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How feasible is pursuing a PhD while teaching k-12?

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Just like the title says. If I don't get into a program that offers pretty comprehensive financial aid, I really can't afford to get a PhD. I'm working while in undergrad now, and receive need-based grants that amount to roughly half my costs per year.  This is great, but I'm afraid even this percent of aid would leave me pretty seriously indebted at grad school. I want the PhD, but not as much as I want to teach in general. If I don't make it into a funded PhD program, could I do lateral entry into k-12 to save/tackle debt, and then reapply later on? Am I a better candidate if I'm already working, or a worse one? Is this a decent fallback plan, or a poor line of reasoning?

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@telkanuru: First, thanks so much for your response!l Let me clarify a bit. I don't mean "absolutely without funding", so much as "incompletely funded". There are lots of History grad programs that offer some assistance, but only the "creme de la creme" offer full fellowship for your entire period of study. I would be happy with a program that offered a TA-ship or TA + partial fellowship, as my end goal is teaching, but I question whether this would cover my tuition costs in such a way that didn't leave me saddled with debt afterwards.

I had initially planned to go for an MA and do lateral entry into the upper K-12 levels, but the possibility of getting into a grad program, combined with recognizing I might have the academic potential to do so, has left me somewhat overwhelmed with choice. I would probably be happier teaching at a higher level, where both engagement and depth of study are greater. That said, I think some of the most formative educational experiences in which I could participate occur in high schools. I've lately been viewing teaching at the high school level as a sort of fall-back, so that if I didn't get any offers that included full assistance packages I could still entertain accepting the partial assistance offers. It sounds like you think the lack of full assistance means I should pass, in which case I again wonder what effect teaching at a high school would have on my candidacy for a grad program? Thanks for the input!

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I think a lot of this depends on why you are getting a PhD: are you going after academic jobs after? If that's the case, you are probably better off not getting a PhD if you do not get fully funded. If you are already behind the 8 ball on funding when your a PhD student... how are you going to outperform people for jobs who have already been awarded full funding? Like it or not there are teirs of grad students, and in this job market (any field) only really the best get academic jobs (and not necessarily the jobs they want). 

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@GeoDUDE!: part of wanting the PhD is that it represents, to me at least, effective mastery of a field of study. I love studying history, and really love talking about it, but I'm also distinctly aware of how little I actually know. Achieving a PhD certainly doesn't mean I would know all there is to know, an impossible proposition if ever there were one, but it would represent a consensus of already established scholars that my knowledge of the field is both thorough and respectable. To be blunt, a degree is what separates the (nominally unrespected)amateur from the (nominally respected)professional. Also, a doctorate would be the penultimate credential in a world which highly prizes credentials.

I am quite certain of, and comfortable with, the notion of being an educator at some level. I understand that the more advanced levels of study offer more opportunities to discuss historical nuance, and at greater length/depth, but again I also believe some of our most important education occurs while we are in our "early" years. I know it sounds hubristic, but I believe I could bring something beneficial to the academic experiences of pre-college students. I'm also afraid of how stiff the competition is for college-level employment, and know that I could, relatively speaking, more easily find work at lower levels of academia. Even some of my community college professors had their PhD's, both tenured and adjuncts! Everyone I speak with about this IRL says essentially the same thing, "you're fine, the really good grad students will get fellowships and find work eventually, so you've just got to be committed to that struggle", which to me carries the implicit statement that those who don't get full fellowships are being given notice of their inadequacy, and should accept the likelihood that they won't become professorial material. Am I over-thinking this? I've been told by several professors and advisors that I have the academic potential to get into grad schools, but it seems like if I'm not accepted into the top-tier then I'd be wasting my time and accruing a lot of debt in the process. I struggle to accept that I could achieve on the necessary level, but also worry I'm rationalizing not trying by saying "my job/debt prospects are better when I look lower".

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@Amelu that's fine, just note that a PhD might make it harder to teach at "earlier years", but what is more grave, if I may speak bluntly, is that people who go into graduate school mostly for the "love of it" and "wanting to master it" are typically the types of students who take 10 years to finish their PhD, or even more likely, drop out. The one's who finish are the ones who want a job that love what they do AND what they love to do requires a PhD. They want to rule the world, so to speak. Its why so many academics are narcissistic.  

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You do not get a PhD to teach. If that's your end goal, go get the MA. 

I think the idea that only the very top offer full funding packages is misleading. Every program I can think of in the top-20 of my field offers a livable stipend for at least five years, and most in the top-50 offer the same. If you can't get one of these, don't go.

Also, many programs that do offer funding prohibit you from working outside of the university as a precondition of that funding.

Edited by telkanuru
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@telkanuru: I think I've been given a much more "dire straits" portrait -of both the likelihood of finding funding, and also of finding collegiate employment afterwards- than what you describe. It's reassuring to hear that I'm not facing a figurative choice between "Harvard or nothing". I especially appreciate your feedback as someone already pursuing a History PhD. That said, I disagree re: "PhD's aren't for teaching". If I want to teach at a college, where I can be given full discretion over the scope/depth of my program, I most certainly do need a PhD. Some of the people who have been most influential on me so far are PhD-holders who teach/taught. I could rattle off famous figures in a variety of fields who are educators, but I feel like that doesn't strengthen my case so much as merely add volume to it. Obviously, we disagree on the matter. What would you say is the purpose of pursuing a PhD?

My departmental advisor, and others whose opinion I hold in some regard(family, SO, friends, etc.), say they don't think I'd be happy teaching at a lower level. They say "you're fine, the really good grad students get fellowships and find work, you've just got to stay committed" The grad students at my school(UNC-CH) and schools near me(Duke) paint the grimdark picture, and my skepticism of collegiate credentialism makes me trust that 'peer' feedback more than I might ought.(also, I got taken for a ride when I was younger by an associate's dispensing diploma mill with sweet-talking recruiters, so now I'm borderline paranoiac when it comes to believing school officials as to the benefits of their respective institutions). While the prospect of doing original research and/or breaking ground in my discipline is certainly appealing, it is the potential to teach subject matter I love from my own perspective that I find most desirable about the PhD track. Choosing to aim lower would give me less autonomy, but allow for faster matriculation and entry into the work place. If this is pragmatic or just rationalization is, I guess, my core dilemma.

@GeoDUDE!: Don't worry, I have a healthy ego regarding my abilities. :) I want to rule MY world, whatever that may be.
I certainly don't intend to take any longer than is necessary to complete a program of study. I have no illusions that the PhD would actually equate to mastery of the subject, more that we give it that weight socially. IMO, mastery of any study is generally a lifelong pursuit rather than accomplish-able goal. I want a job doing what I love, and it really SEEMS like that requires a PhD. I think, based on what telkanuru has said here, that I've been given a more grim picture of my prospects than might actually exist. As I get into my senior year and start to see what my options are, I'm sure this will get clearer. I think at this point I'm just being neurotic, and stressing at the thought of being that bitter grad student who scares the undergrads with stories of 100k+ debtloads.

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You misunderstand. I'm not saying you don't need a PhD to teach at university, I'm saying that if your primary motivation is to teach, you neither need nor want a PhD.

A PhD program is centered around professional training in research. Its goal is to train you as a researcher. Even in the most forward thinking programs, teaching is at best secondary to this goal. And even at the schools most focused on teaching, you will be expected to produce publishable research. A love of teaching is well and good---even necessary, in this job market---but as the sole (or even primary) motivation for pursuing a PhD? No. Nor, if you were to persevere, would you find the freedom you imagine to teach what you want.

This is not a difference of opinion. This is the way it is.


Edited by telkanuru
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Telkanuru isn't wrong, even if you want him to be. I read a couple of things happening here, so I'll discuss them each in turn below.

1) You want to teach. This seems clear and there are many ways to do this. But, let me be absolutely clear: very few people at any level have real autonomy over everything they do in the classroom. You may be able to choose what you teach to some degree but not have control over other course materials. See below for examples of this.

1a) A friend of mine is a US history professor on the tenure-track. At his university, all faculty are required to use the same textbook because they have a textbook rental program to make books more affordable for students. Consequently, if he wants to change the book used in his survey, he has to either use no book, find something available for free, or convince all of the faculty in the department who ever teach that course to agree to the book change.

1b) Faculty don't always have a huge amount of choice in what they teach each semester, especially at a more teaching-focused institution. If that's where you want to end up, expect to spend most of your course load (5 classes on a 3/3, 6-7 classes on a 4/4) teaching survey and introductory courses which meet the requirements for general education and for those considering the major. If you don't believe, check the schedule of classes for such institutions and see both how frequently you see someone's name and what they're teaching. At many such institutions, you get one or maybe two upper-level courses each year and even then you might not have free choice about which of those you take. That's kinda how it goes.

None of this is to say that high school teachers have more or less ability to do this. I just wanted to point out that there's this myth that college professors just get to teach whatever they want however they want. 

2) You aren't sure whether or not to get a PhD. If there's any doubt whatsoever, then it's probably not a great idea but, don't let that stop you. The thing is that you might, given your interests, be better off doing a History MA + secondary school certification program, rather than a PhD. That would prepare you for both of the paths you're currently considering. 

3) To teach high school, you actually need to obtain a certification, certainly for public schools and even for many private schools. This is likely going to require an additional time and educational commitment from you. Many states will let you pursue an alternative certification route where you teach while also taking part-time courses and being mentored by a more senior teacher in the school/district. That said, such programs show a preference for math, science, ESL, and special education instruction, which doesn't sound like what you're interested in. It'll be on you to figure out how to get into the K-12 classroom without a full teaching certificate or to figure out the optimal way to obtain that certificate.

3a) Also, there's a whole lot of folks with PhDs that decide to teach at the high school level. Many independent and private schools actually prefer to hire those with advanced degrees (incidentally, these are also often the places which don't require a full teaching certificate from applicants). So, your fallback idea is one that a lot of people are doing, which is making those positions more competitive.

I hope this helps! This is what came to my mind as I was reading your posts and the replies to it, Amelu.

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@rising_star and @telkanuru are right.

I want to address some other stuff:

1) To answer your original question, it's virtually impossible to earn a PhD while teaching K-12 full time. PhD programs are full-time. Classes are usually held during 9 to 5 hours, as are meetings with advisors and departmental colloquia, brown bags, etc. You will have to travel for conferences a few times a year and those usually fall during the academic year. Not only that but the work for a PhD program is pretty grueling - I would expect to work at least 40-60 hours  a week on PhD program stuff. I think it would be impossible to do a good job as a K-12 teacher while in a rigorous PhD program.

But then there are the optics...quite frankly, many professors will not take you as seriously if you taught middle school history while doing your PhD with them, even if you could. You may find them less willing to write recommendations for you, work on projects with you, or refer you to jobs - since their perception may well be that you are "just" going to be a K-12 history teacher anyway. (And to be clear I'm referencing their perceptions. I think teaching HS history is awesome - my history teacher from high school was one of the most influential people in my young life.)

2) Your status as a K-12 teacher will likely have no bearing on your application to a PhD program. PhD program admissions are about research, not teaching. It'll probably be neutral; it could even be negative.



3) Don't assume that engagement is going to be higher at the college level. Imagine yourself teaching a survey class - American history to 1855 for example - a class that majors take but also many other students take as a humanities or social science requirement or just for an 'easy' free elective. There are also variable levels of students - you may teach at a community college or a regional campus where students are just taking U.S. history because it's a required part of their program (I think immediately of my mother and my cousin, both of whom had to take that class to get nursing degrees, and both of whom complained bitterly about it). If you are thinking about those kinds of places, you may not even get to teach that many upper-level classes in history where you get that "historical nuance" that you want.

That's particularly true if you are comparing these kinds of scenarios to well-reputed private/independent schools, or even to public schools in excellent districts with better students.

4) Don't apply to PhD programs just because you can. Don't become overwhelmed with choice because that road seems open to you. Quite frankly, it's useless if it doesn't get you where you want. Of course your professors encourage it - they took that road, and there's some validation in having a young person take the same road you did.

5) The most important one

you're fine, the really good grad students will get fellowships and find work eventually, so you've just got to be committed to that struggle", which to me carries the implicit statement that those who don't get full fellowships are being given notice of their inadequacy, and should accept the likelihood that they won't become professorial material


Professors who say this are in denial, a deep, dark denial. Head about 5 feet under the sand denial.

This is NOT true. It has not been true for a very long time.

The academic market is bad, and history is just about one of the worst fields. There are MANY excellent graduate students who do not get tenure-track offers - not because they aren't committed, or because they didn't get fellowships as doctoral students (many of them do), or because they aren't great - but because there simply are are not enough tenure-track positions to go around for all the good to excellent PhD students who want them. That's in part because of the sea change in academia, whereby tenure-track positions are being replaced with cheaper contingent labor wholesale.

It is a MYTH that the hard-working PhD students will inevitably get good jobs, because pretty much every doctoral student in history is a hard-working student. Most PhD students will not get a tenure-track job in history. Now, you will probably get A job because the unemployment rate for PhD holders is pretty low, but it probably won't be a tenure-track job in history, and it may not be an academic job at all. There are good chances that it'll be a job you don't need a PhD for - which means at this point in time, you need to be comfortable with the idea of spending 8-10 years earning a degree for the sake of earning it in and of itself, and not as a career credential. If you don't mind that, go for it! It can be rewarding.


My departmental advisor, and others whose opinion I hold in some regard(family, SO, friends, etc.), say they don't think I'd be happy teaching at a lower level.

It's been my experience that professors are often out of touch with the non-academic world, to the extent that they can't give good unbiased advice about working outside of academia - particularly if the student in question has intimated that they are considering academia as an alternative choice. Not all professors, but most, I think, will go for the option of trying to convince you to enter academia.

In order to be a successful academic you have to be incredibly driven and focused. This necessitates a sort of close-mindedness - see academia, eliminate everything else from field of vision. The result is that most academics have never really done any other kind of work besides academia - and as a result academic culture has some weird assumptions about non-academic work that are not always true, and even if they are true, are not as disdainful as they would have you think. For example, some of my mentors have presented industry work as lacking in autonomy. Many academics seem to believe that their career field is the only one that offers any acceptable level of autonomy and flexibility, and everything else is rigid corporate cubicle culture. I work in industry and have found that to be untrue, but in addition, I don't really care - selecting my own research projects and doing them exactly the way I want without any oversight was never important to me. (And "rigid corporate cubicle culture" is just laughable in light of my own job's culture.)

Also, nobody intends to take longer than it is necessary to finish a program. It's just that some students decide along the way that 10 years is necessary for them to achieve "mastery" or learn enough.

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I don't want them(telkanuru) to be wrong, I hope I didn't come off as such. Their clarification was as helpful as the rest of their feedback so far. Several of you have made a good point re:research vs. teaching, and just how prepared(or not) I would be upon completion. Also appreciated is the insight into degrees of autonomy, should I achieve professorial status. I've considered the MA+ route, and there is a good History MA program near me(Duke). I'm taking a minor that requires attending classes at both UNC and Duke, so that will be a good opportunity for me to check things out. I've already looked at alternate cert. programs(often called "lateral entry"), which would allow me to teach k-12 without an education degree, but require more frequent re-certification. Or, like you said, I can consider private schools with different requirements for becoming a teacher. As you mention, I'm certainly not walking a new path here. Knowing others have done something similar before me is something of a booster, however, in that since it has been done it can still be done. Hopefully that makes sense.

@telkanuru: Thanks for expanding on what you meant earlier, I didn't mean to come across as contrary, and apologize if it were so. Again, someone already doing this thing I'm considering doing is definitely an appreciated source of feedback.

@juilletmercredi: Thanks for the insight re:opinions on k-12 teachers in PhD programs. That was among my biggest fears, should I try for the doctorate later on. I want to be taken seriously as a scholar, but couldn't happily/willingly compromise my ambition to be an educator for that sake. Also appreciated is the feedback about degrees of engagement in various institutions. I felt that teaching AP/IB history courses would help in that regard, but even then I know some people just want to "get through". You confirm some of my worst fears about post-grad employment, which was a big factor in initially having decided on the MA+ track. I had that as my goal at first, but all the friend/family/adviser pushback on "settling" and deciding not to go for a PhD out of the gate had me second guessing. My adviser is among the hardest to discount, because they worked outside of academia before getting their PhD, and now happily do departmental advising and teach several(very personalized/"cool") courses each semester knowing they won't ever be eligible for tenure. They pushed the whole "autonomy over common-core rigidity" angle, and its hard not to believe them knowing they've seen both camps. I don't want to be dragging this out for a decade, but my time at an associate's-dispensing "diploma mill" has me worried about rushing through things, also. :mellow:

I'm very grateful for everyone's feedback so far. It sounds like I was onto a good thing when I first decided for the "MA + lateral entry" route. The (slim)potential of a PhD leading to a teaching position seems a little too tenuous for my tastes. I hate that, because being called "Prof" sounds like just my kind of ego-booster. :P More than that, though, I hate that at a school like UNC, I'm getting sold some bogus line like "it will all work out". That smacked of 'just-so' storytelling, and again I'm grateful to hear the truth even if it is bitter medicine. I've got a year+ left before finishing my undergrad, and my dual-enrollment minor will hopefully give me the opportunity to check out Duke's MA program. I'll keep y'all posted as I proceed, and in the meanwhile I welcome any other thoughts/suggestions on the matter.

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I read those articles and find a lot of authors of those columns have holes in their CVs. They don't have publications, they took longer than normal to finish, they're aiming to R1 institutions coming from lower-ranked programs, among other issues. There was one a month or so ago where the author quit two tenure-track jobs about a year into both because of a spouse's desire to work elsewhere, and the author was wondering why they didn't a third shot at a TT job. 

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