Hard, But Important Advice for Those Thinking about Grad School in History

Last year we hosted a multi-part interview with three of our alumni who have either finished a PhD in History or are nearing the end of their doctoral programs. As the last post in that series emphasized, those who are considering this track need to be aware of the realities of the job market for new PhDs in history (and related fields).

Unfortunately, that market is only getting tighter. The current issue of Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association, features an article on that topic. The whole article is worth a read if you’re thinking about continuing your studies at the doctoral level. But this graph alone speaks volumes:

American Historical Association graph contrasting new PhDs with available jobs

Yes, there are almost twice as many new History PhDs as jobs being advertised for them. (And that doesn’t take into account people in the second, third, fourth, etc. years of searching…)

That sobering reality prompted historian Beth Allison Barr to share some advice for potential grad students, at the Anxious Bench blog. For example:

Beth Allison Barr
Beth Allison Barr – Baylor University

1. Don’t do it unless this is truly your calling. If you cannot imagine yourself doing anything else, than apply. Otherwise, don’t bother. It isn’t worth it.

2. Don’t go unless you get full funding for at least 4 years (you really can’t afford to come out of the PhD with debt). Also, don’t go unless you are accepted into one of your top choices. Seriously. If neither of these things happen, then go work for a year, improve your c.v., and try again. But don’t settle for a 3rd, 4th, 5th choice, especially without sufficient funding.

3. If you don’t have an MA, get one first. An MA will help you decide if you really want the academic life. It will also provide evidence for PhD admission that you can complete an advanced academic degree.

Read her full post here. And even more importantly, talk to your professors here for their take. We don’t want to discourage qualified candidates who truly can’t imagine following another path. But we also want to advise you well.

(Of course, the other way to approach this problem is to think about how a History PhD can prepare you for other kinds of careers, in and out of academe. That’s been a huge conversation of late within the AHA. Perspectives has published a series of profiles and interviews about historians in “alt-ac” careers.)

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