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Academia

Torso BoyTorso Boy Registered User regular
edited March 2011 in Help / Advice Forum
Disclaimer: I don't frequent H/A too often, and with the search function down, I don't know if there's ever been a similar thread. If I'm creating a redundancy, let me know.

Here I am, rounding out the third year of my bachelor's degree in political science. I'm reading outlines for fourth-year courses and contemplating topics for an honours essay. Panic is setting in, because I'm in for more work than I've ever done before; I'm scared it's more than I'm capable of. Yet as far as I can tell, academia is where I belong.

I came to university for a number of reasons, not the least of which was to stall because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. In some sense, I still don't. But I discovered what is the most fulfilling thing in my life, the currency of my satisfaction, if that makes any sense: knowledge. Learning makes me feel alive; knowing things makes me comfortable; sharing knowledge makes me feel like I'm achieving something, and on a selfish level, it makes me feel smart- and feeling smart is, so far, my favourite feeling. If I had to express my hopes and dreams as succinctly as possible, I would say that I want to be wise, and known to be wise.

So I'm on track to begin a career in academia. Paradoxically, I'm intimidated by how hard it promises to be, yet I can't help but feel that to do something easy would be wasteful and unsatisfying. I'm scrambling to fix my stupid work ethic, cure myself of procrastination, and learn to speed read. I'm writing constantly, either here or on assignments. But what dwarfs all my other concerns is anxiety and doubt. Will I enjoy myself? Will I be any good? Will I be important, mediocre or pathetic? Are my fears unfounded, or am I running a legitimate risk of failure?

I'm not asking any one question with this thread so much as looking for any thoughts. If you are or have been in academia, or the humanities in particular, what have your experiences been? Do you think there are red flags indicating someone may not be suited for that kind of career? Most importantly, and the reason this isn't in D&D, can anyone offer any advice, reassurance or warning?

Torso Boy on

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    WildEEPWildEEP Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    I work full time at my University as a Systems administrator. I get a decent salary, tons of time off, great benefits, and 6 credits per semester free.

    A lot of people are envious of my job - I feel pretty mediocre, and wish I had more to do honestly. Working for the state is extremely boring and unproductive. My pay doesnt reflect my effort in any shape or form.

    If I want a job to hide in - this is it. If I want a job to work hard and get paid for my effort - this job sucks.

    Its a question of perspective.

    WildEEP on
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    TychoCelchuuuTychoCelchuuu PIGEON Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    As someone hearing back from PhD programs right now, having finished up a couple honours essays within the past few weeks, and (obviously) intending to head into academia, I don't have much to help you out with, but I'd say that self-doubt is fairly normal for anyone who is thinking about doing something in their life that requires actual intelligence, massive amounts of hard work, and original thinking, all of which you will be judged on and all of which is a prerequisite for rather than a guarantor of success. My advice would be that about 50% of people in PhD programs don't make it out the other end because they realize that they're not cut out or academia, so don't worry about it until you've spend a year or two in grad school. You'll have wasted some time, sure, but you shouldn't have to take out any loans or anything so it's not like you'll be worse off.

    On the other hand you're in Ontario, and I'm not sure if Canadian schools pay for your PhD or not (I know English ones don't). I don't know if you're looking at America or what but obviously if you're going to have to go into debt to finance this then it's a different situation. I would talk with your professors much more than people on this forum, because they are literally right there, right now, and they know you extremely well. It's also crucial to talk with grad students to ask them how they're finding the experience in general, because although where you go makes a big difference, they'll at least be able to tell you whether being a grad student in the field is something you'd be able to do.

    TychoCelchuuu on
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    StufStuf Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    I can't speak to a career in academia, but you've mentioned something that hits home with me - the idea that you want others to think you're smart (or smarter than others, which I think is implied).

    I went through this myself in university; it's very tempting to pursue knowledge to justify an ego.

    If you are pursuing academia to pursue knowledge, then proceed. It will be one of the best ways to continue learning for your entire life, though I would also recommend teaching as a way to do that.

    However, if you are pursuing academia so that others will think you are smart, reconsider. This is a response crafted through vanity. Especially when competing against notable academics, it's not likely that you'll rise to the highest levels of the field - that's OK if you want to study, but not OK if you want to be the best. Academics - and any industry which relies on creativity - become toxic when you move forward this way.

    I am familiar with this because it is my own story; learn from my mistakes and do not pursue knowledge to gain prestige.

    Stuf on
    “There are... things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky
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    GrizzledGrizzled Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    Context: I'm a third-year PhD student in a social science at a big research university.

    I'd say that going to grad school for the reasons you have put forth is a bad idea. Not that you should not go, but not based on those motivations. What questions in political science interest you? What do you think you will accomplish in academia? (hint: political science professors have close to zero impact on politics). Everyone in grad school is good at reading and writing, what makes you stand out above the crowd of your potential peers? That is, what skills, experience or ideas do you bring to the table?
    Torso Boy wrote: »
    What dwarfs all my other concerns is anxiety and doubt. Will I enjoy myself? Will I be any good? Will I be important, mediocre or pathetic? Are my fears unfounded, or am I running a legitimate risk of failure?

    I would say that most grad students have these fears from time to time, even after we're in. Here are the answers: You will enjoy yourself. You will have days you will hate grad school and your life. You will have days where you feel like you aren't smart enough to be there. You will not be important; even if you are mediocre, sometimes you will feel pathetic. You are running a legitimate risk of failure, and the burnout rate is non-trivial. Also you will not make or have any money during grad school, and poor job opportunities after.

    I would echo Stuf - don't go to grad school in order to feel smart. Don't do it because you think it will feel good to tell your parents, friends, lover, or random strangers that you have a PhD. And definitely don't do it because reading and writing about political science is the best (only?) thing you have found that you are good at so far. Don't do it for prestige (rarely won) or money (rarely received in large amounts).

    Some sage advice that was given to me as an undergrad: "Only go to graduate school if you are sure that working forever in your_discipline is the only thing that will make you happy. If you could be equally happy doing something else, go do that instead".

    Also, from a different professor: "Only 5% of academics will make real advances in the discipline, and only 1% will really come up with something truly significant. Don't fool yourself into thinking you are in that 5%".

    I took time off after undergrad, did some other things, and found myself working on my_discipline at nights, on weekends, and taking vacation time in order to volunteer on research projects, and turning down promotions so I could keep doing it. So I figured I better go to grad school. And I don't regret it at all. But you should explore other avenues before deciding on it.

    Grizzled on
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    DusT_HounDDusT_HounD Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    Hmm, one thing that IS important to remember is that the decision you make is going to be the right decision for you at the time- nobody consciously makes a bad decision knowing that there's a better option.

    So academia will be hard- if you want to go into it, do it- work your ass off, and see how far you get. You may succeed, or may not but one thing you will gain and never lose is the experience, be it of operating in such a context, interacting with others at that professional level, helping students, gaining self- discipline. Nothing worth having comes easy, but you will probably gain a lot if you are able to put in the effort. Also, it'll never be too late to make a change if you feel it isn't for you- i have a friend whose father was in banking, then at 45 went on to become a pilot.

    The downsides of an academic career have already been spoken of here, and i'd also add that (in certain fields), there's no concept of 'just doing a good job'- you have to be publishing and making progress, otherwise it gets seen as though you were never there. Furthermore, there's being expected to help out with other people's projects, take on students, who often need your full time, but also being expected to do your own work to the same capacity, working odd hours, weekends etc. It's quite a high- pressure lifestyle, and one which suits some, but not others.

    FWIW, i'm a postdoctoral researcher in an immunology lab, but am leaving academia to pursue a career in global health. I don't regret any of my time spent working, and feel that the experience i got working in an academic setting will definitely help me in the future.

    DusT_HounD on
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    KistraKistra Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    I agree with basically everything written above. I am (hopefully) almost done with a PhD and I know a fair number of people who came to graduate school because they didn't know what they wanted to do with their life. Not a single one of them wants to go into academia now that they are approaching the end. Most of them are finishing their PhDs because the degree is useful outside of academia but they are going on to careers in other fields and several of them actively hate the field they chose for their PhD.

    Kistra on
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    ThundyrkatzThundyrkatz Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    This long view that you are taking, looking at the upcoming years worth of work and thinking it will be hard is typical. But remember that you will move through it one task at a time, not all at once. I do this all the time, and have had to learn to ignore my natural fear.

    When ever i start a project, be it cleaning the house, or shoveling the driveway or reading the syllabus for my upcoming semesters work, i always feel overwhelmed and want to quit. But the house goes one room at a time, the driveway is one shovel full at a time and the semester is one class at a time and it is totally manageable. Then at the end i always look back and say, "wow, that wasn't so bad" Don't psyche your self out.

    Also, one theme i read in your post was that you are not sure if your whole life will turn out as you expect. Come on man, cut your self a break. You can't possibly predict what is coming down the pipe at you in the future. Handle what is on your plate now, do you very best, and make the best of every opportunity you can get your hands on.

    That's the secret to life, no one knows what they are doing. The happy ones, are just making the best of the ride.

    Thundyrkatz on
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    spool32spool32 Contrary Library Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    Also, one theme i read in your post was that you are not sure if your whole life will turn out as you expect. Come on man, cut your self a break. You can't possibly predict what is coming down the pipe at you in the future. Handle what is on your plate now, do you very best, and make the best of every opportunity you can get your hands on.

    That's the secret to life, no one knows what they are doing. The happy ones, are just making the best of the ride.

    In case you're not convinced this is true, I submit the following evidence...

    spool32 on
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    Pure DinPure Din Boston-areaRegistered User regular
    edited March 2011
    My aunt, who is a sociology professor, told me before I started my PhD "don't worry about ruining your life. Your life is stronger than that."

    Pure Din on
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    Akilae729Akilae729 Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    This long view that you are taking, looking at the upcoming years worth of work and thinking it will be hard is typical. But remember that you will move through it one task at a time, not all at once. I do this all the time, and have had to learn to ignore my natural fear.

    When ever i start a project, be it cleaning the house, or shoveling the driveway or reading the syllabus for my upcoming semesters work, i always feel overwhelmed and want to quit. But the house goes one room at a time, the driveway is one shovel full at a time and the semester is one class at a time and it is totally manageable. Then at the end i always look back and say, "wow, that wasn't so bad" Don't psyche your self out.

    Also, one theme i read in your post was that you are not sure if your whole life will turn out as you expect. Come on man, cut your self a break. You can't possibly predict what is coming down the pipe at you in the future. Handle what is on your plate now, do you very best, and make the best of every opportunity you can get your hands on.

    That's the secret to life, no one knows what they are doing. The happy ones, are just making the best of the ride.

    This!

    I'm going to be starting a PhD track in the fall in Aerospace. I didn't even consider grad school when I started as an undergrad. BUT, i started working in a lab as an undergrad, worked my ass off, and now am in a position to have a PhD fully funded with a big research budget and pay well above a normal research stipend while simultaneously working for a government lab.

    Am I uncertain about this? Yes. Do I worry about the fact that making a LOT more money in industry might make me happier? Yes.

    Do I also think that I want to work in research as a career and that this opportunity would be absolutely stupid to pass up? Yes and Yes.

    Look at what is on your plate now and what you want to do now. Then go for it. You don't know what the future holds and really, whats the worst that can happen?

    Akilae729 on
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    Torso BoyTorso Boy Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    I want to thank you all for your input, but don't take that to mean I won't welcome more. You gave me exactly what I hoped for and then some, both in terms of reassurances and reality checks. Discussing my concerns and being reminded that others relate makes me feel a lot better. A few replies/elaborations follow:
    Stuf wrote:
    I can't speak to a career in academia, but you've mentioned something that hits home with me - the idea that you want others to think you're smart (or smarter than others, which I think is implied).

    I went through this myself in university; it's very tempting to pursue knowledge to justify an ego.

    If you are pursuing academia to pursue knowledge, then proceed. It will be one of the best ways to continue learning for your entire life, though I would also recommend teaching as a way to do that.

    However, if you are pursuing academia so that others will think you are smart, reconsider. This is a response crafted through vanity. Especially when competing against notable academics, it's not likely that you'll rise to the highest levels of the field - that's OK if you want to study, but not OK if you want to be the best. Academics - and any industry which relies on creativity - become toxic when you move forward this way.

    I am familiar with this because it is my own story; learn from my mistakes and do not pursue knowledge to gain prestige.
    Grizzled wrote:
    I'd say that going to grad school for the reasons you have put forth is a bad idea. Not that you should not go, but not based on those motivations. What questions in political science interest you? What do you think you will accomplish in academia? (hint: political science professors have close to zero impact on politics). Everyone in grad school is good at reading and writing, what makes you stand out above the crowd of your potential peers? That is, what skills, experience or ideas do you bring to the table?

    Yeah, I may have given the wrong impression about my motivation. Being x and being known to be x means that I can't pretend not to care what others think. It's less that I want to be praised, and more that I want to deserve be praised. It's one of those strange kinds of things that is simultaneously altruistic and selfish. A desire to do good and be seen as good. I'm not enough of an egoist to enter a career for prestige; I'm also human, and couldn't bear thankless work.

    A better expression would be that my fundamental motivation is to make an earnest attempt to improve the world. Success in this can be defined a number of ways, and it exists on a pretty long continuum. I accept that. It can mean contributing to good policy, creating influential literature, or even teaching or tutoring well. I'm not unreasonably ambitious- it's making the earnest attempt that's important to me.

    On going into political science: My prospects in the field would consist of research/review, teaching, and perhaps work in policy analysis or consulting (eventually). I want to look at new areas and areas with a deficit of good policy or literature. The closest issues to my heart are drug & vice policy (with a focus on ethical issues, international structures, harmonization of policy, and multi-lateral co-operation), internet governance, education curricula (civic, historical and critical thinking), and the political implications of trans-humanism (highly speculative, an area of study that more or less does not exist yet). My interest is here and it isn't going anywhere; and the demands for research, education or better policy are clear. Indeed, my work will have to cater directly to those demands, and understanding them is the overarching goal of my undergrad years.

    What I'm certain I bring to the table is a deep-seated, persistent interest in the subject matter. In terms of skills, at my best, my writing is lucid, concise and engaging; I have excellent critical thinking skills and a low tolerance for faulty reasoning; I have a sensitive, moderate and diplomatic manner, in writing, discussion and debate. I'm insecure and a perfectionist, which means I don't advance arguments without strong support, and I can't bear to make an argument in bad faith. I'm prepared to defend an idea I believe in; I'm also prepared to abandon it if I'm shown to be wrong. Many of these qualities mean I'm ill-suited for, and uninterested in, partisan politics- so I don't have any ill-conceived leadership ambitions.

    So I do feel strongly that I'm highly compatible with political science. My interest in the field preceded any interest in professional academia- it's the subject matter itself that drew me in. It's definitely where my intellectual interests lie, and for the reasons indicated in my first post, my intellectual interests have come to define my career interests.
    Also, one theme i read in your post was that you are not sure if your whole life will turn out as you expect. Come on man, cut your self a break. You can't possibly predict what is coming down the pipe at you in the future. Handle what is on your plate now, do you very best, and make the best of every opportunity you can get your hands on.

    Since I've dealt with most of my course selection and committed myself to an honours essay, this has become my mindset. I saw myself looking too far ahead and thought, well, the honours essay is going to be a pretty good indicator of whether or not I'm suited for the field. Career choices should probably follow that rather than precede it.
    Pure Din wrote: »
    My aunt, who is a sociology professor, told me before I started my PhD "don't worry about ruining your life. Your life is stronger than that."
    Most reassurance is good, but that is some excellent reassurance.

    Torso Boy on
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    TychoCelchuuuTychoCelchuuu PIGEON Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    If you're going into academia to make an earnest attempt to improve the world you're doing it wrong. Academia is about producing research and teaching. If you go into a hard science there's a .0005% chance that your research will end up having amazing consequences and if you go into medicine there's obviously a better chance there too, but as a political scientist you're going to write political science articles for political science journals that will be read and discussed by political scientists. Politicians care what academics think about politics like birds care about what ornithologists think about birds. Maybe you'll make an impact if you go work at a think tank or something but that's not academia.

    Basically, to be blunt, nobody is going to care what you have to say aside from the other 12 people in your sub-sub-field. You're going to have trouble getting people to act interested in what you do at parties, let alone getting someone in a position of power to do something that they don't want to do just because you say it's correct. Of course, maybe you'll be trying to get them to do something they already want to do, but really, then, what's the point?

    I'll reiterate my advice: TALK TO YOUR PROFESSORS. Walk into their office and say you're considering a PhD because you want to improve the world. They'll tell you to get a job at an NGO or something. Academia is for academics, and their job is teaching and writing stuff.

    TychoCelchuuu on
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    Torso BoyTorso Boy Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    Maybe "improve the world" can be taken too strongly. "Be productive" or "contribute" might be more appropriate. Teaching and writing stuff is all I'd ever really expect. My ambitions at their height would be to advise international internet governance structures, or get involved in international vice policy (either at an INGO, think tank or one of the bodies of the UNODC), but I'm not even sure I'd want to go that far. I may very well be satisfied by teaching, depending on how well I'm able to combat cynicism as I age. Again, the most basic thing is that I enjoy studying politics and I might end up being good at it.
    Politicians care what academics think about politics like birds care about what ornithologists think about birds.
    I realize what you're saying, and this is probably the best way to put it I've heard yet.

    Torso Boy on
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    Folken FanelFolken Fanel anime af When's KoFRegistered User regular
    edited March 2011
    TALK TO YOUR PROFESSORS.

    Yeah this. Academia is a unique thing where you can get advice from the very people you want to become someday.

    Folken Fanel on
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    WezoinWezoin Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    I'm a 4th year student in political science at another Canadian university (Western, I think you're at Queens from your location.) Anyway, I'm in much the same boat as you. Currently I've been applying to a few grad schools, and gotten an offer from Kings College London (UK). I'm still waiting on the others. I realise that academics don't make tons of money, and I'm not doing this for the money, but I am still concerned about the likelihood of landing a job after spending such a huge amount on education. I got through my undergrad relatively debt free (I owe about $13,000 in OSAP) but am applying to high ranked schools abroad. I am concerned mostly about whether it would be worth it to spend the extra money (living expenses + overseas tuition) to go to a higher ranked school (I've applied to Oxford, LSE, and Kings abroad, vs Western and Guelph here so a big difference in rank) with respect to earning potential/chance of landing a professorship?

    Wezoin on
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    TychoCelchuuuTychoCelchuuu PIGEON Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    Wezoin wrote: »
    I'm a 4th year student in political science at another Canadian university (Western, I think you're at Queens from your location.) Anyway, I'm in much the same boat as you. Currently I've been applying to a few grad schools, and gotten an offer from Kings College London (UK). I'm still waiting on the others. I realise that academics don't make tons of money, and I'm not doing this for the money, but I am still concerned about the likelihood of landing a job after spending such a huge amount on education. I got through my undergrad relatively debt free (I owe about $13,000 in OSAP) but am applying to high ranked schools abroad. I am concerned mostly about whether it would be worth it to spend the extra money (living expenses + overseas tuition) to go to a higher ranked school (I've applied to Oxford, LSE, and Kings abroad, vs Western and Guelph here so a big difference in rank) with respect to earning potential/chance of landing a professorship?

    It's too late for this year, but if you go to school in America, they pay you.

    TychoCelchuuu on
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    Pure DinPure Din Boston-areaRegistered User regular
    edited March 2011
    It's too late for this year, but if you go to school in America, they pay you.

    I might be wrong about this, but my impression was that phds get stipends everywhere, but it's more common for US universities to not require that you have a masters degree first.

    My friend is doing her masters in the UK now, and even with the cost of going abroad, she's saving a ton of money over a US masters because tuition in the US is so freaking high.

    Pure Din on
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    DemerdarDemerdar Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    This long view that you are taking, looking at the upcoming years worth of work and thinking it will be hard is typical. But remember that you will move through it one task at a time, not all at once. I do this all the time, and have had to learn to ignore my natural fear.

    When ever i start a project, be it cleaning the house, or shoveling the driveway or reading the syllabus for my upcoming semesters work, i always feel overwhelmed and want to quit. But the house goes one room at a time, the driveway is one shovel full at a time and the semester is one class at a time and it is totally manageable. Then at the end i always look back and say, "wow, that wasn't so bad" Don't psyche your self out.

    Also, one theme i read in your post was that you are not sure if your whole life will turn out as you expect. Come on man, cut your self a break. You can't possibly predict what is coming down the pipe at you in the future. Handle what is on your plate now, do you very best, and make the best of every opportunity you can get your hands on.

    That's the secret to life, no one knows what they are doing. The happy ones, are just making the best of the ride.

    I can't stress this enough. You need to break things down into little pieces. As an engineering grad student, just thinking about all of the work I need to accomplish in 2 months literally overwhelms me to the point where I think about dropping out. But, if grad school has taught me anything, is that you need to take it one day at a time.

    Now, each day will most likely end with you working constantly (8 hrs a day or more) on academics (be it research or class work), but it goes by quickly, and you realize that it's not so bad... that is if you are cut out for it. Some people just can't handle it and drop out (be it from a lack of motivation or intelligence). If that so happens to be you, don't sweat it. Grad school is not for everyone.

    Demerdar on
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    ReitenReiten Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    Others have written about grad school, but there are some longer term considerations as well.

    Something else to consider: the academic job market is terrible right now, especially in the liberal arts (humanities and social sciences). If you want a job, make sure to pick a part of your field that is very relevant to contemporary society and doesn't already have a billion people doing it. For example, if you have an interest, studying the non-West (especially the Middle East, parts of Africa and China) will give you more job opportunities than studying the US or Europe (which have more jobs, but a lot more people qualified and applying for those jobs). If you're thinking private sector, that MIGHT change the equation a little bit.

    Also, the academic life isn't what popular culture makes it out to be. In teaching institutions, you'll spend endless hours grading work, while generally still being expected to publish some research (you'll have to do the research on your various school breaks). Only in the lower tiers of schools, with very high teaching loads, will the expectations of publishing largely be absent. In research institutions, you'll have less teaching, but much higher expectations on research/publishing. In other words, you had better absolutely love your field (teaching and research) or you'll get burned out quite quickly...and I haven't even talked about the paperwork, committee work, etc.

    Reiten on
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    BobCescaBobCesca Is a girl Birmingham, UKRegistered User regular
    edited March 2011
    Torso Boy, given everything you have said in this thread I would highly recommend that you don't go for a PhD at this time. If Canada does taught masters like the UK, then it is probably worth applying and taking another year, but I honestly feel that at this point, from what you have said, you are not ready to do a PhD.

    A PhD is difficult, and while a general love for the subject is needed, the most important thing is having an unhealthy fascination with one tiny part of your subject (in the Arts and Humanities anyway). A Masters may well help you identify something that you think is really interesting that you want to pursue for a PhD, and will allow you to understand what academic research is and how it works.

    (Currently in the 3rd year of a PhD in Classics in the UK, but also grew up in academia).

    BobCesca on
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    lessthanpilessthanpi MNRegistered User regular
    edited March 2011
    This is only tangentially related, but as a college instructor myself I'd recommend that you get as much teaching experience as possible. I've got everything done but my dissertation but I've got a better job than most of the people I know who graduated with their PhD already. I pulled this off largely due to the fact that I always took teaching assistanships over fellowships and research assistantships as well as working as an adjunct at the local community college. Once I finished the course work for the degree and passed all the exams I got a job as a full-time instructor at a university instead of staying on at my grad school as a TA. Pay was double and the experience was invaluable. Research gets you tenured, teaching gets you hired.

    lessthanpi on
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