Guide to PhDs in Liberal Arts and Humanities

Are you looking to be a true expert in your field of study? A PhD in one of the many disciplines that liberal arts encapsulates could be right up your alley. From foreign languages to theological studies–and every piece of classical literature, sculpture, history, and poetry in between–you can find your niche and teach or study it to your heart’s content with a doctoral degree. You don’t have to be another master’s-degree-holder working in a career that at odds with what you truly want. Those who are passionate about their work tend to build the most successful, lasting careers–if work is enjoyable, you’ll want do more of it. You can build a career doing what you love, and a PhD in liberal arts is a great way to get there.

What Does a PhD in Liberal Arts Entail?

A PhD is the highest degree a liberal arts student can attain, and it is required for positions such as teaching at a university or becoming curator of a major museum. Most PhD programs take an average of 6 years to complete, with many people needing more time for their dissertation. While individual subjects vary quite a bit, all doctoral students must complete the following requirements:

  • Required Courses: Each PhD comes with a set of core classes to establish a firm understanding of the field as a whole
  • Elective Courses: Once a doctoral student has satisfied the core classes requirement, he or she will move on to classes in a specific area of interest
  • Research: Research is an integral part of the PhD process and is a requirement for an academic career. PhD students learn advanced research methods to prepare them for independent research
  • Comprehensive Exam: After coursework is completed, doctoral students undergo intense written and oral examinations to prove mastery of their given subject before embarking on their dissertation
  • Dissertation: The dissertation is a book-length piece of writing that doctoral students must compose using original research and defend in front of a faculty panel. Often, a dissertation takes years to complete

Earning a PhD is no small accomplishment, and competition for tenured, academic positions is fierce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts faster than average growth for postsecondary teaching as a whole–an estimated 382,000 new postsecondary teaching jobs are expected to result from increased enrollment between 2006 and 2016. With today’s abundance of on-campus and online doctorate programs, a PhD is well within your reach.

Discover the Subjects and Career Paths of a PhD in Liberal Arts

Liberal arts refers to any subject that falls within the humanities. Depending on the subject, a doctorate degree in liberal arts prepares students for a variety of careers other than postsecondary teaching. The following are some common liberal arts paths that doctoral students pursue:

English and Writing:

  • The field of English encompasses English literature, comparative literature, creative writing, criticism, linguistics, and expository writing. Doctoral students in literature, for example, focus on a given time period or author, often comparing them to works in other languages. A student doing doctorate level work in linguistics might be working across the psychology, philosophy, and English departments–such is the diversity of a PhD in English. Because writing can be done anywhere and at any time–who knows when the muse might strike–online doctorate programs in English can make a lot of sense.
  • English PhDs are in demand as teachers, scholars, editors, and writers. According to the BLS, employment of writers and editors should grow about 10 percent between 2006 and 2016, in keeping with the national average.


  • Those pursuing a PhD in History must focus their research on a specific place, time, or field and often achieve fluency in multiple languages. Doctoral candidates in history have to be able to read historical texts with conflicting viewpoints, analyze facts, and figure out what actually happened.
  • In addition to teaching and scholarship, historians find work as policy advisors for the government and private agencies. The BLS predicts employment of historians to grow approximately 8 percent between 2006 and 2016, close to the national average.

Art History

  • Students working toward a PhD in Art History specialize in a specific region or period of art, achieve fluency in multiple languages, and study the art’s context through humanities classes Nothing is created in a vacuum–especially not works of art–and doctorate-level work involves studying everything, from brush strokes to cultural relevance, that went into a piece of art.
  • Art historians who leave academia often find work as museum curators, archivists, art critics, or art dealers. The BLS indicates faster than average growth for curators and archivists as public interest in museums grows.

Communications & Media

  • PhD students in communication and media pick a specialty, such as online media or political communication, and build core knowledge in communication theory and mass communication.
  • Communications PhDs often find work as public relations (PR) specialists either in private practice or with a corporation. The BLS predicts the field of PR will grow more than average, about 18 percent, between 2006 and 2016.

Ethnic Studies

  • Ethnic Studies PhD students investigate the way people of different ethnicities have experienced history, politics, and society around the globe. Think of this as a doctorate in understanding another culture’s point of view, from ancient history on up.
  • Graduates of ethnic studies programs often enter academia or work for corporations, government, or nonprofits to promote diversity and cultural tolerance.

Religious Studies

  • Students pursuing a doctorate degree in religious studies learn the foundation of several religions before choosing a focus. Those interested in working for the church or becoming ministers may earn a Doctorate in Ministry (DMin), which includes Christian studies, instead of a PhD or a Doctorate in Theology (ThD).
  • Religious studies PhD and DMin students who do not work for a church often teach or work for a nonprofit or social service organization.

Foreign Language

  • Earning a PhD in a foreign language includes in depth study of the language’s history, associated cultures, and literature. Doctoral candidates sometimes write novels in their language of choice, translate classic works, or take a more sociological, public-affairs approach and write a politically-oriented dissertation.
  • A PhD ensures language mastery and prepares students for a career translating or teaching at the college level.

Know Your Options: On-campus and Online PhD Programs

If you decide to pursue a doctorate, there are several things to consider when choosing a program:

  • Is the school you’re interested in an accredited learning institution? Earning a PhD is a large investment of time and money. Consider your long-term career goals and research schools’ accreditation.
  • What will your schedule be like for the coming years? If you plan to work during school, online PhD programs can offer the flexibility you need to integrate classes into your busy schedule.
  • Is there a school near you that offers the program you’re interested in? If you don’t live near a campus and are not open to re-locating, explore whether distance or online doctorate programs are available in your field.

Whatever your work status or location, higher education is possible if you explore the options. Most schools offer financial assistance, and many on-campus PhD students can make money working as teaching assistants. Whether you decide to study on campus or online, in your hometown or away, you are investing in yourself and a fulfilling future.


  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Archivists, Curators, and Museum Technicians
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Public Relations Specialists
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Scientists, Other
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Teachers–Postsecondary
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Writers and Editors
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