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December 7th, 2016
In 2013, the Wall Street Journal published an article based on the findings of a Harvard University study stating that “the percentage of humanities degrees (as a share of all undergraduate degrees attained) has dropped by half since the 1960s.” According to the Harvard study, liberal arts and humanities are “attracting fewer undergraduates amid concerns about the degrees’ value in a rapidly changing job market.”
Harvard and the WSJ’s inference was that there are no jobs—and hence no money—for graduates of liberal arts and humanities programs.
Following this study, liberal arts departments and humanities scholars all over the country dove into research with the intent of answering two questions:
The answer they found was slightly more nuanced:
While graduates with humanities and liberal arts degrees may earn less immediately after graduating, in the long run they actually earn more on average than those with professional degrees.
True Numbers, but Slanted Implication
The answer to the question about enrollment in humanities and liberal arts programs, researchers found, is that while there has been a drop off, it has been small. Enrollment has dropped since the peak it achieved during the Vietnam War. However, when compared to 1950s numbers, enrollment percentages are only slightly lower.
More importantly, “the percentage of college-age Americans holding degrees in the humanities has increased fairly steadily over the last half-century, from a little over one percent in 1950 to about 2.5 percent today,” according to Harvard graduate and Northeastern University professor Ben Schmidt.
Questioning the Realities of a Bachelor of Arts Degree
In an era of rising higher education costs, the debate over the value of obtaining a liberal arts degree is important. Yet just as some seemed ready to write off the value of these programs, many others are finding that the conceptual and analytical skills that study in the humanities and liberal arts promotes are becoming more crucial than ever before.
Ironically, this may be particularly true in the field of tech, which tends to be dominated by coders and engineers. As George Anders writes for Forbes, “The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant.”
Humanities, liberal arts and social science majors are often saddled with clichés linking a bachelor of arts degree with the ability to reason and write, but few other skills. Traditionally, the assumption was made that graduates with degrees in other fields of study had larger skill sets and could write and reason.
But that is no longer the case. According to Verlyn Klinkenborg, a professor of nonfiction writing who has taught at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, “many college students graduate without being able to write clearly.” In technical fields, this skill is simply not as important and thus not practiced and perfected.
While doing research in both science and humanities journals for their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa discovered that “Students majoring in liberal arts fields see ‘significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.'” By contrast, students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. Yet critical thinking and complex reasoning are crucially important to success in the marketplace.
Short and Long-Term Employment Realities of Liberal Arts and Humanities Graduates
Gaining employment as a liberal arts or humanities major can be difficult and often means taking a salary that is less than one’s counterparts. Studies indicate, however, that in the end, liberal arts or humanities majors actually make more money than the vast majority of graduates with degrees in other fields. In Inside Higher Ed, Allie Grasgreen reports,
“By their mid-50s, liberal arts majors with an advanced or undergraduate degree are on average making more money than those who studied in professional and pre-professional fields, and are employed at similar rates”
According to a joint report conducted by AAC&U and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, “while in the years following graduation they earn $5,000 less than people with professional or pre-professional degrees, liberal arts majors earn $2,000 more at peak earning ages.”
This long-run advantage takes hold, in particular, when liberal arts and humanities graduates go on to obtain graduate degrees.
Humanities is the Future
As technology continues to expand and the number of people with high levels of technical proficiency grows, a greater number of the available jobs will require the multidisciplinary skill set provided by a bachelor of arts degree. Technical jobs are often easier to mechanize, particularly as our computing abilities continue to grow and as our societies become increasingly networked.
“The humanities are a good bet because the things that are hardest to computerize or outsource are going to be all about skills that emphasize human interaction. Empathy, sociability, writing, analyzing, and reacting to people — all things more likely to come from the humanities than hard sciences.”
The liberal arts and humanities teach students to think at an abstract level and to make connections that technology, so far, simply cannot emulate. In this sense, these degrees teach more than just skills, but rather a way of thinking that will always have an important, strategic value—even in a marketplace that is based on scientific and technological development.
March 10th, 2015
In the darkest days of the graduate school “doldrums,” as you wade through readings and midterms and papers, it can be hard to recall why exactly you decided to go to grad school in the first place. Even though you might feel like you can hardly find time to breathe, the truth is you can make time for relaxing, catching a movie, spending time with your partner, or whatever else you enjoy — if you try.
How can you balance graduate school with enjoying your personal life? Here are five things you can try:
Grad school can often feel like a 24/7 job where you need to be thinking about your research, coursework, and teaching all the time in order to compete in the academic job market. Not so!
If you discipline yourself, you can work a semi-regular “shift” and still make time for dating, relaxing, and hobbies. Figure out when your most productive daytime hours are, and schedule 8-10 working hours during that time. If you stay on task during these hours, you can feel good about shutting it down to enjoy some personal time. Of course there will always be emergencies and last-minute deadlines, but by scheduling working shifts you can actually minimize their occurrence and lead a more ‘normal’ day-to-day life.
Procrastination during your scheduled hours will drag work into your personal time, so you need to find strategies to stay productive and on task. Download an app that blocks time-wasting websites; write from a computer with internet disabled; meditate or go for a walk – whatever you have to do to stay on task.
Schedule short breaks every 60 to 90-minutes so that you stay energized and give your brain some relief.
If you’ve ever had a pet, you know how effective small rewards can be. But you are trainable, too! Set realistic goals for yourself and then reward yourself when you meet them. Small rewards for finishing tasks or meeting goals can go a long way toward keeping you motivated. Figure out what you respond to – a Starbucks coffee? A homemade cookie? A night out dancing? – and reward yourself when you meet set goals. The more that you give yourself rewards, the more you will be willing to meet your own goals when you set them.
Some people dislike the idea of penciling in their partners or setting aside a block of time for pleasure reading – but given how graduate school work tends to expand to fill all of your time, scheduling off chunks of time to take care of your personal needs might be the smartest way to make sure they don’t get constantly sidelined. So schedule yourself some free time, put your school work away, and indulge. You’ll find that the more you allow yourself to refresh your brain, the more you will actually get done when it’s time to work – because your mind will be focused on work, and not how tired of working you are.
It’s easy to envision yourself working productively around the clock to finish academic obligations or publish one more paper. The flip side is that you often guilt yourself when you aren’t working – you think that any minute you spend relaxing could be spent working! But the truth is, even if you love your research area, it’s easy to get “burned out” in academia.
If you work around the clock, you can get disillusioned and discouraged. The more exhausted you are mentally and spiritually with your work, the harder it is over the long-term for you to produce high-quality scholarship. You have to take breaks in order to produce your best work.
Divest yourself from the guilt that graduate school can bring. Whenever you feel guilty for spending time on non-work things, mentally change the subject and remind yourself that it’s OK to spend time relaxing and recharging – even more, it’s healthy.
So divest yourself from the guilt that graduate school can bring. Whenever you feel guilty for spending time on non-work things, mentally change the subject and remind yourself that it’s OK to spend time relaxing and recharging – even more, it’s healthy. This is a “fake it ’til you make it” kind of thing – you will have to actively pretend you don’t feel guilty at first. Spend more time focused on producing the highest quality work and less time on berating yourself. Beating yourself up is never productive anyway! So stay positive and learn to focus on a positive reinforcement-based schedule. The more you do this, the less guilt you will eventually learn to feel during time off.
October 25th, 2014
One of the very first things you’ll learn in graduate school is that your professors will assign a lot of reading. A lot of reading!
Depending on your field, each week you may be asked to read anywhere from several journal articles (mainly STEM fields) up to an entire book per class (social sciences and humanities).
How can you manage all of this reading? Here are a few tips to help get you through those pages.
The first thing is to recognize that you can’t read all of it in the time allotted. Graduate professors, quite deliberately, usually assign more reading than the average graduate student can complete in a given week. With research, teaching, sleeping, eating, and your personal life, there aren’t enough hours in the day to read all of the materials you are assigned.
This means that you’re going to have to get creative in how you manage the reading load so that you cover the material requested.
Since you know that you can’t read it all, you’re going to have to figure out which of the readings are most important for a particular week.
Start by organizing your readings into three groups:
But how do you determine which assignments to read closely and which to put on the back burner? Sometimes professors will make it obvious by designating certain readings as “required” and others as “optional,” or by foreshadowing what you’ll talk about in your next session.
You can try to surmise this yourself by quickly looking through the materials that are assigned and finding their common theme. From there, you should be able to determine which readings are ‘core’ and which are peripheral to the main theme.
What about ease of reading? It’s tempting to select the papers or books that you think will be the easiest to get through, but take caution. Often, the thorniest theoretical papers are the seminal ones that are the heart of the themes your graduate professor is trying to convey. They’re likely to be on your qualifying exams down the road. But if two or more papers look equally important and have similar purposes in the assigned readings, sometimes a good strategy is to pick the one that captures your interest most.
Read ‘Closely’ by Taking Notes
Doing a “close reading” of graduate school papers is not like reading a pleasure book. You’re looking for key themes and discussion points – things that are relevant to your research and scholarship. When doing your close readings, take notes!
If you are using a paper copy, you can annotate right onto the paper. If you’re averse to writing on your paper – or don’t have enough room – brightly colored sticky notes can help flag specific sections in which you have a particularly insightful comment. These notes will be helpful to refer back to when discussing articles in class.
While you’re not reading every single word, you’re also not just reading headings. Read the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Scan your eyes over each paragraph to see if there are important supporting points or keywords.
After skimming a section, take a moment to summarize what you skimmed – jotting down brief synthesis notes can help, although they won’t be as extensive as the notes from the materials you read closely. Writing down broad questions you have can help, too – they may be questions you want to raise during the discussion or in your seminar paper.
Whether you are reading closely or skimming actively, you should ask yourself questions as you read. Constantly challenge yourself: What is the point of this passage? What is the author trying to convey? How does this connect to my own scholarship? How does this connect to the larger body of work in my field?
Graduate school life is super busy, and many grad students find themselves getting around to their reading late at night, after they’ve spent a full day in the lab or classroom.
If your lids are feeling heavy, put the article down and go to sleep!
You’re not going to absorb the information in a meaningful way, while at the same time your cutting into precious time that could be spent on other more enjoyable aspects of your life. A double-whammy of wasted time and missed opportunity!
Set time aside to take care of yourself. Sleep is important, so make sure you get enough of it! In the end, it’s better to have meaningfully consumed a smaller portion of your reading than it is to have read it all and retained nothing.
One of the perennial questions I get about reading in graduate school is “should I use electronic resources, or hard copies?” I think this is a personal question that depends on your individual preferences and desires, but in so doing highlights an important point: you’ve got to figure out what works for you.
Some students have a difficult time concentrating when staring at lighted electronic screens; others prefer the ease of annotating paper copies. On the other hand, all that printed paper can be an organizational nightmare that for some can be a distraction in itself.
Whether you like reading real paper or the electronic version, try different options and see what ‘clicks.’ Likewise, try switching up the environment where you read to find the best fit:
Getting through your reading doesn’t just take steely perseverance, it also takes common sense and a personal strategy that works for you.
October 15th, 2014
If you’re an undergrad or recent college graduate, you’re probably asking yourself this question: “should I go to grad school?”
The idea is simultaneously tantalizing and terrifying. Along with the promise of prestige and expanded career opportunity comes the risk of added debt, a delayed start to your career, or wasted time.
Here are five questions you should ask – and answer – before deciding whether or not graduate school is right for you.
Graduate school can be expensive. A report (pdf) by the New America Foundation shows that the median debt of a graduate degree holder is about $57,600, while the 75th percentile of borrowers owed over $99,000.
The tuition for professional master’s degrees in top programs at private universities can be well over $40,000 a year and there is often little non-repayable financial aid available.
What are the median salaries in the field you want to enter with your degree? How much money can you expect to make after graduating? And are you going to be able to comfortably repay the debt you incur?
Even if you enter a fully funded PhD program, you will be out of the workforce for at least five years – and increasingly, six to ten years. Outside grad school, that’s time you could spend accumulating work experience and moving up the ladder (in addition to earning more money and saving for retirement). Six years is enough to make you mid-career in many fields, where you’ll be earning a great deal more than a grad student stipend.
Ask yourself: Is it personally worth it to incur the expense or forgo those opportunities in order to earn your graduate degree?
Ultimately, a graduate degree is designed as a training program for some kind of career field. The end goal is for you to get a job in the field and build a career based on your newly acquired skills. But if you can already do that without a graduate degree, why spend the time and effort?
I like the way Alison Green puts it:
“Grad school makes sense when you’re going into a field that requires or significantly rewards a graduate degree.”
Do the people who are currently doing what you want to do have graduate degrees? Is there a ceiling to your progression in that career if you don’t have an advanced degree? If so, where is it?
The corollary to this question is to ensure that the degree you plan to obtain is actually going to lead you to the career field you want.
Do some research: what kinds of graduate degrees, if any, do the people in your desired career field have?
Graduate programs – particularly PhD programs – are designed to be intense, immersive experiences. Unlike college, graduate school is not the time to explore new interests; instead, you’ll be hyper-focused on the area you choose to study.
But remember that the graduate treatment of a subject can be quite different than what you were exposed to as an undergrad. As a master’s student, you will dive into the ‘nitty gritty’ in addition to spending a great deal of time mastering research methods and other analytical tools. If you don’t have a clear goal in mind, the passion you felt for a subject as an undergrad can quickly wear off.
On the other hand, if you know why you’re there you may find yourself instilled with new-found drive and motivation: many of these students find that they enjoy their graduate experience more than undergrad.
If you’re not entirely sure of what you want to study and why you want to study it, remember that you don’t have to attend grad school to continue your intellectual growth. You can attend lectures at nearby universities, take classes as a non-degree student, or simply go to your local library.
If this question makes you think, stop now! There are so many things you can do after college that don’t involve getting a graduate degree.
According to the Census Bureau, only about 11.5% of the U.S. population over the age of 24 has a graduate degree. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for those with only a bachelor’s degree is a mere 4%.
It’s a myth that you can’t find a job without a graduate degree. The vast majority of the American workforce has never attended grad school and never will.
Graduate studies can be a wonderful experience – intellectually stimulating, challenging, eye-opening – but the environment can also be intense. Given the pool of students around you, graduate school can take on a pressure-cooker atmosphere, and while the rewards are (usually) high, the demands of your program (and accompanying stress) will be significant.
The demands of grad school will also limit, at least to some extent, your ability to do other things. If there is something that you really wanted to do after undergrad – say, travel the world, teach abroad, move to a new city – with few exceptions, you should do that first so that you can feel settled once your start your program. The last thing you want to do is find yourself totally overwhelmed by other interests in your first year of grad school.
October 9th, 2014
Many students begin graduate school believing that it’s basically an overgrown version of their undergraduate education. I mean, you’re a student – right? How much different could taking classes and writing papers possibly be?
The truth is, there are some big differences between college and graduate school. Being aware of the changes you’ll be expected to make can help the transition to graduate school feel less daunting. Here are seven of the biggest differences between life as a college student and life as a grad student.
It’s not uncommon for undergraduate students to take 5 or 6 classes a semester in college. In graduate school, five classes would be nigh impossible. A full course load is generally 3 courses – and for good reason.
Each graduate class will require a lot of reading, more than you ever thought possible in college – and more than might actually be possible in a week. You’ll have to learn to prioritize the most important readings and actively skim the rest.
Moreover, the structure of the courses will be different. There are virtually no lecture classes in graduate school; all or nearly all of your classes will be small seminars with 15-20 students or less. Even as few as 2-5 students in a class is not uncommon.
You’ll be expected to be prepared for seminars and to speak up and participate in the intellectual conversation. Your professors will be interested in hearing your insights. Higher quality is expected from your papers, presentations, and group projects. You’ll devote much more time to each class than you did in college.
Undergraduate education is primarily about breadth. In graduate school, your education will be focused on developing depth in a particular subject area. Coursework in graduate school is designed to help prepare you for your comprehensive exams and for writing a dissertation.
Develop a clear idea of what you want to study before you start graduate school, because you won’t have the same freedom to explore different disciplines as you did in college.
This is good news for anyone who knows exactly what they want to study and is ready to polish their knowledge in that field (which – at least theoretically – should be everyone in grad school). You’ll spend a great deal of time reading deeply within your field and participating in high-level discussions with scholars in your area.
The caveat, of course, is that this is not the time to explore brand-new avenues. While there is some flexibility and plenty of room to grow in grad school, for the most part your job is to specialize and become an expert within a specific field. You’ll want to build upon the knowledge you’ve gained in college.
In college, you were likely shepherded through the process of selecting a major and a class schedule. Graduate programs expect you to be much more independent – both in selecting your classes and in directing your research program.
Your classes themselves will also be more self-directed. While many undergraduate professors provide constant deadlines for big projects (e.g., by asking you to turn in a topic and an outline before turning in a final research paper), most seminar classes in graduate school will simply set a single deadline for the final paper. Moreover,that final paper may be your only ‘official’ assignment for the entire semester.
It’s your job to pace yourself and figure out what internal deadlines you need to set in order to get all your work done without overwhelming yourself into uselessness.
In research, too, you’ll be expected to be more independent. While you will get more guidance toward the beginning of your program, by the end of your first year you will be expected to have some fresh ideas about potential research or scholarly projects with potential to contribute knowledge to your field.
In college, the most important thing was performance in your classes. If you did well in classes, you received good grades, and you were considered a “good student.”
In graduate school, classes are just the beginning – and frankly, one of the least important aspects of your program. Good grades are commonplace and expected.
You’ll come to understand the oft-noted phenomenon whereby a “C in grad school is like an F in college.”
You’ll also be expected to get involved in research and/or scholarship early on in your program. The quality of your ideas and your research will be a far bigger part of how your advisor and other professors perceive you within the program than your performance in classes.
Even at a small college, you might have been one of a hundred other students in your major, while at large universities there are thousands of students in every department.
It’s important to remember that unlike in college, you can’t just fade into the background if you want to succeed in graduate school and beyond.
In graduate school, you’re part of a much smaller cohort within your department, and as a result you’ll be much more ‘visible’ to your peers and faculty. The faculty in your department will form opinions about you based on the way you act, think, and speak in classes and at departmental events and meetings.
This is good – and necessary! These same faculty members become part of your network and you’ll want them on your side down the road when a hiring committee calls them for their opinion. You also want to be at the forefront of their mind just in case the perfect job for you crosses their desk or email inbox.
Many college undergraduates become highly engaged with the life of their campus – joining campus groups, cheering the football team on Saturdays and hanging out at campus hotspots.
While some graduate students are more active than others, in general graduate students are less involved in the social life of the campus and more involved in their department as the hub of their experience in graduate school.
Most of the people you interact with on a daily basis will be other students and faculty members within your department, to the point where you may find yourself completely unfamiliar with faculty and practices in other departments at the same school.
Graduate student organizations do exist, but typically they meet less frequently and tend to focus on different things than typical undergraduate social clubs. And while some graduate students live on campus, most will live outside the campus ecosystem.
In any case, the halls of your department will quickly become your home on campus, for better or worse.
Compared to college, the biggest difference in graduate school is that everyone wants to be there. Many graduate students think of their schoolwork as their job (and chances are, it is or will be) and this difference in mindset changes everything.
Your peers will stimulate and challenge you, and they won’t come to class in their pajamas. Faculty within your department will actually be interested in what you have to say. And because of this fundamental dynamic, you’ll learn more and discover that you have more to offer than you might previously have imagined.
This point should also be something that you think hard about before you decide to attend grad school: are you sure it’s what you want to do? If not, there’s no rush: wait until you know exactly what you want to study and make sure you can confidently answer the question, “Why do I want to go to grad school?”
If it’s where you want to be, you’ll find yourself in good company.