Puget Sound English Department

August 19, 2010

Thinking about grad school? Read this…

Every once in a while, The Chronicle of Higher Education takes a break from forecasting the demise of the Humanities, the corporatization of higher education, the evisceration of tenure, and the dire state of the academic job market (all of which are well worth bemoaning, of course), and offers something more tangibly useful. This time it’s offering a compendium of wisdom, entitled An Open Letter to New Graduate Students. As several commenters protest, and as the author(s) acknowledge, it’s a letter and set of advice tailored particularly towards those entering a full-time, conventional, PhD program, and is far less relevant to those undertaking professional degrees, terminal MAs, or non-traditional programs. But it’s pretty comprehensive and, based on my own rapidly receding experience, relatively accurate.

My off-the cuff (and, admittedly, somewhat tongue-in-cheek) responses to some of the items on their list follow [NOTE: this post does not reflect the official opinion of the English Department, or even very many of the members thereof. It’s offered merely in the spirit of dialogue. If you are seriously considering applying to graduate school in the humanities, please consult with faculty advisers you know and trust].

1. Don’t overdo the “networking” thing, especially in a traditional humanities field and especially when you are brand new at the game. Or, better, do make those connections to senior scholars and intellectual rockstars, but make them sincerely and sparingly, based on your real interests, reading, and scholarship. If you must be obvious that you are “playing the game,” do so with a dose of irony and a world-weary shrug: those of us committed enough to our discipline to pursue a degree that can take 9 years with only the slimmest chance of a viable career find such naked careerism annoying–especially when it’s unsupported by any proven excellence in research and/or teaching. We chose, all common sense to the contrary, to forsake the world of headhunters, year-end bonuses, and office Christmas parties, and we don’t want you turning our hallowed academic halls into some debased scholarly version of “The Apprentice.”

2. Internships? What’s that? The best preparation for a traditional academic career in the Humanities is traditional academic success: conference papers, publications (good ones), and proven teaching effectiveness or, more often, excellence. This is not to discourage you from creating your own path, or to suggest that for every faculty member who stuck to the straight and narrow there aren’t umpteen less direct, conventional routes. But if we’re talking basic Humanities faculty positions, there’s unlikely to be an “internship.” Two exceptions: first, the “preparing future faculty” program at most universities that allows grad students to teach at other institutions–even if you KNOW you are R-1 material, some Community College experience might be the best thing that ever happened to your pedagogy, or your career path. Second, an internship so intriguing that you can’t pass it up. No matter what it is. It might not help your academic job search, but it might save your soul, or identify a better route to a more viable career.

3. Keeping up with blogs and other contemporary media to the extent that these authors suggest is a sure way NOT to finish your dissertation. Yes, some of the most valuable and useful advice out there–and lots of community and support–is happening in the blogosphere. Inside Higher Ed has a set of terrific academic blogs and some great advice columns–especially for those about to go on the market. But there is invariably an inverse relationship between an ABD’s presence online (usually in lengthy responses to other bloggers) and his/her completed dissertation. Blogs and other online resources can be terrific, but use them like antibiotics: only by prescription, under professional supervision, and in recommended amounts. (Here the exception would be if your program/degree focuses on the nature or substance of electronic communication. At that point, it’s all data: Have at it!)

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