by Sara Curnow Wilson

In January of 2000, my family and I traveled to Philadelphia from the Poconos to attend my father’s graduation from Temple with his PhD in history. I was 13. The building, Mitten Hall, looked like a castle.

Last week, we attended that ceremony in Mitten Hall once again. This time, at 31, I was the doctoral graduate (English though; sorry, dad).

I have a number of memories of my father progressing through his doctoral program. In addition to graduation, I remember visiting the bookstore, walking through the main campus gates on Polett Walk, and waiting in the hallway outside an office in Gladfelter as he visited the office hours of the professor inside.

These memories made it a special joy when I was accepted into Temple, and again when I was assigned my first class as instructor of record, and it happened to be on the same floor of Gladfelter I’d visited with my dad all those years ago. I was following in his footsteps—in some ways literally.

However, as I got more teaching experience, I realized that I didn’t love it and that the very clear path from PhD student to professor was not one I wanted to take. I remember relief when I made the decision — but also uncertainty. There are other tracks than tenure for the PhD, but they are considerably less defined.

A liberal arts education isn’t about a project as much as it is a process. We know how to master a topic, how to research, how to look at a situation and figure out what is missing. With enough time, we can learn—and teach—anything.

I’m grateful that Temple is a place where I was able and encouraged to explore other options—where my department and advisors were supportive, where administrators in roles I admired were happy to meet with me and introduce me to their colleagues, and where I was eventually given an administrative position that supported me as I finished my degree.

Still, it was difficult and occasionally scary to adjust my expectations and, sometimes, the expectations of those around me. I have had to explain why I was getting my PhD but would be applying to jobs that likely did not require one, and why I was writing a dissertation on modernist novels when I had no intention of teaching them.  

So to say that I have thought long and hard about the value of the liberal arts graduate degree is an understatement. The truth is, a liberal arts education isn’t about a project as much as it is a process. My graduating colleagues and I have attained a certain kind of specialized knowledge, of course, but more important is the set of tools we’ve acquired in our training. We know how to master a topic, how to research, how to look at a situation and figure out what is missing. With enough time, we can learn—and teach—anything.

This is the justification for the liberal arts (and why I would still, knowing what I know now, get my degree all over again): the education trains you to learn.

That’s, of course, one of the reasons humanities PhDs make such good professors.

My dad is one of them.

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