These quotes are some of the responses made on the Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.  The quotes are sorted by discipline.  You can see the response from other disciplines.  These quotes supplement an article of advice for selecting a doctoral program.  Students responded to the question:  "Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give others entering or in the early years of graduate school? "

The quotes are sorted into six categories.  Generally, there are a half dozen comments per category, the alternating colors are different student's comments.  These categories were applied by us, as we read through the thousands of comments.  They are the most common categories of advice pertaining to the selection of a doctoral program.  The frequency with which various kinds of advice emerged varies by discipline.  You can see the relative distribution here.



Know yourself and know what doctoral study entails

26.6% of the history students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Think seriously about WHY you want to go to grad school in the first place.  If you are simply entering a program because you don't know what else you want to do with your life, take more time before starting a grad program.  If you simply are DYING to be an academic or prof, or are incredibly passionate about your field, then start. 

I was naive entering grad school; I thought it would be a great way to gain an expertise in history that I could then use outside of academia (namely in a writing and editing career).  I didn't realize how focused grad programs are on training ALL grad students to become professors.  I also didn't realize what a long (and sometimes rather grueling) process all of this would be.  Sometimes I wonder if I could have achieved my career goals WITHOUT having gone to grad school.

I don't dislike what I'm doing; but sometimes I'm not sure if it's worth it, considering that I'm not sure I want an academic job.  SO--I would   encourage potential students to talk at length with other grad students and profs, and enter a grad program with their eyes wide open as to what the expectations, demands, and potential outcomes of grad school are.

Talk to people and try to understand, really understand, what grad school is about.  I didn't do a very good job of it and I spent a lot of time taking wrong turns in this program. 

If you are in the liberal arts, especially history, do the degree because you want it.  The job market is horrible and there are no guarantees at the end.  Therefore, keep in mind other job opportunities.

Pick an advisor as soon as you can, and try to find someone personable, with whom you are compatible.  There is plenty of misery involved in working with an ogre. 

Maybe visit campuses early on and meet some of the faculty so you can make an informed decision about where to apply and where to go.


Don't treat graduate school as holding pen for other options.  If you came to graduate school because you always succeeded as a student, bear in mind that graduate school is about turning you into a researcher and teacher. Graduate programs require a pivotal switch in thinking about your talents and desires.  

Be prepared for self-doubts and loneliness; in the end, work is solitude. 


First, ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What do I want to be? Am I really sure that grad school is the place to find myself? If your answer is “I think it would be cool to be Dr. so-and-so,” then forget it. If your answer is: “I have a really good idea of what it means to be a historian/sociologist/folklorist/ physicist, and there is nothing else I would rather be,” then, well, it’s still probably not a good idea. Try catering, or real estate.  If, on the other hand, these alternatives are utterly abhorrent to you, move on to the next step.

Determine if you are pursuing your field (in my case, history) in order to have a career in academia, a career outside the academy, or if you are just doing it because you want/have nothing better to do. If the last point is true, you should either be independently wealthy or content to go into a ridiculous amount of debt for no good reason. Humanities/arts people are no longer valued by today's society, if they ever were.

If the first of these is the case, find out the attrition/completion rates of the Ph.D. programs you are considering. Then look at the placement data upon graduation. Be careful to determine if the jobs that graduates get are tenure-track, full-time or not. If the dept. does not provide this information, or if you cannot determine it from external studies or from talking to graduate students and faculty in the program, DO NOT ENTER the program. The dept. is clearly not being responsible, and not making it easy for prospective students to make intelligent choices. This information is equally important (if not more so) than such issues as the reputation of the program and the funding situation/endowment/ resources. These, of course, are also important, and the prospective student should take them into account when he/she makes his/her decision.

This may be the most important bit of advice: don't borrow $$$ to go to grad school. Not one red cent. Make sure you pursue every possible avenue of funding before going. If none surface, keep your job at Target and keep applying each year until you get funding. It makes absolutely no sense for anyone smart enough to get into grad school to be so dumb as to go neck-high into debt when the job market is so bad (and shows no signs of letting up). I have friends in history programs who are $30,000-70,000 in debt. Amortized over 30 years, they'll be paying something like $500-1,000/ month to their creditors until almost the end of their lives. All this and no equity.


Be absolutely sure you love your field enough to give up time, money, effort, and sweat.... If you're not 100% certain, then do something else for a while.  It's a wonderful, exhilarating, horrible, frustrating process; you'll be poor for years, you'll work like a dog, your advisor will probably kick your ego around a bit, so if you're not passionate about your field you'll probably have a hard time.  On the other hand, it can be a great experience.  I'm glad I did it, but I can't say it's been easy. 


Be sure it’s what you want--grad school and academia are not easy.  As one older student said to me when I was visiting schools, “If there is anything else you can see yourself doing, do it.”  (Cynical, but rings true to me now).  In particular, be sure you love your subject!


Be prepared for years of poverty, long hours, non-existent weekends, exploiting faculty members, Byzantine administrative paperwork, and constant self-doubt.  The first year of graduate school will be the most unmitigated hell you have lived through with the possible exception of 7th grade.  It should get better afterwards.  If not, drop out.


Investigate the program thoroughly

20.1% of the history students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


When selecting a grad school, pick a department that has a strong, supportive community of grad students.  Your fellow grad students will provide you with more advice, support, and intellectual guidance than any advisor.


A university is more than a collection of buildings and brains. It’s a place, too, where you’ll probably spend at least five years. And, given academic job prospects, it might be the last time (before you retire, anyway) where you actually get to choose where to live. If you are happy only within a half-hour of an ocean, stick to the coasts; if you need to see the mountains, avoid Kansas.  If you’re happy where you are physically, you’ll also be a better student and scholar.

Talk to students in the program where you want to go. Buy them a beer and ask them to give you the straight scoop about faculty, attrition rates and time to degree, financial support, campus facilities, if/where people get jobs when they finish, etc.

Your advisor is very important. Find out if you get along personally, what their track record with former students is (do they get support? do they finish? do they get jobs?), find out what their modus operandi is and if that fits your style.

Go to graduate school if you think that you’ll enjoy the school part, and not just because you want the Ph.D. or the academic job at the end of it all. The best (and happiest) students are those who are enjoying the ride.


I don't think many of my peers had an honest explanation of the time that a Ph.D. in history would take, the enormous cost, the dearth of financial assistance (other than loans that would leave many with crushing debt payments--some more than $800 a month), the difficulty of finding employment, or the possibilities for non-academic professions.  Nor were we adequately prepared for the high rate of attrition--I think that it must range between 50-75%--that the university seemed to countenance as an acceptable process.  It was painful to watch friends and colleagues with a deep passion for their studies leave in a cloud of bitterness and failure as the cost of a graduate education finally became too much to bear, or the impossibility of finishing while working 30-40 hours a week finally became evident.


Learn everything you can about the program you're interested in and about the professors with whom you will work. 

Know that it will be a difficult 5-7 years of your life, with little time to devote to other things.  Knowing all that, I highly recommend graduate school to those who are willing to put in the work and the time.  It is worth it in the end!


Carefully examine the actual semester course offerings for several years (not the list of course in the catalog) to determine exactly what the direction of the program is, and what courses they are really giving and who is really teaching.  All too often, and in my program especially, students are accepted for programs that are poorly supported with teaching faculty and courses, which they discover only after entering.  For example, my period in early modern European history, the catalog listed a dozen grad courses and five professors, but in actual fact there is only one course offered, a general seminar, and only one full professor (who rarely teaches) and one assistant professor, who does teach, but who was denied tenure and will not be replaced.  Yet, this year, three students were admitted in the early modern European program. 


Make sure you take into consideration all factors and possibilities before you enter.  For example, are you so good in your field that you will receive competitive funding at every stage?  If not, do you have you own personal resources set aside?  Do you have children -- how does your campus help with childcare, if at all?  How will you fund your research?  What percent of students have research funded by your institution?  If the percentage is small, select a topic that can be researched locally.  Also, explore all money opportunities, not just those in your department or university.   

Have an idea of the field you will study, and, if possible, of the advisor you'd like to work with.  Go to the university and meet that advisor and get a preliminary feel for whether you can work with him or her. Talk to his or her other graduate students -- what kind of advisor does this person make?  Are they hands off and do you need someone who sets deadlines?  Are they autocratic and unconcerned with whether you eat or not?  Ask TONS of questions.   

This is enough, but I could go on for much longer.  The bottom line is, know yourself and the program well.  Don't think things will change for your circumstances - if you think it's an ill fit, it probably is.  There are many wonderful people in academia who can help you when you stall, but if you are in a rigid program and run into problems and you don't find one of those people, it is your academic success that will suffer.


If you have a choice about where to enroll, visit the schools and meet with faculty and students.  Your relationships with your advisors/mentors and with fellow students will play a big role in how happy you are in graduate school and how you will grow intellectually. 

However, also remember that in order to be happy and to learn, you need adequate funding and a reasonable workload in your RA/TA position.  Find out how well your school supports students and what the workload is like.  Ask if graduate student employees are unionized and engaged in collective bargaining.  If not, get involved in the movement to unionize!


Research and meet potential advisors before deciding where to enter graduate school; the same goes for the graduate community.  Collegial support and conversation are very important to one's intellectual and emotional well being in grad school.


Understand the job market

21.3% of the history students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


The first thing I tell new students is that there are very few jobs in humanities/social sciences in academia right now.  Also, there are many, many very bright and talented teachers and researchers who are unemployed or who are forced to take one semester or one-year adjunct positions in which they get paid very little and they teach a great deal.  In other words, the poor job market makes us ripe for exploitation.  I feel like we need to be honest with people entering graduate school.  There are too few jobs and too many Ph.D.s.

Don’t enter history grad school expecting to be able to find a job -- no matter how talented you may be.  You must expect that you will attend grad school and still not get a job even with dissertation in hand.  If you cannot walk away at the end of the process without a job and yet not be bitter then grad school isn't for you.


Find out what happens to people who enter the program.  Do they get work afterwards? Where?

What else can you do with your degree when you leave besides teach?  Develop transferable skills. 

Make sure you need a Ph.D. to make the living you want to make and be flexible enough during the process to rethink whether you need the Ph.D. if your goals have changed.      


Pressure the department to learn and explain more about non-academic work one can do with a history degree.  People don't know what their options are, and somehow to discuss non-academic careers has a whiff of failure about it.  This is ridiculous.


The job market is simply awful and shows little chance of improvement.  If you can think of anything else to do that will make you happy, go do that; otherwise, you're probably limiting yourself to a life of underemployment with low pay and no benefits teaching part time for schools all over creation with little or no chance of advancement or permanent employment.

Have realistic expectations about their ability to get the job they want and their own suitability to that job.  Many people in the program I was in, for example, liked teaching but not the level and quantity of research and writing necessary to get a competitive academic job.  Nonetheless, these were the only jobs seen as worthy.  People entering Ph.D. programs should be more willing to address up front what they will do if after 7-10 yrs they can't obtain a university professorship.


Understand and get funding

25.3% of the history students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


If you don't get accepted into a program with a “full” funding package, don't go. 


Don't expect funding to continue until you're finished: be proactive in determining how long it will last, to what degree, and what other sources of funding are available.

Be clear on how much funding (or lack of it) there will be, how much of funding will come from teaching assistantships (and recognize how much that will slow down your progress). 


Make a realistic assessment of the available funding in the humanities.  I have seen many motivated and talented students leave the program because they failed to take such concerns into account when entering school.  Their desire for the degree steadily waned as their appreciation for the costs (money, time, energy) grew.   


Funding is a terrible problem for history grad students and probably for most in the humanities.  My husband and I have both had to work our ways through school and together have amassed about $130,000 in debt.  This is not a good way to begin one's professional life...especially when the job market is horrible.  I think graduate education will soon become the privilege of the wealthy.  I hope programs do a better job of informing incoming students of the costs of this education.

Be certain that your funding package is very clear and that you will be supported during your research/write-up years.

Make sure you enter a program with equal funding for all students.  This makes a significant difference for the amount of support you can expect from your peers. 


Select your advisor carefully

17.2% of the history students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Make sure that your advisor not only has similar academic interests, but is compatible personally as well:  he/she has similar philosophies on the graduate student/advisor relationship, shares the same goals for what you should get out of a graduate program, and provides the kinds of emotional support you need to perform your best work (if is you need someone to be on your case constantly, or you need more space to develop on your own, or is supportive vs. critical).


A good, open relationship with an advisor who is interested in advising and mentoring students is vital.  I believe all students’ benefit from intellectual and emotional support and the ongoing availability of an advisor.  All too frequently, advisors seem far more concerned with their own research than with actually fulfilling their roles as advisors.  Talk to other students currently working with the advisors who interest you prior to entering your program.  Speak directly to your advisor about these feelings regarding their students and their vision of the advisor/student relationship.  I am convinced that this relationship is central to a successful experience in a doctoral program.


Go with the advisor you can really talk to, and who listens to your ideas, whether or not that person is the most well known or prestigious.


Pick an advisor who will work hard on your behalf reading drafts, writing letters, and looking for job opportunities.

Make intellectual contacts/communities with people outside of your discipline and university.

Look for a program and advisor which pushes students.  I do not mean a program/advisor which emphasizes speed/efficiency above all else, but the timelines and guidelines in my department are so loose that, unless a graduate student has a really strong grasp on what specifically he or she wants or needs to do, they can waste a lot of time between taking courses and completing prelims, etc.


Take time off between undergraduate and PhD studies

10.3% of the history students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Take time off before entering grad school.  Enter the workforce, and come back to grad school when you really want to.  Every student in my program who went directly from undergrad to grad school has not completed the program.  And every student who has left the program for a “year off” has never returned!

Taking time off BEFORE entering graduate school is invaluable.  I gained a sense of perspective on higher education and of my own role in it that I could not have had I pushed straight through. 

I also benefited from doing my M.A. and Ph.D. at different institutions. 

I think it is also important for prospective or early career graduate students to ask the hard questions both of themselves and their departments about why they are there.  Are you focused on process or outcome?  Both are important.  Graduate school should never be an escape or exclusively a means to an end but an end in itself.


Take time off before coming in; at least one year, even if you're very sure.  One year won't be a big delay and even if at the end you think that you were ready all along, the year off will have been a good change and a touchstone to remind you that you know you belong when times get rough.

Get some job experience first, after college, to make sure you are truly committed to graduate work.  Even just a year off provides a welcome breather in class work, and alerts you to other possibilities. 


If I were talking to a 22-year-old I would say hold off and work at something for a few years. An older person is more likely to know what they want to do (this was my situation--I was 29 when I started).


Quotes from  other disciplines.   | Article of advice for selecting a doctoral program | Distribution of quotes in all fields. | Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.