Today while going door to door collection money for our kids’ school with my almost eight-year-old daughter, I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. She said “I don’t know, maybe I want to be an artist or a student like you,” and she affectionately kissed me on the arm. While she meant it as a sign of affection I had to interject, “Wait honey, a student isn’t something you do when you grow up, it’s something you do in order to do something else. You see, I want to be a professor.” To this she responded in a very sympathetic voice, “Do you really think you’ll be able to do that?” To which I responded, “Yes, of course.” To which her reply (having lost the sympathetic tone) “Yeah right, in like 10 years or something.”
So I’ve been a grad student (or trying to be a grad student) her entire life I can understand her point of view. Which leads me to this post. While we need a PhD to be a professor, has grad school made us better scholars? This question hit home to me at MHA this year in that while there are lots of stellar young Mormon scholars in grad school, Mormonism has always had an army of historians without that training. Now I’m thinking particularly of J. Stapley and SamMB (is it bad form not use the internet names?) They were integral to two of the most academic sessions at the conference, are doing scholarship of the highest quality, and Sam in particular is publishing in the major journals and hopes to publish his book in a major university press.
So what has grad school gotten me? My master’s degree helped a lot in seeing bigger contexts and having a mentor to both point out the major scholarship and to give rigorous critics of my work was very useful. My degree in religious studies has opened my eyes to all kinds of useful scholarship as well. I think I would be a very different scholar without these experiences, but no doubt bright individuals are able to autodidact their way into professional status.
So what is the usefulness of graduate training? Will it continue to be relevant in this century or are we entering an era where motivated individuals will increasingly do professional quality work without the training. Or has this always been the case?