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Grad School Strategy

Thomas Benton, pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal arts college, recommends that students who wish to pursue a doctorate in the humanities should seriously consider the following:

Do not pay for graduate school.

Not even if it is the best program in your field. Do not accept future promises (for example, a job) instead of fair payment in the present.

Steady employment in academe after graduation is so unlikely that you should treat grad school as a job in itself rather than as career training. Given the low wages typically earned by Ph.D.'s in the humanities (even on tenure track, starting salaries are around 40K), you should try to graduate without debt.

Apply to lots of universities.

From 10-15 is a manageable target if you are serious. Diversify your applications to include many different kinds of universities and don't limit your applications to the top 20--there are some excellent departments at mediocre universities. 

Consider the department's individual faculty members: Is there anyone with whom you would particularly like to work? Ask your academic advisors, but trust your own instincts as well.

Use multiple acceptances to leverage a better package.

Almost everything is negotiable for a good student who has been accepted by more than one grad school. Be sure to get everything in writing!

Research like your life depends on it.

Do not select a grad school solely on the basis of your financial package. Once you have a plausible offer, you have to find out whether it is worth accepting. Make phone calls and visit the campus to talk with students and faculty "off the record."

Research the institution and do not rely on what the institution says about itself. 

Research graduate student culture: How long does it take most students to get their Ph.D.'s? A high attrition rate is a sign of a dysfunctional department, but it is considered normal for 65-70% of grad students in English to leave before getting a degree. Talk with both current students and students who left without graduating. 

Research the seminar experience. Visit a few seminars, look for faculty members with whom you might like to work, and remember you are evaluating your future peers. Pay attention to your instincts: How would you feel if you had to take this seminar?

Research job placement rates. Many departments will give you the names of recent grads who have been successfully placed in tenure-track positions. The most reliable recent data indicate that about 50% of Ph.D.'s in the humanities eventually find tenure-track jobs, but individual departments can have significantly different stats.

Research advising. Your dissertation advisor will be the most important person in your academic career, and your final choice of a grad program should take into account potential relationships with a few specific people. Search Dissertation Abstracts International for your potential advisors' former advisees and find out whether their dissertations have been published and where they are employed. Make arrangements to speak with these former advisees, and remember that what they say or do not say can be quite revealing.

You are not powerless.

Remember that universities operate as businesses, and you cannot trust a university to look out for your best interests. Remember also that--until you have accepted an offer of admission--the power is in your hands. After you enroll, you will have little to bargain with except the possibility of leaving the department, an option exercised by the majority of grad students. 

But there are always new grad students, who feel honored to be admitted and then forget to do their research. Don't be one of them!

Any student who is discouraged by these warnings probably lacks the determination and psychological resilience to make it through the process, which is for neither the timid nor the uninformed.

Excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2003

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