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Aspiring German PhD Student


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I am a rising senior at a top 50 liberal arts college majoring in German Studies with a double minor in music and philosophy. I have been interested in going to grad school for several years now, and would ultimately love to be a professor at a school where I could continue to do research in my field. However, I have several questions about what types of school I should be looking for, and whether or not I should wait for a year or two after graduation to apply. 


A little about me before I delve into my questions: I have been taking German for six years now, which has included a total of 14 months in Germany over the past four years to work on fluency. I currently test at a B2 level, and will be taking German classes in Bremen this summer. I have done some research in the German Studies area, mostly looking at minorities and minority literature in Germany and their impact on post-unification society. 


I currently have several professors in my department advising me on the issue of whether or not to go directly into a PhD program. One of my professors says that I should go directly to grad school, since a PhD program takes five-plus years. Another says that I should wait a year or two to unwind from undergrad. Which is better, especially if I'm sure that I want to be in academia? 


I'm also curious about how to decide which schools to apply to. I currently have a running list of seventeen schools in the US and in Canada, with no idea how to choose what would work for me. I know I want a program that allows for interdisciplinary work, but other than that, I am not sure where to start narrowing down the various PhD programs I have been looking at.


Finally, I have a general opinion question - I recently came across University of Colorado - Boulder's new four year PhD program, where it claims that a PhD student can get all of their coursework and dissertation done in four years. You can find the link to their website here if you're curious (I know I was!). Is this viable, and do you think it'll be respected in the world of academia? Just curious to see what everyone thinks.



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Hello, and welcome.


First off let me give you some advice regarding PhD's and foreign languages in general. The field is extremely competitive and you will find that any reputable (top 20 Phd) program will require for you to have excellent language skills, as you will have to write research papers, much more complex than in any undergraduate class.

When I entered my program I discovered this quickly, you will also have to take classes, most likely with students who have already gotten their MA's (as many PhD programs accept many students who have already completed an MA). Some of them probably will also German natives.

Also many PhD programs will require you to teach language classes as part of the PhD funding.

So, I would advise for you to really think about your level in the language, whether you need more guided training that a separate MA would give or whether you are ready for the PhD.

Ina PhD program more is expected of you and although you do get better funding it will be much more difficult.


I would advise for you to take a break between undergrad and graduate school and to research the programs well. You should look at the faculty and only apply to the schools where you can find a professor or two who conduct research in your field of interest.

You should check with U of Colorado, they might require a Master's for entry into their PhD program.

As far as Canada is concerned- you should think about whether it would be easy to get a position in the US after a PhD from Canada, I know I am looking into this question regarding other countries and it can be quiet tricky.

If you have any further questions don't hesitate to write- as I said I am very knowledgeable in the application process.

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I'm very skeptical about a four year PhD without a masters. Even five years is ridiculously short to get everything done well, which makes it a very stressful experience...four years would be even worse. Also, I noticed on the program's website that they "strongly encourage" their PhD students to intern during the program, which raises a red flag for me. This means that the department likely doesn't have a good academic job placement record (which honestly doesn't surprise me if they're rushing PhDs out the door in four years). Given that you want to enter academia, placement records should be one of he factors you want to look at when narrowing down potential programs.

I was tempted to go right into a PhD program after undergrad, but I took a gap year with a Fulbright grant. I think that year was pretty critical for me. Since you know you want an academic career, it's tempting to want to just rush right into it, but one of the most important aspects of succeeding in academia is time. You need time to read, to develop your ideas, and to sharpen your language skills. Like Francophile said, you'll be taking classes with, and ultimately competing against, students with masters degrees and native speakers (and native speakers with masters degrees, as it were). These people will have read much, much more of the literature, be far better versed in theory, have native or near-native language skills, already have publications, etc. All because they've simply been at it longer than you have. So my suggestion is to take time off from academia and just read. Read as much as you can. Keep a book list and reading schedule. Get ahold of a generals list (or two or three) and read everything on it. You might feel prepared for a PhD program as a college senior, but the fact is that most applicants have years worth of experience on you. And that doesn't speak to your effort or potential as a scholar at all, it's just a matter of how long you've been studying German literature. You're young and you have time on your side, so take advantage of it before you get locked into any specific program.

And I agree with Francophile, stay away from Canadian programs if you want to work in the US.

Edit: The four year option does, in fact, require a masters degree. If you enter with a BA then the program requires five years. https://gsll.colorado.edu/german/suggested-timeline-students-entering-phd-program-ba#overlay-context=all/gsll-policies-and-procedures

Edited by LKS
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I agree with the other posters' advice on this thread, but I would like to add a few more points to what has already been said. Firstly, you need to be absolutely certain you and (hopefully) your advisers know how precarious the job market in academia is, especially in German. Being a graduate from a top liberal arts college, students from that particular background can have rather unrealistic expectations regarding graduate school. Liberal arts college students are taught by wonderful professors who have mentored and nurtured them intellectually, and whose students come to believe that this type of job will be available to them one day if they continue to excel at current rates. Graduate school will not be about rock star students who have the initiative to succeed academically among a sea of peers in their given major(s). It will be much more cutthroat than that (as past comments have highlighted), and not to mention graduate school will be much more rigid and structured when it comes to your own intellectual output. What you write as a graduate student will more likely match formally edited, peer-reviewed journals, not the radical pet projects you completed as a junior or senior.

Graduate school in any field is first and foremost professional training for a particular job, and that job currently for German is training for academic positions at colleges or universities. The problem is, the job market for TT jobs no longer exists, and obtaining a PhD to do anything else is an inefficient way to gain applicable skills to other jobs (you can do that through other, less time consuming training). That is why you must be whole-heartedly committed to pursuing this line of work even if there is a high probability you won't get a TT job. It might help to do some reading up on the adjunct crisis on blogs, websites (from the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed to the NYT), etc in order to test how intent you are, and whether this line of work is right for you before spending a decade in graduate school.

In addition, as others have mentioned, if teaching college students or being one of the VERY select few that obtain jobs at PhD-granting institutions AS A TT PROFESSOR, you then need to do your research on what programs do well with placing graduates into TT jobs, as there is a lot of variance. Below is a link to a terrific blog, written by a German PhD, who has chronicled the ills of the German job market after the 2008 recession.


As you can see, and as "Adjunct Nate Silber" demonstrates, programs at some rather elite institutions fare miserably with their job placement of students. On the other hand, some larger programs at public institutions do extraordinarily well with job training. Keep this in mind as you thoroughly research graduate programs. However, a program's excellent record with TT job placements does not translate into a terrific program fit (more on that later) for you or your particular interests necessarily. Also keep in mind that programs that overwhelmingly place their students in coveted R1 jobs (Berkeley, Princeton, etc) don't do necessarily well with placing students in teaching-heavy jobs, like the ones at SLACs (small liberal arts colleges). Those are factors you must weigh when thinking about what you want the IDEAL outcome of your PhD work to be.

Lastly (before I list some final points to consider), if this is something you end up doing (applying to PhD programs), and in turn have considerable luck with being in the envious position of getting multiple offers to choose from, do not take the issue of funding lightly. Many programs (if they have the money) will shower you with "funding packages" that might include fellowships (usually for the first year to "sweeten" the deal, but are crucial to finishing a degree in a more timely manner), summer funding (though rarely offered up front, summer funding options should ideally be available beyond teaching remedial language courses) and assistantships (the usual form graduate funding takes). Do not take any of these "funding" offers seriously until you research the cost of living, average time to a degree in that program, and the workload required for assistantships. You can be easily screwed if you don't look into these things. Many of these stipend amounts were set decades ago, and do not reflect the current cost of living in cities where housing cannot keep up with the population growth. Same goes for teaching load: if any program expects you to teach more than one course section per semester, look elsewhere. The point of TAing is to gain professional and teaching experience while finding a way to make enough to live off of while still having enough time for coursework/writing. At no time should you be (overly) exploited, and prevented from making considerable progress toward your degree. At the most your contract should only require you to work 20 hours per week, as that is what a 50% appointment plainly is.

Most programs will allow you visit at their expenses. DO NOT MAKE A DECISION IN FAVOR OF OR AGAINST A PROGRAM WITHOUT VISITING! Here are the other factors I would consider after being accepted and having visited:

1. What are the other grad students like? This is incredibly important as you spend a lot of time together.

2. As mentioned before, how much will you have to teach, versus how much will your stipend be? It should not be more than one course section per semester.

3. IMPORTANT: Are the course offerings appealing? Do they match the approach you wish to take as a graduate student? Do they seem more interdisciplinary? More theoretical? Boring?

4. Look very carefully at the requirements for the degree levels. Do they seem comparable to other programs you are visiting/have visited? Do they seem rigid or old fashioned? You wouldn't believe how degree requirements vary among seemingly similar programs. Ask grad students about the exam expectations, also. Are they manageable, or impossibly difficult and arbitrary?

5. With whom on the faculty could you work, based on your interests and theirs and from word of mouth? Be sure to look at that professor(s) record for advising, both officially from departmental statistics and from grad students. Be sure you you have more than one viable option for advising in the event a professor gets a job elsewhere or retires.

6. Due to funding cuts, this is becoming less common, but do these programs have visiting professors from German-speaking universities? That speaks for the dynamism (or lack thereof) of certain departments.

7. Does the program allow you to take courses in other departments? There will be required outside coursework, but this speaks for the flexibility of a given department if you want to take relevant coursework in other areas.

8. Along the line of visiting scholars from German-speaking universities, does the program have international exchange options for grad students with departments abroad? This is also being phased out in many places due to low participation numbers, but this is important for language area studies.

9. Will you be able to develop professionally, academically, and intellectually for the kind of work you are interested in one day (hopefully) doing? If you want to teach undergraduates at a liberal arts college, you should ask about being able to teach upper-level courses or the possibility of designing your own course for that purpose.

In the end, so many factors will be going into making an informed decision, all of which can't be listed here. The best advice to give is to gather up the important factors, most of which are mentioned by myself and others on this thread, and consider personal factors also (you need to above all be happy where you end up, so keep location and institution in mind), in order to make the most lucrative decision over something that in the long run might not pay off in the way one might hope.

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Another comment to make, is that I agree with LKS in that I would be weary of a program like CU Boulder's. From what I have heard, the department is reviving their PhD program after a two-decade moratorium for reasons unknown to anyone. There is simply no need for more PhD programs in an age where not many German PhD graduates are finding decent jobs. Another program that is implementing this sort of "fast-track" PhD option for German is the University of Oregon, having revised their curriculum to speed up their once tedious program where MA students had to write a thesis. I understand that both programs are rightfully taking into account the high economic cost of attending grad school for 10+ years, especially when the job market is so terrible, but such small programs shouldn't be reinstated at this point in time, and probably don't have he best interests of students in mind. PhD programs bring prestige to the department and those institutions, but at what cost when jobs for those students aren't available? If I were you, I would look at reputable programs that are well established with greater resources, both public and private, with relevant matches to your interests that have high retention and TT placement rates. "Adjunct Nate Silber", apart from ranking TT placements in German, has compiled a list of programs, ranking them based on retention.

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