[UPDATE: check the comments section for some views dissenting from mine.]
[SECOND UPDATE: comments closed b/c of persistent spammers]
So, I received an e-mail from a would-be Ph.D. student. It's not often that this happens, because I'm not an advice columnist, and anyone who reads my blog will know that I'm pretty confused most of the time. In other words, I DO NOT encourage e-mailing me for career advice. That's what Ms. Mentor is for, and I believe that the Chronicle pays her for her column. The best I can tell you is: be very, very good, and very, very lucky.
But I did open myself up for this one, what with the post that actually offered (unsolicited) advice on how not to write a grad app. So here we go, bearing in mind that you get what you pay for. This student had dug h-self into a hole as an undergraduate by clashing with a senior seminar professor, and had dropped the program, choosing instead to finish a degree in a related field. Now, s/he wants to return to grad school, but wants to know if the past is going to come back and deliver a bite in the ass. Like many people who write to complete strangers for advice, s/he seems to want reassurance that everything will be all right. Unfortunately, reassurance is not my job, and sugarcoating costs extra. Which is not to say that there aren't some serious issues to be discussed here. Some flava from the e-mail:**
Now, I’m in a pickle. Or maybe (hopefully) not. I’ve been accepted to a History MA program at an internationally respected and well-known UK University, where I hope to undo the wrongs of youthful folly. I think that my time away from the academic environment and some thoughtful soul-searching have led me to be less hotheaded and more mature than I was a year ago when I graduated. I have a sharper understanding of what it is I want to get out of my academic training and of what my scholarly goals are, and also of where my strengths and weaknesses as a student of history lie. I have no interest in pursuing a philosophy graduate degree, but want nothing more than to be a college professor. I caught the “lecturing bug” early on in college, TA-ing for professors in the Spanish department, and would love to be able to do it about a subject I’m genuinely passionate about. I love researching, investigating, debating, and writing, of course, but I think teaching is the part of a scholarly career that motivates my decision the most.
I’m uncertain about whether the blemish on my undergraduate record can ever be eclipsed by whatever I may achieve as a master’s student. I’m mostly just worried PhD programs in history (in the USA, Canada, or the UK) will take one look at my application and file it away under “D” for dilettante, desultory, and denied and leave it at that, regardless of how well I do in the MA.
What do you think? Will my patchy past get the better of me or is this just a momentary setback?
First things first, correspondent: ditch the pretentious language. Seriously. It makes you seem like a blowhard. You may or may not actually be a blowhard, but you need to create a good impression at all times, and that means developing a professional voice that doesn't sound like a nineteenth-century dandy. (In that same vein, you might also consider dropping the use of All Three Names.)
Now, to the substance: I myself clashed with my senior seminar advisor. Got a "C" in the class, if I remember correctly. A "C" can hurt you, but if stacked against a pile of much better grades in the major, it won't sink you completely.
The real mistake here was quitting. Anyone who's ever completed a Ph.D. or D.Phil. knows that getting in requires a certain level of Very Smart, but the main component in getting out with the degree is persistence.
That said, you've been accepted into an M.A. program, so have a chance to redeem yourself. This was also my plan (though in the U.S.), and it worked. M.A. programs in the U.K. were basically developed as remedial programs for students who wanted to go for a Ph.D. but didn't yet have the qualifications.*** Which is not to say that they're not difficult. It requires going in with the determination to be excellent. You don't complain, you don't backbite, you don't argue: you just work. You accept the fact that you will more than occasionally feel like the dumbest person in the room. You will work harder than you ever have before. Your starting point doesn't doom you; it just means that you now have no margin for error. And your earlier missteps may actually help you here. Looking up from the bottom of a hole you've dug yourself has a marvelously clarifying effect, as I've discovered on more than one occasion.
But here's the part of your letter that I find problematic:
"I want nothing more than to be a college professor."
Sorry, friend. That's probably not going to happen. And that's not meant to be personal; it's just the facts. Even if you do finish the M.A., get into a good Ph.D. program, and finish the Ph.D., there aren't many tenure-track jobs out there. Those of us who do have TT jobs, and who are honest with ourselves, recognize the HUGE role that luck played in our employment. This year, I think there were eleven or twelve for medieval history. That's for the entire country. Half of those were shared with another field (ancient/medieval, or medieval/early modern) or regionally specialized. So that leaves about six jobs for medieval history in general. Nationwide. And a pool of about 90 applicants.**** Numbers differ by subfield, of course, but I'm fairly certain that the proportion of jobs-to-applicants is comparable in most fields: better in some (Asian history, right now), worse in others (20th-century U.S.? I'm looking at you...) Even a humanities major can do the math there.
While we're at math, here's a bit more: Most of the jobs that do exist for humanities Ph.D.s are adjunct teaching gigs that pay about $1,500-$3,000 per semester-long course. Patch together five of those a semester (sometimes this requires lots of zipping around from one community college campus to another), plus three in the summer and you've got an annual salary of about $20-30K, before taxes, for about a 50-hour workweek. While you're paying off student loans. So make sure to marry rich while you're finishing that degree.
Yes, you've heard this speech before, I'm sure. And you, like me, are probably confident that you will be the one to beat the odds. Who knows; you might be. But there are unemployed Ivy Ph.D.s out there who thought the same thing. And the real problem lies with a combination of ambition and motivation. "Catching the lecturing bug" suggests that what you really enjoy is holding forth for an audience about what you know. Nothing wrong with that, in principle. And gods know, there are worse motivations for going to grad school. But grad school and an academic career are more about what you don't know than what you do know.
Who knows? Perhaps a year or two in an M.A. program will help you discover a type of motivation and set of goals that will sustain you. On the other hand, working on an M.A. might help you see other career options more suited to your interests. Can you write well? Maybe you should be a novelist or an author of popular nonfiction. If you love the classroom, perhaps an M.A. and a job in a private high school might be for you. Maybe you'll fall in love with the library and decide to follow that as a career path.
In a nutshell: There's nothing wrong with changing fields or making a youthful error. Those things can be remedied, though it takes a great deal of work. But think of your motivations. You may discover something along the way.
See? This is why you should write to Ms. Mentor.
**If you e-mail me, those e-mails are mine. I won't post your name, but I reserve the right to post snippets.
***And, because they usually offer absolutely no stipends, they are also what our U.K. friends refer to as (I believe) "money spinners."
****Anyone out there run a search this year able to comment on this figure, which is based on the year that I went on the market?