Grad School in the Humanities: Pros and Cons

Brian Weatherson, who has his Ph.D from Australia’s Monash University and is tenured at Cornell [CV in PDF], argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, going to graduate school in the humanities is a grand idea.

His argument, though, is couched with a lot of caveats.

The important point here is that no one ever has to decide to go to grad school as such. The big decision is whether to go to a particular graduate school that has offered you a (hopefully funded) place. In other words, when you have to make the crucial decision, you may well be in position of crucial information (i.e. that you̢۪re at a school with an excellent placement record) that suggests your career prospects are very good.

There is a flipside to this of course, and that̢۪s that by the time you̢۪re accepted, you might know that your only grad school option is to go somewhere with a very poor placement record. (Or a very poor record of competent advising, or poor morale among students, or what have you.) At that stage, it is a very good idea to reconsider how strongly you want to go to graduate school.

Basically, it boils down to this: Go to grad school if you can get a free ride to a top ten institution or if you don’t mind being relegated to the backwaters of academia teaching dull students or don’t mind losing ten years of earning potential before going into another line of work.

That sounds about right.

(Interestingly, Brian had essentially the same advice and I the same reaction over two years ago.)


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Barry says:

    James, I generally disagree with you and your judgement, but this is one of the best and short pieces of advice for grad school (Ph.D. programs)

  2. ICallMasICM says:

    This is news?

  3. I agree this is a bit repetitive, and the summary is harsh but fair.

    It wouldn’t be worth saying this again if it weren’t for people getting such negative advice about grad school that they don’t even investigate the possibility of the free ride at a top 10 school. Maybe it isn’t worth saying anyway, but if I can convince a few people who have the chance for such a charmed existence to take the opportunity, that will feel like doing good.

  4. James Joyner says:



    No criticism implied on the repetitiousness issue. I stumbled upon that exchange when compiling my “related post” links and found it amusing. We write about the things that interest us, which tends to lead to us talking about the same subjects a lot.

    My PhD is from a lower tier school (Alabama) and I’ve no regrets in doing it, although I may have tried to get into a “better” school if I’d understood the market better.