English Symposium Keynote: Planning on Pursuing a PhD? Some Things to Consider

Rachel Kirkwood, BYU English alumna and current PhD candidate at Stanford University, discussed the pros and cons of graduate school at the BYU English Department Student Symposium keynote address and what students who wish to attend PhD programs might consider in making future academic decisions. 

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 23, 2017)—“What are you going to do with that?” This question is old news for many English majors, and if they had a dollar for every time someone asked it, perhaps they wouldn’t need to do anything with said English degree. At the keynote address for the English Department Student Symposium, BYU alumna and English major-turned-Stanford-PhD-candidate Rachel Kirkwood discussed her journey to graduate work and the pros and cons students should consider if they hope to use their English degree to pursue a career in academia.

Quoting associate English professor Matt Wickman, Kirkwood began, “You should not go to graduate school if you can imagine yourself being happy doing literally everything else.” Along Kirkwood’s own path to choosing a career after an English degree, she concluded that graduate school really was her only option. But, like any difficult life decision, Kirkwood acknowledged that she has since discovered its pros and cons.

Among the pros Kirkwood listed, she said that graduate school affords you amazing opportunities to become intellectually engaged and make a significant impact on students’ lives.

“All of the sudden you have time to focus on what you love. English becomes your only class, so you could read and talk about books all day,” Kirkwood said. “The intellectual community you can build at grad school is also unparalleled.”

Kirkwood said that one of the highlights of graduate school for her has been the students she has had the opportunity to work with. Though working in the humanities in the heart of the tech world of Silicon Valley has been a challenge, she has cleverly adapted her classroom material to the interest of her students.

One of the writing and rhetoric courses Kirkwood designed was titled “Plugged In: The Rhetoric of Networks.” “In order to appeal to the techie Stanford crowd, we talked about the rhetorical choices at play in conspiracy theories, surveillance culture, social media and fandom. There’s a thrill in being able to make an impact in someone’s life that’s so immediate as teaching them basic writing and argumentation skills.”

She added, “Learning how to express yourself and make an argument is something that will impact your students for the rest of their lives, whether or not they remember you.”

Along the road, Kirkwood has faced some challenges as well, and warned students of the potential setbacks they might confront in the years they dedicate to graduate work. “While graduate school can be a wonderful place to incubate ideas, grow as a scholar, learn to teach and build a community, it can also be immensely difficult – and I don’t just mean the courses, but the experience itself,” Kirkwood said.

Some of these unforeseen setbacks can include faculty you planned to work with leaving for other universities or not making tenure, difficulties with time management, and even mental health crises. Speaking to the potential loss of self some students face, Kirkwood explained: “Graduate school lends itself toward all-consuming study. . . . Along with your sense of self, your sense of self-worth is also precarious.”

Speaking to the prevalence of “imposter syndrome” amongst graduate students, she continued, “Intellectual work is deeply personal, especially when you’re working with philosophical ideas and concepts. When you receive criticism on your use of them, your very ability to think is called into question. It’s easy to feel essentialized by those comments, especially when not all feedback you receive will be ‘pedagogically useful.’”

Despite the cons of graduate work, Kirkwood recognizes that it has been an immensely meaningful and vital experience. Kirkwood added that we need the humanities now more than ever, even though the world seems to be turning more toward tech.

“If we all fled to tech, where would that leave us?” Kirkwood asked. “A focus on industry and progress untethered from humanistic inquiry is not only counterproductive, but dangerous. The humanities serve many purposes: preserving a history of our culture, providing an outlet and opportunities for aesthetic pleasure, and teaching empathy.”

She concluded, “In my undergrad I gave all sorts of reasons to justify my choice to study English, but it wasn’t until recently that I came to value the skills that we learn and teach. And not just for job prospects, but for life, and for the future of our country.”

—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia Cutler covers events for the English Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Photos courtesy of Rachel Kirkwood and Unsplash.