You love history. But should you go to graduate school for a PhD?
(What do people do with a history PhD? Scroll down.)
Here are some hard questions to ask yourself before you apply. If your answer to any of them is “no,” then you should not do a PhD.
- Can you meet the rigorous qualifications required to get into one of the top 10 schools in your subfield?
- Do you have a concrete research agenda in mind and are you committed to the primary aim of PhD training, which is new and original research (not teaching, not public engagement, etc.)?
- Are you willing to enter a training program in which, by conservative estimates, over 1/3 of grad students develop mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety?
- Are you willing to relocate your family for 5-6 years, probably to a place with a high cost of living (Boston, Bay Area, etc.)?
- Can you deal with living on a grad student stipend as low as $12,000 per year (with no benefits aside from basic health insurance)?
- Are you willing to work without supervision at least (and likely more than) 50 hours per week, including part of most weekends?
- Are you ready for a competitive grad school environment in which you may have to fight for the above grad student stipend (through competitive TAships, etc.) and any other kind of research funding you may need (competitive travel grants, etc.)?
- If you make it through the program, are you willing to go through the grueling academic job market, in which most postings (even at small state schools and 4 year colleges) can expect to receive 150+ applications from qualified PhDs?
- Are you willing to relocate to whichever school does, if you are lucky, decide to hire you even if it’s in rural [name a state you don’t like]?
- Are you willing to go back to your previous career if you don’t get a job, having sunk up to $500,000 in opportunity cost into the PhD?
- Will it ruin, or at least seriously set back, you and your family financially?
- Will it take a serious toll on your family life? E.g. will your partner be able to find work near your grad school, academic job?
If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, you should not go to grad school for a PhD.*
Answered “no”? Here are some alternatives to check out:
- Get involved in local public history programs, museums in your area: many of these institutions are looking for knowledgeable collaborators for giving tours and talks, as well as forming ongoing public education and outreach relationships with teachers (which I imagine would be great for you and your students). They also often run summer seminars for teachers that can offer grad school-esque intensive training. Continuing education can happen anywhere: it might be most pleasant over dinner with a new friend.
- If you’re a high school teacher, check out the NEH Summer Seminars for secondary teachers, run annually on a variety of
topics. These are organized and led by top-tier professors in the theme areas for a 3 week intensive course. And they’re usually held in fun places.
- Look into publishing with history magazines and public history outlets. There are lots of opportunities for writing that don’t involve the grueling, exhausting work of writing a monograph and pitching it to a big academic publisher like Oxford or Yale. There are also lots of great podcasts.
- Check out speaker series hosted by your local university’s history dept. Many departments run lots of lectures open to the public, which can be another way to find collaborative opportunities and generally connect with people you might not have met yet.
- Consult professional organization resources pages, such as the AHA’s: https://www.historians. org/teaching-and-learning, to get connected with other opportunities.
What do People Do with a History PhD? (via the American Historical Association)
[Nicolas Sanson, North America with California as an island, 1650]