In 2022, I started mentoring applicants to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the Humanities — particularly in the fields of literature, history and museum studies. For me, working with bright-eyed and bushy-tailed applicants (like I once was) necessitates a healthy dose of vulnerability and radical honesty.
In this article series, “Advice Column for Graduate Students and Applicants,” I share survival strategies for life in the ivory tower.
During my last semester in the Ph.D. Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, I worked as a Teaching Fellow in the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin’s humanities museum, archive and library. My department of the HRC had just reopened its undergraduate internship after the tapering off of the 2020 pandemic and received a new class of brilliant young scholars.. . . . . . . . . . . .
Toward the end of that semester, a group of undergraduate and graduate student workers met at Home Slice — Austin’s best pizza shop, in my humble opinion — to celebrate graduation season and say goodbye to a few friends that were moving on to new adventures.
I was possibly the oldest member of the party, and certainly the most senior in academia, as the only one graduating from a Ph.D. program — although there were quite a few newly minted Masters at the table. A significant contingent of the party, however, lacked the “thousand-yard-stare” of the worn-down graduate students. Those were the undergraduate juniors getting ready to start graduate school applications.
It was inevitable, then, that they engaged in a discussion about their hopes and dreams for their future journeys in academia. I promise, I tried my best not to share my “war” stories — everyone who had worked with me knew of my general cynicism and disillusionment toward academia. I focused, instead, on participating in a conversation with the other side of the table, when I overheard the following words from one of the “brilliant young scholars”:
“I know the job market is bad, but even if I don’t become a professor, I will spend 5–6 years writing what I love and reading books I enjoy,” said one of them — let’s call her Bright Eyes.
I forget what I was discussing with the other side of the table, but I remember interrupting my train of thought (and everybody else’s), turning to Bright Eyes and saying something like, “if you go into graduate school thinking like that, you are in for a rough awakening. A Ph.D. program is not really about reading and writing what you love. I hope you are lucky with your department and your dissertation committee, but it’s impossible to know what cards you will draw ahead of time, and you will have to learn how to play with them or leave the table if the game is unwinnable.”
I am not sure I should have said anything. Bright-eyed or not, my colleague is an adult, capable of making her own choices. And I must confess I suffer from a bad case of trauma dumping when it comes to academia, particularly in the presence of young scholars on the other side of the ivory abyss.
Bright Eye’s idea of academia was not necessarily wrong, nor particularly uncommon. I have heard similar lines from friends, senior colleagues, and even seasoned professors. In fact, Dr. Saidiya Hartman herself — Professor at Columbia University and MacArthur Fellow — shared a similar sentiment at a conference event I attended in 2019, describing her Ph.D. experience with a whimsical brand of nostalgia. I certainly did not share her idyllic journey.
I am a little embarrassed to have turned that informal pizza dinner into a lecture about survival techniques in academia, but although my speech was ill-timed, it contained useful information gathered from experience, and from what I witnessed from the experiences of many friends and colleagues.
Here is what I wish I had shared with my brilliant young colleagues, and what I wish I knew before I started my crucible:
Quitting is always an option.
This is the knowledge you have to carry with you every day during your Ph.D. journey.
If you stay in the program for a few years, and even if you successfully defend your dissertation and become a Doctor of Philosophy, you will witness the disappearance of some of your fellows. Here are some likely scenarios:
Some will “master out” — in academic lingo, that means a Ph.D. candidate received their Master’s degree and decided to leave their program soon after. Many candidates will talk about those who master out with tones of derision, and even the most empathetic souls seem to feel a little superior for staying true to the Ph.D. path. I have, in the past, been guilty of that sentiment. Now I think those who “master out” must be the wisest ones — they saw the writing on the wall years before I did. Only in the toxic miasma of the Ivory Tower would anyone consider the act of getting a Master’s degree akin to failure.
*Mastering out can happen in the U.S. because most Ph.D. programs do not require candidates to enter their programs with a Master’s degree. Those who do not have a Master’s upon entry will receive one as part of the Ph.D. program. Some of those candidates choose to leave their programs after receiving their Master’s.
A significant number will become like ghosts, haunting the halls of the university, seeking guidance and encouragement, and never finding it. They will fade away, possibly during the dissertation process, lacking mentorship, lacking joy, and often dealing with intransigent dissertation committee members. For a significant part of my dissertation period (from 2020 to 2022), I felt like one of those ghosts. Back then, I visualized my situation as a silent drowning — professors and other University administrators passed by me in boats but did not rescue me or even throw a life preserver my way.
Many will get “industry jobs” (meaning any position outside Universities) and suddenly reappear on LinkedIn, announcing their new corporate or tech identity. I say more power to them. They saw a boat willing to take them and saved themselves.