Raise your hand if you are in a Ph.D. program and no one has asked about your completion schedule? **crickets** That’s right. None of you.
Getting a Ph.D. in anything comes with a special kind of social abuse. However, getting a Ph.D. in the humanities pretty much means everyone gets to have a negative opinion about your life choices and future finances. Everyone from parents to high school friends to Facebook buddies want to know why in the world you are still in school and why it takes so long to get the heck out. I just started the third year of my Ph.D. program. I finished my first two years of coursework and this summer I became a candidate. Believe it or not–that’s on the early side of right on schedule. Now that I’m in dissertation mode, people from all walks of life want to know why I’m still in my Ph.D. program when people who graduated years after me in high school are now in their medical residencies. I mean–I’m in history. My folks are already dead. I’m practicing to be a doctor of dead people. Why is this taking so long? If someone donated a dollar for every time a group of graduate students gathered at a bar to laugh and cry about these kinds of questions, we could pay off the nation’s student loans and possibly take a nice chunk out the national debt. While I cannot speak for everyone’s experience, I’m going to dedicate this blog post to help all of those outside of academia understand why they should be a tad more empathetic with graduate students and why they should be a doll, and keep opinions to themselves.
I apologize to my other history Ph.D.s as this post is very U.S. history-centric. Every Ph.D. track is different and timelines and experiences may vary.
Coursework (2-3 years):
Getting a Ph.D. in history comes with a metric butt-ton of coursework. I love my loyalists, but I’m not getting a Ph.D. in loyalism in Virginia during the American Revolution. I’m getting a Ph.D. in U.S. History with Early American and Digital History minor fields. We study these broader topics because we have to prove that one day we can teach undergraduates and graduates big theme courses (regardless of whether or not we want to jump into the academic rabbit hole). If a student approaches me one day wanting to know more about the Second Wave of Feminism in the United States, it doesn’t matter if I’m an Early Americanist–I need to know how to get that kid a good book and fast. It’s almost like being in a medical residency where you have to spend time in different specialties before they let you pick your own. Want to be a plastic surgeon? Well… you are going to have to spend some time in gynecology before they let you loose. I might specialize in Early America, but I have to pay my dues to the New Deal.
Well-rounded = a lot of time hitting the books and a lot of coursework.
Comprehensive Exams (The worst moment of our lives–never ask how long this takes):
After all of that coursework, we have to walk the walk by talking the talk and/or writing the write–or whatever. This phase of the Ph.D. is quite possibly the most terrifying and it varies by academic institution. This is our version of the Bar Exam or Medical Boards. We go into a quiet room, are given questions by 3-5 historians on our committees and we write for hours on those topics. Remember–these are all questions that have nothing to do with our specialized field. Want to confuse an Early Americanist? Ask a loaded question about Jacksonian Democracy and the Whig Party. At GMU, we are lucky that our minor fields are our written exams, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. Yikes.
Then if you are lucky enough to pass your writtens, you are escorted into a room at a pre-scheduled time with your committee and locked in there for hours. You have good cop, bad cop, and the person who goes for the jugular. Anything. They can ask freaking anything. Any question at all in US History. And you might think–America? It’s not that old. How bad could it be? Well, how anglo-centric of you. Native Americans, my friends. American history can go back a couple thousand years. They can ask you a random date, what was the cause of the Civil War, what 12 historians have said differently about a tiny topic, etc. And you want to do well! I’ve known Ph.D. students who’ve taken two years or more after coursework to study for these exams. None of us judge each other for how long it takes because the mental obstacle is a lot harder than the actual exam. Some of the darkest moments of our lives are spent studying for orals. Never ask a Ph.D. student when they plan on taking them. They might actually attack you.
Archives (1-infinity years):
So the Ph.D. student you know has finished comprehensive exams. Yay! They are almost done, right? WRONG! Getting a Ph.D. in history is not like taking a bunch of published books and making a new one. The whole point of our dissertations is to bring something new to the table. One of the biggest hoops we have to jump through is gathering our sources. It can take weeks or months to create a list of archives we need to visit. This includes online searches, messaging archives you have a hunch might have the good stuff, and talking to other scholars in related fields.
Oh yeah and then funding. Remember we are poor. Really, really poor. Grad students simply cannot afford to make all of these trips. Only so much has been digitized. However, there are thousands of organizations that offer grants and fellowships to help us travel to grab our sources. The only problem? These opportunities only happen 1-2 times a year, are extraordinarily competitive, come with a laundry list of items that go into application packets, and then it can take up to 6 months for these organizations to get back to you with a “yay” or “nay.”
Oh–and those archives? I have 16 archives on my list alone. That includes 3 trips to Canada, 1 trip to London, and more than a dozen in the United States. Five or more of those archives in the U.S. require at least a week to go through literally MILES of documents. And that’s just frantically grabbing copies of documents. We barely have a chance to look at them. So add a few more months or years for digestion. Can you read barely literate 18th-century yeoman farmer handwriting quickly? It takes a hot second. Chill.
Certifications (1-2 years):
While we are in our Ph.D. programs, many of us don’t want to take the academic route. Many history Ph.D.s are a lot more interested in working in museums or archives. That takes an additional certification in public history or museum studies.
Want to get a one up on the job market? Universities are always offering certifications in the “next big thing.” Add things like digital history/humanities, statistics, etc. and you are looking at additional time in your program.
The Dissertation (Lifetime of years):
Oh, the dissertation. Remember all those archive trips and all of that digesting I talked about? Reading, understanding, organizing, etc. takes a lot of time. We are literally trying to unravel the past like a giant Rubik’s cube using a dozen different methods, via the guidance of our also really busy advisors. Our dissertations are huge and we take a lot of time on them because we hope they will be the beginnings of our first manuscript submissions. It’s all about that book. It’s also one massive 600+ page portfolio to show off our mad history skills to future employers. You can put your digital history certification on your CV and sell yourself as a digital historian–but employers are going to want to see you can actually do DH. Your dissertation is the perfect place to show off these skills. Well–digital methods take a lot of time. You normally have to learn a software, know how to troubleshoot the thousands of errors you are going to come across, and create massive datasets. That takes time.
In the dissertation stage, we have 3-4 historians on a committee and we aren’t going anywhere unless we’ve made this group of Jedi masters happy. We purposely pick our committees to have different strengths in different areas of our dissertation, which means we have 3-4 people throwing vastly different edits and suggestions our way. What one historian might be ok with, the other might be revolted by. The committee is a big checks and balances system to make sure they let us loose into society as professionals.
Conferences and Publications (The whole time):
But after all of that, how does one actually get a job? Our CV’s have to be filled with impressive shenanigans. After getting all of those fellowships, people want to see what you’ve done with all of that time and money. Employers want to be able to see you can walk the history walk before they hire you. The best place to show off your mad history skills are on the conference circuit and in publications.
Ph.D. students and candidates actively apply for and present at conferences to show off their research and receive important critiques by peers before the dissertation is completed. These conferences are competitive. We spend months at a time preparing conference proposals (which all seem to happen in the Fall months), begging people we don’t know to be our chairs and commentators, and then we still have to write our presentations. There are book publishers and future employers in these audiences. You want your research and presentations to be on fleek. No pressure.
While we are writing our dissertations, history students are also writing book reviews for academic journals and writing articles of our own–all of which come with lengthy and painful peer reviews. The process: you submit a journal article. It’s either accepted with a million revisions or they straight up tell you, “bye.” Once again, this takes time.
*Bonus* Biological Clocks and “Life Happens”:
While many people are in Ph.D. programs long after their 20s and 30s, there are thousands of us who jumped right in after our bachelor’s and master’s degrees. This puts a ton of us in our late 20s and early 30s. Well, what happens in these glorious years? A lot of folks start asking when we are all going to get married and pop out litters of children. Want to make a graduate student cry? Ask them when they are going to finish. Want to make a graduate student fall out and weep? Ask them when they are going to get married and have kids.
Some Ph.D. students shoot up a respectful, dignified middle finger to society and do their own thing. It’s their choice. Leave them alone. However, some of us do get married and decide that we want to start families. Having a new baby is hard. Having a new baby in a Ph.D. program while you are traveling, studying, writing, and presenting is almost impossible. Most Ph.D. moms and dads find themselves adding on extra years to their programs because it’s really hard to travel, write, and present with a baby who needs parents for survival.
And then–life happens. Weddings happen. Deaths in the family happen. Car accidents happen. Illness happens. Cancer happens. Life. It happens.
The moral of this 2,138-word story:
The next time you see someone in a Ph.D. program–whether it’s in history, the humanities, medical school, who cares–give them a big supportive hug. If they like hugs. Don’t be judgy. We know that everyone means well and that yes, your life is difficult too, but it would be nice for someone to ask how our work is going as opposed to “Oh dear lord, are you finished already?” We are well aware of how long it takes. We are not wasting time. We are, in fact, wasting our sanity. And we are not taking so much time to hurt you. If your feelings even matter in the first place.