My new spring course

I am happy to announce that I have been hired to teach a course, entitled “Persia from Prehistory to the Sasanian Empire” at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art this spring. (Actually, that’s the subtitle; the course is filling an ancient Near Eastern art slot.) Funnily enough, this is the first time I’ll actually be able to teach a course on my specific area of expertise! I’m really looking forward to it, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep one foot in academia for a little while longer. Of course, I’m very grateful that my wife has her job, because that’s the only way I can afford to take advantage of this opportunity.

On (not) applying to graduate school in the humanities

This past weekend a young man wrote to me to ask if I would be accepting graduate students next fall. I replied with the disappointing news that I am not, because I am not a professor or, well, much of anything these days, at least as far as academia is concerned. But I took the opportunity to give him some advice on (not) applying to graduate school, and I’ve posted my advice (with some light editing) below, for anyone else who might find it interesting, useful or scary.

Graduate school in the humanities is a wonderful experience to be sure, unlike any other. But it comes at an enormous cost. For the six to ten years you are in grad school earning a pitiful salary (most years I made $20,000), your contemporaries will be beginning careers and starting families. Moreover, the academic job market in the humanities, which has been steadily worsening since the early 90s, has now collapsed almost entirely because of the 2008 financial crisis and the current pandemic. This year only two ancient art and archaeology jobs have been advertised so far this year (and one of them is in Germany), as well as one ancient/medieval position. There will probably be at least fifty applicants for each. So your odds of finding a job as a professor, no matter how smart you are, are extremely thin. You may find some temporary jobs at first. Since I finished my degree in 2014 I’ve had five different jobs and lived in five different states. And you won’t have any choice about where you live. If you’re offered a job in Northfield, Minnesota, or Conway, South Carolina, you will take it, whether you want to live there or not. Many of us, though, will find ourselves competing with recent college graduates for entry level private sector positions where our PhDs and research accomplishments are completely meaningless. In fact, it’s harder to get a non-academic job with a PhD than without one, because potential employers assume (correctly) that you’d rather be doing something else.

If you do nevertheless wish to pursue graduate studies, keep in mind that institutional pedigree matters much more than it should. There are many wonderful universities out there, but only a handful supply faculty to all the others. Before you decide to attend a specific school, it is worthwhile to check on its recent record of placing PhDs in permanent jobs. And this can even vary within a given university: an art history department, for example, may have an excellent placement record, while the classics department at the same university may have a poor one.

No matter where you go, make sure you do not pay for your degree. That is, only accept an offer that includes a full scholarship. Grad school tuition is insanely expensive. I have a friend who paid for an MA at a private university and she now has over $100,000 in debt — for a 2-year degree! Full scholarships also typically include the opportunity to get vital teaching experience.

Finally, language study is essential. In addition to Greek and Latin, classicists and classical archaeologists must also be able to read French, German and Italian. Some of these languages you can learn as a graduate student, but it is best to start as early as possible. To that end you might also consider getting a terminal MA degree in order to make yourself a stronger candidate for a PhD program. That’s what I did. Once again, only accept an offer that includes a full scholarship. And unlike PhD programs it doesn’t matter so much where you earn your MA. It will also give you an opportunity to try out graduate school for a few years to help determine if it is actually to your liking!

I am sure this is not the response you wanted. But I am equally sure that it is what you need to hear. As I said, graduate school is wonderful, but it also comes with significant downsides that can follow you for the rest of your life. You’re not just deciding what to do next; you’re shaping your entire future. So you cannot make this decision lightly, and you certainly cannot rely on what your professors are telling you, because they don’t understand this world at all. They believe that academia is a strict meritocracy, in which the best candidates naturally rise to the top and find lasting employment. In their view, personal ability is the primary determinant of success. But in reality academia is a high-stakes game of chance, and as with any gamble you should only play if you’re sure you can afford to lose.