I haven’t posted anything for a couple of weeks, partly because I’ve been down with sinusitis (thanks Messrs. Howard, Florey and Garland for antibiotics, they are so good); and partly because I have been sitting on this post, back and forth about whether I should publish it or not. I didn’t know if it had all already been said, if it was unhelpful for a blog about people already on the research higher degree track, and if it was a career limiting move.
I’ve decided to go ahead: partly because the Aussie scene is different from the US scene (shorter time frame, better social security, lower fees, fewer jobs, fewer universities); partly because I keep meeting people who had never been told this before. They didn’t know. And partly because I ended up in a massive discussion on Tuesday night on Twitter with a grad student, a Canadian grad student (@qui_oui), an Australian educator (@tseenster) and William Pannapacker (@pannapacker) himself.
So this is not a command, this is my advice, or my balancing of the advice you might otherwise have been given. I’m not telling you what you should do, but I’m telling you some information so you can make a balanced decision. Also, this is not a command, because the Aussie rising inflection makes every statement sound like a question anyway? It’s a cultural thing? Anyway, I hope this helps?
Every few years, someone takes on William Pannapacker’s role, and writes a screed in something like the Chronicle of Higher Education or the New York Post, telling potential graduate school students, ‘Just Don’t Go‘: or ‘100 Reasons NOT to go to grad school‘ or ‘PhD Job Hell’ or ‘My Academic Metamorphosis‘ or ‘From Grad School to Happiness‘.
Almost always, these are aimed at people in the Arts and Humanities (and the comments threads are then crashed by people saying, ‘Hey, an Engineering Masters is really useful’, or ‘There are lots of jobs for Education academics’). Guys, we’re talking about people who studied Ancient Sanskrit, Musicology, Architectural History, or‚ say, ‘poets and composers collaborating on art song in London between 1939 and 1954’. (That’s me, by the way).
There are no jobs out there for people who know about poets and composers collaborating on art song in London between 1939 and 1954. Every job I’ve ever had was because of a transferrable skill, even if that transferrable skill is ‘teaching 20th century poetry’ or ‘researching 20th century poetry’. I also got jobs because I could ‘apply for academic grants’, ‘teach research skills’, and ‘edit work for academic publishing’.
But I only got any full time jobs because I could use a computer. My official computer skills? A GSCE (year 11) in Information Technology. That is. I got a B in 1995. Woot. I was a terrible programmer–but that’s a great thing. In interviews I say, ‘I don’t program anymore’ and that makes me sound better than I am.
Anyway, so this is my contribution to ‘Should I go back to University and do my PhD?’
First of all, you need to know that a PhD is hard. It breaks you (really, I’ve got a post coming up about it; it’s part of the initiation process). It goes on forever. It’s not much fun.
If you are going back to uni, part time, for the love of learning, because you had such a great time at undergrad, or Honours, or your MA: don’t do a PhD. Do another Masters. You’ll have so much more fun, you’ll learn stuff, you’ll expand what you know about and what you know how to do. You’ll probably get smarter too, learn new skills, like your supervisor, everything.
Secondly, you need to know that the number of people graduating with PhDs has grown by more than four times since the 1990s. Doctoral students are great for universities, they pay fees for years. They require little contact time (we’re talking about the humanities here, that basically means no more than a meeting a fortnight and a library card; and often much less). They provide excellent labour at a reasonable cost as RAs and casual teaching staff. This means you are still special, but being invited to do a PhD by your department is not as special as it once was.
Thirdly, you need to know that the number of full time, continuing or renewable academic positions out there has massively shrunk since the 1990s. There are far fewer Faculty members than in the past, and the numbers are moving downwards. This means there is more competition. Once upon a time, your first job was for you to get your book written. Now you won’t get an interview without a book. Moreover, my friends who have got proper academic positions not only had a book, but a book that won a prize.
I publish regularly, I lecture well, I teach well, I give conference papers. But I don’t have a book, and the thought of writing a book that has to win a prize so I can get a job? Good grief. Instead, most people are casual academics, with 20 weeks a year unpaid, no sick leave, no office, no job security, and you might earn about $30,000 a year. I used to work a 60 hour week during semester and hand in about 7 time-sheets a fortnight across the university. And I was lucky, I had an office, some semi-secure gigs, and all my teaching was on the Parkville campus. It was exhausting, I was poor, and all my brain was being used on juggling my jobs not on research. And all my friends, the people who graduated at the same as me, people who were smarter, published more, still were in this situation.
Fourthly, you need to know that people outside academia believe that if you have a PhD in the arts or humanities, you are stuck up, difficult and get bored easily. This means that getting a job often means taking your PhD off your CV. HR managers don’t like to see PhD on a CV for an administration or lower management job. If you reduced your working hours or removed yourself from the professional sphere altogether during your studies you won’t have progressed either. My most senior role ever (I was a Director of Administration, with a budget in the millions and 3 continuing and over 50 casual volunteer staff to manage), I got in 2000 as a 21 year old graduate with just a BA (Hons). I currently manage 0 staff, manage 0 budget and I expect to be at least 40 before I ever see responsibility like that again.
So, when should you do a PhD in the arts or humanities?
1. Because you really only come alive in a lecture theatre in front of 200 students, or in a library with a major new research project about to start.
Don’t give up your day job, but one of the benefits of the casualisation of the academic market is that teaching the odd course here and there and keeping your library card is now easier than ever. I currently work a full time continuing job at the university and have negotiated with my manager to buy out some time to do some Lecturing, Subject Coordination and Tutoring on the side. I still get articles out, and go to conferences. I still talk to smart people and am inspired by students. I still get to come onto campus every morning. This is my vocation, and I’m in the right place. (But keep up your computer skills.)
2. Because you are the favoured son (or daughter) of the faculty; with a full scholarship and a stipend and guaranteed co-authorship plans and you are being groomed to replace the head of department when he retires. Your book is half written already, and you know it will be published by Cambridge University Press. It will probably win a prize.
There are people who win the lottery. There are people who will get jobs. If the dice are massively loaded in your favour, then, by all means, play the game of academic roulette.
(But keep up your computer skills).
3. Because you won a massive scholarship that paid all your bills, with enough left over to buy massive paintings of Venice, commission a custom built chaise longue, and go on holiday to Europe every two years. (This is actually true of my scholarship).
Otherwise, you are smart, hardworking and determined. You can earn all of that yourself, and still have the cash to pay for access to research journals and research trips to Paris.
Otherwise, my advice is Just Don’t Go. (Or if you go, do it in Education, social science, or STEM; but even then, first read the ‘Plight of the Postdocs‘, or ‘The Awful Market for Young Scientists‘).
If you’ve already started, and you are happy… then absolutely, finish–but keep up your computer skills, and make sure you have a plan B. That plan B might even make you happy.