What advice for students considering grad school in humanities?

Painting depicting a rhetorics lecture in a knight academy, painted by Pieter Isaacsz (1569-1625) or Reinhold Timm (d. 1639) for Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen, Denmark.

[Ed. note: This originated as an email from David on the Consortium or Art and Architectural Historians (CAAH) list serv, and he has kindly repurposed it into an edited blog post for AHTR.]

Many of us teaching in a college setting will eventually—or regularly—talk with our students about the realities of graduate school. As a recent PhD graduate and someone very close with many other recent PhDs (as well as current graduate students) I’d like to offer some thoughts and perspective. The following essay is largely based on an email exchange with several other art historians, one of whom (Roger Crum) was interested in hearing about “approaches and perspectives on the whole enterprise of pursuing an advanced degree in the field” and “the whole process and philosophy of entering into this world in 2014.” These elements of the conversation—on the perspectives, philosophies, and realities of graduate school—are critical to the discussion we can have with our students. In 2014, I think it would be remiss of us—irresponsible, really—not to address some significant concerns for any undergraduate considering grad school.

The biggest issue, in my view, is that we’re at a point where I don’t think we should be pushing anyone into graduate school, or even promoting that path without serious reservations. Rather, the best we can do is tell students the reality of grad school and the job market, and then have them read as much as possible. Doing a simple Google search of “Should I go to graduate school in the humanities?” (or some variation) will provide students with a range of articles, each with links to more articles and opinions. If that seems too daunting, a good starting place are the essays by William Pannapacker, writing under the pen-name Thomas H. Benton (e.g., http://chronicle.com/article/The-Big-Lie-About-the-Life-of/63937/). I’d also suggest reading anything by Karen Kelsky (http://theprofessorisin.com/) or Rebecca Schuman (https://chroniclevitae.com/people/111-rebecca-schuman/profile). All those authors are pretty aligned on one side of the issue (though they do have their difference), but I think that’s a result of the current situation. I.e., people aren’t writing essays on how wonderful grad school and the academic job market are because those things aren’t exactly the case.

A necessary part of this conversation is giving the most up-to-date information on the realities of the job market. While the particulars vary by field and year, consider that in medieval/Byzantine art there is currently one job position of which I am aware at the time of this writing. That is a sobering thought, but something that can very concretely illustrate how difficult—some might say near impossible—it can be to find full-time work. The old adage of “good people will always find work” is clearly no longer applicable (unless we accept that there are far, far, far fewer “good” people out there than we thought—which I know is not the case). Our students need to hear these numbers. Hiding this reality, either from current undergrads or prospective grad students, is irresponsible at best and downright unethical at worst.

Any discussion of grad school should be bluntly honest about name recognition and the effect that might have on a student’s post-grad school options, depending on what an undergrad’s eventual goals are. I can’t speak for the museum world, but it’s a truth universally (if covertly) acknowledged that certain doors in higher ed can open or shut for you depending on where you received your PhD. Having an Ivy after your name (or not having one) can influence your career, or even the options you have prior to your career. I don’t mean to suggest academic predestination, but it’s dishonest to claim that something akin to “White privilege” (albeit on a far less socially damaging and egregious scale) doesn’t exist in academia. Having met many people from a wide range of schools, I am confident in stating that people of all abilities can be found in every type of institution, from SLAC programs to large publics to Ivies. That said, academics and hiring committees are not immune to the phenomenon of Ivy bias, or other kinds of bias.

Consider the faculty profile for a large public university that is hiring this year. Out of the department’s 17 faculty members,

* 10 are from Ivies (nearly 60%)

* 4 are from the UC system

* the remaining are Northwestern and a couple foreign institutions

Another department that is hiring this year, at a small liberal arts college, has a six-person faculty with four from Ivies (67%) and another from the UC system (the last from a foreign institution).

The point here is not to bemoan the state of hiring practices, but rather to provide people—students, in particular—with a bit of data that reflects the current reality. And for those who would argue the sample set is too small, I would agree, with the caveat that in one instance the sample set cannot be any larger because there are no other jobs listed in the particular field, and thus no other departments to examine.

If data is not convincing—and sadly, we do not have enough data on hiring practices in this field to make really convincing claims—there is always anecdotal evidence. I recall years ago hearing from a friend at a large public research university that when her department was hiring they made two piles of job applications: one pile was Ivies, one was not. You can imagine which pile she said they hired from. I doubted the truth of this story until several years of hiring decisions seemed to confirm it.

Note that even before you get to the job market the choice of a school can influence your options, and students should be aware of this. If an undergrad is seriously interested in a CASVA fellowship, for example, then she can improve her chances by steering clear of any school that isn’t an Ivy or a big name. Out of 45 fellowships awarded over the past five years, 25 went to Ivies; if you include Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and the UC system, the number swells to 35. The data set looks remarkably similar for the five years preceding (2006-2010): 22 Ivies, and 11 more from the schools just mentioned.

In no way am I suggesting other programs don’t have benefits. Nor is an Ivy a guarantee of success. In the current market, there is no guarantee of success, and people with Ivy league degrees struggle to find jobs as much as others. Furthermore, I am a firm believer in the potential value of an education at any institution, and I know there are great students, professors, and support staff at all sorts of schools. But if a student has a particular path in mind, it is helpful to show her the numbers, such that we have them. For different goals or a different experience many other schools—smaller programs, public universities, etc.—are a great option, or even a better option. But the fact exists that there is hiring bias out there, just like there is gender bias and race bias. Students, who trust us, deserve to hear the truth about this.

It’s also worth mentioning that any discussion of grad school should talk about the realities of gender, race, and class bias in academia. Again, academics are not immune to this. There are some recent studies out there indicating this is a real thing, and most of us also have anecdotal evidence (or have experienced one or more of them firsthand). The point is not to scare or discourage students, but to prepare them and be honest.

In addition to schools we might recommend to students, it is just as important, if not more so, to disclose the graduate programs to avoid, or at least programs that don’t align with the current realities of the job market.If we know a program is exploitative, or unhealthy, or otherwise failing its students, then we owe it to the discipline as a whole, as well as to our students, to prevent people from supporting that department until it gets things in order.

Perhaps most important, students should know what questions to ask potential graduate programs. Most graduate programs are happy to share information on stipends and fellowships, but I think there are other questions that are just as important, if not more important. These would include:

* What is the graduation/completion rate?

* What is the average time to degree (MA and/or PhD)?

* What is the job placement rate for 1-year after completion? Two-years? Five-years?

* What percentage of graduates go on to careers outside academia?

* What specific things does the department do to prepare students for careers, both academic and alt-ac? (NB: if the person responding is unfamiliar with or disparaging of alt-ac, advise the student to turn away.)

* What is the department culture like?

* What is the faculty/student culture like? I.e., do faculty members contribute to a vibrant department life, or do they all live in the nearest major metropolitan area and drop by only to teach and attend a mandatory hour of office time? (NB: Students can probably phrase that more tactfully.)

* How many faculty are currently on leave? Is that number typical?

* Can I have a list of current and former graduate students to talk to? Ideally, this is an unfiltered list, as I’ve known departments to cherry-pick students for this sort of task (no doubt a normal practice in all lines of work).

There are other questions, but I think those are pretty critical to start with.

On the topic of MA programs designed not necessarily for academic careers, I think they also deserve to be discussed with caution. One very specific question I would have potential students ask an MA program (assuming they were interested in pursuing an MA not for teaching/research but for work in a nonprofit or fundraising position) is whether the program has training in Raiser’s Edge. I know we like to talk about the intangible benefits of spending years researching art history—and I believe in those benefits, otherwise I would not be teaching—but employers in certain sectors often want specific skills. Raiser’s Edge, from what I gather, is the industry standard for the nonprofit sector.

I bring this last point up to illustrate that there are specific ways we can better train students—at every level—for careers, academic or atl-ac. If a grad program is serious about ensuring its students find employment in or outside academia then it needs to consider whether the program’s activities (i.e., its classes, assignments, etc.) best fit that goal. I know plenty of programs that give lip service to this idea but that do a horrible job of executing it, or that don’t even bother trying. It’s not enough anymore to just claim your program supports both alt-ac and academic careers; students need todemand the evidence of this. If they don’t find it, tell them to run.

Finally, if a student’s goal is a nonprofit, or something similar, grad school might not be the best option. It might make more sense to encourage the student to take an entry level position at a nonprofit, where they’ll gain experience and contacts (and will possibly learn the specifics of a program like Raiser’s Edge). Grad school offers benefits beyond just job training, and that’s great, but that’s not a reason to push students into it given the current situation.

The above-mentioned items are topics and concerns on the minds of nearly every current or recent grad student I know. In short, I think that the discussion of grad school with an undergrad should be just that: a discussion. We should be honest and open with our students and ultimately let them make their own decision—a decision that is as fully informed of the risks and realities as possible. Except in unusual cases where the circumstances warrant otherwise, our conversations with students need neither condemn nor condone grad school (although I would certainly lean toward the latter). Instead, they can simply serve as the beginning of an undergrad’s own exploration of the decision—a decision that should not be taken lightly.


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