Workload, timelines, advisors, funding, pressure

A very good blog post on what to expect from a PhD program (and especially what the university itself won’t tell you): So You Want To Go To Grad School (in the Academic Humanities)?

Two paragraphs which are especially informative for people who don’t have recent personal experience in a PhD program:

The most important person in the process is your advisor, who is generally a senior member of the faculty in your department who shares your specialization. I struggle to find words to communicate how important this person will be during your graduate experience.. Graduate study at this level is effectively an apprenticeship system; the advisor is the master and the graduate student is the apprentice and so in theory at least the advisor is going to help guide the student through each stage of this process. To give a sense of the importance of this relationship, it is fairly common to talk about other academics’ advisors as forming a sort of ‘family tree’ (sometimes over multiple ‘generations’). Indeed, the German term for an advisor is a doktorvater, your ‘doctor-father’ (or doktormutter, of course) and this is in common use among English-language academics as well and the notion it suggests, that your advisor is a sort of third parent, isn’t so far from the truth.

If you are considering graduate school with an eye towards continuing in academia who you choose as your advisor will be very important: academia is a snooty, prestige conscious place and your advisor’s name and prestige will travel with you. But there’s more than that: your advisor, because they need to check off on every step of your journey and you will need their effusive letter of recommendation to pursue any kind of academic job has tremendous power over you as a graduate student. You, by contrast, have functionally no power in that relationship; you are reliant on the good graces of your advisor.


4 thoughts on “Workload, timelines, advisors, funding, pressure”

  1. But I still agree with the overall advice, with a caveat. If you can craft a dissertation that will have non-academic applications, do it. Knowledge for knowledge sake is dead, but I do know people whose academic work could speak to policy wonks, NGO-land, tech, etc. who have made a reasonably smooth transition to another career path afterward. It’s significant that the author works on ancient history – nobody outside of museums really cares much about that – not only are there not academic jobs for those folks, there aren’t many non-academic jobs either. Basically, for better or worse, people need to consider the market for their research beyond the academy.

  2. I’m tenured in a stem field at an R1 and even my most productive, highly published and cited, and brilliant PhD students have not been able to find jobs in academia over the past few years. The pressure to publish and to produce is absolutely a constant here. My former students now all work in academic adjacent positions (like in writing centers, affiliated research institutes, at review boards, etc.) which I guess kind of feels like the “back door into academia” that you describe, but they all have doctorates in our growing and competitive field. The promise of finding a stable job in academia is essentially a shell game or even just vaporware at this point.

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