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Is getting a PhD worth it?


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I was scrolling through Reddit last night and came across a post in the r/AskHistorians subreddit: Why You Shouldn’t Get a PhD in History. The thread was disheartening, to say the least. It prompted me to wonder if getting my PhD is going to end up being worth it.

I love the process of history; I’m doing my thesis right now, and it’s been one of the most enjoyable experiences in my undergrad career. I would love to be in academia, to do research, to teach. I also have enjoyed my time as a tutor and shadowing teachers in the St. Louis Public School District and, though the work is tiring and the pay isn’t great, I can also envision myself as a social studies teacher.

I guess what I’m wondering is, if I don’t get into a top program, should I even bother doing the PhD? I’m also applying to TFA-like programs and for a masters in history education. I’d love to know your thoughts. 

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14 minutes ago, historygeek said:

I was scrolling through Reddit last night and came across a post in the r/AskHistorians subreddit: Why You Shouldn’t Get a PhD in History. The thread was disheartening, to say the least. It prompted me to wonder if getting my PhD is going to end up being worth it.

I love the process of history; I’m doing my thesis right now, and it’s been one of the most enjoyable experiences in my undergrad career. I would love to be in academia, to do research, to teach. I also have enjoyed my time as a tutor and shadowing teachers in the St. Louis Public School District and, though the work is tiring and the pay isn’t great, I can also envision myself as a social studies teacher.

I guess what I’m wondering is, if I don’t get into a top program, should I even bother doing the PhD? I’m also applying to TFA-like programs and for a masters in history education. I’d love to know your thoughts. 

HG--

I honestly think that you should consider using the search function more often. There is a wealth of information and points of view on this and many other topics of interest to members of TGC.

 

 

 

 

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1 minute ago, Sigaba said:

HG--

I honestly think that you should consider using the search function more often. There is a wealth of information and points of view on this and many other topics of interest to members of TGC.

 

 

 

 

Thanks for the heads-up. I had down a search earlier and had only found threads from years ago, so I was curious to see if anything was different. 

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I've seen and heard so many variations of that reddit thread that it's almost comedic at this point. In all honesty, I can't answer your question for you, because it's something that I only came to an answer on after several years out of academia soul-searching for the right path. But I will share some of my experience with you, and maybe it will help?

My first boss out of college had a recent PhD from Harvard in American Studies. She worked in the same field I did right out of my MA, but she told me she felt lucky to have a job because many in her cohort were not so lucky. Academic experience =/= corporate experience (from my job hunt after my MA, that's 100% true). Her story scared me so much, as I was 23 and academia was all I'd ever known, and I still had the idea of a PhD in my head. As a result, and also because of financial reasons, I waited and worked my way up the ladder for a few more years, explored my field (and made some money), and realized that I would always regret it if I didn't at least get my PhD and try for an academic job- key word being try. The nice thing is that I will have 5+ years of corporate experience on my resume to fall back on- if I can't get a teaching job, I will be able to get a job in my current corporate field. That really helped me decide that a PhD is the right choice for me. 

The reality is, and I haven't seen much of this on this forum, though maybe I've just remained willfully ignorant of it, very few of the people who get PhDs will get to stay in academia, especially the humanities. I think knowing and accepting that is necessary before deciding to pursue a PhD or not. Is it the one thing you really truly have always wanted to do, because you have a passion for research, writing, and teaching? Or is it because you have an image in your head of what life as a professor will be, and it fits with your image of your future? Neither is more valid than the other, but the former will probably lead to more success. The latter is probably a sign you should explore your other options- some that may be possible with a PhD, and some that maybe don't require one.

For what it's worth, I will miss the financial freedom and ability to end my day at 5pm that comes with a boring 9-5. It's unfulfilling on every level, but there are pluses. If you want to seek fulfillment outside the office (with kids, etc), it might be a great fit. I prefer fulfillment from my work, and I simply reached the conclusion I can't get that where I am. It's definitely a very personal decision.

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26 minutes ago, historygeek said:

Thanks for the heads-up. I had down a search earlier and had only found threads from years ago, so I was curious to see if anything was different. 

The answer never changes :)  If you cannot absolutely see  yourself doing anything else, then you can try the PhD route.  If you can see yourself doing other things, which you obviously can, then no.  If you don't try other things first, you will likely spend time in a PhD program wondering "what if i done this?  Or that?" 

It is a consuming process that affects your entire life and many of the relationships you have at the moment. Do you want to spend a year away working in Italian archives, which I've heard aren't exactly the best organized? Are you willing to keep up with your readings during the holiday "breaks" that you're supposed to have to spend time with your family, only instead to be reading to stay on top of coursework and studying for the exams? Are you willing to bite your tongue when you receive feedback from professors (and reviewers) that make you feel defeated (although generally not the intention) or that you just don't like? Do you have the patience to explain 1000x to your (non-academic) family and friends exactly what is it that you're doing and how you're actually being paid (and justify why) to study what you love? Are you willing to endure 2-3 days of conferences with 4-6 sessions a day while schmoozing in between? Are you willing to be told by a superstar you admire in your field that your project isn't good enough? There are really a lot of questions out there that I can keep asking that relate to the reality of being a PhD student and academia.  The process itself will continue to challenge your desire to finish.  There is no "I defeated that obstacle, now there won't be any more..."  There will always be something that will make you doubt (and that actually extends into academic careers as well).  I've been challenged "bigly" after not getting in after 2 cycles of PhD admissions and after failing my first PhD exams but my support network (academics AND non-academics) told me to give it all another shot. I did.  And I'm glad that I did.  

Also consider the reality that the PhD is really, really tough on those who do not have enough financial resources beyond their stipend (i.e. savings, Bank of the Family).  There are so many hidden fees/costs that pop up over the course of the PhD.

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39 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

I'm not the biggest fan of that subreddit for, well, a lot of reasons, but this one's right on the money. 

MOO, the OP on Reddit isn't the best form of the argument. The ensuing circling of wagons by the moderators doesn't help, either.

My $0.02/YMMV.

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27 minutes ago, kgras13 said:

My first boss out of college had a recent PhD from Harvard in American Studies. She worked in the same field I did right out of my MA, but she told me she felt lucky to have a job because many in her cohort were not so lucky. Academic experience =/= corporate experience (from my job hunt after my MA, that's 100% true). Her story scared me so much, as I was 23 and academia was all I'd ever known, and I still had the idea of a PhD in my head. As a result, and also because of financial reasons, I waited and worked my way up the ladder for a few more years, explored my field (and made some money), and realized that I would always regret it if I didn't at least get my PhD and try for an academic job- key word being try. The nice thing is that I will have 5+ years of corporate experience on my resume to fall back on- if I can't get a teaching job, I will be able to get a job in my current corporate field. That really helped me decide that a PhD is the right choice for me. 

The reality is, and I haven't seen much of this on this forum, though maybe I've just remained willfully ignorant of it, very few of the people who get PhDs will get to stay in academia, especially the humanities. I think knowing and accepting that is necessary before deciding to pursue a PhD or not. Is it the one thing you really truly have always wanted to do, because you have a passion for research, writing, and teaching? Or is it because you have an image in your head of what life as a professor will be, and it fits with your image of your future? Neither is more valid than the other, but the former will probably lead to more success. The latter is probably a sign you should explore your other options- some that may be possible with a PhD, and some that maybe don't require one.

 

I want to be a professor because I have the passion for research, writing, and teaching. I also love the process of history and the thought of working on a project that I've designed and have a passion for. 

In the state of Missouri, which I ultimately want to return to, I could get my teaching license after getting my PhD. This makes me feel slightly better about the PhD process, honestly. 

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6 minutes ago, historygeek said:

I want to be a professor because I have the passion for research, writing, and teaching. I also love the process of history and the thought of working on a project that I've designed and have a passion for. 

In the state of Missouri, which I ultimately want to return to, I could get my teaching license after getting my PhD. This makes me feel slightly better about the PhD process, honestly. 

If teaching K-12 is your fallback plan then, I would start doing a lot of research about your job prospects in that market. I've heard that having a PhD can make it more difficult to get a public school job, even with a teaching certificate. I think a lot of districts are afraid you wouldn't be satisfied with the salary they could pay (though this is silly, just like it was silly that I was told at 23 with an MA that I was overqualified for entry level jobs). This doesn't mean it's impossible though! But I think it does mean that researching the chances of employment in a district with a PhD should be part of your overall PhD decision/research.

ETA: I don't want to sound like a debbie downer in these posts, and hope I don't come across that way! It's been a long road for me to decide a PhD was the right choice, and I just want to encourage others to go in with their eyes wide open.

Edited by kgras13
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7 minutes ago, kgras13 said:

 I think a lot of districts are afraid you wouldn't be satisfied with the salary they could pay (though this is silly, just like it was silly that I was told at 23 with an MA that I was overqualified for entry level jobs).

I don't think that this consideration is at all "silly." It takes a lot of time and money to fill a position. Hiring someone who may be able to get a much more lucrative position can be a costly mistake. 

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If working with high students is something you are considering, also make sure you have a plan for acquiring the necessary experience to make yourself qualified/competitive for those jobs. It's a bit easier if you can get licensed, but I know of people in my program and others that wanted to go into high school teaching and realized at the end of their studies that they didn't have the necessary experience working with high school aged students. While programs are making strides in terms of professionalization, a history PhD program primarily prepares and trains you for traditional university teaching work. There are ways to supplement and push back on this, but you have to really plan that out from the beginning of your program. 

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20 minutes ago, historygeek said:

I want to be a professor because I have the passion for research, writing, and teaching. I also love the process of history and the thought of working on a project that I've designed and have a passion for. 

I strongly urge you to develop a broader constellation of motivational factors. 

Passion can wane, fade, ebb, and die. As can love.

2 minutes ago, ThisGreatFolly said:

If working with high students is something you are considering, also make sure you have a plan for acquiring the necessary experience to make yourself qualified/competitive for those jobs. It's a bit easier if you can get licensed, but I know of people in my program and others that wanted to go into high school teaching and realized at the end of their studies that they didn't have the necessary experience working with high school aged students. While programs are making strides in terms of professionalization, a history PhD program primarily prepares and trains you for traditional university teaching working. There are ways to supplement and push back on this, but you have to really plan that out from the beginning of your program. 

You might be able to address the point TGF raises by doing your outside field in education.

Edited by Sigaba
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3 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

I don't think that this consideration is at all "silly." It takes a lot of time and money to fill a position. Hiring someone who may be able to get a much more lucrative position can be a costly mistake. 

Yes, it definitely can be a huge mistake, but I also think higher education should be considered as just part of an applicant's overall skills. Hiring for any job is difficult, and finding the right fit isn't easy, which IMO is just another reason that having a graduate degree shouldn't mean an immediate no from employers, which I think it often does. I remember hearing a story about a guy who removed his Master's from his resume after months of job searching, and got hired that same week. To me, that's a little silly.

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47 minutes ago, TMP said:

Also consider the reality that the PhD is really, really tough on those who do not have enough financial resources beyond their stipend (i.e. savings, Bank of the Family).  There are so many hidden fees/costs that pop up over the course of the PhD.

I second this. After my first year a bunch of the cohort seemed to be able to finance round-the-world trips and then I realized that they'd just spent 9 months living rent free courtesy of Family Cash. I make up for it by applying for fellowships while I scroll through their "beach life" instagram accounts (only kind of joking). I would also add that one thing I've seen get to people is the culture of academia--you can ❤️ research and teaching etc but that's only part of this place, and at my school the "I Love History!" folk don't really cope that well. If you're reading these boards I'd be very attentive to the advice you get from anyone attending the schools you're applying to--if someone says "I'm not sure that person really takes students" or "this school isn't strong in your area" then pay attention. It doesn't matter that you received a friendly email from a faculty member, they don't always know what's up in the department as a whole--current grad students are the most reliable source of accurate information. 

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Thank you all so much for your comments. 

I think that, at this point, I’m going to stay on the course of applying for my PhD, prioritizing the highly-ranked programs. I’m also applying for an MA in history education, as well as a position in TFA (and likely TFA-like) programs.

 I’m not sure if this is the best course of action, but I feel it’s a good option. 

Edited by historygeek
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24 minutes ago, OHSP said:

I second this. After my first year a bunch of the cohort seemed to be able to finance round-the-world trips and then I realized that they'd just spent 9 months living rent free courtesy of Family Cash. I make up for it by applying for fellowships while I scroll through their "beach life" instagram accounts (only kind of joking). 

Agreed, this is very frustrating. I met with a current PhD student whose advice to me included having my parents buy me a house at whatever uni I ended up at, since mortgage is cheaper than rent. I've never laughed so hard in my life- for those of us on our own, a PhD is no small financial decision.

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1 minute ago, kgras13 said:

Agreed, this is very frustrating. I met with a current PhD student from a program whose advice included having my parents buy me a house at whatever uni I ended up at, since mortgage is cheaper than rent. I've never laughed so hard in my life- for those of us on our own, a PhD is no small financial decision.

Amazing. I've discovered that some fellow students live in apartments that are $2000 a month just for their room (I pay $700 a month), and had people become very confused about the fact that I can't afford to go home (to the other side of the globe) more than once every 2 years or so/that my parents (a farmworker and a hospital orderly) can't just buy me tickets. Coming from a country where college is far more accessible, at least financially, I've found the US culture pretty astounding. But there are benefits to having to work over the summer etc. 

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6 minutes ago, OHSP said:

Amazing. I've discovered that some fellow students live in apartments that are $2000 a month just for their room (I pay $700 a month), and had people become very confused about the fact that I can't afford to go home (to the other side of the globe) more than once every 2 years or so/that my parents (a farmworker and a hospital orderly) can't just buy me tickets. Coming from a country where college is far more accessible, at least financially, I've found the US culture pretty astounding. But there are benefits to having to work over the summer etc. 

Yeah, the culture of higher education in the U.S. is pretty exclusionary, it's really a shame. I'm very nervous about the financial implications of living on a stipend, and will almost certainly need to get some kind of supplemental income during the program if I can. But like you said, there are some benefits to working- in some respects you'll be better prepared for the end of the program than many of your fellow students!

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 I feel like although this doom and gloom talk is really disheartening and negative, it serves the purpose of warning people that there’s nothing rosy about becoming a history professor.  A PhD requires the dedication of a monastic monk or a starving artist. As my professor says, you should only do a PhD in history if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. Start contemplating other career options before you embark on a PhD. Hopefully you’ll find something that matches your passion for history.

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2 hours ago, historygeek said:

Thank you all so much for your comments. 

I think that, at this point, I’m going to stay on the course of applying for my PhD, prioritizing the highly-ranked programs. I’m also applying for an MA in history education, as well as a position in TFA (and likely TFA-like) programs.

 I’m not sure if this is the best course of action, but I feel it’s a good option. 

Please keep in mind that some professional academic historians may view this plan as a lack of commitment to the craft. Historians in this group are more interested in the creation of new knowledge than the teaching of the craft.

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14 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

Please keep in mind that some professional academic historians may view this plan as a lack of commitment to the craft. Historians in this group are more interested in the creation of new knowledge than the teaching of the craft.

Oh, I know. This was something that someone brought up in my initial SOP reviews, actually. Honestly, while this may seem dishonest, I hadn't really planned to mention this plan to the academics at the schools to which I'm applying. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Since the programs I'm applying to are so competitive, I feel like it would be stupid not to have a backup plan.

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1 minute ago, historygeek said:

Oh, I know. This was something that someone brought up in my initial SOP reviews, actually. Honestly, while this may seem dishonest, I hadn't really planned to mention this plan to the academics at the schools to which I'm applying. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

When a farmer sits down for a breakfast of eggs and bacon, the chicken is dedicated and the pig is committed. Will farmers who pay for bacon be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  when they find out that they've gotten more eggs?

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4 minutes ago, Sigaba said:

When a farmer sits down for a breakfast of eggs and bacon, the chicken is dedicated and the pig is committed. Will farmers who pay for bacon be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  when they find out that they've gotten more eggs?

Like I said, I'm prioritizing my top-choice programs. None of this plan is a guarantee: not the masters program, not TFA, not a PhD program. 

I personally don't see an issue with having a backup plan. I've talked with my advisor about this, and he had no qualms about it. My priority is research and writing history; teaching is secondary. 

Edited by historygeek
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