Is Graduate School in the Humanities for You?

Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham,
Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham,

A lot of people like the idea of having a graduate degree. Few can imagine themselves actually going to graduate school. But for those thinking about undertaking advanced study, take a serious look at a slightly different proposal: Can you see yourself finishing graduate school? 

For me, this question provokes greater consideration of the issues involved. And if the conversations I have had with my undergraduate students are any indication, this is something we need to talk about more.

This post is a starting block for prospective graduate students in the humanities or liberal arts (specifically programs in the USA). None of the points below are particularly genius. Take them as lessons learned from folks who have gone through the combine.

Should you even attempt beginning (finishing) graduate school? What You Need to Know

 1. You Will Not Be Your Own Boss.

School, by definition, is a place where students are taught. While there are moments of independent learning, completion of a graduate program requires approval from authorities in your field and at your institution. If you cannot take orders, accept criticism, or follow instructions, graduate school will be exceedingly burdensome.

2. The Question is a Communal One.

There is only so much time in the day, and graduate school is a very time consuming activity. Studying, in-class meetings, traveling to and from school, getting school supplies—when you are doing these things, you are not present with your family or friends. When I was in graduate school, I witnessed more than a few classmates go through divorces and breakups. Graduate school need not be named as a direct cause, but it certainly made matters worse. Take seriously the fragility of human connections. Talk to your community before undergoing such a big decision. Your choices affect them, too.

3.  Graduate School is a Means Not an End.

I don’t know many people who can afford to attend graduate school just because. What is graduate school going to help you do that you couldn’t have done before? Have a mental image of this horizon. If a library card and some elbow grease can’t get you the same result, then graduate school may be a worthwhile intellectual endeavor.

4. Are You Willing to be Tested?

Graduate school is not advanced study in all the fun parts of education. It is a set of challenges that will undoubtedly include things you are really bad at. Successful completion of your degree is contingent upon your willingness to do what it takes to improve. This is why people say graduate school is less about smarts than dedication.

5. Time Out of School Requires Extra Commitment.

The more time you have spent out of school, the more of a drive you’ll need to finish. It can be a humbling experience to go back into the classroom. And there might be the added temptation of a more lucrative opportunity outside of education’s halls. At the same time, real world experience can pay off in the classroom. Is it worth it to you to find out how much?

A Look Ahead: What Do You Need to Know to Get to Graduate School?

 6. Build a Mentorship Team.

Applying to graduate school is not an organic process. Successful applicants get counseling in terms of a subject of interest, the financial aid process, and the development of a competitive professional portfolio. Don’t wait for a do-it-all, superstar advisor to pick you out of a crowd. Gather a group of specialized mentors who will make it their business to see you succeed. These can (and, in many cases, should) include former professors, the admissions liaison at the prospective school, your alma mater’s writing/career center, and anyone they recommend.

7. Applying is a Part-Time Job.

The sheer amount of time you will spend scanning promotional materials, scouring websites, and filling out applications is enough to dissuade many bright students. Think about application preparation as a part-time job and adjust your schedule accordingly.

You will have to make sacrifices in order to give yourself the time necessary for building your strongest application.

8. Do Your Homework!

Begin to read up in the area you want to study. Take note of what fascinates you. Find out where this type of work is being done and what you need to be around the people doing that work. It may mean going to a professional academic conference, sitting in on a lecture (or at least watching a streaming version of one), or visiting schools. You may have to bone up on foreign languages, learn some basic research techniques, or devote significant time to standardized test prep. The work does not start when you get accepted to a program. It starts much sooner. If all this excites you, then graduate school may very well be for you.

9. It’s Not About Where You Go But Whom You Will Work With.

In learned society, know one really cares where you went to school. If you happened to have studied at a well-bred or well-known institution, you might have a leg up on making a good first impression. Regardless, the second question anyone in the know will ask you is whom you studied under. Higher education is an apprenticeship. An institution can lend you a brand. A master teacher will equip you with skills.

10. Go Where You Are Wanted, Not Just Where You Are Accepted.

No matter how many schools you get into, there are very few instances where you should go to (or grieve) a school where you are not wanted. [The only exceptions I can think of are those instances of trailblazers who broke or are breaking down Academe’s social barriers (e.g. the color line, the glass ceiling).] The place for you is where your potential is appreciated. Shake off those who don’t see what you have to offer. Trying to please them is not worth it.

11. Money Talks.

If your program is not helping you out with significant scholarship help, then think long and hard before matriculating. Financial aid is a chief indicator of a school’s investment in its students. Scholarship (that is, no strings assistance) and on-campus employment say, “You’re worth it.” Loan offers scream detachment. The higher the degree, the more money you should expect. If the money is not right, it’s worth waiting until you find an institution where it is.

So, Is Graduate School for You?

If you feel that this post has rained on your academic parade, I encourage you to talk to somebody about your aspirations. That’s the point! Ultimately, no list can determine whether you can finish a graduate program, but I hope this brings some clarity to the discernment process. To quote G.I. Joe, “Knowing is Half the Battle.”

I invite you to share widely, ask questions, and add your own two cents in the comments section.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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