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Ask a Humanities Grad Student, Part One: Scotch and Lentils

I’m about to graduate from the University of Arkansas with a degree in English/Creative Writing. And I got my degree in only three years because I took summer classes and loaded up on hours every semester. So I’m about to be a 21-year-old college graduate who still lives with her parents (I grew up in the town where I went to college so naturally lived at home through school so I wouldn’t have to work and, duh, could graduate in three years).

I’m kind of freaking out about what I’m going to do next. All anyone tells me when I tell them I’m about to graduate with an English degree is some variation of “Hmmph, good luck working at Starbucks.” And I’m aware that the economy is bad and it’s hard for anyone to find a job, etc., but is there really no hope for me? I want to move to Nashville, because I hope to go to grad school at Vanderbilt (where my mom went). But I can’t do that until I’ve saved up enough money for the first couple months of rent on a Nashville apartment and a new car (mine’s dying all the time and really unreliable).

This all sounds kind of whiny, but I assure you I’m not some spoiled rich kid. My parents (though they each have masters degrees) do not make much money, and I’ve only gotten to go to the UofA because I get half price tuition because my dad is a staff member. So, because of lack of funds I’m going to have to work for at least a year or two before I can go to Vanderbilt. I definitely don’t want to go to the UofA for two more years, but I also don’t want to be stuck in this town anymore.

Should I…

1) Go to grad school at the UofA anyway?

2) Take out loans and go to Vanderbilt, or wherever I get into (and potentially end up making only $25K a year like my parents for the rest of my life)?

3) Work and go to grad school in a couple years?

4) Forget about grad school entirely?

I should also mention that I do really like being in school and ultimately, as far as career goals, all I really want to do is write (whether that be for magazines, websites, film/tv, novels, etc.). Any advice?

So wait. Are you saying you want to go to UofA/Vanderbilt for an MFA or an MA? Creative writing or English lit? Because those are two very different things. 

I’m going to go out on a limb and ask you a scary question, because literature-types can’t help but close read: what are your motivations for wanting to go to Vanderbilt? The way you phrased it — ”I hope to go to grad school at Vanderbilt (where my mom went)” — sort of raises a red flag for me. Also, you keep talking about grad school without really putting a lot of focus on what it is you want to study, mentioning it as an afterthought. Granted, the name of this feature does have Grad in it, so that might play more than a little into how you’ve phrased your question, but I think my point holds: why do you want to go to grad school?

If the answer is “because I like school,” then no, don’t take out loans. Liking school is super laudable and understandable, but grad school can become a good way of avoiding the 9-5 working world, which, let’s be honest, is nowhere near as fun or unstructured as school. Do you like school $40,000 worth? Because that’s a conservative estimate of what a year-long MA will end up costing you, if you live on ramen and lentils and walk or bike everywhere. (People really underrate living on lentils, actually. It’s a great way to live well on a grad stipend. Assuming your definition of living well doesn’t include supplementing that lentil diet with very expensive Scotch. Because that’ll make you broke very quickly. I know because it happened to a friend.)

On the other hand, if your answer is “because I want to be a writer,” then no, still don’t take out loans. Guess what Austen, Eliot, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Joyce, and that lady who wrote 50 Shades of Grey who’s making bank right now all had in common. Yup: no MFA. The best way to learn to be a writer (IMHO!) is to read. Then read some more, and keep reading. Read everything you can get your hands on, and then start writing. Imitate what you’ve read, imitate what you’ve seen, write your life, write your memory, just write. Then put it away, read some more, and make sure that when you go back to what you’ve written, you won’t be satisfied. You shouldn’t be satisfied. Start a blog, write daily, pitch incessantly, and then write some more.

So yes, move away from home. Get a job — tutoring, slinging coffee, copywriting, proofreading, whatever, the possibilities for a flexible major like English are endless — get a place, with or without roommates, and write your ass off. Then, if and only if you get into Iowa fully funded, go to grad school.

Oh, and read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a perfect point of departure for anyone thinking about becoming a writer. A taste: “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge it to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.”

I was a history major in undergrad and LOVED it! And I was really good at it! (I still don’t even know what I was doing that other people weren’t, but really I’m considerably better at history than pretty much anything else in my life, especially the general social, leadership, organizational, and mathematical skills that I think are required for lifelong success in other fields.)

But I also worked like crazy on a senior history thesis topic that I realized halfway through the year I hadn’t developed that well and didn’t have great sources for, and by the time it all ended I felt super burned out, and also my professor for Ottoman Empire I and II told me that “research is a very lonely life,” so that bummed me out and I buried my history pursuit dreams.

Now three years and two decent jobs into the real world (non-profits so I am making nothing, but I have nice co-workers and I’m supporting something I believe in), I find myself itching to go back to school and missing history. But now I feel so far removed from academia that I don’t know how to go back! So, advice on taking the plunge into applying for a PhD when you’ve been out of the field for a bit? Try to get a masters first (is that a waste of money)? Don’t even bother, the train has left the station, I missed my chance and should just go do something practical like business school?

My answer sort of addresses all three questions.

First, I’m not so sure that a PhD in history is really the best way for you to go. Let’s talk a little bit about what “being good at history” means. (Sidebar: I can’t imagine it’s the only thing you’re good at! There’s a ton of stuff you haven’t even tried yet, sister.) I’m guessing you’re saying that you’re good at research, primary source analysis, and academic writing. That’s great, and those are useful skills! However, what a PhD actually prepares you to do is to teach history to undergraduates while also doing your own research. That is what the degree does and that is what many of the (very few) jobs are hiring for. So the next question you need to ask yourself is, do you like teaching? Are you going to like teaching the early modern Europe survey, because you’re probably going to have to, no matter where you are, probably many times. You will certainly end up doing so in grad school and you could very well do so for the rest of your career, possibly as an adjunct, possibly in a terrible location, and possibly as an adjunct in a terrible location.

(Sidebar: Is that what you even mean by “being good at history”? Because if it’s not, then you probably don’t want to get a PhD.)

And the next question is whether you’re going to be into developing an independent research project. The senior thesis experience is probably not the only determinant of how you’ll do, but a lot of graduate school is trying stuff out, seeing what sticks, and accepting the frustration of a failed project without getting burned out. A lot of your research process will be like the thesis process. If you want to test the waters, I would pursue an MA, if and only if you can find one that provides funding. Most don’t, but some do, and if you can get it paid or, by all means, spend two or three years on another project and figure out whether you can see doing it for the rest of your working life.

I suspect that you would be happier making a career in history in some other way. THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO DO THIS. Beyond Academe discusses this for post-PhD folks, but museum work, editing work, historic site work, archaeological work, archival work, work at various cultural institutions — all are ways to do work as a historian without a PhD (AHH YOU COULD BE A HISTORICAL INTERPRETER). Some might require an MA in history or an MLIS in archival preservation and records management or in historic preservation; others might not. I would start looking for an internship in the field — “public history” is a good term to search — in order to get a sense of how historians make their careers. You could also try an informational interview with a professional in the field. I suspect there are PhD dropouts among those ranks, and they’re probably pretty happy with the paths they’ve chosen.

Finally, girl, fuck business school practicality unless you love business. But maybe think about what it is you really love if you’re going to be shelling out for grad school. It honestly doesn’t sound to me like history is it for you. And there’s nothing wrong with that! And hey, the nothing you make now is probably way more than the nothing I make as a history PhD candidate out of college more than twice as long as you’ve been. Feel free to be smug about that, if it helps. Everyone else is.

I am joining your ranks soon. I got admitted to a lovely program that only takes six people a year, and is fully funded. I. Am. So. Excited. Thing is: yay for not going into deep debt to follow my poverty-inducing dreams, but my stipend is still slenderer than my current (already slender) nonprofit work salary. I want very much to be able to focus on the reading and the writing and the teaching which means, at first, I’d love not to have another job. But RENT is presenting a challenge.

I could try for on-campus housing — only good for nine months of the year, filled with college kiddos, claustrophobic — or I could try to find an apartment with strangers nearer or farther from school (it’s in a city where you need the dolla dolla bills to live), or overspend myself trying to afford A Room of One’s Own. My parents live in the area, and would be willing to house me rent-free, but I’m 25 and have a life’s worth of my own stuff. It feels regressive to move back home, give up freedoms, etc. I also worry that it will hamper my ability to DO WORK, being in a childhood environment, having familial expectations, etc, etc. Am I being a big proud whiner for not wanting to live with the ‘rents, and have freedom and boyfriends and parties? Should I suck it up and live in undergrad city? I guess I’m asking, do you have an opinion from your experience about whether a) saving the most money (at parents’) or b) having the best and most convenient work environment (on campus) or c) having the possibility of a balanced life (an off-campus apartment) is the highest priority in the grand scheme of Grad School life? Thank you!

This is a tough question, but the answer is going to rely on how well you know yourself.

1) If you are a flexible person who has never found it difficult to be happy in the space where you are, if you’ve done well with nearly every roommate, if you don’t care that much about having your books in a row in your own personal space, if you don’t even really think of space in terms of “personal,” if naturally find friends and a social sphere, and if you have a steady, communicative relationship with your parents [READ: ONE THAT IS NOT PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE], then you should absolutely live with your parents. Why not? It’s free! You’ll be able to create a space and social life that works for you.

2) If you like a bit of your own space, but get lonely and want to talk to people every so often in between chapters of massive books, if you love communal meals, if you don’t mind sharing a bathroom, if you take pleasure in after-midnight dance-parties with more than one participant, if you like having an actual yard, if part of you almost kinda misses the dorms from college, and if you don’t have enough furniture to actually outfit an entire apartment, communal living in some iteration is for you. If you don’t know anyone, go on Craigslist. There are tons of wackos, but there are just as many totally normal people who will actually help make grad school sane for you. Don’t try to room with people from your cohort or department — at least not yet. But grad students ISO of other grad students is always a solid idea. People in Art History, Studio Art, Geography, Environmental Studies, Spanish, and Architecture are somehow almost universally awesome, and they will introduce you to their friends, which will widen your dating pool exponentially. Just make sure you have your own room, and that you don’t try to live with another couple [BIG FLASHING BAD IDEA SIGN]. This option will be significantly less than finding a place of your own, and you’ll get to share annoying expenses like Sewer Fees and internet access.

3) If you like hanging out with people several times a week but not all the time, if you’re really into aesthetics and arrangement of space, if you don’t want anyone to break your funky cute dishes you’ve spent the last five years collecting, if sitting at your desk all day and hanging out with your thoughts is deeply satisfying, if sometimes you’re relieved that your Friday night is a giant glass of Sauv Blanc and S02 of Misfits, if the idea of coming home from a long day of seminar and having small talk is deeply unappealing, if space has and will influence whether you actually get your work done or fall into a pit of despair, then you should consider finding a studio apartment a reasonable distance from school. If this is your option, make sure there’s a public transportation to-and-fro, not just because it’ll make your life easier, but because it’ll make it easier to actually stay out drinking after seminar and get home. [I’ve seen far too many grad students exclude themselves from social gatherings simply because there’d be no way for them to get home afterward.] I will also say that it’s hard to go from living on one’s own to living with one’s parents/a group of strangers, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been successfully done.

You need to be honest with yourself: are you over- or under-estimating what you need from a space? How social are you? How can you create an environment that facilitates your ability to concentrate and write? But always remember that you can change your mind after a year. A year in a place is always bearable — and even if you make the “wrong” decision, you’ll learn a tremendous amount about where you can and cannot live and thrive.

As a final point, I am categorically against living-as-a-pauper-while-grad-studenting. If you’re going to school in the States, the extra $200-300 a month it’d cost you to live by yourself (instead of with a group) is worth it, if it means you’ll finish on time and sane. Sure, you’ll have to pay that much back a month when you move on, but I’d rather live a slightly decadent life during grad school and live a slightly less decadent life afterwards. Of course, all of this is contingent on finding gainful employment post-PhD, but I’m generally against living off of ramen for the next six to eight years of your life. Your 20s are awesome, even if you’re in grad school: live them.

Previously: It Begins.

“A Humanities Grad Student” is a collective of Hairpin authors who are currently/ have been recently in humanities grad school. They have many opinions. If you have a question (300 words max, please), email them.

Photo via Flickr/FranciscoDaum


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