- EphBlog - http://ephblog.com -

History Graduate School

An interesting forum:

If you’ve considered going to graduate school in history, come to a History Graduate School Panel discussion on Tuesday (2/23) at 7:00 pm in Griffin 7. Professors Dubow, Fishzon, and Kittleson will speak about their own graduate school experiences, and will answer any questions you might have.

Good stuff. Kudos to the professors involved for taking the time to participate. Comments:

1) Relevant discussion here and here. I second Professor Sam Crane’s remarks:

In fact, I tell them the academic job market is horrible, has been bad for a long, long time, and is getting worse. I tell them that getting a job like the one I have is unlikely. I tell them that they should go on for a Ph.D. only if they truly love the learning, because that is something they will be certain to have for a lifetime, regardless of what job they find themselves with. And for some of them, that is what it is about. Love of learning, regardless of whether they get an ideal academic job.

My only quibble might be to clarify that a love of learning is not enough of a reason to justify graduate school in history. With the internet as your oyster, you can pursue learning as much as your free time allows without going to graduate school.

2) Read Derek Catsam ’93:

[G]raduate students and those looking at entering this competitive world need to be cognizant of the realities. If you are planning to enter a field like, say, US history, it is probably incumbent upon you to know the odds. Further, it seems to me that it is pretty irresponsible of those of us with the ability to advise students if we emphasize the great aspects of intellectual life within the academy and do not point out the reality — your odds of getting the PhD are smaller than you think, your odds of getting a job are slighter still, and your odds of getting tenure at a place yet smaller, and then all of this happening at a place you would otherwise choose to live? Infinitesimal.

Also Swarthmore Professor Tim Burke:

Should I go to graduate school?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: maybe, but only if you have some glimmering of what you are about to do to yourself. Undergraduates coming out of liberal arts institutions are particularly vulnerable to ignorance in this regard. …
Just don’t try graduate school in an academic subject with the same spirit of carefree experimention. Medical school, sure. Law school, no problem. But a Ph.D in an academic field? Forget it. If you take one step down that path, I promise you, it’ll hurt like blazes to get off, even if you’re sure that you want to quit after only one year.

Two years in, and quitting will be like gnawing your own leg off.

Past that, and you’re talking therapy and life-long bitterness.

Burke is right. I hope that the panelists tonight, whether or not they agree with Burke, make sure that students know what some historians believe. I worry that such an event might too easily generate into a “You are all smart Williams students who should dream big and live large!” Nothing wrong with that advice when a student asks if she should try a difficult upper-level seminar, but Ephs need a more reality-based answer when leaving the Purple Bubble. Around half the students in the class of 2010 who are going to graduate school in the humanities are making a mistake. Professor Sara Dubow is, no doubt, a wonderful, hard-working professor. But there is also a sense in which she won the lottery . . .

3) Key data would be a listing of all the Ephs who went to graduate school in history from, say, 1988 through 2000. Where are they now? What happened to them along the way? If there were 50, I bet that fewer than 40 made it to Ph.D., fewer than 20 got any tenure-track jobs at all, and fewer than 5 got tenure. How many got tenure at a place that pays as well as Williams? I don’t know. In fact, I have trouble coming up with many Eph historians of that era, other than our own Derek Catsam ’93, Sara Dubow ’91 and Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97. Pointers welcome!

4) Know the odds and still want to go to graduate school? Good luck! My advice: Marry a doctor. Worked for me! ;-)

Comments Disabled (Open | Close)

Comments Disabled To "History Graduate School"

#1 Comment By (d)avid On February 23, 2010 @ 9:37 am

Any student selecting among graduate programs should ask: “How many people were admitted 6-8 years ago, and what jobs are those people now in?” Nearly every department in every discipline tracks the information and will provide it if you insist (most try to conceal it because it is not a pretty picture).

#2 Comment By rory On February 23, 2010 @ 10:01 am

another good thing to do is look at the current students info online and try to figure out how long they’ve been there (normally date of receiving their masters degree is publicly available. Can figure it out from there within a year or two). Too many students who have been there for too long is a bad sign.

#3 Comment By JG On February 23, 2010 @ 10:05 am

Just to clear up some misconception with the “got to med school or law school” comment by Tim Burke. I’m thinking he didn’t attend either so he’s able to throw them out there lightly.

Having been, I would actually put law school in the exact same category as History grad school or any other academic grad school in terms of the abysmal job market and the need to really want to stdy it. In fact, I’d caution entering into law school even more, because getting a Ph.D can come pretty cheap financially at least – in exchange for living like a grad student and doing a TA job of course, but still often without a resultant crushing debt.

Law School at a public institution can cost you roughly $80,000-100,000 for tuition, fees, and living expenses for the 3 years – then, of course, you still have Bar prep and living expenses while you attempt to study (another $10-15,000 maybe?). At a private school, you’re looking at $120,000 at least. The number of people who (a) get scholarships for more than a small percentage of that or (b) get a job paying the big bucks is miniscule. I worked for a few years before going back to school, so I knew I wanted to be there. I had a clear vision of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought I was going in with my eyes fully open. Well, I am doing something totally different and will still be paying off law school (public) until I’m 50 if I’m lucky. I almost quit in my second year, because I despite loving the study of law, I couldn’t stomach the sticker price and lack of job prospects. I luckily ended up in a job I pretty much like, but I was unable to find a job in my chosen market area or field (and b/c it’s relevant, yes, despite my stellar grades and Williams background).

Med School is a different ball game altogether, and if we have any grads on this forum I’d encourage them to chime in about the realities. The one difference with that I think is the job market, but I still don’t think anyone would suggest to just dive right in without some clarity.

I think anyone needs to go in with their eyes open, and I don’t think it’s helpful for someone in one discipline to toss around ill-informed advice (i.e. Ph.D in history is hard, but run ahead to law school and you’ll be fine). I know it was well-intentioned, but still.

#4 Comment By David On February 23, 2010 @ 10:11 am

JG: You are exactly correct. I meant to say that Burke was right, except about law school. Again, at least half the Williams students who go to law school are probably making a mistake, for many of the reasons that you outline.

#5 Comment By JeffZ On February 23, 2010 @ 10:17 am

Given the cautionary tales about medicine (not yet shared, but many folks will gripe about the crushing debt load and relatively low pay in most areas of medicine), law, MBA’s (previously on Ephblog), finance, Teach for America, and academia, what’s left? Or are we all just better off becoming goat-herders? (plenty of time to read / contemplate / blog, lots of fresh air and exercise, pleasant animal companionship … this may be the answer)

#6 Comment By rory On February 23, 2010 @ 10:19 am

Addendum to Burke as well: Some departments design their Ph.D program so that after one or two years, you have your masters degree. It’s a natural break point as one’s gotten a taste of doing original research and grad school’s expectations and culture. Leaving then can be a relatively painless experience (I’ve witnessed it being so) and, depending on the field, can be a useful thing on a resume (if you have gained experience with a useful methodology, like survey design or econometrics or whatever. Comparative lit theory, perhaps not so helpful).

Addendum to my addendum: some departments use the first year or two as a weeding out period. Some don’t. Make sure you know if that’s the case and if that means there’s a competitive spirit amongst grad students. That can be good or bad depending on your own personality, but it is sometimes hidden.

#7 Comment By rory On February 23, 2010 @ 10:20 am

@JeffZ: and our kids can become president then too!

#8 Comment By David On February 23, 2010 @ 10:22 am


1) I know of (almost?) no Ephs who regret going to medical school. Of course, everyone has complaints about this and that aspect of their lives/jobs, but have you ever met an Eph who now says, “I should not have gone to medical school?”

2) What “cautionary tales” have you heard about finance? All businesses are tough and not everyone will succeed but, as I tell all young Ephs, if you find finance vaguely interesting and you want to make enough money to afford Williams for your children, then finance is a great choice.

3) Same applies for Teach for America. It is not easy, but most Ephs who do it (or something similar like Mississippi Teacher Corps) seem to have been glad that they did it, even if they left teaching after a few years.

#9 Comment By JeffZ On February 23, 2010 @ 10:45 am

I thought there was a thread awhile back questioning TFA, but maybe that was in some other venue, I can’t recall.

I’d agree that I don’t know anyone who regrets medical school, although of course there are some in all professions.

I do, however, know a LOT of people who went into investment banking who were miserable due to hours, pressure, culture, and so on, and couldn’t wait to get out … but it is the best bet from a purely pecuniary perspective, I don’t doubt that.

#10 Comment By rory On February 23, 2010 @ 10:46 am


I know people who found TFA (or similar programs, I forget which) frustrating because they felt over stressed and under supported. I can’t remember if they’re ephs or not.

I also can say from watching my brother in finance that the hours required in that job are relatively unique and he was extremely stressed in his twenties to an extent he didn’t expect. He loves it (and the money, but mostly the job), but I’ll be the cautionary tale: if you don’t make it or don’t like the culture (and there’s definitely a culture), after a couple years you’ll be out of the field and wondering whether the money was worth the stress.

No job is ideal, otherwise everyone would be trying to have it.

#11 Comment By Medic5392 On February 23, 2010 @ 11:40 am

Online-One of the people seems to be advocating taking online courses for continuing ed, I know Norwich University has a great reputation for online courses combined with seminars and a thesis defense. Any other word on these courses? Reputations of some? If Williams has any plans to offere Graduate Online Courses in the future? Curious.

#12 Comment By John C. Drew, Ph.D. On February 23, 2010 @ 11:45 am

If I had it to do over again, I would never have become a Ph.D. in political science. I would have got my MBA in business and learned what it takes to start a company and take it public.

My problem is that I was the first person in my mother’s side of the family to even graduate from college and I thought it was a big deal to be a college professor. This was reinforced by all the folks at Occidental who thought the best thing you could do with your life was become a college professor. At Cornell, I got scholarships that kept me going.

Also, I found it really easy to succeed as an academic. It wasn’t that hard if you had a good filing system, a little marketing wisdom, and the self-confidence needed to be decisive in your research and writing. It was all a matter of technique.

In reality, I found being a college professors is a pretty bad job. You spend most of your time working with kids going from 18 to 21 which gets pretty dull pretty fast.

Also, the unfairness of the profession takes all the excitement out of it.

When you realize people get jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with merit and insight into reality, then it starts looking like a silly waste of time.

Especially, when you can be rich and live anywhere you want as a business person. Right now, I’m close enough to the Pacific Ocean to visit it every afternoon if I want. I’d rather live in a safe, prosperous, sunny area than ever go back to being a low paid, isolated college professor surrounded by colleagues who believe in global warming, affirmative action, and Dan Rather’s righteousness.

#13 Comment By dcatsam On February 23, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

And BOOM! goes the dynamite. (Drew-amite?)


#14 Comment By andy On February 23, 2010 @ 12:14 pm


petroleum engineering, electrical engineering, and software all seem like great fields to go into. easy hours, great pay.

#15 Comment By Medic5392 On February 23, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

Bueller? Bueller? Anyone? Anyone? ;)

#16 Comment By David On February 23, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

If Williams has any plans to offer Graduate Online Courses in the future?

None that I know of. Williams has less of an on-line presence, in almost every dimension except, maybe, sports, than any peer school.

#17 Comment By Medic5392 On February 23, 2010 @ 12:39 pm


Thanks David :) Do you happen to know about any of the reps on other schools programs and how they are looked at? Norwich seems to offer a lot of interesting programs and was wondering what are people’s views on them.

#18 Comment By ce On February 23, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

I’m going to go ahead and be controversial and say that the decision to go to law school or not should, in part, depend on WHICH law school you’re looking at. If we’re talking top ~15 law school, your chances of getting a high-paying job, or having your choice of low paying jobs with a loan repayment program, are actually really pretty good. Even in 2009 (when the legal economy was collapsing), the worst-placing of the top 15 schools was sending roughly 40% of its student body to NLJ 250 firms. These are firms that pay an average of $150,000 starting salary. That doesn’t mean that you had to be top 40% at a Georgetown or Cornell to get one of these jobs either; a good chunk of Hoyas and…whatever you call people from Cornell…went on to do clerkships (which are generally more desirable than big law), public interest (supported by LRAPs), solid government positions, or work at smaller boutique firms.

Further, I would wager that over half of the Ephs who go to law school every year end up in one of these schools (although I guess I have no real evidence to back that up).

Now, this all comes with the HUGE caveat that even while a *top* law school might be a good investment, biglaw (or any law) is definitely not for everyone. There are a ton of people who end up in law school because they don’t know what else to do, and it’s not one of the most worker-friendly careers.

I think the above fact is one of the more under-advertised sides of law–it’s an incredibly prestige-focused discipline, and the difference between NYU (top 5) and Fordham (top 35) in terms of future career opportunities is almost certainly far greater than what most prospective students think; law school is not like undergrad, where the “bump” you get from going to Williams over MCLA is significant but by no means overriding.

#19 Comment By Medic5392 On February 23, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

I would like to suggest that Williams think about a Master Program online then, yes, for totally selfish reasons ;) but still, not a bad idea :)

#20 Comment By Derek On February 23, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

Medic —
I have a buddy who teaches at SAMS at Fort Leavenworth who has taught military history in the history graduate program at Norwich. I am even more dubious about grad study in history online than I am undergrad study, but at the same time, my friend is very good. (Because of my participation in the military symposium up there that you were unimpressed by I did get to spend some time at Leavenworth — what a spectacular and humbling place that is.)

As for law school job placement, I will say this: It’s bad, but the market in, say US history, is unfathomably competitive. A top-notch school might get 400-500 applicants. A small school like mine for 20th c. US received 100+. And these are, of course, for one spot. And that is before the tenure process, which is no walk in the park even for people who successfully navigate through it.


#21 Comment By Medic5392 On February 23, 2010 @ 1:56 pm


lol, let us not bicker over who killed who, this is a wedding! (Monty Python Paraphrase Quote);) I never said I was unimpressed with your teaching and I thought we went over this already ;)

The Navy and Army PG Schools are great but not always the time or opportunity to go to them. So, I know Norwich has a Military Hx and a International Dip Program, the Diplomacy Program actually was recommended by some Profs. at the Naval PG school in Newport so I was curious what anyone has heard or thinks. Any input or thoughts would be great.

#22 Comment By Anon ’89er On February 23, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

Chiming in about law school — it has become an incredibly risky venture between the debt one incurs and the problematic job market. I went to law school in my mid 30s, in part because salaries were rising and there was a clear shortage of good quality junior associates. The year before I got my JD my top-25 school had 96% percent of the graduating class with jobs in hand when they got their degrees. For my class the figure was 36%, and many of them lost their jobs within the first year.

I lucked out in not accumulating much debt, but the opportunity cost of quitting one mildly successful career to spend three years preparing for a barely more remunerative and much more stressful career was pretty big.

#23 Comment By alumna On February 24, 2010 @ 6:36 am

chiming in on grad school. my husband (also an eph) and I both signed on to ph.d. programs in the fields in which we majored in williams (both div. 3). we both had high gpa’s and undergrad research experience, and we both had our departments’ blessing.

I CANNOT emphasize what huge mistakes we both made. seriously. in retrospect (done with the programs now, and one of us is a tenure-track professor), neither of us can get over how totally unprepared williams made us for grad school. the 9 course major leaves you in the DUST compared to kids coming in with 15, 20 courses in the same field as you, and the williams-teaches-you-how-to-think bullshit falls flat on its face when you realize you know exactly as much as your advisor’s undergrad lab assistant. entering either of our programs meant playing desperate catch-up and incurring the vast disappointment of our professors, losing academic confidence galore, and learning that neither of us really LIKE our fields outside of Williams’ warm/fuzzy environment.

anyway. I wish I’d run into Burke when I was an undergrad.

#24 Comment By kthomas On February 24, 2010 @ 12:48 pm


Thanks for adding that– and I am very sorry, for your experience.

You offer deep food for thought– both for Williams students considering a career, and for the institution.

I want to move to — I’m quoting more than one person, and — I’m not in any way criticizing you– when I say we can engage in constructive, potentially productive criticism, or we can engage in destructive criticism.

The above– raises some very serious issues, for all of us, and our institution, to deal with.

It’s fine to have the conversation we just had– but what would it take–

I’m going to stop there, because it is others that have been making suggestions to me, and I want to leave that space open.

#25 Comment By alumna On February 24, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

I’m not quite sure how to read the second half of your comment there, ken — I’m sorry my comments come across as negative, but I genuinely do feel as if my williams education (and my advisors!) really fell down on this one.

#26 Comment By kthomas On February 24, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

Dear alumna:

I’m afraid I’m trying to bring it all back to the central question on this blog today– and addressing the audience and not you.

I’m sure Williams and your professors did not intent to do that– and I think — well this also in general, and not “to you–”

Well– in the first place, being able to discover other alums and connect and discuss these issues–

I googled an alum’s name and found this blog. I didn’t post for about six months. But in the end– all the criticisms aside– the reconnection it has given with friends, and networks– my life would not be, what it is, with this.

That’s a “thanks David,” with watery eyes.

The other useful thing we can do– is provide tales like yours– as feedback. Provide a forum for continued back-and-forth, which can improve the situation on both sides.

That is all, for now. I hope you’re doing well.

#27 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On February 26, 2010 @ 7:14 am

I decided to be a U.S. history professor when I was 13, and that desire continued through Williams. However, in 1975, the country was in the midst of its worse depression since the Great Depression (12% unemployment) and I decided I just needed to get a job.

I started out as a life insurance underwriter at John Hancock, stumbled into programming (which I was really good at), and eventually became an IT industry analyst, which is what I do today.

Essentially, I’m a well-paid teacher. I do a lot of research on the latest collaboration technologies, I write 40-page papers, and I teach large enterprises what the technology is and how to implement it. So I’m still a teacher–just not in academia.

I have a lot of classmates who went to law school, made a pile of money, and are now on their second career doing what they really like. Dean Cycon, who received a Bicentennial Medal, is an example. I’ve also talked to classmate physicians who, while they’re still in the medical profession, no longer see patients. They’re administrators or do other kinds of medical work.

Personally, I think the days of one life and one job are long gone. You must continually reinvent yourself in this economy.