So You’re Thinking of Going to Grad School in the Humanities

Graduate degrees in the Humanities get a bad rap, especially in the personal finance community. I often read tongue-in-cheek references to “useless” Humanities degrees.Why, after all, would anyone spend the time on a Master’s (much less a PhD!) in the Humanities when they could pursue the far more lucrative and marketable MBA, science degree, or professional degree?

My own story is hardly a counter-example. I started a PhD program in History in 2010, right after completing my undergraduate degree. I performed exceedingly well. Nonetheless, (spoiler alert!) I walked away with my MA in 2013, just after being awarded a huge grant to do my research in Germany for an entire year. There are many reasons why I quit, which I discuss in greater detail below. Since then, I have worked a series of entry-level jobs which neither require nor reward my Master’s degree.

I don’t regret earning my Master’s in a “useless” subject. I believe in the Humanities, and am concerned by how readily dismissed they are of late, even in academia. I also think the right person, with a little foresight, can avoid or manage many of the pitfalls that led me to quit. Enjoy my cautionary tale, and I hope you can glean something from it.

The Humanities Matter

When I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, there were two main motivating forces at work. Admittedly, I had a lot of fear and indecision surrounding how the heck I was going to go out and get a job. It was 2010 and we were in the middle of a recession. The only thing I knew I was really good at was school.

More importantly, I really did (and do!) believe in the importance of the Humanities. The Humanities teach many important skills. They have made me a better communicator, researcher, and critical thinker. I am able to process information, particularly qualitative information, better because of the Humanities.

Whittling the power of the Humanities down to a toolbox of skills does them a disservice, however, even if that is what we are increasingly asked to do in order to justify their existence against the onslaught of public belief and investment in science and professional fields. The real power of the Humanities is perhaps best summarized by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For . . . applied science . . . the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique.

The Humanities deal with discovering and rediscovering the truth of how to live well in the world. Sciences, and I would argue professional fields, are concerned with understanding what is true in order to subdue the world. The distinction is subtle, but important. As a Christian, I believe the question of how to best live in this world is of utmost importance. Even from a secular view, however, the Humanities are vital in teaching us what it means to be a good citizen. The pursuit of such knowledge is hardly “useless,” and the desire to dismiss such questions raises concerns for me about the health of our society.

As to whether or not such knowledge has to come from a degree, the answer is, of course, no. That is true for all fields. You can learn how to program, for instance, via Google search and Youtube. Degrees are simply the formalized structures to impart the knowledge, and provide the credential to prove you have it. To that end, pursuing a degree in the Humanities is no more or less a good than obtaining a degree in Computer Science. It’s not the only route to the knowledge, but it remains a viable one. And, if a career in academia is of any interest at all, you need the credential.

Get It Paid For

Now that we’ve established that I actually do really care about the Humanities, I’m going to lay down some hard truths. First, you need to get your graduate program in the Humanities paid for. (I offer an exception for the 1% of folks who can pay for it out-of-pocket.) Unlike professional and scientific fields, graduate programs in the Humanities typically offer a fellowship in exchange for teaching and grading papers. Mine was five years at $16,500 per year. If a program is not offering any funding, don’t go. If you can’t get in anywhere that’s not willing to pay for it, still don’t go.

I’m not here to ruin anyone’s hopes and dreams, but here are the facts: If a school doesn’t offer you a fellowship package, two things are at work. Either the school just doesn’t have the money, in which case you will struggle in a department that lacks the resources to help you do your research, or you’re not as impressive as your peers, which also signals hard times ahead.

You will likely not monetarily recoup your time spent in graduate school for a Humanities degree. Even if you get a job in academia at the end of it (more on that below), you still spent five or more years of your working life in school instead of working your way up in a field. Even if you get a job making what your corporate peers make once you finish, they made at least double what you were making in your fellowship years. That is why it is imperative that you not only leave with minimal debt for your Humanities degree, but get paid for it.

In my case, I was very lucky to have the importance of the fellowship package pressed on me by my undergraduate advisor. I consider it some of the very best advice I have ever received. I was also in the unusual position of being married to a non-academic when I started my graduate degree. We were able to live on Mr. Steward’s salary, which allowed me to use my fellowship to pay off my undergraduate loans. I was able to leave grad school with less debt than before I started.

Accept That You May Not Get a Job in Academia and Plan Accordingly

I want to impress upon you two things about Humanities jobs in academia. First, they are getting scarce. Take a peek at the Chronicle of Higher Education for job stats in your field, and you’ll see multiple articles about how there are just not enough Humanities jobs to go around. Senior faculty refuse to vacate and department budgets are getting slashed. There is a very real possibility that you may finish a PhD and not get a tenure-track job in academia. Your advisors may not be as forthright about this as they should be since, having successfully obtained the job that made them your advisor, they played the lottery and won. Some of the most intelligent people in my program, though, people far more personable and insightful than me, are still adjuncts years removed from earning their degree.

Second, even if you get a job, it may not be one you like. Odds are that you will get exactly one tenure-track job offer, if you get one. It may require living in a part of the country that you don’t like, or teaching in an entirely different setting than you imagined. For myself, moving from the small, teaching-focused liberal arts school where I did my undergraduate degree to the large research university where I did my graduate degree was very eye-opening. Before, professor life seemed like the sweetest profession on the planet. I rapidly realized I would not be happy teaching the enormous classes and doing the research required to maintain standing at a large research university, however. I would also be unhappy doing either job across the country from my family. I then realized I had no control over the type of institution or location where I would work, except by not applying for jobs in an already extremely limited job pool.

All of this means you need to be able to pivot in case you don’t get an academic job. That means keeping any marketable skills you have sharp while in graduate school. Are you good at web design? Are you a great salesperson? Whatever you’re good at that is not necessarily exhibited by your graduate degree, be sure to do things to keep those abilities fresh. One of my biggest regrets is not keeping my computer skills up-to-date during my graduate degree, as that would have allowed me to apply for IT jobs when I left. Staying sharp will help you to have options if things do not pan out as you hoped.

Safeguard Your Mental Health

Graduate programs in the Humanities are gruelling. There is more reading than you can possibly complete, the grading work you are assigned is drudgery, you will compete with your peers for funding, you will undergo multiple reviews in which senior faculty explicitly attempt to find holes in your knowledge, and you have no money. Mind you, I had a lot of fun in graduate school, too. I miss having the leisure to read interesting things and talk with other highly intelligent friends about them for hours on end. But those times did not totally counter-balance the rest. By the time I left, I was having panic attacks over the anxiety I felt about, well, everything involving school.

I am not alone in that experience. I can count on one hand the people I knew in my graduate school program who were not on anti-anxiety or anti-depressive medications. It is hard to tell whether that is a function of the type of person going into the degree or if our program particularly lent itself to that sort of stress. Regardless, both would likely apply to you. It is imperative that you safeguard your mental health.

Take graduate school less seriously than everyone–your peers, your faculty mentors–tell you you should. Treat most of it as performative posturing, because it is. Take the time to do things that make you truly happy, even if it means you get a little less reading done. Go to a counselor at the first sign you might need to. Most schools offer a few visits each year for free. In general, be vigilant about your mental state, because you cannot perform well for very long if you sacrifice your mental health.

It’s Okay to Quit

Finally, understand before you start that it’s okay to quit if you decide the program is not for you. A Master’s or PhD in the Humanities is just a credential. Moreover, it’s a credential that holds weight in the very specific milieu of academia. Most of the world doesn’t care.

It is important to understand this now, because it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. When you’ll be thinking about quitting, you’ll be in a social situation where everyone is pursuing the same end, so to not do so is unthinkable. For most people, degrees are bound up with pride and a sense of accomplishment. There is some personal arrogance and a desire for social prestige driving that, but in other ways, it is fitting. The degree also signifies years of hard work and paying dues. The decision to quit requires dealing with all of that mental “stuff.”

But it really is just “stuff.” I ended up quitting for all the reasons I mentioned before, and more. We wanted to stay permanently where we were living. We liked the proximity to our families, and Mr. Steward liked his job. I was increasingly skeptical I would get a job in academia that I liked. I had just spent an incredibly lonely summer doing research in Germany. The prospect of doing it again, for a full year, filled me with despair. And, finally, I wanted to have a baby. I couldn’t figure out how to manage that on top of everything else.

Once I made the decision to quit, I expected there to be big ramifications. I was afraid that formerly perfectionist, over-accomplishing me would now be branded as a failure. I thought people would see me as unintelligent and a quitter to boot.

Yet, the response was mostly positive. My advisor agreed that quitting might be best after hearing me out. My family assured me that absolutely nothing was worth being so unhappy. My friends were shocked, but decided I was brave. In fact, the only negative feedback I received was from the Director of Graduate Studies, who read me the second-wave feminist riot act because some of my reasoning involved family. Since she didn’t know me (or my feminist beliefs) at all, that encounter strikes me as hilarious.

For the record, I am quite happy since quitting. The most stressful moments of my life since do not compare to the anxiety I felt before I left. I felt some insecurity and defensiveness the first few years after, but that has since faded. I don’t regret doing the program at all, but I am also absolutely convinced that quitting was the best choice for me.

And since I’ve entered the work force, I see even more clearly that the PhD is simply a credential. I’ve asked both of my employers, one a university and one a manufacturer, if they would have hired me if I had a PhD. They told me that not only would they not have hired me, I probably would not even have gotten an interview. My experience is that employers find a Master’s in the Humanities to be an interesting tidbit that won’t help you get in the door, but won’t necessarily harm you. The PhD comes with assumptions that you’ll expect too much for a salary or find any entry-level work too dull, and automatically knocks you out of the running. A PhD, in settings other than academia, can actually make it more difficult for you to get a job.

That is why you should be brutally honest with yourself before starting a graduate program in the Humanities. Be clear about what you hope to gain from it, both intellectually and professionally. Let that guide your work. Continually re-evaluate if the program is giving you what you want at a cost you are willing to pay, and hedge your bets as much as possible. My genuine hope for you is that you will always find a way to balance the costs with the benefits, and come out the other side accomplished and with a fantastic academic job. If the costs become too high, though, I hope you’ll find the courage to cut ties with anything that doesn’t allow you to pursue what you really want.

5 Replies to “So You’re Thinking of Going to Grad School in the Humanities”

  1. Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I relate to it from my liberal arts undergrad perspective. You make sure important points about academia and the (grim) reality of trying to land a teaching gig. Thanks so much for being so honest about this!

  2. Erin | Reaching for FI

    Humanities for life!

    You touched on some of the very big reasons I don’t have a Master’s and am not really planning on going back to school for it. I would LOVE to take classes and be learning things again, but the thought of homework/essays/group projects/all the writing I’d have to do makes me want to run away screaming. I’ve been out of college for almost 4 years and I STILL am burnt out on writing essays (I took college way too seriously, can you tell?).

    I also don’t know what I want to do. That’s a fantastic point about going somewhere where you get a fellowship that I’d never considered, although I don’t know if you’d have to go full-time to get that. I’d most likely be going part-time while working, and I can’t afford it. But why waste money (mine or the school’s) on a degree that I’m not actually sure I want and haven’t been told I need for my job? So when HR wants to talk about supporting me through whatever I want to do, including grad school, I just have to laugh. It’s very likely never happening. And I’m okay with that.

    • Ms. Steward

      Woo Humanities!

      Funny enough, the stuff I did for my Master’s (the reading, essays, etc.) was the part that was fine for me personally. It was when I got to the research stage and I had to justify why my work mattered to get funding. I did, quite successfully, but it felt like bs. Everyone I knew, in truth, was researching what they were researching because it was personally interesting to them, but you can’t just say that. It felt like a huge, frustrating fiction.

      But yes, if the thought of writing essays makes you want to die, now is not the time for a Master’s, ha!

      Your comment picks up on a category I hadn’t thought about existing. My employer won’t pay for a Master’s in the Humanities. It has to be relevant to the job, which basically means science, IT, accounting/finance, or an MBA in my workplace. If other folks were in the position of being able to be paid to get a Master’s by their employer, it wouldn’t hurt as long as you wanted to do the work otherwise. I grant an exception to the fellowship rule for that. 😉

      Fellowships are usually granted to PhD students (or in my case, students doing a combined MA/PhD). That usually implies full-time, especially since the fellowship itself usually includes grading/teaching duties amounting to a part-time job, on top of classes. I think it would be really hard to get a fellowship attending part-time, as in, I’ve never heard of that happening.

      So many interesting perspectives I wasn’t thinking about when writing! I appreciate the comment!

      • Erin | Reaching for FI

        Ah that makes sense that fellowships are only full-time. Yeah we have a tuition reimbursement program at work, but I think it’s all of $1,000. Per calendar year, not semester. So it’s definitely not happening anytime soon. And I do want to laugh when HR brings that up as something I’ve mentioned doing in the past. Yeah, as part of a “well maybe I’d do that in the future” thing, but not seriously! Remember how you already don’t pay me enough and I’m asking for more??

        Plus I tend to ask shitty research questions which would make a thesis difficult haha

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