Should You Pursue a Graduate Degree in History?

Are you considering a master’s or doctoral degree in History? The decision to pursue graduate study in History, like other fields, is a complex one that is part emotional and part rational. The emotional side of the equation is powerful. The pride of becoming the first in your family to earn a graduate degree, being called ”Doctor,” and living a life of the mind are all tempting rewards. However, the decision of whether to apply to graduate programs in History also entails pragmatic considerations. In a difficult economic climate, the question becomes even more perplexing.

Below are a few considerations. Remember that this is your choice – a very personal choice – that only you can make.

Competition for entry to graduate study in History is stiff.

The first thing to recognize when it comes to graduate study is that it is competitive. Admissions standards for many graduate programs, especially doctoral programs, in History are tough. Peruse applications for the top Ph.D. programs in the field and you may encounter warnings not to apply if you do not have a particular score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) Verbal Test and a high undergraduate GPA (for example, at least a 3.7).

Earning a Ph.D. in History takes time.

Once you enter graduate school you may remain a student longer than you intend. History and other humanities students often take longer to complete their dissertations than science students do. Graduate students in History can expect to remain in school for at least 5 years and as many as 10 years. Each year in graduate school is another year without full-time income.

Graduate students in History have fewer funding sources than science students do.

Graduate study is expensive. Annual tuition typically ranges from $20,000-40,000. The amount of funding a student receives is important to his or her economic well-being long after graduate school. Some History students work as teaching assistants and receive some tuition remission benefits or a stipend. Most students pay for all of their education. In contrast, science students are often funded by grants that their professors write to support their research. Science students often receive full tuition remission and a stipend during graduate school.

Academic jobs in History are hard to come by.

Many faculty members advise their students not to go into debt to earn a graduate degree in History because of the job market for college professors, especially in the humanities, is bad. Many humanities PhDs work as adjunct instructors (earning about $2,000-$3,000 per course) for years. Those who decide to seek full-time employment rather than reapply for academic jobs work in college administration, publishing, the government, and non-profit agencies.

Historians' skills in reading, writing and argumentation skills are valued outside of academia.

Many of the negative considerations in deciding whether to apply to graduate school in History emphasize the difficulty of obtaining employment in academic settings and the financial challenges that come with graduate study. These considerations are less relevant for students who plan on careers outside of academia. On the positive side, a graduate degree offers many opportunities outside of the ivory tower. The skills that you will hone as you pursue your graduate degree are valued in virtually all employment settings. For example, graduate degree holders in History are skilled in reading, writing, and argumentation. Each paper you write in graduate school requires that you compile and integrate information, and construct logical arguments. These information management, argumentation, and presentation skills are useful in a variety of settings such as business, nonprofits, and government.

This quick overview of pragmatic considerations in determining whether graduate study in History is for you highlights some of the challenges, but your academic and professional career is yours to make. Students who plan, take advantage of an opportunity and remain open to considering a range of career options increase the odds of a graduate degree in History paying off in the long run. Ultimately graduate school decisions are complex and highly personal. Only you are aware of your own circumstances, strengths, weaknesses, and goals – and whether a History degree fits into your life story.

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