Start at Your Core: A Note to New Humanities Ph.D. Students

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom


Core“Mom, what are your core values?”

I was eating lunch with my kids at Whole Foods last week, and my 10-year-old son had been scrutinizing the “Whole Foods Core Values” sign in the café area.

I smiled. (Earlier in the day he asked me what people did with their home computers before the internet was around.) But I saw an opportunity for a parenting moment, and I got my son and daughter to discuss what values are and how they (ideally) shape our choices and behavior.

Then I went home and decided it was time to blog about core values and doctoral training. If this comes off sounding a bit odd, it may be because at some point in our educational journeys—perhaps, say, right after undergraduate freshman orientation—people stop prodding you to think about your values. We tend to assume, rightly or wrongly, that values become fixed at a certain age, much like personality or certain quirky traits like eating dinner in your pajamas or drinking orange juice straight from the carton.

And yes, by now you know your values. The very act of choosing to pursue Ph.D. training in the humanities demands a high level of self-scrutiny. Now more than ever, few people undertake a humanities Ph.D. program lightly. The opportunity costs are steep, the job market is grueling, and the outcome (should you aspire to a tenured academic position) uncertain.

You know your values, and you are not faint of heart. Nonetheless, I encourage you, in the busy first weeks of the semester, to inventory the motivations and passions that drew you to doctoral training, and consider how they intersect with your overall sense of identity and life goals. This will be your anchor, as you are embark on what promises to be a transformative experience.

As metaphysical philosopher L.A. Paul points out, making major life decisions presents a challenge to rational choice, because we can’t know what the outcomes of our decisions will be. Moreover, the transformative experience has the potential to alter our core values and preferences, “so the outcomes associated with your experience may not involve your current self.”

Setting aside debates on what constitutes a “self,” expect that the experiences you have in the next five to seven years will challenge and potentially transform you. Reminding yourself of your priorities as you embark on this adventure will help you evaluate other priorities and values that you may be encouraged to embrace as an apprentice member of the academy.

As much as the academy values free expression and individuality, its norms of professionalization can be stunningly constraining. In multiple subtle (and less subtle) ways, Ph.D. programs present to students an inventory of “shoulds”: the kinds of academic positions you should aspire to, the kinds of research you should be doing, the conferences and journals you should be targeting, and even how you should dress and conduct yourself at professional events.

The apex of this formation occurs in years five and six, when Ph.D. students aspiring to faculty positions struggle to write highly generic cover letters that don’t look and sound exactly like everyone else’s. And then the interviews. Perhaps the only comic (and slightly sad) moment of my first Modern Language Association Convention experience was walking into the lobby and realizing that all of us nervous job-seekers looked pretty much alike—all the way down, among the women, to our trendy glasses frames, tasteful scarves, and artfully tousled hairstyles.

Thoughtful and discerning professionalization will require to you accept many things that you have to do, without abandoning the core values that brought you to graduate school. For example, many Ph.D. students have a passion for teaching, and find that they enjoy classroom time more than all the hours devoted to solitary research and writing. If this sounds like you, do all you can to prepare for meaningful work at a teaching-intensive college, and don’t talk yourself into wanting high-prestige positions at R1 institutions.

Or perhaps you’ve been told that the research topic that most excites you—or the methodology you employ to study that topic—will render you “unemployable” on the academic job market. Ph.D. students frequently encounter these tensions, and a satisfactory resolution takes time (and often some negotiation) with thesis advisers and dissertation committees. But don’t end up with a trendy academic research topic that leaves you cold. Ultimately, you may even decide to pursue the less “marketable” research focus, and prepare for a broader job search that includes intellectually rewarding positions other than faculty roles.

Holding fast to your core values will help you keep your equilibrium and sanity in the often surreal landscape of doctoral training. Yet it’s possible to err in the other direction as well. For example, in response to both market pressures and the many 21st-century distractions to sustained research and writing, one may be tempted to lash oneself to the mast, as it were—systematically and mechanically learning a field, proposing a dissertation, and grinding out chapters. But by blocking out anything not directly related to your carefully plotted research trajectory, you also banish serendipity, intellectual discovery, innovative research methods and tools, and possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Likely there are passions you haven’t even discovered yet. Leave room for those.

This is all pretty heavy advice to lay on brand-new Ph.D. students, but I’m so excited for you, and I’m just an email away if you ever want or need a conversation partner to work out some of these big-picture professionalization issues. We could meet up at the Mad Hatter for coffee sometime—or even stroll over to Whole Foods (I won’t make you look at the Core Values sign, I promise).