It is the time of year again when I am hearing from and talking to students who are facing the next phase of their lives, the time after graduation...
With few exceptions, those who have decided to go on to graduate school are those I think have the potential, and generally also the grades, to get in and be successful. That leaves the counseling part open, however, and the two big questions. Should they go, and what should they expect once they get there. Those are two biggies. I am going to talk briefly about what I tell them after the orange squiggle of confusion (what I am sure my advice looks like when I am done).
Should you go to graduate school. Well, maybe. The first thing my supervisor asked me when I showed up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, to the University of Toronto in 1985, was "You're not expecting to get a job out of this, are you?" And I lied, mostly. "Oh, no," I said. I am here because I want to do Egyptology. That was true. And I did expect to get a job. After all, my Dad had one. At that point he had been teaching at the university level for more than 30 years, was into his later career during which he was publishing three books every two years and teaching 2-3 classes a year, producing PhDs on a regular basis, and taking a sabbatical like clockwork every seven years. I thought that with attention to detail I would be able to accomplish that myself. And I did. Although we were in the Bush I recession when I was hired, I lucked into a position at a very good undergraduate university that was in a massive new hiring phase. But don't plan on getting a job when you get your PhD, or at least a permanent one. Things were bad then; but things are worse now. Of course, that being said, of our graduates in that stereotypically useless and unemployable field of Art History, several do have tenure-track or tenured professorial jobs and others are librarians, museum curators and administrators, or have found other careers they have been happy with, whether or not their post-BA education was directly connected with it or not.
Besides, and that gets to the rest of it, the part about what you should expect, not everyone completes a PhD program. In my program, I started with four people, and three of them didn't finish -- one didn't even finish the year. The next year four new people came in, three of whom finished their doctorates. Two of them are trailing spouses although they have taught at prestigious universities in their own right, and one is finally (I think) pretty securely in a position at a premier museum in a research position (she hated teaching). Undoubtedly the smartest and best teacher of all of us decided to quit halfway through writing her dissertation and is happily wandering around the world, changing countries every few years, teaching English as a Second Language with her spouse (she is currently in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan).
There are actually two reasons I picked today's subject for this diary. The first is indeed that we met with the seniors who are writing their senior thesis this year on Tuesday and several of them have decided in the last year that the intensive research focus of a grad program in Art History is (in spite of having planned for it for several years) is not what they want to do, at least immediately. We have embedded in the course a requirement that students do an informational interview about career paths, whether grad school or not (we recommend, but don't require, that they interview relatively recent graduates about what they are doing now, in the time since they graduated from our university, with the idea that their experiences will be the most directly connected to those our current students will be facing). So these ones who are now suddenly thinking about what the possibilities are will have a chance to explore them with some guidance.
The other reason is I finally got the written comments from an upper level class I taught last fall, which was an upper level (junior/senior level) history/art history cross-listed class. Most of the comments were along the lines of "this is a hard class, I hated the quizzes, but I thought they were fair and tested the material we had been covering in class" and "Why was this a history class when I was taking Art History?" which was understandable, if a bit indicative of their not having read the syllabus which said this was a history class as well as Art History. But two of the students were clearly angry and took it out on the evaluation of the class. The personal invective is neither here nor there, although it was vicious and hurtful (I really need thicker skin at times). One of the two was specifically angry about this being a graduate-level class. Which it wasn't. I did graduate work in that field.
That got me thinking about whether we tell our students what the major differences are between undergraduate and graduate school. And what were the major differences? For me, as an undergrad, I wrote a senior honors thesis, using foreign language sources because those were the sources that were needed, and I needed to schedule my own time, and I needed to do homework every night in my language classes. When a professor mentioned something in passing, I read it even if he hadn't actually assigned it. That is the difference between undergrad and graduate school, I think. You do things not because they are assigned. You do them because you want to, need to, know everything you can about a given subject. Your time in graduate school may have awful colleagues and nasty insecure professors, other graduate students who are angry with you, and unreasonable assignments, horrible funding situations, etc. But you have to want to study something so much that you will go beyond what you are told to do. The studying of Economics, or Microbiology, Colonial History, or Renaissance Art History, or the social organization of villages in Papua New Guinea, for example, has to be so interesting that you find it worthwhile to do that. You won't be spending much time playing video games or going to skate board parks, and you will be the sort (if you are going to be successful) who asks a friend to pick up a book at the library for you if you are ill before you ask her to pick up your pills at the pharmacy. You will be spending time locked in labs overnight with weird microbes and slides of vicious pathogens. You have to enjoy that kind of creepiness. It may be possible for someone who is a single parent to make it through grad school, but it wouldn't be pleasant; it was stressful for the people who had children and a partner. Marriages and long-term relationships are under horrible stress. Cats (who didn't require walking) were much better than dogs as pets but you need to have friends who can catsit or dogsit when you are in the field doing research. I guess snakes would be even better, although they are more expensive as an initial outlay.
Grad school is misery and enthralling in equal measures. But it is nothing like undergrad. You don't have to do stuff you don't really care about (or if you do, it is to get the tools you need -- i.e. statistics or languages are a tool for a lot of research and if you don't want to put the time in to learn them, maybe you need to investigate some field that doesn't need them). I loved grad school but I had months, years even, when I had to plod with one foot in front of the other just to keep going. I didn't realize I had pneumonia for a couple of weeks because I had managed to not go out and just work at home, not realizing that I was getting sicker and sicker, until some friends pulled me out for a beer for my birthday, and asked me if I wasn't feeling well because I didn't have the energy to climb the stairs to the restaurant.
Grad school is not really the means to an end, and it isn't just that it is more challenging or difficult than undergraduate school. It was wonderful to get up in the morning and know that I was going to work in a library where the books smelled of dust and the class was taught in a room next door to coffins and animal mummies. I hated having articles in a Russian journal assigned to me because I was the one who had had one year of Russian language seven years previously and I was the only one who could sound out the words, but I was the one who could so I was the one who got the Russian site reports. J had some Spanish, so she got those ones. C was fluent in French and Latin so she did Italian and my German got me through Dutch. (We all could do French and, in a pinch, German). We built friendships that still last, even though we don't see each other for years at a time. I loved grad school, and I hated it. Even though I haven't been as regular at publishing in my field as I thought I would be (three specialized encyclopedia articles last year were my most recent publications), it did get me a job, and I love what I do now. I am working on a site report, and teach in my field (not at the graduate level, which is fine with me) once every other year. I would not discourage someone from going to graduate school, like the letter linked above seeks to do, but it isn't easy and it certainly isn't something to do unless you cannot imagine doing anything else. I am always glad when students realize maybe there are other ways to fulfillment beyond grad school, but I am glad when they decide it is necessary for them to go on and do more in the subject. As long as they are happy, I am happy. Whatever they choose to do.