Should I do a humanities PhD? Or find a way to make research my hobby?
April 7, 2021 6:19 AM   Subscribe

I studied STEM for the earning potential and career options. After half a decade of professional work (which I genuinely enjoyed and excelled in) I'm now in a humanities MA and love it. But I’m not sure if I want to do a PhD. If I do: what's the best way to prepare and be competitive for a top program (to later have a shot at an academic job?) If I don't: how can I bring the best parts of humanities academia into my life as a side hobby/passion?

I’m in the middle of a history MA, which I applied for because I wanted to develop rigorous research/writing skills, just for fun…and then return to my old career. But it turns out I love doing literature reviews, I love iteratively refining a thesis, I love writing and can tolerate revising. I am so grateful I have the opportunity to do this. Inevitably, I’ve started daydreaming about a PhD.

I don’t think academia is the only place for me. But I desperately want some of what academia offers and I’m trying to decide if I can only get that in academia or if I can turn some of it into a hobby. Broadly speaking, the potential futures I’ve been thinking of:
  1. The responsible option: Go back to my previous career, but perhaps slightly tilt towards areas/projects that touch on my MA work. Volunteer at organisations in the field. Try to do independent historical research and publish…but is this even possible with an MA and no PhD? Is it even feasible to do so alongside working full-time? I don’t quite know what my options are to stay engaged in my field.
  2. The exciting but stressful option (as I’ve read all the advice about how devastatingly impractical a humanities PhD can be): Spend a year or two becoming as competitive as possible for PhD programs. Only go if I can get into a top 5 program with good funding and a good placement record. Follow Karen Kelsky’s advice to the letter so I will be competitive for academic jobs afterwards. Accept I may need to pursue alt-ac options.
How do I decide which path makes sense? Right now I’m tempted to hedge my bets and do option 1 for a few years but simultaneously lay the groundwork for option 2. In that case, I’m thinking of spending a year or two on the following:
  • Figure out what programs are right for me. My MA is in history, and the monographs I’ve been most excited about are by people who did their PhDs or work in: science and technology studies (STS), architectural history, design history, history of technology, media & communications, and cultural anthropology. I find archival research, historiography, and ethnographic methods particularly appealing. I am worried that, if I don’t have a clear field/list of department to target, it’s a sign that I’m not mature enough in my research interests.
  • Try to present my research at a conference, meet other academics there, and assess if I can spend 5+ years in that environment.
  • Try to publish a paper based on my MA dissertation, again, to assess whether I have the interest and ability for this.
  • Try to develop a research proposal and investigate relevant advisors.
  • Read the ‘classics’ and newer research in my area of interest.
  • Develop language skills (required for history programs). I’m close to reading fluency in one language and am willing to make a serious effort to pick up another, although my research interests are not language-heavy—I’m not a medievalist competing with people with years of Latin and Greek.
A flurry of additional details: I have no student debt and no dependents. I strongly prefer being in cities. If I don’t pursue a PhD, I‘ll probably end up using my vacation time on personal research trips or staycation-style writing retreats. (I feel embarrassed typing this—it feels like a vanity project or like I’m cosplaying a “real” academic.) My prior career and research focuses are somewhat related. My undergrad non-humanities grades were decidedly mediocre but I expect to do well in my MA and have a strong writing sample out of it. (I still worry that I need to compensate for my undergrad performance, and my 3.1 GPA means I won’t be competitive for fellowships and grants.

Is it foolhardy to think that I am somehow special enough to make an academic path work? Or unreasonable to expect I can produce historical/academically rigorous research (and not merely consume it) outside of academia? Your thoughts sincerely welcome.
posted by w-w-w to Education (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Here's the bad news:

You have a 50% chance of failing to complete your PhD.

If you complete your PhD, you have a 25% chance of ending up outside academia.

If you get an academic teaching job, there's a 30% chance it's not tenure track.

If you get a tenure track teaching job, there's about a 50% chance you fail to make tenure.

So from the day you start your PhD, best case, you have about a 13% chance of becoming a tenured history professor - and this fails to even account for doing so at a desired institution, or in a desired location.

Here's the good news:

You can have a completely fulfilling career outside of academia doing the same types of things you enjoy doing. You can also have an unrelated career, and do those things on the side.

I'm one of those people. MA in history, may someday do a part time history PhD without the intent of getting a faculty job afterwards. Have a very successful career in professional services, making a multiple of what an academic could ever dream of, and without the publish or perish fears, or hoops of tenure. I also have publications, a book and another in development, I attend and have presented at academic conferences, I volunteer in professional associations in my field, I hold leadership positions in some of those associations.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 6:43 AM on April 7, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I am speaking from the perspective of someone who does have a PhD (completed in 2009 in social sciences, in the UK where job market is comparable) and has never worked in academia for a number of reasons, key reason being lack of jobs for qualitative sociologists, not willing to put my life on hold for the elusive academic role. I have friends who completed their doctorates around the same time that I did and the vast majority for them are either in non-academic roles or on the edges of the academia. I've been a project manager for over a decade now and that's been my ticket into stable employment.

The reason I got into academia was because I absolutely loved my masters in gender studies and wanted more of that, and in hindsight, I should have stopped at the masters which provided me with fantastic structure to learn research skills and undertake a small research project on a subject I enjoyed. For a number of reasons, doing the PhD was nothing like the experience of the masters, it was fairly lonely and not that well structured and I realised towards the end that I don't like teaching and I don't like the working atmosphere of academia. But I absolutely loved the taught masters.

I don't have answers to the questions you are asking, you do sound like you thought things through and have a very solid plan. I guess my one question to you would be, will you be OK if you do everything right and still do not get an academic job at the end? Because that is a possibility. The other thing that gives me pause when reading your question is your preference for living in cities, pursuing an academic career may mean being able to live wherever the job is.

Good luck with whatever you decide!
posted by coffee_monster at 6:44 AM on April 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

My PhD work was more aligned with my fulltime STEM job, but I did both it and my MS part-time while working, taking a little time off to finish up my research in both cases. That gave me both the $$ and the research opportunity.

I, though, *never* would have done the research I did for my PhD if I wasn't enrolled in a program. I need the structure of signing up for something to complete a project that big. I also wasn't interested in pursuing a job in the academy, purely in answering the question I had.

All this is to say, my recommendation from my own experience: if you can do it as a side gig (either in a PhD program or on your own), do it as a side gig to develop and understand if this is a good path for you. There is always the possibility of cutting hours, taking unpaid time off, and other strategies for keeping most of the STEM $$, but opening up some options for other interests.
posted by chiefthe at 6:53 AM on April 7, 2021

Best answer: I mean, the standard answer is to never do a humanities Ph.D., regardless of circumstances. That said, you seem to have a pretty clear idea of both your interests and the job market, so I don't think you're crazy. Your fallback plan (try to research and publish independently after getting home from your day job) seems reasonable - this is essentially the model that people use to write genre fiction. It's more or less how JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter, for example. Academic writing is trickier, but if your research is novel and rigorous, I'm under the impression that it's still possible to be published. (At least, I've seen journal articles from people billed as "independent scholars" with no institutional affiliation.) I think the key there is to have a professional network to be able to provide feedback about whether you're researching is actually something that could lead to publication. I think the biggest barrier that non-academics doing humanities "research" face is that they don't understand what academic publishers are looking for.

Also, there's a fallback option from academic publishing, which is that you could publish your original research as regular pop nonfiction (like the Atlantic or the New Yorker, albeit probably more specialized). I get the impression that there's probably a fairly large market for tech/design history at the moment.

I will also note that either of those options (publishing as an independent academic or publishing in non-academic media) are possible with just your M.A. The first might be a little harder, but if you're conscious about how you go about the Masters program, you should still be able to build the network you need.

For me, what it would come down to is funding. If you're the one paying for the Ph.D., don't do it, but if someone else will pay for it, why not? Of course, that's already the general advice about Ph.D.s, so I'm not sure how helpful that is.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:55 AM on April 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not in the humanities, but my spouse is, after changing careers as someone much older than the average grad student to pursue a passion very different from their day job. It's been fantastic for them. As an outsider, but also an academic, it sounds like you're going into it with entirely realistic expectations and the right goals.

I'd vote for putting effort into going to conferences and meeting people, and presenting papers that might get published. Better yet, try to meet people ahead of time so they can introduce you to other people you don't yet know about. Ask your masters committee members to help make that happen. Or someone who taught a class you really liked. Or someone who's work you admire. Don't be shy - that's part of a faculty member's job. ("I'm new to this field and I love your work" is about the nicest thing you can say to an academic. There's a 50% chance they won't respond, but they won't be offended.) Apply for every fellowship, summer school, and student travel mini-grant you can find and make use of them.

Taking classes isn't actually grad school. It's the introduction to grad school. A lot of students never figure that out. The questions you're asking suggest you've got a shot at having a really rewarding experience. But, I'm in a very different field, so take what I say with a large bucket of salt. Best wishes and good luck, whatever you decide.
posted by eotvos at 7:22 AM on April 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would suggest the idea of trying to publish from your MA. These days, many graduate programmes (here in the UK anyway) are really looking for publications (not that I agree with it, but here we are). You'll get a taste of putting together and revising a paper and you seem very keen so it can't hurt either way? See how it goes and if you are successful in getting funding, then perhaps you have a real way forward.

Otherwise I would lean towards staying in your original field and pursuing your interests and/or taking a part time PhD when you are in a good financial place to do so. There is a lot to be said for having a decent job with enough time to do other stuff. Depending on your field, there may be local interest groups that would allow you to mix in the academic world?
posted by sedimentary_deer at 7:22 AM on April 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Given that everyone else has pointed out the issues in getting a PhD in the Humanities, I won't add to that. You should however consider doing something like you have thought about that combines your STEM background with your current research interests.

The way to do that is to apply to a program that has strong connections between humanities and STEM departments. That narrows it down. But look for cross listed faculty or history of science or whatever people in history who have projectsoutside humanities.

Digital humanities is not a bad choice, as you will develop more skills in l both areas, depending on which way you lean. It is also relatively fast in publishing stuff (they lean on you hard as a reader - far more than other people, which I know from experience.

If you apply anywhere highlight your STEM background, even if you are not using it in your research. We are impressed on committees by people moving fields from one that has such importance now to ours. It will help you stand out and look different. We also generally know STEM classes especially at the early stages, tend to be harsher with their marks overall as they are usually trying to clear off some not fitted people so they can manage applications.

If you have specific questions about programs in Canada let me know. You might also have a look at the University of Pittsburgh. Last time I looked they had a rather interesting set of professors working there across disciplines on some very novel iterations of the history of science.

Publishing a project -just as you might publish a thesis - is increasingly considered a scholarly publication, so there are different options for that depending on where you go.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:24 AM on April 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I hate to add to the pile on, but I need to say this as clearly as possible.

You will not get an full-time, tenure track academic job after a PhD in the humanities.

Those essentially don't exist anymore. You need to really, truly accept this in your soul before getting into this. So many people are still entering PhD programs in the humanities hoping that they will be the exception to the rule, that if they do everything right they can still get a job. But it's really not true, and there lies madness. The bottom is falling out of the market more year by year, so quickly that program rankings and job placement records mean literally nothing anymore.

IF you accept that in your soul, and if you can afford to get a PhD in terms of years of lost wages and emotional and social costs, then go for it. I loved getting my PhD, and I am kind of liking the hustle of figuring out how to get a job that uses my research skills now that I'm done. Academic communities and the deep intellectual engagement can be really fun and rewarding. Just make sure you really, truly know what you're getting into and what you're getting out of it.
posted by EmilyFlew at 7:31 AM on April 7, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: There is currently a strong need to decolonize the fields you list, to reframe long histories of structural racism embedded in the kinds of projects that used to lead to TT jobs. Right now, there really is a need for under-represented minorities to pursue humanities and social science PhD projects offering diverse perspectives. These are the kinds of jobs that are going to fill most easily as the academy tries its best to diversify itself and to rebalance hundreds of years of inequity in research and teaching. If by chance this describes your project, your chances of a TT job are potentially better than the basic stats.
posted by nantucket at 9:02 AM on April 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Is it foolhardy to think that I am somehow special enough to make an academic path work?

No, you can make an academic path work. You have done your due diligence, you understand the work needed and the risks, and you very smartly will only pursue this if you get into a top 5 program with funding. You have exactly the right attitude going in.


The key question is whether you can make an academic path work for you. Being a professor is a job, and that job description may be very different from what you love. I'm only slightly less cynical than EmilyFlew about your likelihood of getting a full-time, tenure track job in the humanities. It's very very very unlikely, but not impossible. That said, you need to recognize what that job will entail:

- You will almost certainly have little or no choice on where you will work. You like cities? Great! But your only FT, T-T job offer may well be in a small college town in a place you've never heard of. You may be able to land part-time or adjunct positions in the city of your choice, but you will have to accept that your job will be teaching, full-stop.

- You will have to prioritize your academic career above everything else, because you will be competing with hundreds of other people who are doing so. And they will be younger than you, and ageism is a thing in academia.

- Your job may leave you very little time for research. Especially early on, you may be saddled with a 2-2 or 3-3 teaching load and service responsibilities. It will be stressful. You will not be sitting in your office, mulling over the French Enlightenment. You will be trying to scrape out a little time for research after teaching European History 101 to 200 bored undergrads. Given your interests, you might land an STS job that requires you to teach science & society to a bunch of disinterested engineering students - which can be great, but you need to be prepared for it.

- The research that you do will come with constraints. You're interested in "science and technology studies (STS), architectural history, design history, history of technology, media & communications, and cultural anthropology"? Awesome, me too! Now pick one and only one, and then pick a hyper-specialized sub-topic and focus on that and only that for the next 5-10 years. Your research will all be in service of your academic career. If your department's tenure requirements are to write 1 or 2 monographs, that's what you will have to do. If they insist on publishing in particular kinds of journals, that's what you will have to do. If your subject area becomes unfashionable, then you will have to pivot.

So a PhD may well be a good path for you, but it's not clear that academia is. And humanities PhDs aren't really good for much else. I say this as someone who has a humanities PhD from a top-three program in one of your areas of interest and has been in academia for a long time.
posted by googly at 9:03 AM on April 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in polisci, not history. I agree with everyone who's saying that you seem to be going in with open-ish eyes. But this is what gives me pause:

I strongly prefer being in cities.

Most academic employment isn't in cities, or at least not the cities that people usually mean when they say they prefer living in cities. It's overwhelmingly more likely that, should you land a tenure-track job at the end of all this, that it's going to be in Duluth, Lubbock, Starkville, Lansing, Fredonia, Dekalb, Gainesville. These are all perfectly good little cities or college towns, and yet also quite undesirable to many people. Even the wins in urban areas are more likely to be in places like Jacksonville or Greensboro than they are urban-experience kinds of cities.

How happy are you going to be if you end up in Joplin, Missouri? It's the local big city for a good ways around because it's got 50,000 people surrounded by a rural area that's Trumpy as fuck. Or if you end up in Denton, TX, watching its last decade or two with an independent identity before the shitty car-sprawl-hell of north Dallas suburbs eat it?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:04 AM on April 7, 2021 [8 favorites]

I am 43 and graduated college in 1999. I dropped out of a top philosophy Ph.D. program because I didn’t want to move to an out-of-the-way place for work. I have classmates who have careers as LEGAL academics on the east coast. But you have to go to a good law school. Not going to pile on re: humanities.
posted by 8603 at 9:09 AM on April 7, 2021

The only way to do a PhD nowadays is to go in with the belief that you will not land a good tenure-track job. Then ask yourself, is this worth doing for the next 5+ years? Getting a PhD is a job. It doesn't pay well, but gives you a lot of flexibility. Is that a job you want to do and does it pay you enough? If so, do it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:14 AM on April 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Currently finishing up my PhD in a social science. I'm at a well-known university in Canada and we are hiring someone for a TT position right now. I looked at the CVs to the 5 short-listed candidates. They've all done *everything* right. Endless publications, conferences, all from exceptionally prestigious universities, all with grants to the end of time. One of them will get a job! Four of them, incredibly, will still be out there searching.

It's not impossible. I do have friends who have landed jobs. And I don't regret doing my PhD; I've had an amazing time and have gotten to do things and learned things I probably wouldn't have been able to otherwise. HOWEVER, I also very strategically incorporated marketable skills into my dissertation research (statistics, programming) because, very realistically, I am not even close to the above 5 candidates. Now I work full-time in a different field while finishing up my degree and am really enjoying life.

So as folks have said, don't necessarily go into the PhD with the end goal being a TT position. It could happen but very very likely won't. However, it can lead to other cool things and CAN be an enjoyable experience - especially if you're not banking on remaining in academia forever.
posted by thebots at 9:22 AM on April 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Right now, there really is a need for under-represented minorities to pursue humanities and social science PhD projects offering diverse perspectives in the academy. These are the kinds of jobs that are going to fill most easily as the academy tries its best to diversify itself and to rebalance hundreds of years of inequity in research and teaching. If by chance this describes your project, your chances of a TT job are potentially better than the basic stats.

You would think this would be the case, but as an veteran of many search committees and discussiona over hiring, I would not rely on this given where power lies in these searches. Generally what happens is that senior white people prefer to encroach on these fields, relying on the fact that their audience of people mainly like themselves, will label that diversity.

There are a handful of universities in any field that will probably land you the job you want given how academic networks work. But they tend to be brutal to be in and also not always the most innovative of places to study.

It is terrible on the job market I agree. But I took a funded Phd position because I wanted to live somewhere, and the bigger funding packages for grad school are often coming from places where you might want to live. But those programs are extremely competitive because they offer usually equal packages to all in the program. And they can be brutal. I worked all the hours that there were for the first two years in mine just to pass qualifying exams so I could write the thesis.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2021

And the job market is bonkers. I thought it was insane when I was on the market, but now it has exceeded that by leaps and bounds. It is not helped by the fact that irrationally people suddenly get hot or their areas do often based on one early high status interview and that snowballs. The whole thing is half prejudice, half magic, as far as I can say from my own experience and observation.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:27 AM on April 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Humanities PhD here who moved to the US nearly 20 years ago, worked out what an American academic career path involved, and sadly understood that it was incompatible with the main reason I moved to the US. Pretty much everybody has said most of what I was going to say.

A terminal MA allows you to do most of what's on your list if you manage your time well, especially since conferences / seminars aren't likely to return to pre-pandemic setups and library access has become less of an issue apart from primary sources. Even then, you'd probably get accredited to dive into the archives. It's absolutely not cosplay if you put in the research, reach out to the right people in the fields that interest you, sign up to the mailing lists, etc.

(I know a number of people working in tech who were hired because of a humanities background not directly related to tech: dramaturgy, anthropology, sociology, essentially academic "people stuff".)
posted by holgate at 9:31 AM on April 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

The word "teach" doesn't appear in your question, which makes me wonder if you have a distorted view of academia. Have you ever taught? It's a substantial part of nearly every academic job out there.

It's possible to be a Lecturer (adjunct) and teach classes along side others with PHDs, even if you only have a MA - perhaps you should try teaching a class or two?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 9:50 AM on April 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I’m (positively) overwhelmed by the generous feedback and advice from everyone. A few notes:
  • My research interests explicitly draw on my STEM background and experience (is it naïve to think this makes me more competitive as a potential applicant and researcher?). I would definitely be interested in digital humanities–style projects. I’m not a professional programmer but can implement basic NLP techniques, write basic web apps, and so on.
  • I’m glad I mentioned my preference for cities and appreciate the cautionary notes. It’s very important to me to be near/in a place with queer and BIPOC communities, and similarly do research that honors those perspectives. Realistically, I would quit academia if I could not have this.
  • I’m not worried about teaching requirements or service work. In my professional career I did some teaching (workshops at work, workshops for outreach programs for under-represented minorities in STEM) and a lot of mentoring. I love this kind of work and have always wanted to design a more substantial curriculum/syllabus. Service work just seems like a natural part of having a job (whether in academia or not) and I can handle a certain level of administrivia, paperwork, and organisational politics.
  • I don’t think I’d regret doing a PhD and not getting an an academic job, as long as I developed deep expertise in fields important to me, published a bit, and found a scholarly community. That said…I’m fairly employable now, despite a gap in my employment history due to my MA. I am mildly terrified of doing a PhD and finding myself less employable afterwards for non-academic jobs.
I especially appreciate the ideas for how to get an academia-ish experience with just an MA (academic publishing, writing for a popular audience with a more critical/historically informed stance, teaching as an adjunct). All of these are very interesting to me and it’s good to know they are possible.

I am marking some great answers, but of course more thoughts are welcome!
posted by w-w-w at 10:42 AM on April 7, 2021

You would think this would be the case, but as an veteran of many search committees and discussiona over hiring, I would not rely on this given where power lies in these searches. Generally what happens is that senior white people prefer to encroach on these fields, relying on the fact that their audience of people mainly like themselves, will label that diversity.

Just to say: Where I am, now, as a tenured professor on search committees at an R1 (as I think LS is too) this has finally changed this year. The events of this year have truly made an impact on certain fields in the humanities. Remains to be seen how long it will last of course...
posted by nantucket at 10:42 AM on April 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a PhD in the humanities from a very good (but not top-5) program where I was fully funded.

There are many excellent responses in here already, so I won't pile on to that good advice, but will just offer this: do not underestimate the impact the support (or lack thereof) of your supervisor(s)/mentor(s)/committee member(s) can have on your quality of life, mental health, and ability to pursue what you want to pursue for the reasons you want to pursue it. ESPECIALLY at a top program, you may find that your willingness (and maybe even desire?) to pursue life/work outside a TT path becomes an issue (explicitly stated or not) in your ability to find faculty support for your work. Some faculty members will be wholly supportive of your work regardless of your prospects (best case scenario). Some will....not. And it is VERY hard to know in advance who is who.

I do not for a second regret doing the PhD. I loved the work. I loved the experience. I loved literally everything about it....except for anything that could be labelled "professionalization" (networking, conferencing, publishing-for-the-sake-of-publishing, staying on top of trends in the field, doing service work, creating endless reams of fellowship applications and job market documents and abstracts and teaching statements and research statements and.....etc.) Which means that one of the things I learned in my PhD program was that, no matter how deep my love for my research, no matter how brilliant my writing (spoiler alert: it probably wasn't that brilliant anyway), no matter how fulfilling my teaching, I was really, really, REALLY not cut out for academic life as a profession. Like not even a little bit.
This was a very valuable thing to learn, and I (luckily!) learned it early on. I continued with the PhD and have no regrets about doing so, but that was only possible for me for the following reasons:
- I have a spouse who has a job that supports us both. I was therefore able not only to get by on the pittance that was my (comparatively generous) stipend, but also (and more importantly) to have little pressure to immediately convert the degree into some sort of income generating machine (because, as you know, a humanities PhD is really, really not that). This is privilege, and pretty rare (based on the experiences of my cohort).
- I had mentors/committee members who were hugely supportive and wonderful. This is really rare.
- My supervisors accepted the fact that I was clearly not bound to be a TT superstar, AND SUPPORTED MY WORK ANYWAY!! This is exceptionally rare.
- I had no illusions about the job market and my place in it, and therefore wasted only the bare minimum of time on that truly soul-crushing process.

If you can guarantee that these factors (or equivalent ones) will be in place for you, and you really love the research for its own sake, then go for it! You clearly have a pretty solid understanding of the lay of the land. But just know that its really, really hard to control in advance for the attitudes/behaviour of your mentors and supervisors. And it can be really, really demoralizing to go through the meat grinder of a top PhD program without real support from within the program. So while YOU may (think) you're OK with doing a PhD without the illusion of the R1 TT prize at the end of it, the people who are going to be extremely crucial to your grad school career may not share that attitude, and that (from the experience of not a small number of my colleagues) can be truly hellish.
posted by Dorinda at 11:09 AM on April 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In terms of getting involved in academia without doing a PhD, I do recommend submitting abstracts for any academic conferences that that fit your research and that you can afford to attend. Plenty of people speak at conferences with "only" MAs and as independent scholars, and it's a good way to build your network, hear from other interesting people, and get feedback on your research.

A good way to find out about conferences, as well as to stay on top of fields more generally, is through h-net. You can browse channels and subscribe to any specific lists that catch your eye. I also recommend doing some deep digging on twitter -- search for scholars you know and admire, follow them, see who they follow and retweet, dig around for other people who list your scholarly interests in their bios, etc. I've found out about lots of interesting talks and books just by keeping an eye on Twitter.

Finally, this is a great time to dip your toe in academia because tons of talks are still happening online and are free (or cheap) and open to the public. These come across twitter and h-net, but you can also check the calendars of various departments and universities that you're interested in and sign up for talks that look good.
posted by EmilyFlew at 1:43 PM on April 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just to say: Where I am, now, as a tenured professor on search committees at an R1 (as I think LS is too) this has finally changed this year. The events of this year have truly made an impact on certain fields in the humanities. Remains to be seen how long it will last of course...

I am in a very conservative discipline. I do not know what it would take to change us, but this year hasn't managed more than superficial change (funding for graduate conferences seems to the new thing). But, yes, I am also at an R1 institution, albeit one without a great DH program. Or even a good one.

But with this background, yes, you would be more likely to be successful. You have skills that otherwise would require training. If you are interested in DH, the DHSI at the University of Victoria in Canada is virtual this year. It will have a range of courses and other things you could take part in at a distance. And the groups include wide ranges of people from MA students to full professors, so you get to encounter a wide variety of perspectives. They have scholarships when they have DHSI in person. It is one of the big North American DH events, and one people have found easier to network in than other events.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:44 PM on April 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I graduated from a top history PhD program recently.

While I opened this up expecting to say "Run Away!" I'm not sure in your case. One problem is we honestly don't know what's next - are universities going to recover or will we see a number shutter their doors in the next few years? I would not want to bet money on what the job market will look like in 6-7 years, which of course makes it hard to recommend anyone start a PhD.

That said, there are a few points in your favor:

1. You actually have the knowledge needed to do the digital humanities in a way that's not slap dash. A friend of mine was on the search committee (at an R1!) for a Digital Humanities job search in history a few years ago. Some of the candidates claimed to be doing digital humanities based on having a WordPress blog, or a very amateur podcast. Like, the field has a lot of buzz around it right now, but in history the bar is pretty low. This is changing, but very few historians actually know how to code or deal with big data. If you can actually do that, that will help you.

2. STS is also pretty hot right now - while many of my cohort have struggled to get jobs, the STS crowd faired relatively well in getting TT jobs. Again, this could change in 5-7 years.

3. Reading between the lines a bit it sounds like you have a BIPOC identity? Similar to nantucket, I've observed that while it's not happening everywhere, a large percentage of job ads this cycle were coded as diversity hires. The cynic in me thinks this is just so universities can say "look, we're not racist!" and then go back to business as usual. But who knows, maybe something has shifted. Like most things right now, it's all TBD.

If you do apply to a graduate school:

1. Make sure it's a top 10 program OR make sure it's a top 20 program where your advisor is a superstar. But ideally both.

2. Tick as many boxes as you can with your dissertation, because again, who knows what will be "hot" once you hit the job market. People who did well in my cohort generally were those who could claim to being doing, say, STS + race + women's studies + sexuality + [geographic field] + environmental studies + urban studies. I mean, nobody generally gets to tick that many boxes, but you get the idea. Look at H-Net jobs board the different ways jobs get advertised/listed. Some people in my cohort did better simply because they had more jobs that related to their research.

3. Don't worry so much about your chances - I think you're underselling yourself. Yes, you'll want to figure out a general topic, a time period, a geographic location. You are not expected to have everything figured out yet though -that's what coursework is for. Some professors actually prefer students whom they can mould a bit (which can be a little weird) rather than those that already know what they want to do to a T. Anyway, your masters work will matter way more than your undergrad GPA - I had some people in my cohort who didn't do well in undergrad, but made up for it with their masters. Your cover letter, rec letters, and writing sample matter more.

4. Do not take Karen Kelsky literally - she has some good advice, and some questionable advice. She is clueless when it comes to alt-ac.

5. Do keep up connections your previous line of work and/or cultivate some sort of alt-ac career during grad school. The people I know who were able to transition into a non-academic job all did so based on part-time jobs or summer jobs/internships they did during grad school.

Despite all of that, another option is to make a career change. A masters in history + your STEM background will potentially make you attractive to a new range of employers. I'd personally explore that option a bit before going into a PhD, especially if you don't feel like you need to have a PhD to be happy. I'd say a PhD is worth doing if you have a project that you are just burning with excitement to do. Because it is pretty cool to have the chance to do research on a topic you find interesting, with the financial support to make it happen.

As far as being involved in academia with a MA/no institutional affiliation: It's possible, but a lot of academics are snobs and/or protective of their area expertise, and there is a lot of gatekeeping. It can't hurt to try, but if it doesn't work out, please don't blame yourself, since it will be almost entirely for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your research.
posted by coffeecat at 1:54 PM on April 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

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