If you are thinking about applying to graduate school in the humanities, you probably have heard snarky comments such as “but, what is the point? It’s not like you are going to learn anything practical” or (if you dare do a PhD) “You are just going to waste four years (or more) of your life researching something so specialized nobody cares about. And then, you will be overqualified for most jobs, older, without any applicable skills. And let’s be real for a second, with the academic market being as it is, you probably won’t be able to land a tenured academic position. Just forget about grad school, you’d be better off in the long run entering the work force now, just with your BA/MA.”
I have heard this type of reflection. Sure, do not be fooled, academia is very competitive, and just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you will necessarily become a professor. For me, doing a PhD is not a means to an end, and if I do not become a professor it won’t be the end of the world. I’d love to, of course, but I would be happy teaching at any level. So I am doing my PhD more for the “experience”, to prove to myself that I have what it takes to commit to such an intense, long term project, and to learn more about my field of interest, myself, and develop new skills and abilities along the way.
I do think going to grad school can teach you skills that are applicable in “the real world”, but for that you have to look for, or create, opportunities. By that I mean that “just” being a good grad student and acing your classes is not enough if you want to make the most of your graduate school experience.
I am relatively shy so I usually feel uncomfortable in settings where there are a lot of people I do not know. Most jobs that I am interested in though require relatively good communication skills and confidence in general. The way for me to push myself forward and learn this skill is to force myself to present at conferences. It might seem a little extreme, but I actually approached it progressively. During the first year of my MA, I joined the committee in charge of organizing the graduate conference of my department. This taught me a lot about how to write a good abstract (one that would get accepted), understand the logistics of conference organization, and being involved in the conference without having to present a paper. The second year, since I knew how things worked (thus I was feeling more comfortable about the whole thing), I presented a paper there. This gave me the confidence to present at bigger conferences in my field, such as the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics’ Conference, or the one I will take part in, in April, the International Comics Art Forum. If you are in the same boat that I was and want to get started, MUN organizes the annual Aldrich conference, which is a good way to gain skills and experience, until you are ready to present at other places.
Publishing is a big part of academia, but writing in general is a skill that is required in most white-collar jobs. Same goes for conferences, if you want to get some experience, be willing to take some risks and submit your papers to (graduate) journals, for instance. Look out for calls for papers online (and in your email box!). Professors are usually ready to help you edit papers if you intend to publish it. This is something that I really appreciate and value in the English department – publications are encouraged and supported. I am taking a class on graphic storytelling this semester, and all the assignments are geared towards writing, editing, and publishing. We are getting to experience what publishing in academic journals feels like, but with the “safety net” of knowing that we are doing everything “as if”. Our ultimate goal is it to be able to have a publishable paper by the end of the course and submit it to a journal. Isn’t that exciting?
Also, I was talking earlier about creating your own opportunities. I study comics, which is a relatively niche field, so with one other graduate student (and the wonderful support and encouragements of our supervisor) we actually asked an academic journal that we like if they would let us edit a special issue. We worked on it during the fall semester, making sure no manuscripts had already been published on our topic, crafting a call for paper, putting together a timeline, and pitching our project to the editors of the journal. And they said yes to us, which means that now we are also editing a special issue, and getting to know how academic publishing works from the inside (selecting abstracts that will become full-length articles, the peer-review process, etc.) It is an excellent opportunity that will teach us some applicable administrative, organizational, and communication skills that are transferable in “the real world”.
Finally, look around for workshops. The English department is hosting three sessions this semester that help graduate students have a better sense of how grad school does indeed prepare them for careers that are not necessarily academic. MUN also offers regular workshops through Career Development and Experiential Learning, which prepares you actively for your professional life after graduation.
So disregard all the belittling comments of people who tell you that you are wasting your time going to grad school, and rather ask yourself if you’re ready to seize all the new opportunities that are offered to you!
Until next time,