Shira Lurie is in the first year of her PhD in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political dissent in the early American republic. You can find her on Twitter @shirby9  and her blog Shirby’s Dream World .
The new school year is about to begin and for many students, in addition to course selection, fresh haircuts, and back-to-school Target commercials, this also means the start of application season . Amid the chaos of statements of intent, transcripts, and GRE scores, I remember the question lurking in the back of my mind as I applied to PhD programs was not “will I get in?” but the far more terrifying “what if I get in?” I had no idea how I was going to make a decision that would shape the rest of my life. So like any good Millennial, in my moment of doubt, I took to the internet. I found a conflicting and overwhelming array of opinions online—everything from graduate school “gives you strength and originality…[and] helps you think ” to “Don’t do it. Just don’t…[graduate school] will ruin your life. ” Just like googling one’s medical symptoms, my search for answers left me even more confused and panicked than I was before (and also certain that I had a rare disease).
For my past-self and the many others like her who are struggling with this decision, I have created a guideline to make wading through the endless information and internal turmoil more tolerable:
1. Be INFORMED. Begin by talking to your professors, advisors, and any others who can offer you a useful perspective on your decision. Use your department’s network of older and recently graduated students, as well. They will likely have a more current opinion on job prospects and graduate life than your tenured professors. Be sure, however, that you do not limit your survey to those in academia. If you are considering other career options, ask people in those fields for some information and advice. Whomever you speak with, make sure you take their suggestions with a grain of salt. Everybody is different and your paths to success and happiness will be equally so.
2. Be REALISTIC. Okay, it’s time. Take a deep breath and look at all those statistics people have been warning you about. There are fewer and fewer tenure track positions  and an ongoing adjunct crisis . Despite this, your program may not adequately prepare you for an alt-ac career . Finding a good job once you’ve finished your degree will be difficult. And the road to graduation will not be easy, either. Rates of depression  are much higher among graduate students than the regular population. The scarcity of post-completion prospects has only added to the already stressful process of obtaining a graduate degree. These are the facts, and we must *gulp* face them.
3. Be OPTIMISTIC. Now that you’ve depressed yourself with grim reality, it is time to contemplate the intangibles graduate school has to offer. The chance to read, think deeply, and enrich yourself for a living is rare, as is the opportunity to become an expert in a specific area. Graduate school also provides exciting challenges, fascinating conversations, and a community of people who are interested in what you have to offer. All of these reasons and more are likely what made you want to pursue a graduate degree in the first place. Don’t let the discouraging realities overshadow these positives completely; they are worthy of the same consideration as the hard stats.
4. Be HONEST. You are now ready to weigh these two sides against each other and ask yourself some tough questions . Are you willing to face a tough job market? Are the benefits of graduate school worth the financial and emotional pressures you may encounter? What are you really looking for in a career? Are you prepared to give up control over where you may live? Do you see knowledge contribution as a worthy goal? Are you excited by the challenges of an academic career? Can you see yourself thriving outside of academia? These questions, and many others, deserve your thoughtful contemplation and honest answers.
5. Be HOPEFUL. As Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker put it in his excellent piece The Impossible Decision,  “like giving people advice about whether they should have children, or move to New York,” whether or not to attend graduate school is “representative of a whole class of decisions that bring you face to face with the basic unknowability and uncertainty of life.” There is no way for you to truly know if graduate school will be an enriching experience (in more ways than one) because you have never done it before. But instead of being crushed by the weight of your unknown future, look at this as a moment of opportunity. Life does not present you with many chances to actively shape your own destiny. Whatever and however you decide, remember to enjoy the question, as well.
Please add your two cents in the comments! What advice would you give to prospective graduate students? And if you are currently thinking about applying, what are the main factors influencing your decision?
[Image by Flickr user Jeff Seeger and used under the Creative Commons license.]