As the fall semester grinds along, I find myself having conversations with a number of acquaintances thinking of applying to graduate school. I have come away from these conversations with the impression that undergrads, even seniors at big research universities such as Yale, tend to have only a fuzzy idea of what distinguishes graduate school from professional school.
There are the ubiquitous and unflattering stereotypes of graduate students: the tweedy intellectuals who can explain the intricacies of Kantian metaphysics but cannot find their car keys; the poststructuralist, postmodern postfeminists whose incomprehensible theoretical blathering finds a welcome home only in academia. Still, my conversations with undergrads, as well as my own memories of senior year in college, have left me convinced that graduate school is terra incognita for most potential grad students. So, as a service to them and to the underclassmen who will follow, I offer the following advice.
One: For God’s sake, take some time off first. Graduate school is not merely a continuation of college. It is really more like a job involving hard work and little pay, and unlike college, a substantial number of grad students (about 25 percent in the Yale history department) drop out sooner or later. The first year or two of a Ph.D. program is incredibly intense in terms of the amount of reading and writing you will be expected to do and the level of intellectual sophistication at which you will be expected to operate. A Ph.D. also requires at least six years of your life (in the humanities, often more). Be sure it is what you really want to do. Do something else first, even something dull like I-banking. You will come to graduate school with life experience and perspective that your straight-from-college peers will lack. Almost without exception, my friends who took time off before graduate school have managed their first year or two much better than those who came directly from college.
Two: Make sure you know who your advisor will be and that you get along with him or her. This particular aspect of graduate school seems particularly difficult for undergraduates to grasp. As a grad student, your advisor plays a disproportionate role in your success (or lack thereof). Different professors have different ways of approaching the problems they study, and as a student of a particular professor, you will be expected to adopt that approach, lest your dissertation proposal get shot down, leaving you to start from scratch. For example, I am interested in diplomatic history; it would be well-nigh impossible for me to have a sociocultural historian as an advisor, even if he or she worked on the exact region and period I do. There are also some professors who, for whatever reason, just do not get along with or like graduate students. No matter how much you admire their work, if you cannot have a conversation with them that does not descend into name calling, steer clear. Also, be sure to ask previous students whether a given professor is good about providing helpful feedback and writing letters of recommendation. These details that will be critical to your ability to find a job after grad school.
Three: Be realistic about your expectations. In the humanities, the job market for academics is beyond abysmal. Schools of Yale’s caliber have a very good record of finding their students jobs. The majority of these jobs, however, are at second- or third-tier schools, often in places like Alabama or Oklahoma, where I did my undergrad. Most of my undergrad professors had Ph.D.s from Ivy League or comparable schools (e.g. Stanford, MIT, Chicago, Berkeley). It is a simple question of supply and demand: the supply of quality humanities Ph.D.s continually outstrips the demand for full-time professors at top schools. Upward mobility is possible, but difficult. The job market is not going to get any better, and once you have a house and a family, moving can be difficult. If you love your research and teaching enough that you would be comfortable doing it even in the depths of Oklahoma — or if you want to live in the depths of Oklahoma anyway — by all means apply to graduate school. If not, you can take the path of many a grad school burnout: law school.
Jeff Mankoff is a sixth-year graduate student in history.