So, You Want to Get a PhD??? | part 1
*Disclaimer - the above image is the most peaceful you'll be going through the PhD process
So, you’re applying for a Ph.D. ...
If you’re reading this it probably means you're considering applying for a PhD. I can offer some advice to those hitching their wagons to the liberal arts. Because I can't speak to applicants following other routes, I brought in my friend who is currently getting her PhD in psychology. So we've broken it down below with some funny, yet serious, advice you should take into account before committing 5-10 years of your life to this cause.
Are you sure you want to do this???
S (words of wisdom from myself): Why are you doing this to yourself!? Applying for a PhD is hands down one of the most time extensive, emotionally draining, and expensive endeavors I’ve undertaken (and I’ve done it twice…). In all honesty, the whole reason I initially wanted to apply for a PhD is that I couldn’t find a job in my field with a MASTERS DEGREE. (That is probably the most depressing sentence I’ve ever written.) Don’t get me wrong, I love school and research. I thrived during my master’s program and my professors told me they knew I’d be a good fit for a PhD program. Let me break it down for you even further - when you're getting your masters degree you're basically condensing the amount of knowledge you learned in the four years of undergrad into two intense years of study. When you move to a PhD you're taking everything you learned in those two intense years and condensing it into one year (usually you'll have one year of study and then move on to your thesis project = the bulk of your PhD career).
Whether you’ve stumble onto this path or you’ve known this was something you were going to do for years take some time to think through why you’re doing this. You are about to make a 5-10 year commitment. A commitment where at the end of it you’ll be rich in knowledge but, likely, cash poor. You'll probably also have a mild form of caffeine addiction.
Preparing for your Application
P (advice from my friend): I have officially applied to graduate school twice now. Once for my master’s and once for my PhD. I do consider myself one of the lucky ones since, well, I got in. If you attempted to apply to grad school before or heard of others attempting to apply, you probably know that it's truly one of the most frustrating and terrifying experiences of one’s life. First, the GREs- YUCK. There is not one person (that I have met) that has enjoyed taking the GRE. (side note from Stephanie - I second this. Worst test. Ever.) It is long and hard and it simply sucks. It's what you think it is, a standardized test that people believe will tell how you will perform in graduate school. The problem comes if you are like me and have test anxiety, and even if I'm a good student and make all A's, I am not going to do as well as I am capable of on a LONG standardized test over vocabulary and math. It's simply not going to happen. Luckily, I studied long and hard enough that I managed to do well enough to keep me out of the “didn’t meet minimum requirement pile.” That's the pile that will immediately take away any dream of graduate school. If you have trouble taking tests, strive for the minimum GRE requirement for the programs you are applying to. If you don’t meet that requirement, seriously take the test again. I know that is hard to hear but TAKE IT AGAIN. If you don’t meet that minimum requirement, you will not even be considered. They will not even open your application. If that sounds scary, it unfortunately is. Also, take the test at least the summer before you start applying. Do not wait until the fall. Scores take a long time to send and if you do have to retake the test you don’t want to push it and worry about making that deadline. I recommend taking the test in July. You will be happy you did.
Know Thy Professor
S: I went to a master’s program where I could study a variety of topics without committing to a concentration. I loved the freedom to study art from the Italian Renaissance to Contemporary Performance art. However, this isn’t an option for your PhD. You need to have a very narrow focus picked out. Part of this is finding a professor to work with who matches that focus. When you’re researching schools don’t just look at the tenured Rockstar faculty members, also look at the associate professors and [insert title] professors. Send them emails a few months before your application is due introducing yourself and talking about how your research alines with theirs. If they don’t respond – don’t freak out! These people are busy. Sometimes the professor will respond to ask more about your research. Even better, sometimes they will say “I’ve filled the number of students I can advise” or “I don’t think our research is a good match.” Why is this good? Because you’ve just save yourself over $100 in application fees.
P: Figure out who specifically you want to work with at the programs you are applying to. Email them asap. The first time around I emailed the professors I wanted to work with in August and this was the best decision. Some simply won’t respond to you but some will. Put in the time for those professors who do email you back. They are insanely busy but if you catch them at the beginning of their semester then they will have much more time than in the middle of their semester. Figure out over the summer and email them as soon as you figure it out.
P: Put in the work. Write and rewrite and read and reread. Get as many people to look over your essays as possible. Friends, bosses, professors, coworkers, family members, anyone! This is the best advice I can give about your essays. Every person reads things differently and there will be probably at least 5-8 people who read your essays and guess what? Not all of them will like you or your writing. That is life. The more people who read your essay, the better your essay will be.
Do not wait until the month before to really focus on your applications. Start early and work often. Also, don’t give up. This process is extremely frustrating and terrifying but you can do it. If it doesn’t work out, try again. Keep your name in their minds. Do not let people forget you.
S: When many people think about the kind of aid you receive for a PhD they think about teaching. That’s the most common form of aid out there. After talking to one of my professors I started to see this completely differently. Most of the time (or at least in art history), PhD students are given the Intro to World Art classes to teach. This can involve teaching a class of over 100 students (if you’re at a big university) while also trying to balance your own school work. After working as a TA during my master’s program I can tell you – teaching can be fun but it takes A LOT of preparation. I would spend over 5 hours prepping the PowerPoint and my “script” for a lecture that was just over an hour long. And don’t even get me started on the time commitment that is grading exams…
I'm not saying that being a TA is a bad form of financial aid, but I am telling you this so you know what you're getting yourself into. Also, investing in a few bottles of your favorite wine really helps when you keep getting "the Eiffel Tower is located in Rome" on the exam.
The State of Your Field
S: I'll keep this short and sweet - have an honest conversation with your current professors about the state of your field. Even with a PhD it can be difficult to get a job as a tenured professor or in an art museum. Knowing what kind of competition there is will inform your decision. Also, there are trends in art history (they're not just for social media). Certain areas of study are more likely to get you a job versus others. Take the temperature before diving in. I had one professor admit that the history of photography isn't that marketable and another professor say that Middle Eastern and Islamic art were "really hot" right now.
That was a lot! If you're still here then maybe you are ready for a PhD program. My friend P has generously offered to give some insight into her interview process. There will be a part 2 of this series on what that process is like next week. Good luck to any applicants reading this!