Some Ugly Truths I Wish I Knew Before Going into a PhD Program
And 8 Tips for Surviving Them
Graduate school was for me, as I am sure it is for many, intellectually thrilling. It was a wonderful time of self-discovery and deep learning. I would do it all over again in a second. However, I also have to acknowledge that most of my cohort did not have the same experience. Of the students who were on campus attending classes at the same time as me, across two departments in a joint program, fully half of them did not complete the PhD.
In talking with colleagues who earned PhDs in the humanities from other similar institutions in the same era (ca. 2010), my program seems to have been somewhat more extreme than most, but not a complete outlier. On the whole, the consensus is that PhD programs seem to be intended to weed out rather than to support, to grind down rather than build up. The environment is often toxic; the pitfalls are many; the allies are few.
In the interests of being transparent with prospective grad students about what they are getting themselves into, I would like to share the ugly truths I wish I knew before I went to a PhD program, and a few tips I learned along the way that might help others to survive the ordeal:
- Many of my cohort-mates who dropped out of the program did so because they decided, on second thought, to pursue careers outside of academia. (They went into journalism, the non-profit sector, museums, etc.) I think one of the principal reasons that I was able to finish at all was the fact that I didn’t really see any viable options for my life other than being a professor. This feeling was more like a constant sense of dread rather than self-confidence, mind you, but it kept my eye on the goal and gave me the focus to get there. Take-home point: if you can think of anything else you could be doing with such enormous amounts of time, effort, and opportunity cost, you might consider saving yourself the trouble of learning the hard way, and just go do that instead.
- Most of my cohort who didn’t make it were younger than me. They headed into graduate school straight out of college, or took just a year off in-between. I, on the other hand, had spent 10 years traveling and living abroad, gaining work experience that had nothing to do with academics, reading extensively in the field I would wind up specializing in, and earning a part-time Masters Degree while starting my own business. By the time I decided to go into the PhD, I was crystal clear about both exactly what I wanted to study and exactly why I wanted to do so. I started day one with a clear plan, and every course I took and every seminar paper I wrote was directly related to forwarding that agenda. My point is that there are many other ways to “find yourself,” so why put yourself through the grueling and costly PhD process just to explore and discover your passion? Before you decide this is the path for you, I’d suggest you go get some experience out in the real world, away from school for several years. Only go into the program when your plans and motivations are absolutely clear.
- To the left and right of me, I watched as cohort-mates’ careers were destroyed because of their advisors—including two close friends whose advisors or department chairs actively ignored them for years, and then pushed them out of the program for not being productive enough. My own advisor successfully shielded me from many potential harms along the way at some cost to herself, but this kind of advisor is a rare gem. If you do decide that grad school is right for you, what institution or department you are in and even what subject you study is less important than your relationship with your advisor. Before you enroll in a program, I recommend gathering information from others who came before you, and spending the time to build a personal relationship with your future advisor. Make sure you trust that they are as committed to seeing you finish successfully as you are.
- Twice during my three years on campus, administrative mistakes and departmental misinformation that were beyond my control caused problems with my funding, in one case delaying it for 3 months and in another cancelling it altogether for a semester. For someone with two young children at home, these were not minor matters. Fortunately, I had just enough money from a previous business venture to float my family during these ruptures. Don’t find yourself in the situation of choosing between finishing the program and your kids being able to eat. Line up emergency sources of financial support in case there’s a problem with the graduate stipend, and expect that there probably will be.
- Prepare yourself well for a huge onslaught of stress. It’s not just the work that will pile up—the endless to-do list and the constant pressure to always say “yes” to more tasks—but also the self-doubt and self-criticism. You will have to project strength and confidence every day, even while you are being eaten alive by “imposter syndrome.” The psychological fallout can be severe: several of my cohort-mates left the program because of mental illness or alcoholism. If you have any kind of personal issues, relationship issues, health issues, or anything else that is demanding your energy, I would advise you to strongly consider delaying your enrollment until those situations are resolved. If you don’t already have a repertoire of stress-management and positive psychology techniques, I’d suggest giving yourself a year to learn them before going into the program. Start a meditation practice, get into running and lifting weights, get a dog that needs daily walks outside, take control of your diet, and get more sleep. Try to ingrain these practices into your daily life now, and hopefully they will be sources of strength and resillience you can draw upon later.
- Even if it doesn’t literally take your life, the program will definitely try to take it figuratively. You’re going to be asked to devote 100% of your time and energy to your work—to ignore friendships, relationships, passions, hobbies, and everything else that makes you human. Your intensive training in critique will also likely turn you into an insufferable cynic who is unable to enjoy time with family or friends without “deconstructing the social constructs” of the occasion. While it will seem impossible to do so during your time in grad school, I think you must carve out boundaries and vigorously defend the time you need to feed your soul and maintain your humanity. For me it was time with my kids; for one friend of mine it was joining a roller derby team; for another it was playing in a band. Despite the pressures, you must not let pursing a PhD make you forget that you’re a whole person whose life revolves around more than just the critical theory readings and dealines of the week.
- To add to the self-doubt you’ll start heaping on yourself, you will also have to learn to receive cutting criticism from your teachers and advisors. Some subfields of the humanities are more collegial than others, but sooner or later everyone experiences competitiveness, backstabbing, vitriol, and pettiness, whether from cohort-mates, faculty, or people outside your department. Many of my cohort became demoralized by these exchanges, and retreated into hopelessness. In my experience, the best defense against despair is to surround yourself with supportive collaborators. I’d suggest starting a grad student writing group to share your work, or exchanging drafts with someone at a different school whose work is related to yours. Give each other feedback, share writing tips and resources, and provide a sounding board for each other. If your experience with these groups is like mine, you’ll find that the camaraderie you develop with these people will crystalize into fruitful long-term collaborations and close friendships. These will not only help you get through graduate school, but also will be rewarding in and of themselves for decades to come.
- Finally, please don’t put yourself into a toxic or unsustainable situation temporarily, telling yourself that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully you’ve already been given a reality check about the job market, and have realized that there are far fewer jobs than PhD graduates in every humanities field. For sure there are different levels of demoralization and pain you might experience after graduation depending on whether you land a job on the tenure track, the teaching track, or in the adjunct pool. But, honestly, the light at the end of the tunnel is dim for everyone. We’re all in more or less the same situation after graduation as we were in school: we’re all still treading water, trying to stay afloat in a flawed system that is trying to extract every last ounce of productivity out of us. (Of course it’s capitalism not academia that’s the culprit here, but our critical training makes us hyper-aware of how we’re being exploited every day, and creates even more resentment than usual!) The point is that if you sell out your wellbeing to get through grad school, thinking you’ll be able to make up for it later, you’re definitely setting yourself up for burnout.
These are my ideas, shared in the interests of helping prospective grad students to weigh your options and prepare yourself well for the rocky road ahead. As I mentioned at the outset, my own trajectory was relatively trouble-free, a happy and energizing time. But the carnage was real, and it’s unethical not to talk about it openly.
I’m interested in feedback from readers who are either in PhD programs or who are now on the faculty. What were your experiences like? What were the pitfalls? What tips would you give to those who are just starting out? Your comments are welcome below!
This is part of a series on creating a more humane academic culture. See also Let’s Put More Humanity Into the Humanities.