So you wanna be a Slavic PhD
So, every 6 months or so I get an email or Facebook message from an old acquaintance from somewhere in my past who is interested in applying for a Slavic PhD, and, seeing that I’m enrolled in one such program, they ask for advice. What’s it like? How hard is it to get in? Do you like it? Will I like it?
Of course, I’ll continue to share my sagacity with friends on request, but it seems like the sort of information that could use a bit more publicity. So, for those of you thinking you might want to change careers and become a Slavic PhD, here are my words to you.
Being a Harvard Slavic PhD is a mixed bag. Harvard’s department is wonderful – you won’t find a nicer one out there, says the girl who visited 6 top-notch schools when making decisions, and has kept in touch with folks at several other universities. The faculty aren’t overbearing, but are interested in seeing you succeed, and can be nurturing when that’s what you’re looking for. Harvard has a bit of a reputation for being cold and competitive, but this really varies from department to department, and among the humanities PhD students, I think you’ll find that feeling is rare.
A literature PhD is a strange thing, though. You’ll find yourself spending all your time reading texts and articles at various levels of obscurity, you’ll hear “Russian, eh? What’re you gonna do with that? Not very practical” so many times that you’ll start to question why you got into it in the first place, and in full disclosure, the job market is pretty iffy these days (Tenured faculty will tell you, “the job market’s always been iffy, don’t worry about it,” but I think it should be in the back of every well-informed grad student wannabe’s mind that there’s always the chance that after all your hard work, you might not find your dream tenure track job). Harvard has enough allure that our grads have always been really successful on the job market, even in this economy, but it’s certainly not a recession-proof field, and as you see your friends in the sciences getting lucrative job offers in “industry” while you’re hoping upon hope for a NTT adjunct position at a 3rd-tier school to be open when you graduate, it’s a little disconcerting (especially because these entry-level positions often are weak on benefits and job security).
While we’re talking about the unpleasantness of finances and jobs, I’d recommend that you really get the scoop on funding for the programs you apply to. As a Slavic PhD in an American university, you will not finish in less than 5 years, no matter what the university’s overall projections say (these have the sciences figured in, where 3-4 year degrees are possible. Not so with us) Completion in 5 years is amazing, 6 is possible, 7 likely, and 8 not unlikely. Be sure to understand what funding options there are, how long they last, and what you have to do to get paid (because you won’t have much time for side work, and most of the good grad programs are located in expensive places).
That’s the blunt, somewhat pessimistic side. The bright side is that the field is awesome, quirky, and full of great people. Being in the humanities in academia is one of the freest, most vibrant communities you’ll take part in, and there’s always something going on. You’ll get to read all the classics, and work on something uniquely your own for a dissertation project. That’s pretty great. As I mentioned, the community at Harvard is fantastic, faculty included, and there’s a lot of exciting interdisciplinary work going on, so you can work in a variety of different departments aside from your own.
One last word of advice/warning – make sure you have in your mind what a PhD will be for you, why you want to do it, and why it is that you want to get on a career track that will take 6+ years of work before you can take an entry-level job. Know that the work will be fun a lot of the time, but soul-sucking at others. There will be months when you’re expected to write 4 research papers, 20+ pages in length each, all of “publishable quality”. There will be others when every night you’re up late grading undergraduate papers where the facts are all wrong, the syntax makes no sense, and the arguments (if you can call them that) are lifted straight from Wikipedia. You may have to teach courses you have absolutely no knowledge about or interest in. You may have to beg to teach these courses. It can get ugly.
If you know what field you’d like to study specifically, find out about the people who work on that in the different departments you’re interested in. Meet them. Email them. Try to get coffee with them, and try to read their vibes (note: the summer is a hard time to do this – people are away and some professors feel it’s their prerogative not to answer emails from June through August. But also remember – when you’re writing grant proposals and dissertation chapters that need feedback, will you be happy with a professor who doesn’t respond to email for weeks?). Will this person be a good mentor to you, will he/she help guide you to the finish line? Are there any signs that he/she be retiring or changing universities in less than 6 years? If your research interests change, how do you like the person who works in your second-favorite field?
As for your own work, are you ready to market your interests in terms of what’s academically trendy? If you study something obscure (and really, when isn’t Russian literature obscure?), are you okay with tying it to something more marketable, or holding out for the once-in-a-life teaching position? Can you be versatile?
These are my words of wisdom. That, and don’t stress out about the math section on the GRE – so not worth it. It’s all pre-calc!
In any event, here’s hoping that these words may help some poor soul make a decision in the direction best for him or her. Good luck to you all!