Earning a Ph.D can be incredibly fulfilling. By the end of your time in a Ph.D program, you will have achieved a level of mastery over a certain subject only a few people can claim to possess. You will have written the equivalent of a 250-400 page monograph on that subject. You have the skills and ability to be an effective teacher and researcher. Moreover, you will have a network of mentors, colleagues and friends to call upon for professional and personal support. The relationships you establish in a doctoral program last a lifetime, as those people are some of the few that truly understand what you went through to achieve that degree. You may have some articles in print, perhaps even a contract with a publisher for your dissertation. You may even be one of the lucky few to have a job lined up right out of graduate school.
However, the decision to earn a Ph.D in history is not one to be taken lightly. Statistics from the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that it takes humanities students, on average, seven years to complete a Ph.D from beginning to end. During that time, unless you are incredibly lucky, you will probably face high levels of stress, financial insecurity and very likely an uncertain job market after you graduate. You may have to put off important life events, such as marriage, or children because you are unable to afford it. Even after you defend your dissertation and add the word “doctor” before your name, you may still have to struggle as an adjunct professor, scraping by on $2500 (or less) per class. The market for academic historians, particularly those who specialize in American or European history is currently glutted. The typical tenure-track American history position can draw over 300 applicants. To even make it to the interview round you have to stand out.
To that end, I have prepared some advice for those of you who weren’t scared off by the previous paragraph. If you truly love history (or English, or philosophy), and are prepared to struggle at some points, you can stand out and succeed, in a Ph.D program. You just have to put in the work.
1) Aim high. Where you go to get your Ph.D often defines where you can find a job. Don’t be afraid to apply for some of the best programs in the country. A degree from Penn or the University of Chicago will absolutely be worth it in the long haul. That said….
2) Pay as little as possible for your degree, and hopefully get a stipend from your program. Likely you will have student loan debt from undergrad and maybe your master’s degree. Many Ph.D programs offer full funding. Find these programs and pursue them aggressively. I accepted the offer I did because they offered me full funding for four years. While this was useful, I’m just finishing my seventh year in the program, and I’ve had to adjunct at several schools to make ends meet. Graduate school is enough stress without having to worry where the money will come from.
3) Be open-minded. You may enter your Ph.D program insisting you want to write about colonial Native American whale fishermen and discover after a year or two you are actually interested in Cold War politics. You will be exposed to a lot in a Ph.D program and you will have to live with your topic (and your advisor) for A VERY LONG TIME. It may even define your career. Make sure it’s something you actually enjoy.
4) Learn how to read (and understand) a book a day. Trust me on this, it will make studying for comprehensive exams—you have to read 200+ books—much easier.
5) Be as active as possible professionally. Attend conferences, present at conferences, submit articles to big-name journals and don’t be afraid to approach a super-star in your field for advice or feedback. The more professional activity you have as a graduate student, the more attractive you are. Connections matter.
6) Have a back-up plan. Do public history coursework or an internship at a museum or a university press in their editing division. Learn about digital humanities or podcasting or material culture. Having skills that will make you marketable in an alternative academic (alt-ac) field is a necessity in today’s job market.
7) Budget time for social interactions. Graduate school is what you make of it. It can be an isolating, monastic existence, or you can actually have fun. Arrange get-togethers for you and your colleagues, put together reading (or writing groups) with other graduate students interested in similar topics. This goes for outside academia too. Make time for your significant other, and be prepared to talk about things that have nothing to do with the nineteenth-century British Empire or the Qing dynasty. This will keep you sane and make returning to your dissertation or your reading easier.
That’s it. I am scheduled to graduate this May, and I can honestly say that earning my Ph.D is both the most enriching and frustrating experience of my life. I hope these small pieces of advice can help you out as you consider taking that next step.
Joshua Britton is a graduate of Duquesne University’s public history MA program (’07) and is currently a Ph.D candidate at Lehigh University. Josh is preparing to defend his dissertation, entitled “Building ‘A City of Homes and Churches’: Elites, Space and Power in Nineteenth-Century Brooklyn,” and hopes to graduate in May.