On Friday, Slate published an article called “Thesis Hatement: Getting a Literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor”, written by Rebecca Shuman. Since I don’t know Shuman or anything about a humanities Ph.D. program, I’ll withhold judgments that I would otherwise be inclined to make. I just figured I’d share a bit about my experience getting a Ph.D., since it is pretty much the exact opposite of Shuman’s.
I began the Ph.D. program in the department of political science at Penn State in the fall of 2009 with no prior graduate schooling. Penn State, like most major universities, covers all tuition for students accepted into the Ph.D. program. It also provides a stipend that covers the basic cost of living. Early on in my first semester, I told the faculty that my intention was to finish the Ph.D. and then work for either the government or enter the private sector. Reactions ranged from neutral to highly supportive.
Last month, I completed my Ph.D., a little over 3 and a half years since I started. During that time, I took nearly a dozen methodological courses, four of which were outside the department but still fully funded. I taught an undergraduate class, did outside consulting work for the government, presented at conferences, and got a few publications. I also wasted a hell of a lot of time, and not in Shuman’s “grad school is a waste of time” sense, but in the “going to bars to play pool and drink $5 pitchers of Bud Light” sense, meaning that I certainly could have been more productive.
The training I received as a Ph.D. student qualified me for a host of jobs, ranging from think tanks to government to academia to the private sector. In January, I accepted a job as a data analyst with Allstate Insurance and started in March.
I must acknowledge that I was lucky, since my department gave me (and the other students in the program) considerable freedom and support to pursue whatever interests. I also had an incredibly good advisor. I have no idea if my experience is indicative of other social science Ph.D. program and am not claiming that it is. All I know is that for me, the process was rewarding, fairly fast, and led directly to a good job.
Ok, so I lied — I will pass judgment on one point Shuman makes. She claims that a humanities BA is among the most hireable, which is just flat out wrong (note that the supporting article was written in 1997, when Zuckerberg was in middle school, Jobs was just beginning his second stint at Apple, and Bieber was 3. A few things have changed since then.) If you don’t believe me, how about a friendly wager? Call up the career services of a few major universities. Ask them if an undergraduate majoring in computer science with a minor in economics has a better chance of getting a job than an undergraduate majoring in philosophy with a minor in English literature. I’ll bet any amount of $$$ that they pick the former.