Many people pursue a PhD in Arts and Humanities to advance their careers. Whether they hope to find a tenure-track position or want to grasp how cultural patterns impact their profession of choice, there are certain things they need to consider before applying.
Evaluating a program’s academic requirements, faculty quality and research opportunities should be top priorities. In addition, seeking advice from trusted advisers is essential.
Determine Your Research Interests
The choice of a doctoral degree in the Humanities will depend on your interests and the scope of your research. It’s important to understand that a Ph.D. program is more than an intellectual exercise; it is a rigorous academic endeavor that will require significant time and resources. Consider another path if you are not interested in a topic enough to commit to at least eight years of studying it.
While the humanities PHD programs can provide you with a lifetime of learning and an exciting career, it’s also a tremendous responsibility that can be financially draining. Aside from being a full-time student, you will also be expected to present your work at conferences, publish in journals, and create new research methods. You need to be passionate about your subject matter and be willing to commit yourself fully to it — a tall order for most people.
If you need more clarification about your interest in a field, talk with professors or graduate students who have researched that area. They will offer advice and may point you toward valuable resources, such as archival libraries. You can also find potential mentors by reading their past work in your field.
Compile a List of Potential Specializations
If you’re like most undergraduates, you may have entered a humanities degree program to become a university professor someday. But you might not know that the average tenure-track position is only available at top universities, where hundreds of qualified candidates vie for a few dozen full-time jobs yearly. As a result, many people with PhDs in the arts and humanities find noncampus careers as the only realistic alternative.
A few years back, English professor William Pannapacker wrote an article in Slate claiming that most humanities PhDs roam the planet as poorly paid adjuncts—or, if they leave academia, spend their lives working as bookstore clerks or baristas.
Although most doctoral programs have never systematically tracked employment outcomes, anecdotal evidence is hard to ignore. In 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured several academics on food stamps; last fall, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette eulogized Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old French adjunct who died in poverty after 20 years at Duquesne.
These grim prospects haven’t stopped many graduate students from pursuing their passions—but it shouldn’t either. The skills and qualities you develop through a humanities PhD—including critical thinking, creativity, and resilience—are highly valued outside academia. Research by Columbia’s Center for Career Education shows that humanities scholars often find jobs in various industries, including public service, writing, consulting, and advising.
Conduct Independent Research
Ultimately, pursuing a humanities PhD comes from your passion and talent. For the most part, prospective humanities Ph.D. students are driven by a desire to understand the culture and the world around them through subjects such as history, religion, arts, and literature. They are not looking for solutions to life’s big questions; they want to understand the themes of those questions.
These researchers occasionally seek a Ph.D. to increase their earning potential and access new professional options. This reasoning is valid but is one of many reasons to pursue a PhD in the humanities. The truth is, no one gets a Ph.D. in art, history, or religious studies for the money, and there’s no way it’s worth it to pursue a Ph.D. solely because you think it will open up more fulfilling employment options.
Those who get a Ph.D. in the humanities typically devote years of coursework and research because they love their subject matter and want to contribute to the academic community somehow. Then, when they are done and can’t find a faculty position, they may be bitter and resentful. However, this shouldn’t be the only reason to seek a PhD; it’s also a great way to explore a passion and build knowledge of something you love.
Solicit Advice from Trusted Advisers
Choosing to pursue a PhD isn’t just a personal decision; it’s also a financial commitment. Many students rely on fellowships, scholarships, and grants to help cover tuition and living costs. It is, therefore, essential to make sure that you choose a program with an adequate range of funding options.
While putting all your trust in the information provided by universities and online sources is tempting, seeking advice from people you know and trust is wise. These advisers should be able to listen to your concerns and offer insights based on their experiences, strengths, knowledge, and points of view. They should be able to give you fresh ideas and suggest new, exciting paths that will lead you into the future rather than the same stale pathways you’ve been down before.
As you decide whether or not a Ph.D. is suitable for you, consider your long-term goals and the value of gaining a tenure-track position. Tenure track positions are increasingly scarce, and it’s a good idea to think about alternative career options if the academic job market differs from what you’d hoped for. Those with Humanities degrees can find gainful employment in various fields, including teaching, journalism, publishing, law, arts administration, genealogy, and linguistics.