A month ago, I had been prepared to tell my senior students that they should under no circumstances go to graduate school, much as this author did in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. (It's worth reading.) I still think that it's a momentous decision, and not something one should choose by default. If you're one of those people who just loves to learn, well, the library and a book club can probably satisfy those cravings just as well as more school. As I've argued elsewhere, it may very well be the case that doing a PhD will actually impede your personal education. Moreover, the academic job market is very tough and getting tougher year by year. Some people are publishing monographs before their PhD is done these days, and I have heard of candidates for academic jobs who have hired personal trainers, wardrobe consultants, and even voice coaches in preparation for their interviews.
Of the past 30 graduates from my former department's PhD program, nine have secured full-time academic positions. Moreover, in the past two years that program alone has graduated more PhDs in Canadian history than there have been academic openings for full-time historians of Canada in the entire country. You heard me right: in terms of numbers, that one program could supply the needs of the every university in the country for new tenure-stream professors of Canadian history. For those graduating with PhDs in American and European history, they are in competition for an equally small number of jobs, but arrayed against them is a potentially larger pool of applicants, including graduates from elite America and European universities.
If you get a tenure-stream position anywhere, it will be because you beat at least fifty or sixty others who applied for the same job. I know of one recent case where there were more than one hundred applicants for a single position. This should give even the most gifted undergraduate, thinking about graduate school, some serious pause. The six or seven years you are about to spend getting your PhD are not a meal ticket, and your chances of getting a full-time academic appointment are probably less than one-in-five. Oh, I know: there's a wave of retirements coming up. And we will all have flying cars and live in domed cities on the moon.
However: over lunch with a former student on Saturday, something occurred to me that made me reconsider my pessimism. In 1999-2000, the year I began my Master of Arts degree, my program at the University of Western Ontario accepted five M.A. and two PhD students. It was a remarkably small cohort, even for those days, and I got to know the others in classes of just two or three. Of those seven people, I know not the whereabouts of two. Of the remaining five, an astonishing four now have full-time university appointments. Lynn, whose dissertation won a major award from the Organization of American Historians, is associate professor of history at Lethbridge; Amy is an assistant professor at the same institution, and has an accomplished new book out; Andrew is assistant professor at Laurentian, has a book out and another under review (I know that none among my cohort will object when I say that he was the brilliant one); I am myself at King's University College at UWO. And the fifth? Well, he's doing what he wants to do, too: Peter's a high school teacher, which was his plan all along.
Not bad. In fact, staggeringly good. I doubt if any cohort from any graduate program anywhere in Canada in the past decade can claim to have done so well: of the four people who entered wanting academic appointments, all of us got them, and very shortly after our respective graduations, too.
But there was more to it than that, even, at least for me. I entered graduate school both professionally and intellectually unprepared, and the shock of encountering serious people such as these, while studying under the tutelage of senior professors with decades of experience, helped me to realize that I had a great deal of work to do if I was going to make it through.
In the mega-cohorts of today — my former program will accept approximately seventy new graduate students this fall —I would almost certainly have come to a bad end. Instead, I emerged from my course work and field exams incomparably better off than I was before – and in large measure for having been in the company of a cohort of such excellent people, people who were far more generous of spirit to me than I was to them. I realize that a gesture of thanks, however sincere, can seem somehow hollow when it arrives ten years after the fact, but I offer it nonetheless.
For my graduating students, then, I offer the following reconsideration. I know that you are probably quite uncertain and perhaps even afraid right now. After so many Septembers of school, the prospect of something different must be very unsettling. And it is undoubtedly true that when you enter the workforce, it may very well be near the bottom, and you will have to spend some years paying your dues and climbing the ladder. We all have to do things in life that we do not want to do; in measure, doing them can ennoble us, and is part of leading a good life. But we also live in what most certainly is the healthiest and wealthiest society in the history of the world, and yet so many of us seem to endure rather than enjoy our lives. If I have had one truly staggering realization over the past ten years, it is this: life is short. We have four thousand weeks, if we are lucky. So if you feel that you must do more school – not in the sense that you don't know what else to do, but in the sense that you would not enjoy your life if you didn't– then do it. Do it. Life is too short to live in alienation from yourself. Find a good school – a small school, if you can; get to know people; make friends; be generous; work hard; read outside your field; go for beer sometimes; pass on what you have learned; accept the reality of the job market, and hope that chance will favour you with classmates such as those that I had.