MA to PhD

Aphra Behn by John Riley (1646-1691) Wikimedia Commons

Aphra Behn
by John Riley (1646-1691)
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Aphra,

I am in an M.A. program and love what I’m doing. I want to go on to a Ph.D. program, but my advisor is discouraging me from applying. What should I do?

Simply Stumped

Simply Stumped’s query raised earnest debate among the members of ABO’s cabinet, and so we provide two different letters in response with the hope that others may be able to contribute to this important discussion.

Dear Simply,

Ah! The confusion, the anguish, the bitter lamentations from those who have made it! Clearly you LOVE this! Why should this Advisor offer guidance so contrary to your own earnest wishes to continue in this profession filled with such joys?

Antipodea encourages Ms. Stumped to consider that discouragement such as this may spring from many sources. It is possible you may be the recipient of honest advice. It is possible that you may be the latest audience member in the long Monologue Drama of “What I Should’ve Done Differently in My Own Life.” It is possible your advisor is discouraging you because you don’t have the skills, or the project, or the talent to go on. It is possible you are being so discouraged because the outlook for jobs in Higher Education is much different than it was a generation ago. I recommend you think about what might be the case here. In short—what exactly is this advisor recommending and why?

The prospective Ph.D. student might think about the following “musts” of entering the realms of the highest education: One must enjoy what one does. One must have an Academic Question that will sustain her through many, many years of studying, writing, researching, revising, and teaching. One must really know what she might expect in a Ph.D. Program and how she will pay for it. One must know what to expect once she is on the other side. In order to understand this, you need to speak to as many people as you can. If you do not have the luxury of talking to another Advisor, you might change the tenor of your questions. Move away from the dreamy propositions of “I want to move to Oxford and read and discuss Ann Radcliffe everyday!” to “What does it really mean to be in a Ph.D. Program?” Ask about estimates of time and money and expectation of talents. Ask about possible careers once you have the coveted Ph.D. Ask to be put in touch with current Ph.D. students and talk to as many of them as possible. Certainly, look at brochures, websites, and applications to see if you have the time and money and stamina to maintain all of those commitments. Write up an estimated cost of the money you will spend to apply to Ph.D. Program and how much it will cost once you get in. Talk to people who left after the M.A. Talk to recent graduates, talk to full professors, read books about applying for, getting through, and paying for a PhD program. Do your research! You may also consider leaving the academic world for a while, especially if you moved right from a B.A. to an M.A.—get gainful employment; try temping at various kinds of offices in different fields. Try life outside of the Ivory Tower. You may find you like it! At the very least, it will give you space to evaluate your options.

And then you need to make your own decision. Your advisor has been down a long road herself and will have wonderful wisdom to share. But she should not be the only voice in this matter and she cannot be the one who ultimately decides for you. Have an honest research session; have an honest look at yourself; have an honest look at what a Ph.D. program means; and then act accordingly.

In this way, Antipodea is sure you will not only have all the right information to make a decision, but you will also have fewer regrets than if others impose such a decision on you.

With affection, wisdom, and etc.,


Dear Simply,

In this era of decreased tenure-line faculty positions and overwhelming student debt, advisors tend to discourage everyone from getting a Ph.D. To decide if it is something you should do, ask yourself first if you see yourself doing ANYTHING else in life. If you have the barest interest in something else to satisfy your need to do meaningful and productive work, do that. The road to the English Ph.D. is expensive, uncertain and lengthy, and at the end of it, you have no guarantee of a living wage. So, you have to really want to dedicate your life to scholarship and teaching (and possibly nothing else) in order to enter into the Ph.D. commitment.

That said, there are many resources available for you to determine if this is a potential career path. Here are some titles that will inform you about the pursuit of a Ph.D.

Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low Wage Nation. New York: New York UP, 2008.

McComiskey, Bruce (ed). English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006.

Moore, Cindy, and Hildy Miller. A Guide to Professional Development for Graduate Students in English. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006.

Peters, Robert L. Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or PhD. Revised Edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Amanda I. Seligman. Is Graduate School Really for You: The Whos, Whats, Hows, and Whys of Pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.

Semenza, Gregory M. Colòn. Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. Revised and updated second edition. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010.

The call to teach and to write about literature is a powerful vocation, but higher education is changing rapidly (for such a formidable cultural institution), and it is very difficult to predict what the field of English Studies will even look like in ten years. The average time to degree for a Ph.D. in the humanities is just under ten years. It looks increasingly like a risky gamble, and your decision absolutely needs to be based on more than a love of literature.

There are many tenured professors who ache to see their talented students fail to secure full-time academic work after they have made so considerable an investment. It is often fear for your well-being that makes them warn you from following in their footsteps.

With genuine concern,


Alaina Pincus

Alaina Pincus

Alaina Pincus has a PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and is editor of ABOPublic. Her work explores the intersections between Jewish identity, political thought, and citizenship on the one hand and British national identity and the enlightenment ideal of toleration on the other. When she's not writing or problem-solving on the website, she likes to read pulp fiction and cook for large groups of people.
Alaina Pincus

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