Should I Apply to a Doctorate Program to Study Spanish?

Here are the pros and cons from my experiences, but ultimately the answer isn’t so easy for most

Occasionally students will ask me about what it’s like to study Spanish at the graduate level. My response to their questions on the topic has changed throughout the years, but I’m always honest about what my experiences were and whether or not I would do it again if I could go back in time knowing what I know now. Ultimately, I think I would, primarily because I enjoy where I am in life, but I would probably do some things differently.

I always tell my curious students this story about myself. My career path to becoming a Spanish professor was anything but straight. While I came to enjoy Spanish by the end of high school, I didn’t want to major in it in college because I thought all I would be qualified to do was teach; and teaching was something I was not interested in. As I said in my first post, I majored in International Business and Marketing at Marquette University because it would give me the excuse to keep up with Spanish, which became a guilty pleasure. After graduation, I worked in business for a few unfulfilling years. At the time, one of my best friends, Caleb, was studying his Master’s degree in English. What really impressed me about his example, was that he didn’t have to pay for his degree. As a Teaching Assistant, the university paid for the degree as well as paying him a stipend to live on. Could the Department of Foreign Languages make a similar offer for me to teach Spanish? Indeed, they could, but I was somewhat pessimistic about my chances of getting in, since I only had a minor in Spanish. I remember the application process included providing a writing sample and a recording of speaking Spanish on a cassette. As I recall, my writing sample wasn’t a paper from a class, since I hadn’t taken a Spanish class in a few years and had no paper of that type to send them. Curiously, I wrote up a short paper about using music to assist in the learning of Spanish, which is a topic I addressed in an earlier post in this blog. Fortunately, I was accepted anyway, since my Spanish was pretty good at that time, and the university already knew me, having completed my undergraduate studies there. I’m now sure that I wouldn’t have been accepted anywhere else. I didn’t even consider applying anywhere else. I didn’t know what in the world I would do with a Master’s degree in Spanish. That would be a question to answer another day. Now, of course, I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been accepted into that program.

The Master’s degree in Spanish at Marquette had two possible paths at the time, either the traditional MA or the MAT. The MAT – Master’s of Arts in Teaching – was three years instead of two and would give me a license to teach Spanish at the secondary level in public schools. The MAT was the route that I took, because it would give me more potential options upon graduation and more time to figure out what I would do with my degree. To my surprise, I did better in my classes at the Master’s level than I did at the undergrad level. And teaching came rather naturally to me. I taught two classes of elementary or intermediate Spanish per semester. I even got to assist the director of the university’s summer study abroad program in Mexico, where I would meet the woman who is now my wife. Overall, then, the Master’s program was relatively painless. It wasn’t easy, by any means, but it was great to dedicate so much time to Spanish. At the time, I didn’t have my family yet, and I was getting by with the money I was making. One of the highlights of the experience was doing my semester of student teaching at my old high school, which I’ll have to blog about in another post. At the end of the program, I had a taken a written cumulative exam, as well as an oral exam to discuss and clarify the written part. There was also a thesis option, as I recall, but I don’t know anyone from that program who chose to write a thesis.

Towards the end of my three-year program, I felt like I had learned so much, but also that I had so much more to learn. I had nothing to lose by applying for a doctorate program, I thought. Prior to applying anywhere, I had consulted one of my favorite professors, Dr. Scott Dale, who teaches 18th and 19th century Spanish peninsular literature, about what it’s like to study a doctorate in his field. He was quite honest, but he said, and I’m paraphrasing, that if I could spend a lot of time obsessing over something like a poem, then it could be a good decision. What he meant, of course, was that getting a doctorate in Spanish literature required a lot of time to analyze texts. If I didn’t really enjoy reading and thinking about books all day long, then it wouldn’t be worth my time. Notice that he didn’t say anything about intelligence, which I appreciate. Getting an advanced degree in a foreign language isn’t really about how smart you are; it’s a question of whether or not you really have a passion for the subject matter and the determination not to give up on it. In fact, when I eventually entered my doctorate program, I met more than a few brilliant, well-read people, who never finished their studies, for various reasons.

“Getting an advanced degree in a foreign language isn’t really about how smart you are; it’s a question of whether or not you really have a passion for the subject matter and the determination not to give up on it.”

Another great piece of advice I got from Dr. Dale was to research ahead of time where the experts in the field I wanted to study were working, and to contact them before even applying to their university. You should do this for a couple of reasons. First, because you want to know that they plan to be there at least until the time it would take you to graduate. It would be awful to arrive at a school and have the person you want to work with leave for another position shortly thereafter. Also, you want to have a sense of what it might be like to work with this person. He or she will be your dissertation director, so you have to make sure that you’re compatible. From just a simple email or phone call, you can get a sense of whether or not the person is punctual and respectful. Ask them how many students are working with them on their dissertation and how long it takes their students to finish the program. If there aren’t currently any students they work with, beware that students might avoid them for a reason. But also be careful if there are many students with whom they work, since they might not have much time to dedicate to you. It might make most sense, also, to choose a dissertation director who is already a full professor, since they won’t be under as much pressure to publish their own research and put you in the background.

This might be a good place to mention that applying to grad school for a foreign language – whether it be a terminal Master’s program or a doctorate – usually involves some of the same requirements regardless of the school, although each university might have some things that are a bit different. In all likelihood, you’ll need to provide a writing sample (ideally from a previous class on the area you want to study), three letters of recommendation (from professors familiar with your work and in whose class you did well), official transcripts, GRE test scores (which don’t usually mean too much), a written personal statement on your intended field of study and why you want to study there, and (maybe) a recording of you speaking the target language. There will also be an application and an application fee. You can apply for a terminal Master’s program (at schools that don’t offer a doctorate program) if you have a minor or major in the language, although you’ll be more competitive with a bachelor’s degree. If you apply to a school that offers a doctorate program as well as a Master’s, you’ll probably want to have your bachelor’s first, and it’s assumed that you’ll go on to get your doctorate after passing your master’s cumulative exam. (That’s not to say that you have to; many have decided to stop after getting their Master’s degree or even pursue their doctorate at a different institution.)

Using more advice from Dr. Dale, I compiled a list of about six schools that I would apply to for my doctorate. Keep the number manageable. I think I was accepted at four of them. Most people don’t get accepted at all of the programs they apply to, assuming they apply to a few. Whether or not you get accepted somewhere could be the result of many factors, not the least of which is timing. Don’t apply somewhere because of the good weather there or because it’s a big city. The most important factor should be the dissertation director you would work with, followed by the overall reputation of the program and the success of its students getting desirable positions after graduation. Of course, I say this assuming that you’re going to want to become a university professor. Not that that’s the only thing you can do with a doctorate degree in a foreign language, but it’s the most typical career path. And if you get accepted into a doctorate program, it’s at least in part because of your potential to be a good professor.

In retrospect, it was a very good decision for me to get a Master’s degree first before applying for a doctorate at another school. In part, because I wouldn’t have been ready for a program at a bigger institution. Also, getting a Master’s degree was evidence of my potential for success in a doctorate program. And, of course, when I applied for my MAT program, I had no suspicion that I might want to get a doctorate later. One thing to research before applying for a doctorate at one school after getting your Master’s at another is whether or not you’d have to take another cumulative Master’s exam at your new institution. Luckily, UCLA accepted the results of my exam at Marquette; at least one of the schools I applied to, had I enrolled there, would’ve required me to take another exam within a year or so of arrival, which I had no intention of doing.

I have mostly good memories of my time at UCLA. Sure, there were times I had imposter syndrome, but most of my classmates were encouraging, and most importantly, my dissertation director, Dr. Jesús Torrecilla, really wanted me to succeed and he gave me the tools to understand the content and finish the degree. There was a time, after the birth of my daughter, when I had resolved to leave the program to teach high school Spanish back in Wisconsin, but Dr. Torrecilla eventually convinced me that it was in my family’s best interest to finish out the program. And I’m glad I did. In fact, although it might seem counterintuitive, having a family actually made me focus more and finish my degree in a (relatively) timely fashion. So, although having a marriage or family while in grad school can present some significant challenges, they’re not impossible to manage.

There’s a lot more I could say about my grad school experiences, and I’m sure I’ll relate more anecdotes and recommendations in later posts, but I haven’t yet addressed what could be for many prospective students the deciding factor about whether or not to attend grad school for Spanish, their career prospects. I entered grad school without any consideration for career paths, and I was very fortunate to get a tenure-track position to teach Spanish at a four-year university. Had I known that the career prospects were bleak, I would’ve had to think about it much more. It seems like every year there are less and less tenure-track positions available; many of them are in places where you might not want to live. That’s not to say that you’d have to live the rest of your life there, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a better position later in a more desirable location. Starting pay for professors varies a lot, but you might be disappointed with it, especially if you’re forced to accept a non-tenure-track position. And while you’re studying in grad school, barely making ends meet, others your age are making money, buying homes and cars, starting families, contributing to retirement plans, etc.

Ultimately, I think you have to ask yourself what your motivation is for getting a graduate degree in a field like Spanish. Here are some things you should be able to accept before enrolling:

  • You’re enamored with the language and the culture, and you feel like you just have to experience it in a traditional, structured learning environment.
  • You’re willing to consider teaching the language, even if you didn’t get a teaching degree or license in your bachelor’s program; and you’d be willing to do so at various levels, including universities, community colleges, and high schools.
  • You’re not primarily motivated by money as you start your career.
  • You don’t mind putting your life on hold for a few years to dedicate yourself to reading and research.
  • You don’t mind moving to another region of the country.

Regardless of whether or not we get offered tenure-track positions, I think most of us appreciate the time we spent getting our advanced degrees in Spanish. Apart from the knowledge we gain, the relationships are priceless and can last a lifetime.

Hopefully, at the very least I’ve given you some things to think about in this post. If there’s anything I haven’t addressed, please let me know in the comments below. Good luck with your decision!

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