leave graduate school, even though the decision will be painful and difficult. Students will appreciate his understanding that "graduate school is like holding a wolf by the ears—you don't like it, but you can't let go either."
Another resource for students at this stage in their careers is Melanie Gustafson's Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual for Women and Men, published by the American Historical Association in 1991. Although this booklet does not address the many psychological difficulties in finishing a PhD, it does provide some valuable information. In 90 pages, Gustafson attempts to cover every conceivable topic, such as choosing a dissertation topic, finding sources of funding, searching and interviewing for jobs, and "surviving the first year as a faculty member." A general lack of detail might make reading this book a frustrating experience, but Gustafson directs the reader to other publications that offer more detailed information.
Perhaps most helpful—though, again, lacking much explanation—is her suggestion that graduate students might want to broaden their career goals to include positions outside of academe. There is a small section in which Gustafson urges students to consider internships in museum work, state government, or journalism. In Chapter 6, "The Job Search," Gustafson gently reminds the recent graduate that employment prospects lie outside of the university as well as inside. She states, somewhat carefully, "Don't assume you must stay in the academic world as a professor. There are many other opportunities with museums and historical societies, for example, that you should consider. The career office will help you look into these possibilities." This is good advice, but not necessarily at such a late stage of the game. Overall, Gustafson does a good job presenting the basic steps toward becoming a professional historian, yet this career manual does not address the more subtle problems facing today's graduate students.
Similarly, Lesli Mitchell's The Ultimate Grad School Survival Guide (Peterson's, 1996) covers a host of topics that PhD students will find important—identifying funding opportunities, teaching, writing and defending a dissertation, getting published, and presenting papers at conferences. It offers a helpful list of possibilities for those who do not want a job in academe, and includes advice about how to view certain skills as transferable and how to market them in resumes and interviews. Throughout the book, Mitchell includes wonderful anecdotes from graduate students about their own experiences with advisers, academic politics, and teaching. Mitchell's book, while not offering specific advice for students of history, is nonetheless a humorous and somewhat helpful general guide.
Guide Books for Women Students
Graduate school guide books are woefully inadequate when it comes to the particular concerns of women students. Robert Peters and Melanie Gustafson touch briefly upon sex discrimination; Clark and Palattella ignore it completely; and Mitchell's book contains only one small reference to the hazards of dating an adviser. No guides adequately address the difficult situations women graduate students face, such as dating within academe, postponing marriage and children, or balancing graduate work with family responsibilities. Men might wrestle with these same concerns, but as everyone knows, they do so to a lesser extent. Moreover, the biological clock and the demands of family caretaking are real and pressing issues for many women students (although few seem willing to discuss these concerns openly with colleagues for fear of discrimination and not being viewed as a serious scholar). I was able to find only one graduate school guide for women: Barbara Rittner and Patricia Trudeau's The Woman's Guide to Surviving Graduate School (Sage Publications, 1997). Part of Sage Publications' series, Surviving Graduate School, this book promises to be a "refreshing but realistic guidebook" for women considering an advanced degree. Unfortunately, the authors mostly offer inane advice, such as how to navigate parking lots and to determine the appropriate wardrobe according to climate. Their book seems to be directed toward older students who have decided to get an advanced degree in the social sciences and does not seem to offer much, if any, relevant advice for women in their late 20s who are struggling with the twin tasks of forging a successful career in academe and starting a family.
The Road to Success
Guidebooks to graduate school should be only one means for students to understand exactly what they're getting into, given that a PhD might point to such a bleak future. Creating department-level seminars or roundtable discussions and encouraging attendance at the AHA's annual meeting would prove much more meaningful ways to introduce prospective graduate students to current realities.
And graduate students can also take matters into their own hands. At Georgia State University, for example, a small group of ABD students created the Association of Georgia State University Historians (AGSUH) to counteract the lack of direction from faculty. Through roundtable discussions on pedagogy, publishing, building c.v.'s, and peer review sessions before conferences, this organization offers invaluable help in developing the skills needed to become a professional historian. Moreover, in sessions aimed at undergraduates who are considering graduate school, AGSUH members and invited faculty paint a realistic picture of the job market.
Undoubtedly there are similar organizations that offer such crucial aid and direction, but more history faculty should warn students about the job market and provide information about alternative careers in history. Only by acting collectively to seek structural solutions to the present crisis will the history profession begin to stem the growing tide of bitterness and regret felt by graduate students. While there are a few excellent guides, students should not have to rely on them for their first acquaintance with reality, nor should graduate study merely be a matter of survival, with the end result being the question: "Survival for what?"
—Mary Ann Fitzwilson, PhD candidate in American history at the University of Missouri at Columbia and recipient of the Margaret Storrs Grierson Award, is writing a dissertation about university sex surveys of the 1920s. She wishes to thank Kristine Stilwell, Bennett Witt, Jennifer Erickson, and Bonnie Shapero for their helpful suggestions and honest advice.
1. For more information on the crisis in the humanities, see Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt, Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education (New York: Routledge, 1999), especially 84–98 and 197–211; Robert Townsend, "1998 Job Market Report: Retirements Create More Opportunities but Job Gap Remains," Perspectives (January 1999): 3, 22–4; Robert Townsend, "AHA Surveys Indicate Bleak Outlook in History Job Market" Perspectives (April 1997): 7–9, 11–13; and David Montgomery, "The 'Invisible' History Faculty," OAH Newsletter (May 1999): 3.