“We’ll do it in languages you don’t know.”

Bret Devereaux, “a historian of the broader ancient Mediterranean in general and of ancient Rome in particular” and “a lifetime fan of fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction more generally,” runs the excellent blog A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry (which I don’t seem to have linked here before, oddly); his latest post is called So You Want To Go To Grad School (in the Academic Humanities)?, and I had to stop reading before long because it was bringing up too many bad memories (I think PTSD after four decades is not unusual for the grad-school experience). I did, however, read far enough to pass along this LH-relevant passage:

Years 1-4: Coursework (we’ll talk about course load in a moment). Note that this coursework will mostly be in your specialist field; you are assumed to have all of the generalist knowledge already from your undergraduate degree. If there are primary languages you need to know (like Greek and Latin for ancient history or Russian for Russian history, etc) you will be expected to already have at least several years of instruction before starting graduate coursework (at least in my field). If you are in a discipline that doesn’t require foreign languages, the rest of us are going to make fun of you, but don’t worry, we’ll do it in languages you don’t know.³

The footnote:

3. As an ancient history [student], the general expectation was that I’d have at least a couple of years of Greek and several more of Latin before beginning graduate study. I learned to read (badly) French and German during my graduate career; single semester crash courses ‘for reading knowledge’ so that you can read scholarship (but not your main sources) in other languages are a common fixture in graduate school. That standard Classics-package (often with the admixture of Italian or Spanish) is, to my knowledge, one of the heavier language-learning-loads (reflecting the origin of Classics in language-study (philology)), but there are sub-fields of history where the language demands are also fearsome.

My advice to the titular question is “Don’t,” but I’m a bitter ABD, so pay me no mind.


  1. The most polyglotic of my Russian freinds did Classics. In 26 he knew almost as many langauges, as some Maghrebi kids know in 16* (which is really impressive).

    *I have very specific kids in mind, not generic, but anyway.

  2. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Is the thing which is called a PhD in America actually (closely) related to the thing which is called a PhD in Europe?

  3. @Jen in Edinburgh: In the sciences, European Ph. D. degrees are basically equivalent to American Ph. D. degrees. In the second half of the twentieth century, American hegemony in academia effectively forced European countries to adapt their terminal degrees in science and engineering to match the American model. The process by which one earns a Ph. D. can still be very different between different countries and regions, but the end results are supposed to be formally the same. I’m not sure to what extent the situation is the same in the arts and humanities, although there has certainly been evolutions of European Ph. D. degrees in those areas toward American models as well.

  4. What’s the U.S. equivalent of British “Reader”? Assistant Professor?

  5. John Emerson says

    On toxic advisers: a relative of mine had her career ended by a Turkish-American toxic adviser named Attila. She had a second, non-toxic teacher also named Attila, and Google finds me four more people in her field named Attila. I say it’s causal.

  6. John Emerson says

    I read the article and it made me think of my friends who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in 1980 or so. Of the 5 I’m more or less in touch with, One got a tenure track position at a low ranking school. One got a PhD and never got a job. He’s done work related to his degree, but never enough to make a living off it. 3 ended up with the equivalent of an ABD and a “failure” masters degree and as far as I know none of them ever got a job, and one has crushing debt.

    I could see the handwriting on the wall. I was sure to offend one of my teachers and I wouldn’t have lasted a year even if I hadn’t.

  7. Grad school surely isn’t for everyone. (Nor is undergrad, I sensed in my teaching years.) Maybe I was lucky, but I’m mostly glad I went. Yes, there were plenty of bothers and frustrations. It may have helped that I had spent eleven years between under and grad doing mostly other things, but also publishing two academic articles on my own slow steam. Mixing in archaeological and editorial work may have helped. And my dissertation committee was fine, I am grateful to say.

  8. I’m in the middle of doing my second MA (after 40 years). I decided a PhD would be too stressful. I thought an MA would be a nice way to do a thesis how I liked on a topic I liked. Now I’ve found out the thesis requirements: maximum 60 pages, no footnotes.

    It’s not what I had imagined but maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. At any rate it’s not costing me much and it’s purely for my own personal satisfaction.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    If you want to write (and have assessed by your supervisor) a longer work, you could simulate someone who is a bit rambling and write chapters which will “have to be excised from the final version”. You might be surprised at the result, e.g., one of your “throwaway” chapters might become central to the thesis 😊.

  10. John Cowan says

    After secondary school I had a summer job programming computers at professional level. I began a B.S. in Physics, but after one semester I was more interested in my college boyfriend than in classes, so I dropped out. A year later and sans boyfriend I went back to a different university. Three and a half years later, I had almost all of a B.A. in Communications when my mother died and I effectively dropped out. But I had an offer in hand for a Ph.D. program in Social Systems Science, so I took it, but after a semester I was more interested in my college girlfriend than in classes, so I dropped out and moved in with her after a, mmm, interesting phone conversation. A year later, I got another computer programming job; in another four years we were married and remain so.

    Our ship has sailed on since then with many a wobble, not least the befuddlement of HR departments who don’t understand how I can be a Senior Software Engineer with only a secondary-school education. But hey, my resume/C.V. mentions where I got my tertiary education and when; it doesn’t mention anything about degrees — not my fault if they assumed I graduated.

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    I never got further than B.Sc x 1.5, but nobody has questioned that for the last 20 years. Recent experience counts for much more where I am. I do get the impression that people are more formalistic about that in the US.

    (Anecdotally, the reason why the Danish military reintroduced the rank of major between captain and coronel was that the French majors staffing OTAN would not speak to a mere captain).

  12. Is the thing which is called a PhD in America actually (closely) related to the thing which is called a PhD in Europe?

    Still fairly little in my experience as someone who’s working right now on an European PhD in the humanities. For example I don’t think “comps” exist here (anymore? I do recall hearing something similar to them existing 40–50 years back) and the closest thing to a “prospectus” is probably the actual PhD program application (itself a relatively new layer of red tape, just 15 years ago people interested and qualified could still waltz in at will). The “doctoral student” / “doctoral candidate” distinction was new to me entirely too. The former specifically seems to have more in common with the European master’s student phase which likewise follows the completion of a bachelor’s and involves substantial courseload + assembling a thesis, though it is at least in Finland still considered an undergraduate stage (and, until recently, there has been an expectation that everyone doing a bachelor’s continues on with a master’s, with “taking a BA and running” as a more of a bailing point than a complete degree).

    A still more materially major difference from the American model might be a total absense of guaranteed funding. These days, PhD candidates are expected to demostrate their own capacity to apply for funding right off the bat — either from scratch or, more often, thru joining a research group that handles this. Most of the calls for PhD programs I see going around are really bundled calls from research groups in need of junior members, “bare” PhD applications are advertized very little. I have also been in a research group for my first two years (actually three altogether, incl. also the tail-end of my master’s studies) and will be only now in 2022 moving to independent funding of my own. Something of the sort goes for basically all of my colleagues. There is a more or less limited number of university funding/teaching slots too (in recent years, at Helsinki it’s been no more than two four-year slots per year across the whole PhD Program In Linguistics) but even they require their own applications, independent of admission to the program.

    Master’s students are in a slightly better position in being eligible for state support for their studies, if they have been progressing briskly enough… but still also not to anything from the university. Bret’s strong exhortation to “never go to go to graduate school (…) unless you are fully funded” seems like it would, again, apply more to this stage than post-Master’s PhD studies. (And for that matter, I think I’ve gotten any impostor syndrome etc. out of my system also at that time already.)

  13. I look at, say, linguistics dissertations today, which commonly reach the high hundreds in page count. I look at dissertations from a hundred years ago, amounting to barely over a hundred pages (handwritten), sometimes quite less, and it makes me think.

    Mathematics dissertations, quite recently, could be shockingly short. I wonder if that’s still the case.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    For all the extraordinary Sapirs and Bloomfields, the quality of descriptive grammars of exotic-ish languages based on PhD theses was, on average, way lower even thirty or forty years ago than it is today. I’ve often been struck by this when I’ve finally succeeded in tracking down the only existing full-dress account of one Gur language or another …

    “For that they gave you a PhD …?”

  15. Lars Mathiesen says

    In Denmark you go b.sc, candidate, and then you can apply for a salaried ph.d.-writing position with a research group, which includes some teaching or other administrative obligations (like writing course notes or the professor’s papers). This is free education with state support for living expenses up to the candidate level at least, unless you take too long. You can also add a master to the candidate, but you have to fund that yourself.

    Some employers with research departments and good university connections (in biotech, for instance) will hire candidate-level people and let them write their ph.d. full time, with the expectation that they stay employed once they get the degree. Employers also sometimes fund time off for employees to take a master but only to about 50% (this practice seems to be most common in business arts).

    In my day it was of course different. There were no b.sc degrees, but the candidate courses of study were divided into first and second parts, and to qualify to teach in high school (gymnasium) you had to pass two first parts and one second part to get a paper saying (e.g.) “Candidatus Scientiarum in Mathematics with a minor in physics”. People slightly older than me had been able to get accepted for a longer advanced program culminating in the degree of magister of science (mag.scient) — formally the same as the Anglo M.Sc, but in practice more like a Ph.D. (And this degree of Magister was what you were a candidate for when it still existed).

    The medical schools always had a faster progression, with people writing a doctoral thesis during their residency so they really were doctors (dr.med.) when they entered general practice. But in the other sciences, a doctoral thesis was something you might submit after 30 years of study and most professors never became doctors. The ph.d is not construed as a “real” doctorate, it’s just three letters that we use to match the anglos.

  16. I look at, say, linguistics dissertations today, which commonly reach the high hundreds in page count.

    These dissertations are often useful and some soon are published as books (grammars in particular).
    It is not that 100 years ago they were not useful or published….

    the quality of descriptive grammars of exotic-ish languages based on PhD theses was, on average, way lower even thirty or forty years ago than it is today.

    1. we benefit from having them 2. did the degree do any good to the authors? 3. it is still a work, and still scientific.
    You are right. 40 years ago the trend was already noticeable, but the quality and scope were not as impressive. Yet,the guy did that for me!!! I was [skipped] and he already was preparing a grammar sketch for me, personally, and spent a lot of time. I am glad that this sketch exists (not sure about the dialect in question). As for what they do today, it is breathtaking. I mean, considering that it is again, for me:)

  17. “For that they gave you a PhD …?”

    That’s what we used to mutter about Isidore Dyen, though I forget what his dissertation was about. (His nickname was Izzy, and we also used to mutter “Izzy dyin’?” We were a bitter crew.)

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    There are two different, albeit sometimes overlapping, issues, for doctoral candidates in humanities-type fields:

    1. What languages (if any) other than English do I need to know to read relevant primary sources?
    2. What languages (if any) other than English do I need to know to read relevant secondary scholarship?

    The extent to which the answer to 2 is converging on “none” varies somewhat from field to field (outside the hard sciences and many social sciences where the convergence is complete), and the answer to 1 is very context-dependent.

  19. My point was, surely you had to do something significant over your 3/4/5 years of dissertation research, then as now, and doctoral students were as hardworking then as now, so why would that toil add up to 100 pages in one case and 600 pages in the other?

  20. David Eddyshaw says


    Yes, you’re right: we should be grateful for what we’ve got.

    (I’m probably bitter on account of having had to try to extract useful information from too many grammars organised around Tagmemics and its equally ugly sisters, though to be fair that’s usually old-timey SIL stuff rather than university-based theses. What were they thinking?)

    It’s also the case that descriptive linguistics as a discipline has actually progressed pretty significantly over the past few decades, and it’s hardly fair to object to (say) a defective treatment of a tone system dating from a period before downstep had even been thought of. (Didn’t stop Christaller from doing an amazing job with Twi in 1875 though. But there are never going to be many linguists as gifted as that.)

    What tends to irk me most is when the grammar-writer hasn’t dealt with some (you would have thought) obvious question which arises from his/her very own description. (“But then, how on earth would you say …?”) The antithesis of this is Bloomfield, who seems always to be way ahead of you, as if he was saying “Now I’m glad you asked that …” But then there will never be many Bloomfields, either.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    @Y: Time-to-degree-completion has grown significantly over time. By the time people I went to college with were pursuing Ph.D.’s (late ’80’s), the normative expectation in U.S. universities in the humanities was that the Ph.D. should take you six years after your bachelor’s degree and in practice many people moved slower. Yet our professors who had finished their Ph.D.’s two or three decades earlier in U.S. universities were more likely to have wrapped the whole thing up in four or even three years. The more time it’s expected to take, the more bloated the product you’re expected to produce, I suppose. Ideally, “write a 300-page first draft and then slowly edit that down to a 120-page final product that includes everything important without any of the filler” would be a good ideal to promote, but I don’t think it works that way in the real world. And sometimes the “filler” serves some important signaling function to the relevant audience, of showing explicitly (and thus necessarily at length) yes I have read all relevant prior scholarship in this teensy little subfield and have actually thought about how it does and doesn’t affect what I’m trying to say.

  22. Baseball games and movies have also grown inexorably longer. It’s a bloated world.

  23. My topic is extremely broad, and of course I want to throw the kitchen sink in without being too detailed. But the biggest annoyance for me is the sheer amount of Minimalist garbage out there. I have to take notice of it because it’s related to my topic and even people who are not doing hard-core Minimalist crap are ensconced in the rigid straitjacket of the Chomskyan model, trapped in its implicit assumptions, speak its impenetrable jargon, and do things like posit invisible constituents just because they can.

    PlasticPaddy: Yes, I wasn’t actually aware of the extreme restrictions on length, footnoting, and also allowable scripts (no kana or Chinese characters, thank you very much) which came in last year. So I had already written a lot that will have to be excised.

    Incidentally, in Australia they have (or had, I don’t know any more) BA (Hons) degrees, which required you to complete a thesis in your Honours year. My Honours thesis was better than my MA thesis, which was for an MA in Japan and suffered from the fact that the (extremely good) lecturer who would have been my supervisor moved to a different university just when I was about to write my thesis. I wrote a pile of crap, although ultimately it didn’t actually matter.

  24. Mag. Dr. David Marjanović, BSc says

    Movies have grown longer? But what happened to the decades-long whining about how these latter days are so fast-paced and nobody has an attention span anymore?

    The process by which one earns a Ph. D. can still be very different between different countries and regions, but the end results are supposed to be formally the same.

    …Kinda. In practice, a US doctorate is more like an average European doctorate plus one postdoc by effort.

    On top of that, in the US, doctoral students (…wait, "doctoral students" and "doctoral candidates" are two different things now???) are expected to teach. That's why they easily take 6 to 10 years. In France, doctoral students are not expected to teach, they’re expected to finish – within three years, and that’s an almost hard maximum. If you need another year, you have to apply for it, and it may not be granted; if whatever committee thinks you’ll take too long, you’re apparently kicked out, you get nothing, you lose, good day, sir.

    Austria doesn’t have a maximum duration for doctorates (or any other studies). But there’s a minimum of four semesters*, and the subsidy students get if their parents aren’t rich is for the minimum duration of each section of their studies** plus one semester each, so there’s no funding from that source after five semesters. My sixth semester was supported by my parents.

    * There is no such thing as a year in the Austrian university system. That’s just one more difference between university and school.
    ** In modern terms bachelor, master, doctor.

    In Austria, the degree of bachelor simply did not exist when I started 20 years ago. It was gradually introduced starting a few years later, as part of the Bologna Process to unify all these things throughout the EU, and because “the economy”, whoever that is, had wanted well-educated cheap labor so badly. Soon thereafter, of course, “the economy” began to whine that bachelors don’t actually know how to do anything and aren’t employable. Oh well. Anyway, before the bachelor was introduced, the “diploma study” that ended with the degree of Magister just had a “first section” and a “second section” (both with minimum durations that varied across fields), and if you quit after the first section, you got no degree at all. I did the first section of molecular biology, and then, after molecular biology was merged back into biology and the degree of bachelor was introduced, I got that retroactively accepted as a bachelor degree in biology, after I already had my Magister title in biology through paleobiology (first section called “biology”, second section called “paleobiology”).

    The French pre-Bologna system was different, with a licence followed by a maîtrise, both with fixed numbers of years.

    It is not possible in Austria, Germany, or I’m quite sure France to start a doctorate without having a master degree, and now that the bachelor exists, I bet it’s just as impossible to start a master degree without having a bachelor degree first.

    In the same three countries, you’re not allowed to take on doctoral students if you haven’t done a Habilitation first (although, in Germany but not the others, you can now be a professor in the other senses of the word without it). That’s basically an extra academic degree, to the point that Austrians who’ve done that and have not snagged a professor post (or so I assume) will sometimes call themselves Dr. habil.. It involves teaching and writing a large thesis. I haven’t done it because I’ve never had sufficiently stable employment to allow me the time necessary for that, and so I’m still not allowed to take on doctoral students at the age of 39. (Of course it also requires having a doctorate.)

    The Austrian Dr. med. degree, which is necessary to practice medicine, is straightforwardly a master degree that is called a doctorate. My sister has done it, and that’s what she says; I’ve read her thesis and agree. Indeed, there is no Mag. med. degree.

    I’ve seen a fairly old ad, in a subway station in Vienna, for a detective agency whose founder bragged about being a cand. jur.; either he was working on a doctorate in law when he had that sign produced, or he had quit to found his company. Other than that I’ve never seen such a formal usage of “candidate” in Austria (or Germany or France).

    What’s the U.S. equivalent of British “Reader”? Assistant Professor?

    Good question, but there may not be an exact equivalent. “Assistant Professor” used to be not really equivalent to the Austrian Assistent, who was one particular full professor’s “assistant”, was not regarded as any kind of professor, and was looked down upon by the Extraordinary ( ~ Associate) and the Ordinary ( = Full) Professors. More like a postdoc who was also a TA, I think, in American terms. Maybe that’s what a Reader or Lecturer is, I don’t know.

    The French system is different as expected; under the professeur (abbreviated Pr., not Prof.!) there’s the maître de conférences (pronounced mèt’ de conf’) to this day, but such posts are not tied to a particular professor and are probably exactly the same as Assistant Professor positions these days.

  25. David Marjanović says


    Oh, so that’s not a purely American thing.

  26. Technically, there’s no time limit on PhDs in the US. In one case, that ended badly.

  27. Oh, so that’s not a purely American thing.

    I thought it was British, although I don’t think the Australian incarnation is very similar to the British model. (And it doesn’t mean cum laude or whatever.) See Honours degree for more information — it’s found in a lot of countries.

  28. An Assistant Professor is not tenured, but otherwise does everything a professor does: teaches classes, has graduate students, earns a living wage, and if all goes well, will advance to a tenured position.

    I have the impression that Readers are full-fledged academics, but not as exalted as professors, or something.

  29. I look at, say, linguistics dissertations today, which commonly reach the high hundreds in page count

    Awe inspiring French dissertation


  30. John Emerson says

    i knew a woman who completed her PhD at age 65 or so and was awarded it on the basis of an oral agreement never to apply for jobs based on her PhD, She was an admirable, lovable woman with mediocre academic abilities in marginal degree-granting department of a third rank university.

  31. Stephen C. Carlson says

    US Ph.D. here (2012) in a classics-adjacent field, with language exams in Hebrew, Greek, French, and German. The article rings true for me.

  32. Awe inspiring French dissertation

    2,548 pages, to save anyone else the trouble.

  33. I realized almost as soon as I posted my last comment in this thread that a lot of other people were going to interpret “Ph. D.” as meaning something different than I had. When asked about the meaning of a Ph. D. degree from different sources, I naturally interpret that as a question about the meaning and value of the credential. The process by which a Ph. D. is earned and awarded still depends on where you are and in what area you are doing research, but as I said, there has been a lot of movement to make the final Ph. D. degree represent a comparable level of educational and research attainment, regardless of where someone studied. I think this was a natural way for somebody like myself to see a question about whether “the thing which is called a PhD in America [is] actually (closely) related to the thing which is called a PhD in Europe.”* However, most of the other responses treat “Ph. D.” as metonymous for “Ph. D. program”—leading, naturally, to discussions of how the Ph. D.-granting programs work from the students’ perspectives, in terms of time, requirements, funding, etc.

    * At this point in my professional life, I can look back my Ph. D. program as merely another stage in my educational and career development; it was very different from anything I had done before, but so were my time in college, as a post-doc, and as a faculty member. I do not view the completion of a Ph. D. as a profound accomplishment the way I once did, or the way my own doctoral advisees probably do now. It is routine for me to be involved in hiring for positions for which a Ph. D. is among the most elementary requirements. Moreover, I am far more productive as a researcher now than I ever was as a doctoral student, in spite of having much heavier teaching (and service) responsibilities now than I did then, and I think that is pretty typical for scholars in the sciences and engineering—although I don’t know whether the situation is the same for researchers in the humanities.

  34. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I was being a bit sarcastic – but I am genuinely interested as well, so thank you for all the information.

    Here, you start off by doing a four year (three year in England) undergraduate degree. At that point you might do a one year Masters degree. (Or you might not. When I used to work in the Physics department that was more or less obligatory for PhD entry but set up as an integrated five year degree, friends in arts type subjects seem to have mostly done a separate year long Masters out of interest but didn’t necessarily have to, where I work now it seems almost looked down on, like you weren’t good enough after four years).

    At that point you start a PhD, theoretically taking three years – most people roll into a fourth, at least for writing up time, but more than four means that something has gone wrong. There’s a small element of taught classes in the first year of the PhD programme in my current department, but that’s still seen as slightly odd – PhD study is research, not classes.

    From what I’ve read here, American students take longer than that whole process *just* to do the PhD – including the equivalent of another Honours degree worth of taught classes.

    Do they know less in the beginning? Do they know more in the end? At some point it must even out, because the academics do teach in each other’s countries.

    In Physics the standard after a PhD was to go into research post-doc jobs, but in this department they go straight into junior academic posts, teaching their own courses.

  35. John Emerson says

    I have a theory that the American path to the PhD is longer because it starts at age 18, whereas some students from countries with elite school systems start doing college level work at about age 14. Many bright Americans are basically uneducated at age 18, especially in math and foreign languages. As far as that goes, many are still not very far along at age 22 with their bachelor’s degree. I think that (if this is true) it might also account for an American tendency toward narrowly specialized programs.

  36. David Marjanović says

    I think that (if this is true) it might also account for an American tendency toward narrowly specialized programs.

    Quite the opposite: it accounts for why almost all liberal-arts universities are in the US. I got that kind of education in school-as-opposed-to-university, ending over a month before I turned 18, and then I specialized on biology (…and chemistry for a year until the math just got too much).

  37. I must second the recommendation of A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. He’s a bit of an ancient warfare nerd. His analysis of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones is spot on. Plus real ancient history.

    He goes into stuff like the historical development of textile production, which I find fascinating.

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