So You Want to Go to Grad School? Part I: On Deciding to Apply

So you want to go to grad school? This post will be the first of a series offering advice to grad students. Some of the details may be particularly useful to students pursuing history degrees, especially food history. However, most of these tips are applicable for other humanities and social science degrees.

I would like to begin by echoing the words of journalist Mary Theresa Schmich, whose hypothetical commencement speech immortalized by Baz Lurhmman's song Everyone's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) reminds us to "Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it's worth." So take what's useful and leave the rest.

Before I applied to grad school, I didn't even know what grad school was all about. I am the first woman in my family to get a BA, let alone any form of graduate degree. I am forever indebted to Lorelle Semley, Courtney Fullilove, Javier Castro-Ibaseta, Jennifer Tucker, Lori Gruen, and Gary Shaw. These professors at Wesleyan University patiently explained the process of applying to grad school, told me what to expect, and wrote recommendation letters.

One of the first pieces advice I ever received about grad school was: Don't go to grad school!
Followed by-- Okay, so you still want to go to grad school in history or gender studies? You need to know first off that you probably won't get a tenure track job.

I want to echo that you shouldn't go to grad school expecting to get a tenure track job. Depending on your field, statistics vary BUT with universities cutting back on hiring for permanent positions in most departments and relying more on adjunct labor, as chronicled repeatedly (such as here and here), there are fewer jobs available.

There's also the chance that if you decide to leave academia after finishing your degree through your own volition or due to the fact that you did not get a post-doc or teaching gig that other employers might see you as overqualified and be wary of hiring someone with a PhD-- but again part of that has to do with how you market yourself.

And this cannot be emphasized enough: even if you do all the "right" things-- SO much of this process is up to chance and LUCK (not to mention systematic inequalities such as sexism, heterosexism, racism, and classism playing a role).

Grad school can be great!!! Again, you might have read articles about the high depression rates of grad students due to lack of university support, exploitation by universities (especially regarding teaching assistants and research assistants (especially if y'all aren't unionized)), and feelings of isolation. These facts are part of the truth.  But, the other part is: grad school can be wonderful!

I went to grad school for a mix of reasons. 

One of the major factors was that getting my MA in History and Women's and Gender Studies and later doing a PhD in History provided an avenue for me to answer questions that I wanted to explore. 

Grad school is great because:
1) you can explore a topic you care about in more depth

2) If you have funding (and you should only do a humanities and social science PhD if you have funding- either from your university or from a governmental funding body (in Canada this would be SSHRC on the federal level or your provincial funding agency)), you are getting paid to study what you want to study. How amazing is that?!!?! During my comprehensive exam year I read 200 books in 200 days! When else was I going to do that?! It was AMAZING! Hard- but amazing!?!

3) depending on your program, you can have a really flexible schedule. After you get through your course work (if you program requires any classes), your schedule will likely become even more flexible. I know that I can only be efficient writing for a few hours a day. I believe that it is pointless to sit at a desk "pretending to work" just because I felt like I should. I had TA duties that meant between office hours and class time I would have to be on campus around 6 hours a week-- I had a few research assistant-ships over the years- but generally the rest of my schedule was free. 

For me this meant that during my PhD, I would work a couple of hours a day on PhD stuff and spend the rest of my time: kayaking, skiing, hanging out with my dog, writing this blog, reading everything I wanted to, socializing with friends, traveling the world, brewing beer, and making a web comic. I coached the university women's lacrosse team for 3.5 years and two girls' lacrosse teams, donating around 250 hours + of time a year. I organized academic conferences, wrote a non-academic book, was invited to try out for Team Canada's World Cup team (so I trained a lot). I ran 7 days a week and also lifted. I did triathlons, studied new languages (like Norwegian!), went on dates, and I even simultaneously completed a certificate in Graphic Design at a nearby university. 

The point is: I had a life. 

Sure, during the 11 months before I gave my draft to my committee I worked 7 days a week and worked long days (at some point you have to make a final push)-- but even during that I was able to organize 4 days of events for the 150th anniversary of Canadian Women's Lacrosse Celebrations while coaching, co-organized a conference on feminism and fermentation, wrote academic articles, taught a course on feminism and social justice studies,  TA'd 2 courses, and went to Alberta, BC (twice), Ireland, Croatia, and California. You figure out how to make it work.

And yes-- doing a PhD is hard. You are often isolated. You have to be good at managing your time. You have to silence all of those negative thoughts that tell you that you are not good enough, smart enough, or interesting enough. At points I felt completely sad and horrible. 

Life is also hard. Remember that between your masters and PhD, depending on what country you are in, you are looking at a process spanning between 4-8 years-- and for most people this is during your 20s and 30s, a time of life with lots of changes. You might marry. You might divorce. You might have children. Family members may pass away. You may have to care for an elderly relative. You may deal with health problems. Life happens. 

Your PhD (and even your MA) requires a lot of energy and attention, but you are also a human being dealing with all of the other factors of life. You still have to feed and clothe yourself and pay rent. 

Everyone's experiences in grad school, like life, will differ.

BUT- grad school provides a really wonderful opportunity to explore new ideas AND can help you give back to the world in a positive way.

What Grad School can look like:
1) Course work
2) some kind of comprehensive exam
3) a large writing project and a proposal defense
4) TAing and teaching

You will also likely:
1) learn new languages
2) read a lot
3) spend a lot of time alone

Here's my list of questions to ask yourself ahead of applying:

1) Is there something I want to study for the next 2 years or 8 years (depending on the MA or PhD)? Make sure it is something you really care about (you will still experience moments when you hate your topic but your passion for the project will get you through it).

2) Do I have funding? Can I do this without getting into debt?

3) Am I willing to live in the city or town where the university is located?

4) Am I okay with not getting a job in my field afterwards and potentially lowering my earning potential for the rest of my life?

5) Is grad school the best way to help me answer questions I want to explore?

6) How does grad school line up with my other life plans? passions?

7) And these two questions are the ones I use to guide every life choice:

a) how am I using this opportunity to contribute to the world in positive way and support my desire to make the world a more socially just place?
b) is the juice worth the squeeze?

Even if you answer all of these questions, it's hard to know exactly what to expect in grad school. 

Look forward to upcoming posts on advice about how to apply, how to survive grad school, and more!!! Click HERE for Part 2 on How to Apply! PART III: Are You Sure? ,  PART IV: Surviving and Thriving in Grad School. , and Part 5 on How to Read in Grad School.