Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Letter to a Prospective Grad Student

Editor's note: I recently heard from one of my favorite students from my days as a university professor.  He had performed brilliantly in our classes together, possessed an amazing depth of knowledge, and really seemed to live for studying history.  He's spent a couple of years knocking around Austin, Texas, but let me know that he wants me to write letters of recommendation for grad school.  I had discussed the issue with him before, and warned him as much as I could about the dangers involved, hoping that he would heed my warnings.  I will write recs for him but I might have to send him this letter first.


Come next year you will likely be off to graduate school, filled with the hope that you too someday might be able to emulate the professors you admire so much today. Although you won't want to hear it, you should know that the chances of that happening are pretty small. It's not that you're not intelligent and hard working, but that you have decided to embark on a journey akin to the trials of Hercules and to set yourself against unbelievable odds. The country is littered with the broken dreams of grads and even PhDs who gave it their all and still couldn't make it.

In the coming years there will be more hoops to jump though than you can possibly imagine. You will have to prove yourself in your seminars, you will have to convince your advisor that you are worth her/his attention, you will have to pass comprehensive exams, and you will need to research and write a book-length dissertation. At each step the herd will be culled mercilessly. The majority of your peers coming into graduate school with you will not make it to the doctorate. A sizable percentage of those who earn the doctorate will not find tenure-track jobs, even after years of trying. Many of those who attain tenure track jobs will have to take employment in undesirable locations and/or with ridiculously heavy workloads. Your chances of having exactly the kind of position you envision having are almost non-existent.  Certainly I know a couple of lucky people who have managed to do it, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Obviously, the increasingly grim realities of the humanities in the 21st century have not dissuaded you, so I might as well give you some tips to succeed. In the first place, you should know that ability and talent will only get you so far. If you are attending a second (or third) tier institution, or you are at a first tier institution with a no-name advisor, good luck, because you are going to need it. It's not impossible to succeed under these circumstances, but you will have to work at least twice as hard as people with the right person writing their letters of recommendation and the right institution behind their name. Trust me, I've seen deserving people struggle mightily for jobs after publishing in top journals, and I've seen others with barely half written dissertations get jobs straight out of grad school based on their advisor's name.

Go to a second-tier school for your MA if you must, but use that as a jumping off point for something better. You cannot let geography be an obstacle, no matter how much you might want to stay near where you're from. (For some reason Texans are loathe to leave the state to study elsewhere.)  If you don't get into a top PhD program, seriously think about giving up grad school unless you need the degree for a non-academic career. Otherwise you're wasting your time making yourself overqualified. I know judging people based on the schools they attend is stupid and shallow, but unfortunately, that's how things are done in this profession.  You will competing against people who have been groomed since early childhood in the "best" schools who will look down at your second-tier state university undergrad degree even though you are incredibly intelligent and full of other commendable qualities.  

You will also need to take great care with your research topic. Although I used to resist this imperative, I've come to accept the fact that certain topics are "hot" or "trendy" for good reason. You might have your heart set on writing a new diplomatic history of the Peace of Westphalia, but no one will hire you with a topic like that, and presses and journals will not publish your work. Of course, your topic should interest you, but it MUST be something relevant to the currents of contemporary scholarship.  If it's not, you are wasting your time and setting yourself up for years of frustration and heartbreak.

Think about publishing from day one. Anyone who says grads shouldn't worry about publications is stuck in the past. Also be aware of the fact that WHERE you publish matters a whole lot more than how much you publish. One article in a top journal is worth ten articles in obscure journals.

Last and most importantly, be aware that you may do all of these things and still not reach your goal. All of this might sound a wee bit pessimisstic, and it is. It's dearly bought pessimism, based on years of hard experience that I've had. Just keep in mind that academia is not the end all be all, and if you decide to do something else with your life, that doesn't make you a failure. In fact, it might make you a whole lot smarter and saner than someone like me, who took way too long to figure that out.  

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