Would I be better off in grad school or on a psychiatrist's couch?
September 4, 2011 8:33 PM   Subscribe

I am on the verge of applying to a graduate program in history at UMaine, but I am worried that I'm doing it for the wrong reasons. I grew up in a very blue collar family in rural Maine, and I've always wanted to prove that I could succeed in an academic career. Do any of you guys have a similar experience, and if so did you make the decision to go to grad school? Did it meet your expectations, and did it exorcise your demons?

Here's a little background.

In 2006 I graduated from John Brown University in Northwest Arkansas with a BA in English and a BA in history. My GPA was mediocre: 3.0 in English and 3.1 in history. I moved back to Maine, and after doing a bit of Jr. high substitute teaching I decided I wouldn't make a very good teacher. I took a job as a Direct Support Professional and have been bored out of my mind for four years, barely fending off a deep depression and struggling with the knowledge that I'm kind of exploiting people with disabilities to draw a $10/hour paycheck. (On the upside I've now had some experience working in a teaching capacity, so I think I could make a go of it.)

I've tried to make myself useful by learning PHP and MySQL, learning about U.S. foreign policy, and teaching myself some music theory. I get on a kick that lasts a couple of months, and during that time I stop drinking and smoking, and I make some progress. I get some big ideas about how I could actually become good at what I'm learning, then realize how futile my efforts are compared to people who have studied in a classroom and followed a curriculum.

I am especially interested in the history of anarchism and the Spanish Civil War, the public relations industry, and the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in the early 60s. I also enjoy reading about the history of philosophy, and I have a bit of love for the English Restoration period. In my idealized world I'd spend time writing or teaching about any one of these subjects. I have no desire for wealth or prestige--just a job that lets me read and write.
posted by jwhite1979 to Education (38 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In this day and age, finding a job that will let you "read and write" is a bit difficult.

I think the first step is to do the homework around employment opportunities (or lack thereof) with the degree you're seeking. Unless you have the luxury of not working, or working for little pay, this may be a field of study that falls short of not only "wealth" but of "making a living".
posted by tomswift at 8:48 PM on September 4, 2011

You should read this older thread.

Seriously, an academic career as a PhD in History, even from a top department (and I have know idea where Maine ranks, but my spidey sense tells me it's not in the top 5 or 10 for history, no offense intended), is not a life of "reading and writing" only. It's a highly entrepreneurial hustle, more so every year. And you are starting with serious disadvantages in your modest undergrad record and your unfocused list of topics (not problems to be solved) in which you are interested.

I know quite a few blue collar folks who went on to PhDs and successful academic careers. I've advised or mentored perhaps half a dozen who fit that description as PhD students, many more as undergrads. Academia is still a bourgeois world, but what it really rewards these days are incredibly hard work and a knack for marketing yourself well. The field of history is dreadfully over-stocked with unemployed PhDs right now. You need an edge. You need expertise. You need a serious research problem or question. You need a clear sense of what an academic career entails, which is no less focus than any other professional career, with longer odds than most of success.

It's still a viable career path for the right person. I'm not all doom and gloom. But you must go to grad school with full funding (you get paid to do it). And you must not have any illusions about the cinematic gentility of the academic career. It just ain't like that any more, if it ever was.
posted by spitbull at 8:56 PM on September 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm not a history person, but what I've gathered from my friends who are, is that history as an area of scholarship is contentious, with lots of fixation/disagreements on theory, and lots of not-exciting research-type reading. Is that what you want to get into? Or do you really just want more time to read history as a side interest, maybe with some more structure and direction?

It sounds like you don't really have an area of concentration in mind; maybe that wouldn't be a big deal, but my observation is that the people who get something out of graduate school are the ones who know (or figure out quickly) what they really want to focus on.

And history has a tiny, tiny number of available academic jobs every year. Maybe your best bet is finding a new and more lucrative job with fewer hours, now that you have some teaching experience.
posted by daisystomper at 8:58 PM on September 4, 2011

Some more basic questions to think about:

Do you know why you would choose U Maine, with those particular (and very diverse) interests? Have you made contact with a potential faculty mentor or adviser in that department to discuss your ambitions? How is the funding in that department? What is their placement record? Where else are you applying?

Do you speak or at least read at least one language besides English reasonably well already?
posted by spitbull at 8:59 PM on September 4, 2011

I don't want to tell you this is a bad idea--especially because, as a working class person, I struggle with the very real fact that graduate school in the humanities is a terrific gamble for people without financial security and appears to be becoming an elite pursuit--but it is. There are few tenure-track jobs and they are getting fewer. (This is the wiki devoted to the history academic job search. Notice how few of those jobs are tenure-track and how competitive they are. Further anecdata: two friends are doing VAPs at New England SLACs and reported that their new faculty orientations, groups of about 35 at each institution, only included 6 new tenure-line hires at each school across all departments. Even jobs at second- and third-tier regional schools and community colleges are going to students from elite institutions these days. Succeeding in this market is a complete and utter crapshoot.

It's a tall-order crapshoot, too, if you're not immensely talented as WELL as hard-working and are attending a top-ranked program. The school you're looking at is ranked 119th in this U.S. News ranking and I don't know that they have a major and prominent specialist in the areas that interest you. (Yeah, U.S. News is no tool for fine measure, but it does provide a broad sense of programs' competitiveness.)

For someone who is looking to school as a way to step out of a working world you don't like, and whose academic performance is solid but not stellar, a PhD in history is not a great idea. I'm really sorry. I know that sounds harsh.
posted by liketitanic at 9:00 PM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hi, I'm getting a PhD in history. I'm a third-generation American (from poor Irish and Eastern European stock) and one generation removed from coal-mining severe poverty. I very much understand the desire to prove yourself in the academic world, and, to be honest, that motivation gets me through the rougher parts of academia. The desire not to be written off as a hick who could never understand complex theory is more powerful than many of the other reasons people go into history, in terms of forcing yourself to actually put in the hours.

But! What everyone else has said is true. Unless you're really okay with starting over after seven years of school, you should not pursue a PhD at a school that's not ranked in the top ten. Even if you're at a top school, you have to understand that the constellation of jobs and post-docs in the year you finish your dissertation might just not line up in a way that is good for you. And, of course, you need to be absolutely sure about academia before applying to a PhD.

But! The Sequel: if you weren't thinking about a PhD anyway, doing an MA in history does not have to be the death sentence that people on Metafilter often make it out to be, as long as you completely understand the financial consequences going into it. Given the broad range of periods and topics you're interested in, plus the fact that you're comfortable with PHP and MySQL, I might go so far as to suggest a history MA combined with another job track that people here bristle at (often rightly): library science.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:17 PM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you go to grad school with the idea of teaching, you're looking at teaching college-level subjects. The job market is notoriously bad for PhDs, to say nothing of MAs, who often end up with low-paying adjunct positions without any job security. If enrollment goes down, your job could disappear in a heartbeat. In an adjunct position, the amount of time you have to read and write will be seriously, seriously limited by the amount of course prep, teaching and grading you have to do. Oh, and no health insurance, so you might be trying to work at a couple of different schools to pay the bills.

I come from a working class family as well and there's no way I would advise anyone to go to grad school if they're going just to prove something or to exorcise demons. In fact, grad school may give you more demons to work with, especially if you plan to pursue the PhD. Grad school never meets anyone's expectations, and it shouldn't. It should shift the ways you think so that your expectations change, and people who do grad school because they are looking for external validation of their intellect are often disappointed (and end up in therapy) because they're thrown together with a bunch of people who know way more than they do about way more things than they could ever learn in just a few years.

Are you looking at only one school (usually a bad idea to limit yourself like this)? Does that school actually have professors who publish in the areas you're interested in? What sorts of questions or problems are you interested in particularly? Do you know how many applicants they have and how many they accept (it's probably a surprisingly small number--my program in a humanities field accepted 3 people the year I started). Your GPA puts you at a disadvantage in comparison to other applicants. How does your GRE stack up? How are your reference letters? What do you plan to say in your personal statement? Can you get full funding?

I'm not saying it can't be done, and I know I went into it pretty clueless and came out in a better place than I expected to. But grad schools are full of people who are there because they're not sure what to do next in their lives and see more school as a default option because it seems familiar and easier than finding a job. However it's also full of people disillusioned because they had this idea that grad school would provide an ideal "life of the mind" setting where they could read to their heart's content, have profound discussions with classmates and professors, and write about whatever they felt like. In reality, I had to read a bunch of stuff I maybe didn't care about, figure out how to manage a huge workload of reading + writing + teaching + research + sleep + professionalization, and most conversations with classmates centered around complaining about students we were TAs for.

It sounds like you're so early in this process that you don't know what questions to ask, but the questions are really important. My guess is that you need to cast your net wider and maybe wait a year so you can do research on other programs, perhaps take some grad-level classes to see how you measure up academically and to prove to admission committees that you can do the work, and study your butt off for the GRE to supplement your GPA. When talking to programs, ask about their job placement rates within the field (not just in general). Find professors you want to study with and begin to develop a sense of what questions and problems you could tackle (not just subject areas).

You might also consider programs with a bit more practical bent that could make use of your tech background--Museum studies or Library science (still--check job placement rates as the markets aren't so good for those either).

Good luck!
posted by BlooPen at 9:20 PM on September 4, 2011

Thanks for the replies. First of all, to daisystomper, fewer hours is exactly the opposite of what I'm after! My current workweek is crammed into a 24 hour block and a 16 hour block. I have too much leisure time as it is.

To spitbull, I used to be able to read Latin fairly well from the Vulgate, but that was 5 years ago now. I'd need to freshen up. Same with my German. As for why I chose UMaine, it's simply because of in-state tuition rates. I wrote to a professor there a couple years ago, and he was encouraging.

Don't worry too much about deflating me though or sounding harsh. I already know I'm not likely to find work as a college prof or anything like that. I dream about that happening maybe someday, perhaps twenty years from now. But in the meantime, is there really nothing else a person can do after grad school? Are there no gigs writing annotated bibliographies or doing research for private companies? Working a reference desk at a library?

oinopaponton, one of my thoughts was library science. I had a long talk with a librarian at my college and really considered taking up that career. The only reason I haven't pursued it is there's no MLS program in my state. Bummer.
posted by jwhite1979 at 9:23 PM on September 4, 2011

100% back the library science suggestion. Check it out.
posted by spitbull at 9:24 PM on September 4, 2011

If you have to pay tuition for a PhD in the humanities, walk away. You cannot reasonably compete with peers who are fully funded at top programs. It's that simple.

There really is very little else you can do with a PhD in the humanities that will deliver a middle class life and job security other than join the professoriate. There are exceptions, but they are for people with unusual expertise or skill, or very timely knowledge. A few become editors for university presses. Some go into policy institutes. But the odds of these options are even slimmer from a less than top program, frankly. One consequence, perhaps, of a blue collar background is a faith in the educational institution that it doesn't deserve. Just because the programs exist doesn't mean the jobs do.
posted by spitbull at 9:28 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I already know I'm not likely to find work as a college prof or anything like that. I dream about that happening maybe someday, perhaps twenty years from now. But in the meantime, is there really nothing else a person can do after grad school? Are there no gigs writing annotated bibliographies or doing research for private companies? Working a reference desk at a library?

Two things: one, you either get a job as a college prof within 5 years of finishing your degree or you don't. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but the logics of this market dictate that "young"/recent grads are "better hires" than people who have been gigging as adjuncts for years or doing other things.

And yeah, there's work of that sort. But the other thing is, the low income years of grad school freaking grind you down. I am in a position not dissimilar to yours, in that I was working an $800 a month job before going to grad school, and I told myself, "oh, yeah, I'm used to this! I can handle it! I'll have more money than I do now!" and honey, look. After 6 years of it I am freaking tired of having a life dictated by when my fellowship check comes and expecting to be broke every August and December. After years more of poverty, more or less, you're going to probably want work that allows you a more comfortable life.

BUT. The library science program at San Jose State University is entirely done online. There are other places like that. Don't give up on that.
posted by liketitanic at 9:29 PM on September 4, 2011

Some of the more rural states in the midwest have reciprocal tuition agreements with other states--something to check out in case Maine has such an agreement.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:35 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my very biased opinion, now is the time to go travelling. Go teach english overseas (I recommend Thailand) and put off the decision for at least another year. You have been too bored and probably too narrow-focused in your experiences to make an informed choice. You need to get out and see that maybe university is over-rated and that there are other options for the type of life you want.
posted by the fish at 9:43 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's a slightly different tack from someone who came from a blue collar family, who majored in history and minored in religious studies as an undergrad, and who has been in awe of academia from the day I set foot on my first state college campus.

If you were to go for an MA in history--to study the subjects that you love in a structured, academically demanding way--would you be okay if you never used your education in a job situation? Because if you can say yes to that--then it would be a fine use of your time. Why not use your time and energy to explore and enjoy the things you enjoy?

I say MA rather than PhD due to the generally dismal state of academia for humanities PhDs. And I second that you should not be paying for a PhD program. But a good MA program should teach you what being a scholar entails, and how do historical work on your own. It should also give you access to a good academic library so that you can become deeply familiar with the scholarship in those areas you want to read and write about.

You might have to fund your history avocation with a day job--perhaps eventually outside of Maine if job prospects are better elsewhere. What I make in my day job in IT enables me to attend academic conferences in my avocational field of academic religious studies, which has led to me making many friends in the field--some PhDs working at top-level institutions, others who pursue their studies in the field independently. My day job (with health insurance) permits me the luxury of adjunct teaching at a local community college (with absolutely no benefits and no money for travel). I say 'luxury' but it's an enormous time commitment to have two demanding jobs--but it works for me.

I'm not so sure about library science as a career path right now (and I have an MSLS also). Read over some of the many previous posts on AskMeFi about librarianship before you commit to that path: the library field is in enormous flux right now. That saying, if you decide to go that route, there are ALA-accredited programs online, including LEEP at the University of Illinois.

I have a friend, also in IT support, with an MFA in creative writing whose day job has enabled him to have three serious novels published (all written in his 'spare' time). I have friends in religious studies who publish academic blogs in their areas of specialization (and they are not and will never be academic faculty, but said blogs have been influential in debunking certain 'biblical archaeology finds' nonsense like the recent lead codices hoax). Academic studies don't have to take place only in the academy. Be a scholar where you are.
posted by apartment dweller at 10:11 PM on September 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Grad school (in my case, a top-tier Ph.D. program in the humanities) did not exorcise my demons. I think I shook off a lot of demons by figuring out what made the academic career track a bad fit for me and making the jump to a different kind of job. (After gaining some experience, especially computer skills, in academic libraries and digital humanities projects, I'm now working for a small software consulting firm where most of the clients are academic. I feel exceedingly lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to snag this job.)

Grad school partially met my expectations and partially didn't. I was surprised by just how mentally draining teaching turned out to be. I was also completely unprepared for the pressures of "professionalization." I went in thinking that academic writing was all about having good ideas and doing lots of analysis of your topic. I didn't realize that you have to constantly advocate for the importance of your own work.

I think you should learn more about how grad school and academia work. (For example, going for a master's degree and going for a Ph.D. are two very different propositions, and you don't seem to have a really clear resolution which one you're interested in.) Spend some time getting immersed in the culture without actually committing to a program. Read books of advice, academic novels, comics, higher ed news, and relevant AskMes. It'll be fun.

You should also read the much-circulated essay Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go. It's been heavily discussed on Metafilter at least once.

I agree that pursuing a Ph.D. in history is probably not a good plan for you, for several reasons. But I also agree with oinopaponton that an MA might help you find your way into a more satisfying career track, if you go into it with your eyes wide open and actively work on gaining transferrable skills and job experience that can be combined with the humanities degree in ways that you can potentially get paid for.

Another thing to look into, while you contemplate your grad school options, is career counseling. I don't know if you can find someone good to work with in your geographic area, but when I was contemplating leaving academia and trying to figure out what else to do with myself, I worked with a freelance career coach who was really great at helping me sort out what I needed to be happy in a job (and what I needed to avoid). Making a single-minded career plan ("I'm going to get a degree in $subject and become a $job_title") is not so much the point—it's more about figuring out what kinds of opportunities to keep an eye out for.
posted by Orinda at 10:11 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am trying to avoid chatfilter and keep focused, but here is a brief digression. What kills me is that as an undergraduate, I was the one everyone expected to go to grad school. I started the philosophy club, and professors came and all the smart kids came, and they'd sit around my work-study desk for hours on Wednesday nights. Every paper I wrote got an A, and profs always wanted me to submit them to conferences. They'd tell me I'd better get used to presenting, because that's what I'm going to be doing with my life. I'd go to other colleges with my profs to see lectures, like when Stanley Fish came to speak at UofA. But dammit, every time a crisis broke out in my family I'd have an existential crisis, and I'd drop the balls I was juggling. Now four of my close friends are finishing up their grad programs. One is a fighter pilot. One is editing a magazine in Korea. And I get paid to make sure a grown man does his dishes. I'm sorry, but it gets to me. I was on the cusp, ya know?
posted by jwhite1979 at 10:11 PM on September 4, 2011

Yeah. I don't know how valuable my advice is, because my circumstances were different (came from a highly educated, white collar family; went straight from an "elite" SLAC to a highly ranked graduate program) but I think I know what you mean. It makes me want to say you should go get an MA as a gift to yourself.* Although going to grad school was arguably a bad decision for me—it certainly was an expensive one, since I took 11 years to finish the Ph.D.—I think if I hadn't gone, I'd be tormenting myself now with the what-ifs.

You just have to be clear-eyed about your motivations and keep in mind that a humanities MA is not an automatic ticket to an intellectually stimulating job. How did your friend in Korea get into the editing job—what other experience and qualifications did they have? What kinds of jobs do UMaine history MAs go on to, and what kind of background are they typically coming from? (For example, some state university masters' programs serve primarily high school teachers, who can get a bump in salary if they add a graduate degree.)

* I cannot in good conscience recommend that you go get a Ph.D.
posted by Orinda at 10:35 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a history professor, and from a background very like yours.

What you have to understand is that the history job market has gone from awful to nearly nonexistent, with no prospects of ever improving. Almost none of the current generation of history grad students are going to find tenure-track university jobs.

That said, you could always go for an MA and at worst learn a lot of cool stuff in exchange for two years of your life. You mention of computer languages perked up my ears. A exicting field right now is the digital humanites.

(And for other academic questions, come see us over here.)
posted by LarryC at 10:47 PM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you stay focused and finish an MA in two years that hardly cripples your long-term career prospects. If you can do it cheaply via in-state tuition that seems totally reasonable to me. As an MA candidate you will definitely get a full taste of what the academic research lifestyle is like, without the teaching responsibilities.

An MA definitely sets you apart a bit.

Just don't go heavily into debt for it. There are certain programs where terminal MA candidates paying full freight basically (and barely) subsidize the PhD candidates.
posted by bardic at 12:25 AM on September 5, 2011

Maybe reading this book will help sort out some of your feelings about graduate school - it's an anthology of essays, many autobiographical, by academics from working class backgrounds:

This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class
posted by needled at 3:04 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was on the cusp, ya know?

Of what? Graduating? Graduating with a 4.0? Launching a lifelong glittering career? Undergraduate academic success is an indicator of nothing except undergraduate academic success. A BA is not vocational training; it is a well-rounded humanities degree that qualifies you for a huge range of entry-level jobs across a ton of industries regardless of your major. Presumably your friend who is a fighter pilot is a fighter pilot because she joined the air force. Presumably your friend editing a magazine in Korea is an editor in Korea because she moved to Korea. These people appear to be living their choices, not the undergraduate records.

If you want an in-state masters, by all means go get one. It may re-purpose your career prospects, but academia is probably not one of them, regardless.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:49 AM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

You stated: "i decided I wouldn't make a very good teacher". This tells me you probably lack the requisite passion to teach. Which means academia, as a career move, is probably a very bad idea. You could end up torturing yourself and your future students. If you do get a PhD from a school like Maine, you will be competing with numerous PhD's from much more elite schools. The very best you could hope for is a tenure track faculty position at a lower tier school, where TEACHING (not reading and writing about your particular historical interests) will be your PRIMARY responsibility. More likely, you will not get a tenure track job. You might be able to cobble together a life of TEACHING as an adjunct. With the changes already happening in higher education, future success in academia will require that you be a nimble and effective TEACHER. Accountability and assessment are all the rage. The days of Universities suffering at the hands of ineffective tenured teachers collecting fat pay checks is coming to an end. And I don't mean to be snarky, but if you've always wanted to prove that you could succeed in academia, why the mediocre undergraduate record? Did you sincerely throw everything you've got into college? If so and the result was 3.0, then you will probably not excel at the PhD level. Don't do it.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 5:20 AM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've always wanted to prove that I could succeed in an academic career
What would make you know you'd succeeded? Going for an academic career in history is really bucking the odds. I recommend choosing a path with more options. Do you plan to stay in Maine, and are you in a rural area? Consider a job in a medical field. Get a librarian to help you research job outlooks in various fields. Pursue the Master's degree if you enjoy it, but also, read widely, join a book group, hang out with smart, interesting people. Your fighter pilot friend is in the military, which is still an option for you, but it's a very different environment; lots of very smart, educated people in the military, but it's generally not academic or bookish.

This is the worst economic period of my life (I hope). It sucks that the job market is lousy, and lots of people in your situation blame themselves for not having brilliant careers. I think it makes sense to hang in there and prepare for the eventual recovery.

I recommend: really spend time researching and finding a job field that will pay the bills, have growth, and where you'll be successful. Developing that website. Dealing with your depression. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 6:32 AM on September 5, 2011

Read the entire series Academic Bait and Switch in the CHE and then decide if you want to to go to grad school in the humanities.
posted by lalochezia at 6:49 AM on September 5, 2011

As others have explained, pretty much the only thing that one can do with a PhD is be a professor. If you don't want to be a professor and take on all that that entails, don't do it.

To get a sense of what an academic life is like, I have a new recommendation to the usual suspects: Professor Mommy. While technically geared toward women considering having children while being academics, it is the BEST description of academic life (with breakdowns of R1 and R2) that I've ever read. (I have it on Kindle if anyone wants to "borrow" it.)

But think about it this way:
- You spend 5-7 years being socialized into a discipline. Your time to read and write is actually quite limited. There are wonderful periods here and there (qualifying exams, for example) where you really get to do this, but they are few and far between and have huge implications that sort of take the fun out of it.

- With graduate school you need to go to the absolutely best program that you can go with scholars that allow you to study the phenomenon that you're interested in and maximize your chances of succeeding. By selecting a school based on location, you're already prohibiting yourself. (And mind you, once you're done, you'll likely have to move for a job ANYWAY.)

- According to your profile, you're 31. It isn't impossible to go back to grad school later in life, but at the same time, consider the financial implications of 1 - being totally poor for 5-7 years, 2 - not putting any money toward retirement for 5-7 years 3 - being nearly 40 and starting as an assistant professor (look at the jobs wiki - people are coming out and happy to make like 40k), 4 - by the time you get tenure, you'll be close to retirement.

Maybe doing an MA to get a better taste of it all would be a good idea.
posted by k8t at 7:31 AM on September 5, 2011

I know how you feel about having lost the chance of a better life.

BUT - I went to grad school for a similar reason (blue collar family, academia was the only interesting work I knew about, professors thought I would do well in grad school) But for a variety of reasons I'm not going into academia -- and I've found myself 10 years older and looking at exactly the same career options as when I graduated my BA.

Your situation is different though - I did direct entry and I wasn't ready (I was seriously burned out and had an untreated illness). You've had some time off and are itching for more work.

A masters does open up doors that a BA doesn't. But only a few, and even then experience counts as well.

I would say that you should take a full research masters (with thesis) - BUT get the school to find you funding. It may not be full funding, but they should have some. I was offered $11,000 by my relatively poor undergrad uni for a masters (from which I had to pay $5000 tuition, but at least it was something).

If you thrive in the masters, then think about maybe a PhD - but then only fully funded, at a top school. There are jobs - I know people who have gotten them. Area matters: my friend in modern middle eastern history had many more options than my equally talented friend in early modern women's history. I do know a medievalist with a good job, but I know more who don't have them.

Point is: I went to a top grad school for history, and I would estimate that the one third of my class got good jobs, one third had less than ideal jobs but still in academia (one year contracts, teaching world history surveys at two-year colleges with little research support), and
one- third have left. Getting yourself into the first third is partly luck (hitting the sexy topic - which changes constantly, not having any personal crises) and partly hard work - and definitely learning to conform in certain ways (no experimental research, no unusual ways of approaching stuff unless you hit it out of the ball park).
posted by jb at 7:35 AM on September 5, 2011

Please feel free to mefi-mail
posted by jb at 7:38 AM on September 5, 2011

But in the meantime, is there really nothing else a person can do after grad school?

Are you at all interested in working with the English side of your degree rather than the history side? If you get into a really good English department with a strong tech writing program, there are still positions for tech writing. However, even some of those are going overseas and the writers are turning into editors who work with poorly written stuff by people in Estonia.

If you think you could teach at the college level and it was specifically lower-level teaching that won't work for you, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition could get you teaching positions (probably adjunct, possibly full time) at community colleges. And if you really want the PhD, it's about the only English sub-field that can still get most of its grads into college-level positions. However, those positions are very heavily based on people teaching first-year writing to all the people who decided to go back to school because of the state of the economy. If you don't have a passion for that kind of teaching (or possibly writing center administration), don't go that direction.

The digital humanities stuff is really interesting and new types of jobs may pan out from those kinds of programs, but they may be a while coming, however.

The bigger "however" I see developing is that you seem resistant to leaving Maine, and that's a bad thing when you're looking at grad schools. If you're really that set on staying in Maine, you have an even bigger issue to look at, which is not just about any job, but about jobs in Maine, so you need to focus your job-potential research there. One thing most academics realize very, very quickly is that they need to be willing to move for their jobs--maybe quite far from home, maybe to a place that isn't an ideal fit for them otherwise.

I'm also having a hard time understanding how you got As on every paper and still ended up with a not-so-great GPA. You'll want to think about how and why that happened before you try to go back to school. Was it a time management thing? An attendance thing? Disinterest in a bunch of specific courses? What's changed to make that different?
posted by BlooPen at 7:39 AM on September 5, 2011

Focusing on your desire to further your education in History - have you considered a career in Intelligence Analysis? You don't have to focus on the three-letter agencies - there are excellent careers in the diplomatic corps, the mainline military, and many emerging private companies - in finance, international risk analysis, and the like.
posted by scolbath at 12:31 PM on September 5, 2011

If you're worried about out-of-state tuition for a library degree, Maine is part of the New England Board of Higher Education and you can get in-state tuition for degree programs not offered in your state.

No advice on the advisability of that degree either (though it's better than a humanities PhD), but you can attend a library program at in-state tuition rates, even if it's not in your state.
posted by clerestory at 8:12 PM on September 5, 2011

.... better than a humanities PhD in terms of job prospects, I should have said. There are definitely problems in the library field (I have a MSLS), but the job situation is better than it is for humanities PhDs (not that that's saying much).

But look into the NEBHE tuition plan - I know a couple of people from VA and SC who got in-state tuition at UNC through a similar program for schools in the southeast, since neither state had a library program at the time.
posted by clerestory at 8:20 PM on September 5, 2011

I have simply no desire to teach. In fact, I have a pretty strong desire to not teach. I have this libertarian streak that makes me cringe at the thought of that much authority over other minds. I hoped that there were jobs I'd never heard of on the other side of a graduate education--some awesome hybrid of historian, archivist, and journalist. Jobs like that really should exist, I say. But clearly they don't.

I'm feeling pretty good after reading through your comments. LarryC, that NYTimes link was excellent. Thanks.

A lot of questions were asked above, so here are a few answers.

Of what? Graduating? Graduating with a 4.0? Launching a lifelong glittering career? No need to be patronizing. I simply meant that I almost had what it takes to get into a competitive grad school. Perhaps I was still miles away, but considering where I started it felt damn close to me.

What would make you know you'd succeeded? [...] Do you plan to stay in Maine, and are you in a rural area?

That's just it: if I knew I'd succeed I wouldn't feel the need to prove anything. Probably it was doubting that I'd succeed that made me want to prove otherwise. And yes, I intend to stay in Maine, especially now that I'm determined NOT to go after a graduate degree in history.

Are you at all interested in working with the English side of your degree rather than the history side?
I am interested in just about anything. (In fact, contrary to what I said before, I'm somewhat interested in teaching English. I just don't think I could morally bring myself to do it in a controlled environment.) As an undergraduate I had planned to get into a tech writing career, but I never pursued one.

I'm also having a hard time understanding how you got As on every paper and still ended up with a not-so-great GPA. You'll want to think about how and why that happened before you try to go back to school. Was it a time management thing? An attendance thing? Disinterest in a bunch of specific courses? What's changed to make that different?
I didn't mention how bad I was in college when I started! I started off in the UMaine system, and I was a pathetic student. Sometimes even now I'll be driving down the road, and I'll cringe at a flashback of some stupid bullshit I wrote or said in class.

I have always been too earnest, and that led me to misunderstand how education worked. I thought of it as a buffet: teachers would put out their offerings, and I would pick and choose which ones I wanted. In high school I liked music theory and 19th c. American romanticism. That was really all I cared about, and I couldn't understand why my teachers were getting pissed at me for failing all my other classes. "Can't you see how awesome I am at counterpoint? Have you noticed I can recite Poe's The Bells like I'm Laurence fucking Olivier?" Of 109 kids in my senior class, I think I was ranked 101.

By some chance I got into college, and I behaved the same way for the first two years, only I was a drunk too. I decided I wanted to clean up my act, so I transferred to a Christian college in Arkansas (ha!). Students there were nice, but what's more they actually knew about the shit I was interested in. They knew almost as much as I did about music theory and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but they knew everything else they were supposed to have learned up until that point. I felt totally deficient. It took me a while to figure out how to study, but I managed. I turned a 1.9 GPA into a 3.1 GPA, and I'm still really proud of that. Probably it's the fact that I went from a total slug to an excellent student despite some serious family issues that makes me want to continue that trajectory in grad school. I definitely felt like I was just hitting my stride in my last 3 semesters of college.

Given the broad range of periods and topics you're interested in, plus the fact that you're comfortable with PHP and MySQL, I might go so far as to suggest a history MA combined with another job track that people here bristle at (often rightly): library science. For the last few months I've had Maine Library Jobs on my Google Reader, and there's a steady demand for people with their MLS/MLIS. My wife and I read through all the comments here, and we're thinking it would be a good idea for me to get into librarianship. As far as the work goes, it's a no-brainer. Public service, information organization, anti-corporatism: it's got everything I could hope for. The curriculum at San Jose looks great. Anyone have thoughts?
posted by jwhite1979 at 7:22 AM on September 6, 2011

You have plenty going for you, especially if you continue to develop your programming chops. Right now, my university is hiring plenty of people with strong PHP/SQL chops in various support positions as academia comes late to the development of active web services (in parallel with the rise in digital humanities initiatives) and the use of standardized CMS platforms. These are *really* valuable skills. If you were in my city I'd have well paid part-time work for you that would get you really close to my own research and my graduate program's people, and in fact I do use this as a means of developing prospects for PhD study (lately, I am very interested in people with MLS or other IS degrees, in fact). If you were an out of the blue applicant to my program, assuming all your other credentials were strong enough, strong programming chops would be a major asset to bring to the application (in a humanities department, no less). So would any training in archival practice, not just on the IS side.

German and Latin are excellent things to have in the toolkit. Keep them alive, get them back, add another. It's under-rated, but in my now long experience of teaching PhD students, foreign language competence is a KEY predictive tool for me at the point of admission, and an invaluable asset no matter what the focus of your own research. The other major factor is how well you write. While this post and its followups are written grammatically and clearly, everyone can improve as a writer, and you should do work toward that every day, blogging or journaling or something, and reading for guidance *on* writing.

But this is something not often explained to incoming Phd students, and it's especially important once you've gotten the economics/culture of academia discussion out of the way. Assuming you understand it's a hard career to pursue, that you need to work like a dog and be poor for 5-8 years or so, teach like crazy, and practice deep entrpreneurialism to make it . . . you still need to be motivated by your intellectual project, and that project increasingly needs to have a clear real world market outside the academy, with market defined as an application, an audience, an interested public, a community . . . in my view it is really necessary to be able to say "I have an idea that will make something in the world a little better," not only something that will move the needle within an academic literature. And to get this idea, you need practical experience in the world, and to challenge your own comfort zone for social experiences. This takes capital, but it also takes a concerted effort to become passionately serious about something specific -- a culture, a group of people, a community, a problem that affects many communities, some dimension of the global crisis to which you want to devote a decade at minimum of patient, diligent work (or a career, at maximum, and it's usually best to think of this as a lifelong focus at first, to see if you can live with that). Being smart and knowing a lot of facts and having skills is an important foundation. Having a singular focus (which need not and probably should not be your own career path, by the way -- the very best academic careers go to those who assume a good career will follow from focused, innovative, vigorous, comprehensive, publicly accountable, problem-directed work, rather than those who worry endlessly over how to place themselves with respect to the current job market.

And this is advice for careers beyond the academy too. There are no hiding places, no shortcuts, no easy paths to achieving both personal fulfillment and career success in any profession whatsoever.

If you really cannot imagine teaching, just don't go near a PhD program. You must teach to earn the degree, and to exploit it as a credential, in any career you pursue as an intellectual. Teaching takes many forms. It's sort of silly to dismiss it from a libertarian perspective. It's something all humans must do, and it's part of our evolutionary development of culture. It's no less an imposition on the freedom of the human subject than the expectation that parents will feed their children. I suspect you are rationalizing some other discomfort there -- perhaps with public speaking or self-confidence. If you want to live the life of the mind, it will require that you communicate effectively. Call it teaching or public speaking or meeting with colleagues, it's the same exact skillset. You cannot turn your back on it.

Echoing many people here: get the heck out of Maine. It's a small rural state with many amazing qualities and institutions, but your interests dictate that you engage with a broader geography. Doing so will help you find your calling. If Maine itself is part of your calling, which is of course a noble thing, consider what you could learn outside of Maine as something you could bring back to your community.
posted by spitbull at 7:54 AM on September 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

I must say I suspect an online MLIS degree is not as good as getting one at one of the top programs -- Indiana, UNC, and Texas come to mind immediately. It's a 2 year hitch. It costs money. The job market is pretty tough right now. But the skillset you acquire at a top program (in tech especially) can be carried almost anywhere and fit into so many different environments. Grad school is so much also about making connections, and I know enough about MLIS programs (a lot, as it turns out) that I can say for sure this is just as true there as in a PhD program.

Some of the top MLIS programs even have some student funding, although very little.

If you're only making $10/hour, can you find work with equivalent pay doing basic work in an archive or library setting? Even some cataloging or materials processing experience would be helpful. Better yet, coding! You can do it remotely and there are lots of gigs. I highly recommend you learn Drupal thoroughly, be able to develop sites using Drupal, and explore the huge world of new technologies for archiving and cataloging that are emerging, such as the Collective Access project, where PHP/SQL chops are in pretty high demand. Helping old people is noble, but you need to be looking for day job work to grow your skills, your contacts, your experience, etc.
posted by spitbull at 8:05 AM on September 6, 2011

I also know something about MLIS programs, and I have to agree with spitbull that the top programs provide you access and connections, not just the skillset from coursework. They are quite aggressive about preparing students to get jobs, both in preparing the students (how to write resumes, how to get internships, etc.) and in tapping their alumni network as well as potential employers to find out opportunities and letting students know about them. Thus these programs are especially suited for career changers who want to enter the library field or other related information fields.

The online programs are more suited to people who already have library or archivist jobs and need the credential to get a pay raise or promotion.
posted by needled at 8:18 AM on September 6, 2011

I'd go against the two previous commentators and say that it's really all about work experience, so go to whichever ALA-accredited school you can line up the best student job/assistantship at.

School rank matters more for high-prestige archive/academic libraries, but if you're focusing on systems librarianship or anything tech-y, your experience counts for much more. Just don't go to an unaccredited school.

And I was just listening to a current UNC SILS student complain about lack of career services, so it's not just my impression that my alma mater might be better than some, but still isn't great - there's certainly no cabal. Job searching is just hard work no matter where you went. When I was interviewing, I never got asked about coursework, only about experience with this or that system or type of work in my assistantships.

And really think about the in-state tuition deals I linked earlier. SJSU is a decent school, but it's expensive out-of-state. Even now that you're talking MSLS/MLS vs PhD, getting out with as little student debt as possible is really vital. It will give you more options. You might even be able to do some of the NE regional exchange programs courses online.
posted by clerestory at 9:46 PM on September 7, 2011

Doesn't sound like you disagree with me about online programs. Kind of hard to get a good assistantship that way.
posted by spitbull at 4:02 PM on September 10, 2011

I received a lot of excellent advice in this thread, and I appreciate all of it. After talking with my wife I've decided to cautiously explore MLIS opportunities while enjoying my freedom to think about and study whatever I feel like. In a way I feel like being okay with not going to grad school is more important to my development than going to grad school would be, and I wouldn't have come to this conclusion without you guys' help.
posted by jwhite1979 at 5:11 PM on October 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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