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Graduate Work in the Classics


Those seeking to teach the Classics in colleges and universities face a job market that has fluctuated over the years with a fair amount of unpredictability. As a result, competition is heavy for available jobs. The following table, based on information provided by the APA/AIA Placement Service will illustrate this fact:

Academic Year Positions Listed Candidates
  Total Tenure or Tenure-Track Percentage that Were Tenured or Tenure Track Total
2003-2004 166 99 59.6% 370
2004-2005 162 104 64.2% 402
2005-2006 197 111 56.3% 377
2006-2007 217 127 58.5% 422
2007-2008 221 132 59.7% 444
2008-2009 138 67 48.6% 435
2009-2010 142 54 38.0% 443
2010-2011 143 61 42.7% 427
2011-2012 155 71 45.8% 532

It should also be noted that a disturbing trend has emerged in recent years. Previously most candidates holding a PhD were hired as assistant professors, ideally on a "tenure-track." In such positions, if performance in publication, teaching, and service were adequate, tenure would be awarded after a certain number of years, normally seven.

There is currently an increasing tendency to hire persons with recent PhDs as instructors or adjunct faculty. One-year positions are common as replacements for faculty members on sabbatical.  Other positions can be part-time. The financial remuneration for such jobs is low, and fringe benefits (e.g., retirement, health insurance) are often not provided. The Modern Language Association (MLA) studies this trend through its Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession. Their most recent report (
) gives an overview of practices that are of concern.  A search of the MLA web page, using the terms "part time," "adjunct," and "instructor," will reveal documents treating this phenomenon as it affects teachers of English and modern foreign languages.   Another resource is the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (    Note that such positions are not necessarily dead ends.  Institutions frequently fill tenure-track jobs with candidates who have demonstrated their talents in one-year positions.

The Road Ahead

The APA has published a guide called "Guide to Graduate Programs in the United States and Canada," available through, under the "Education" tab.  Read this if you are interested in graduate study in the Classics.  The PhD commonly takes a minimum of five and more often six or more years of graduate work. The MA and MAT normally take two years. Each of these is a major commitment of your time, resources, and energies. Full fellowships are sometimes available, of course, but increasingly graduate students can expect to be teaching assistants for much of their graduate career. Some will assist their faculty in research and grading, but typically today's graduate student will go far beyond "assisting" and actually teach for many of his or her graduate years. This commitment of time to the classroom has a tendency to lengthen the time it takes to obtain a degree, but it also provides job candidates with tangible proof of their teaching experience. It is not uncommon for PhD candidates to incur student loans when financial aid is lacking or partial.

These facts make it clear that choosing a career at the advanced level in the Classics demands a strong commitment. The obstacles and difficulties are many, but are not insurmountable. Students entering graduate school in the Classics should be realistic.  Not all who enter a program will finish it and not all who obtain the degree will obtain a permanent academic post. Yet many other options exist, the training is widely recognized and valued, and great satisfaction results from obtaining the highest degree in your discipline and from being able to immerse yourself for a period of time in the pursuit of knowledge in a field of your own choosing.  Also, nonacademic employment possibilities for Classics PhDs are discussed below.

Choosing a Field of Study

But what field should it be? As stated above, the Classics is a discipline that opens the doors onto many other specializations. Although it is not necessary (or even recommended) that you choose your ultimate specialization before beginning graduate work, you should be aware that there are a wide variety of subfields under the broad heading of "Classics" and if you have specific interests you will want to be sure the faculty at a particular PhD-granting institution can help you develop these interests.  One way to group the subfields in the Classics is to follow Dr. Emily Vermeule in her 1995 APA Presidential address entitled "Archaeology and Philology: The Dirt and the Word."  Her title refers to a traditional way to view the field of the Classics, as consisting of those who primarily focus on the texts and those who primarily focus on the artifacts brought to us through archaeology.  Of course, the two often overlap and some of the best work occurs when they do so. Here is a brief list of some of the more common subfields. 

  • The Word: Philology tends to emphasize texts and the authors who wrote them. Philologists study authors as diverse as epic poets and biographers, geographers and historians, lyric poets, philosophers, physicians, and orators. Studies can range from narrow treatments of individual words to all-encompassing discussions of literary theory and rhetoric. One can study authors who lived as early as Homer or as late as the end of the Roman Empire. Do not forget that Classics majors may go on to concentrate in Medieval Studies, while some concentrate in Comparative Literature.  The study of how Classical themes and works of literature have affected later times (Reception Studies) is a growing field as well.
  • The Dirt: Another entire aspect of antiquity concentrates upon its material remains and is equally wide in its focus. Archaeology is the main field devoted to material remains, but classical scholars regularly study coins (Numismatics), inscribed objects from antiquity (Epigraphy, Papyrology), and all aspects of ancient art
  • The Word and the Dirt: In many fields the word and the dirt overlap. Historians utilize a broad variety of tools to uncover what actually happened in the past. Ancient historians in our field cover the time period from Neolithic prehistory through late antiquity and span the entire geographical range of the ancient world. In their role as cultural historians, classicists study all aspects of ancient life, covering such diverse topics as slavery, women, childhood, economics, astronomy, gender, ancient science, and more.

The list just given is, of course, partial. PhDs in Classics are found in a wide array of college departments as mentioned elsewhere in this document.  Anyone interested in the breadth of subjects studied by the field of the Classics should browse through L'Annéephilologique, the annual bibliographical source for our discipline, ( available through many college libraries.  One might also consult the programs of the annual joint meeting of the APA and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) to get a sense of the areas scholars are currently working in.  Programs may be accessed through the homepage of each organization (; Not all PhDs for students with classics backgrounds are granted through Classics departments.  Some graduate students may obtain advanced degrees from departments of Anthropology, Art History, Comparative Literature, or History. 

Ideally, a student should attend graduate school at an institution that can serve his or her needs best. If the student knows what his or her sub-specialty will be, then the choices are narrowed a bit to institutions that possess faculty members who have expertise in that specialty.  More commonly, however, an entering graduate student will have only a general idea of which eras or subfields interest him or her the most. A student may feel, for example, that Latin authors are more intriguing than are Greek authors. Or another may find that prose authors hold more fascination than do poets. Another might know clearly that archaeology has more allure than philology or may have a strong interest in history while another may feel that Bronze Age subjects are more intriguing than those from Hellenistic or Roman times. If you are unsure as to your field of specialty, attend a general, language-based PhD program to give you the foundation in the languages you need and then, as electives, pursue introductory courses in areas of interest.  Remember that most college and university jobs for Classicists entail teaching the languages and possessing this skill will enhance your job potential.

Applying for Graduate Studies

Planning is all important here.  As early as the beginning of your senior year, if not earlier, you should have:

  • Discussed your plans with several Classics faculty members.  (Starting to talk with faculty members as soon as you consider declaring a major will ensure that you get the advice you need as soon as possible.) Each has his or her own insights, which can help guide your choice of graduate program.  Choose at least one, preferably more, to look over materials, such as the statement of purpose, many programs require.
  • Prepared your curriculum vitae (academic resumé). Most colleges have an office that will help you do this. It is recommended that you consult with your professors and other academic advisors as well.  An academic resumé is different from a job resumé.  Be sure to list all academic accomplishments (e.g. awards, scholarships).  See a sample.
  • Taken the GRE exam. This test is often quite important for admission and awarding fellowships. Many courses are offered to help students prepare for the GRE.
  • Arranged for three professors to write letters of recommendation for you.
  • Selected a writing sample to accompany your graduate school application.  This is commonly one of your best undergraduate papers.  Be sure to have a faculty member help you polish it.
  • Researched the graduate programs that seem most in line with your interests.

There are various things you can do before entering graduate school that will enhance not only your chances of admission, but your performance, once you are admitted.

  • Become proficient in Latin and Greek.  This lies at the heart of your future success. If your language skills are not as good as you, or your prospective graduate school, would like, consider attending one of the many intensive language institutes offered over the summer at various campuses throughout the country. You may also attend a post-baccalaureate Classics program as described above.  A complete list of these is impossible and certainly will change over the lifetime of this guide. Use your faculty advisors, notices in classical journals, and the Internet to obtain particulars.
  • Prepare yourself with a broad spectrum of undergraduate courses, exposing yourself to as many aspects of classical history and culture as possible.
  • Take challenging courses.  Graduate schools want to see that you can handle a heavy work load.  If the opportunity is available, write an honors thesis or the equivalent at your institution.
  • Acquire a reading knowledge of at least one modern language. The two most commonly required for graduate work are French and German. This will enable you to begin serious research as soon as you enter graduate school.
  • If it is possible, visit Italy and/or Greece during your undergraduate years. There are several ways to do this. Many schools offer summer, semester, and year programs through their Academic Programs Abroad division or its equivalent. Students should also consider the excellent programs at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, The American Academy in Rome, The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and College Year in Athens. Your faculty members will regularly receive announce­ments for such programs.   There are many other study abroad opportunities as well.  Be sure to talk to the Study Abroad office on your campus and your Classics faculty as well. Investigate any funding opportunities that may be available to help with your expenses.

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