Life Design Resources for Students Considering Graduate School (esp. in the Humanities)

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I’m often asked by students for resources on applying to graduate school in general, and to doctoral programs in the humanities in particular. While there are a number of great resources out there that help students with the “how” of applying to graduate school (i.e. how to write a CV, how to write an effective personal statement, how to approach faculty for a letter of recommendation), this list of resources is meant to help students with the “why” and to help them – as much as possible – really prototype the experience of spending 5-7 years of their life pursuing an education for which there is no reliable career outcome on the other end.

Joshua Rothman, The Impossible Decision

Students often approach pursuing a Ph.D. as if it’s a more focused continuation of their undergraduate studies or a relatively low-paying but intellectually rewarding first job. The reality though is that the decision to pursue doctoral education is neither. Rather, it is – as Joshua Rothman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, argues – “representative of a whole class of decisions that bring you face to face with the basic unknowability and uncertainty of life.” Not only does the decision involve a range of factors (some easily measured, others less tangible), but:

Grad school is a life-changing commitment: less like taking a new job and more like moving, for the entirety of your twenties, to a new country. (That’s true, I think, even for undergraduates: grad school is different from college.) Grad school will shape your schedule, your interests, your reading, your values, your friends. Ultimately, it will shape your identity. That makes it difficult to know, in advance, whether you’ll thrive, and difficult to say, afterward, what you would have been like without it.

As with other experiences that leave us transformed on the other side (becoming a parent, moving to a foreign country, etc.), the decision as to whether or not to attend graduate school is somewhat resistant to Life Design. Prototyping can get us part of the way, but it’s our aspirations and sense of curiosity more than anything that drives our decision.

Imagine Ph.D.

Students may initially be drawn to a Ph.D. program out of a desire to pursue a “life of the mind” and becoming like their professors that so inspired them during graduate study. The reality is that the vast majority of people who pursue a Ph.D. will not become tenure track faculty members. The situation is particularly acute in the humanities, which has watched the academic job market go from bad (in the early 2000s) to worse (in the wake of the Great Recession) to truly abysmal (since the pandemic). This is true across fields and programs, such that even students entering elite programs are now encouraged to begin exploring career opportunities early on in their training.

ImaginePhD is a free online career exploration tool developed by the Graduate Career Consortium that I routinely recommend to students in the humanities and social sciences. It includes a handy Skills, Interest and Values Assessment that helps you identify broad career and functional areas that might be a good fit. From there you can dive into 15 different career areas – from Advocacy to Writing – and learn more about the opportunities in those fields. This is a great resource to help students imagine what their Life #2 might look like, should they go to graduate school and (likely) not land a tenure track faculty position.

Considering Graduate School? Six Life Design Activities to Help You Decide

My colleague, Dr. Smiti Nathan, developed these Life Design activities for her blog, Life Design Log. Taken as a whole, they walk through students through each stage of the Life Design process and help them articulate their values and motivations for pursuing graduate study, identify key questions they want to ask and potential stakeholders to whom they can pose these questions, and prototype and test these graduate school experience though Life Design interviews and post-interview reflections. It’s a great resource for students who want more of a step-by-step guide but are still in the exploratory phase of the process.

Phutures Youtube Career Channel

Students considering graduate study often imagine the experience as being something like an extended senior thesis seminar. And since they enjoyed – and were successful in – the senior thesis process, they assume that they will enjoy – and be successful in – graduate school. The reality though is that success in graduate school (and in academia more broadly) isn’t simply a matter of being motivated and smart. There are a whole host of skills that students need to develop – applying for funding, navigating your relationship with your adviser, developing and managing your own research and professional development agenda, teaching, etc. – that they were not taught as undergrads, and often not taught as graduate students in a formal way.

My colleagues at Phutures – the career and professional development office for PhDs and Postdocs at Johns Hopkins – have a fantastic Youtube channel filled with recorded workshops on a range of career-related topics. Not only is this a great tool for career exploration (lots of great career panels on there), but it lays out some of the key questions and challenges that students grapple with during their doctoral studies that most undergraduate are simply unaware of.

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