Help with deciding on further education: graduate edition

In the first two parts of this series, we focused on undergraduates looking at all levels of graduate education. Undergrads have different needs than students who’ve already experienced grad school: they’re usually less socialized into the academic world and less aware of larger trends in academia (that is, outside of their own discipline). Students who have already gotten through at least part of their graduate training have picked up on some of these trends (in my experience, by talking to older grad students — but that might not be true for everyone). In this last post, we review questions that an MA student (or degree-holder) looking at PhD programs should consider.

Before tackling them (there are a lot), we recommend reviewing the questions for undergrads, because we don’t always recover the same ground. Some questions that appear even at the BA-to-MA stage are still relevant for the MA-to-PhD stage.

  • A reiteration: what are you hoping to gain from this degree?

A PhD in Classics is virtually useless outside of academia. By “virtually useless”, I don’t mean that you won’t acquire useful skills; I mean that those skills need considerable translation and application before they are accepted by a future non-academic employer. So if you want to immerse yourself in the study of the ancient world for several years and are aware of the strong possibility that you will not have a professorial job upon graduation, that’s fine. You have your eyes open, and that is your choice.

If you are going to graduate school because you have always dreamed of being a professor and you can’t imagine doing anything else, you may owe it to yourself to try — but please (for your own sake) do so with the knowledge that successfully becoming a professor is sort of like successfully becoming Taylor Swift, or winning the Powerball. You won’t ever do it if you don’t try, but the chances are not that great even if you do.

If, on the other hand, you’re going to grad school because the life of a prof seems pretty sweet (summers off, a max of 15 hours of work a week, stability after 7 years, and a high paycheck) — well, you probably shouldn’t go to grad school. Also, read the links at the beginning of the series, or check out the lives of most professors in North America.

  • If you are continuing in your current program, have you lost or will you lose funding opportunities?

For example, if your program maxes out at 6 years of internal funding and you’ve already completed a two-year MA, do you only have 4 years or funding left, or does the clock start over again? Are there special granting opportunities for ‘new’ PhD students that don’t apply to you as a flow-through student?

If so, there may be alternative funding for continuing students. So funding is something you should keep in mind, but is not in itself a deciding factor unless there’s not enough (see questions for MA/PhD programs on completion time).

Also, if you did your MA work at your undergraduate institution, it’s generally considered a plus if you do your doctoral work at a second institution.

  • What is the graduate to dropout ratio of this program?

Most institutions don’t publicly share this information, but they should be able to tell you intake and completion for the past few years. Having some graduate students fail to complete isn’t a red flag, but if the numbers are substantial (say more than 80%), that signals a potential problem. Ask why — some possible answers are funding problems (see above), inadequate supervision (see below), graduate expansion (if a program expands too quickly, it may contract quickly as well), or just bad luck. In a small program in particular, 1-2 students who fail to make the transition from student to scholar (more on this later) can make a huge difference.

Again, it’s really important to collect information before making a decision.

  • Do you have a preferred supervisor in this program? If s/he is unable or unwilling to take you on, can the program offer you a backup?

As an MA student, you should have a pretty good idea of the general area that you want to specialize in. You don’t need to know that you want to focus on vegetal motifs of imperial-era public monuments in Africa, but you should have some basic idea, like “Roman art and archaeology” (as opposed to Greek art and archaeology, Roman history, etc.).

There may be exceptions, but I generally wouldn’t recommend that one of my students attend a program where all eggs are in one basket. Academics move. In classics, my sense is that horizontal movement is becoming more frequent than it used to be, particularly as new programs and research centers open up. (I may be wrong about this — but the point about movement remains.) You don’t want to go to a program solely for professor X if the program is otherwise not the right fit for you. What if professor X leaves in your first year? Usually a supervisor will help advanced students complete, but that’s only relevant once you hit the dissertation stage.

Similarly, if there’s no one whose research interests you in a program, you probably should choose a different program. Ideally, you want to find a program with a small-to-midsize cadre of faculty whose research interests overlap with yours. This group can include scholars outside of your precise discipline (in our example, a Roman historian or a Greek archaeologist could be a helpful complement to a committee), but shouldn’t be entirely made up of them.

  • Are you allowed to pick your supervisor? What are the guidelines (if any) for your relationship?

The brief answer should be ‘yes’ and ‘it’s better if there are some’. This counts double for anyone who doesn’t consider himself or herself assertive. But supervisory relationships are too important to dismiss so quickly. More on this in a later post.

  • What are the typical requirements for the degree, both spoken and unspoken?

All programs will have a set curriculum, usually laid out on the website as a series of required and elective courses. (In this sense, a PhD is just like a BA/MA.) These are the formal requirements of the program, but they might not be the complete requirements of the program. That’s because sometimes the requirements are vague, such as “students must pass language exams in relevant languages of scholarship (usually French and German)”. Depending on your topic, you may need to prove additional linguistic competency for your degree, which may entail taking more exams.

There’s nothing wrong with this practice — far from it. If you are working on Roman Judaea, competence in Aramaic and modern Hebrew will help you in your career. If you are working on Roman Spain, competence in Spanish will help you in your career. But if you don’t already know these languages, you will have to spend time learning them, which leads to a longer time-to-degree. In other words, you may want to ask if you can substitute languages (e.g., Spanish instead of French) or gain additional funding and/or time to immersively learn one while also doing research (i.e., study abroad).

It’s fair to ask what ‘competence’ means in this context, as it differs from program to program and language to language. (Usually reading knowledge is sufficient for modern languages, and dictionaries are acceptable — unless you are an archaeologist, in which case you may need to prove some level of speaking ability. Ancient language exams are typically completed without a dictionary.)

Other unspoken requirements may include teaching, TA or RA work, or some form of service. These are meant to provide you with professional development, and I can’t think of any program that doesn’t offer at least one of them. During your seminar stages, these shouldn’t be a problem to fit in, but in the dissertation stages (especially as you near the end of your guaranteed funding) you don’t want to be overwhelmed. So you should consider all of these aspects as a balanced part of your degree program, fitting them into your time-to-degree.

  • Have you spoken to the other students? Are they happy?

Graduate students can have bad days just like everyone else. They can feel overworked and bitter. But on any given day, and particularly among those current students who have volunteered to meet prospectives, you should find several happy and excited peers. Consider these people carefully, especially the ones who are in year 1, because they are going to be your friends. And your grad school friends are your network of future colleagues.

If this seems unlikely, it is probably not the place for you.

  • Are you willing and/or able to work outside of your institution?

Some institutions frown on this. If you are an international student, it may also be illegal. But remembering that stipends are small and funding runs out eventually, you may want to keep this option in the back of your mind.

If you are at all concerned about non-academic careers, working part-time in a non-academic job can also be helpful.

  • How is the career center?

Some career centers offer specialized services for graduate students. That’s what you’re looking for.

Current PhD students in classics face a pretty terrible job market. As you get close to exiting your program, you’ll want to work with the faculty (who know more about academic hiring conventions) as well as the career center (who can help with standard resumes and cover letters). Yes, both. Because while it is incredibly draining to apply for jobs with totally separate requirements and conventions at the same time, it’s better than being unemployed.

Of course, if you’re not ready to work outside of academia, you may only want to see whether they offer a dossier service. A dossier service is a repository for your recommendation letters and other confidential information. Some schools offer them for free (you pay to send the letters out, but not to store them). If not, you will need to invest in an account at Interfolio (or whatever has replaced it by the time you graduate).

  • How is your health?

Graduate school isn’t a marathon: it’s an ultra-triathlon. You will be tired. You will be stressed. You will be anxious, depressed, delighted. You should be prepared.

I am not suggesting that people who have less-than-perfect health need to avoid graduate degrees, but you should be aware of your own health status and prepared to cope with additional mental stressors (even over an MA program). Maybe you have a really strong support system already. That’s great! But if you don’t, you may want to build one up either before or during your program.

Physical health and mental health are equally important in this regard. Basically, before starting graduate school, you want to know how to take care of yourself — not in the sense of being able to do laundry (but that’s good too!), but in the sense of knowing that when you’ve had a really bad few days in a row, what you really need is a hot bath, a window-shopping spree, a game of soccer, whatever. It’s different for different people. Gnothi seauton.

You may have noticed that we do not, at any point, ask you to ask about job placement. That’s because the job market in Classics currently is not predictable, and previous success in placement does not guarantee future success. Students from very good programs are not guaranteed jobs; students from moderately good programs may well get jobs. Most graduates of PhD programs will not get stable professorial positions. It’s much more important, if you choose to pursue an advanced degree, that you choose a solid, established program with a good career center than a program that advertises something vague, like “high placement rates”.


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