Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Should I Go to Grad School in the Humanities? One Person’s Opinion

with 8 comments

I’ve been talking about this all day on Twitter, in response to this piece from Pete Coviello. Here’s my take on this, granting of course that it’s rooted in my own experiences, and my personal assumptions about how a young person living in America in 2012 (who is not already wealthy) ought to spend their twenties. Naturally, reasonable people may disagree!

It’s all much more bloodless than Coviello’s, and (despite the fact that I genuinely loved my time in grad school and all the people I came know there) apparently much more cynical. Alas.

Should I Go to Grad School in the Humanities?

Well, if you have passion for the material,

  • which you anticipate will be lifelong,
  • such that you desire a tenure-track career in the academy teaching this material to students who will very commonly not share your enthusiasm for it, at least not at first,
  • that you are prepared to relentlessly, even ruthlessly, pursue for the next decade or longer,
  • through personal and financial circumstances that may be quite difficult,
  • with no guarantee of success no matter how worthy you are or how hard you try,
  • due to contingent and systemic factors that have nothing to do with you,
  • knowing that even if you are successful you may be forced to live in a place you do not want to live for the rest of your life,
  • and you have been admitted to a highly ranked program in your field,
  • with recent placement rates that suggest your ambition of securing the kind of TT job you want is reasonably achievable,
  • which is prepared to pay you genuine living wages to go for the whole time you will be there,
  • such that you do not need to take out any additional loans,
  • and you will have benefits, especially health insurance,
  • and you have a realistic fallback career that you will be satisfied with, which you are already qualified for, or will become qualified for over the course of your time in grad school,
  • and your health is good,
  • and you think it will stay that way,
  • and you’re willing to give up more than what’s already listed here to make all this work,
  • including the ability to live in the same geographic location as your partner, again potentially for the rest of your life,
  • and your partner (if you already have one) is also willing to make big sacrifices on behalf of your ambitions, perhaps in the end to sacrifice even more than you,

then—if you’re really asking me—personally I think you’re in a place where it could make sense to consider going to grad school in the humanities.

Written by gerrycanavan

November 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I’m uncomfortable with the phrasing of “and your health is good” but don’t know how else to phrase what I mean. In the United States, a grad student’s health insurance is entirely dependent on their continued status as a student, and grad students aren’t eligible for much of the governmental society safety net or for private disability insurance alternatives. This makes health crises a much more serious risk for late 20s / early 30s grad students than just about anyone else in the system. It’s something that has to be factored in somehow.


    November 14, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    • The question of health is important in another way as well, though I think that to state it this way borders on discriminatory (let’s just say I’m describing a situation I’d like to change rather than one I’m happy about) – the way PhD students are expected to work, not just during the time enrolled in the degree program but in many cases well beyond that, is frequently incompatible with the kind of major health issue (immune disorder, chronic pain, etc.) that requires one to take good care of one’s body and mind!

      Jenny Davidson

      May 11, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      • I don’t know if that’s any more discriminatory than what I said, but both cases point to a social refusal to make reasonable accommodations for disability and difference.


        May 11, 2016 at 3:24 pm

  2. This is sad but true. it’s something I came to terms with as an undergrad (now thinking about going to grad school). But, you know, college was never meant to be vocational training for a career. I agree with the last points, unfortunately I have had a similar experience. My boyfriend wanted to get a PhD at a college in Canada and I was reluctant to move there for 4 years just in order to be near him.

    Crystal (@therocktimist)

    November 14, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    • The partner has to make each move in succession. It’s not easy.


      November 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm

  3. I don’t think that your piece is cynical in the least. What is cynical is graduate programs that train bright, young students for non-existent careers–and profit from the practice. At the public university I attended, the department got funding based on the number of semester-hours of student enrollment. In my second year of graduate school, I went to the graduate adviser and told him I was thinking about leaving the program because I was worried about some of the issues above. He talked me into staying, which I now consider to be some of the worst advice I was ever given. In retrospect, it was probably his job to do that. I ended up a lecturer who still loved his work until I got laid off in the budget cuts of 2009. Now, in my mid-40s, I scrape together a living from various non-academic jobs and have no health insurance.


    November 15, 2012 at 5:32 pm

  4. […] a Ph.D. This is stirring, but all the same my unhappy advice hasn’t really changed since the last time a rebuttal to the just-don’t-go doomsayers was making the […]

    Tuesday! « Gerry Canavan

    February 5, 2013 at 12:23 pm

  5. I would strike out the “even ruthlessly.” In fact, I would say that you should only go to grad school if you have a passion for the material such that you are willing to work against those “contingent and systemic factors that have nothing to do with you,” beyond the relentless pursuit of a tenure-track career for yourself as an individual. If you think you have such a passion but aren’t willing to join a union, for instance, in its fight for better systemic treatment of all academic workers, then I don’t think you should go to grad school.
    Other than that, though, great list!


    May 11, 2016 at 8:03 pm

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