Letter to a Prospective History Graduate Student

Christina Copland | Mar 5, 2018

Congratulations! Right about now, you are basking in the afterglow of acceptance(s) to graduate school. Maybe you’ve been invited for a campus visit or two. Now that you’ve made this commitment to become a graduate student, take a long moment to think carefully about what is being offered to you and what is being asked of you. What do you want from your MA or PhD in history? What can you do—from day one—to make the degree what you want it to be? 

Consider what is important to you in the here and now. What are your priorities when it comes to your health and well-being and social/family life? How do you want to allocate your scarce intellectual and emotional resources? What are the opportunity costs of subordinating other areas of your life to academic demands?

When you start your program, it’s entirely possible—probable even—that you will feel overwhelmed. Moreover, it will appear that the rest of your cohort has it all together. Sadly, it’s all too easy for this imposter syndrome to cloud years of your degree. You might feel like a fraud that somehow gained entry to graduate school, one misstep away from being thrown out of your program, while everyone else is a stellar historian in the making.

Upon starting my own PhD, I very quickly fell into the pattern of regarding everything study-related as a “code red” situation. By year three, I was burned out because no matter what the seminar, paper, or TA section, I believed that everything was absolutely vital to my continuing at grad school. The net result of this was exhaustion and not a whole lot else. It took me several years to realize this, but there is always more to do. You can read more about the New Deal, or read more closely. That paper on the lives of medieval saints could be better written. You can hone that lesson plan on the Columbian Exchange just a little bit further, or give that undergraduate even more detailed feedback.

I can only speak to my own battle to finally allow myself weekends off, but I realized that nothing bad actually happened when I spent less time working. Once I slayed that particular dragon, I was a whole lot happier and, as it happens, a much better scholar. If you can set boundaries for yourself from the get-go, you can hopefully avoid my crash and burn scenario described above. There is a world of difference between periods of working hard, and having a default setting of “constant student.”

And, I would add, it is much harder to keep the stakes of graduate study in perspective if you don’t (even occasionally) get outside of the bubble of academia. Be it catching up with family members and old friends or a hobby (as someone with few discernable sporting or crafting skills, I use the term hobby very loosely here), make time for an activity entirely unrelated to your scholarly output that will make you happy and keep you in touch with the world outside campus.

Without that foot firmly planted outside of the academy, what are, in reality, fairly low-stakes events can assume titanic importance and meaning. Every harsh bit of criticism on a historiography paper, a meeting with your advisor that doesn’t go entirely smoothly, all of it can start to undermine not only your self-confidence but strip away your ability to enjoy the study of history—the very reason you’re there in the first place.

As you give yourself room to breathe in the present, keep one eye on the future. Connect your career possibilities to the tasks you actually find rewarding in graduate school. I found out pretty early on that I found teaching extremely stressful. This made my decision to forgo the professoriate very, very easy. But it was only through a fairly random opportunity in my fifth year, when I had the chance to contribute to a project on public history with Southern California nonprofit broadcaster KCET, that I realized I loved communicating history to broader audiences. If you’re stuck for ideas as to how you might translate your talents and interests outside the academy, the AHA has a good resource on “Where Historians Work” for the many career options that historians have. (And watch out for an upcoming post on ImaginePhD, a tool designed to help humanities and social sciences PhDs explore careers and plan for the future.)

I can’t help but wonder what other opportunities I missed in the first four years. If these sorts of nontraditional tasks are not built into your program, seize any chance to make them happen yourself. And don’t wait until you’re nearing the end of your degree to start. Equally, it’s worth sooner rather than later to look at the AHA’s “five skills” vital to the successful pursuit of both academic and nonacademic careers.

For those entering PhD programs, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that most of you are doing this to pursue an academic career, despite the declining number of academic jobs in history departments. If you are dead set on chasing a tenure-track job, go in with a realistic idea of what your post-degree future likely holds and keep your options open. You might get lucky and land that tenure-track job. But if not, reject the message that your success is dependent on that one outcome. In fact, make it a goal to define success on your own terms throughout your graduate career. It may be finding that missing piece of the puzzle in the archives, getting that shy student to finally engage with the class, or presenting a compelling historical narrative at your first conference.

You have choices and you have the power to shape what the next few years of your life are going to look like. There is an awful lot of what I have come to think of as “misery lit” out there on graduate life and the dim prospects for aspiring academics, particularly within the humanities. Sure, it can be cathartic to seek this out during your low points. And it’s vital to have a realistic idea of the challenges inherent in graduate study. Ultimately though, this is the path that you have chosen. There is no guarantee that your immersion in the discipline of history will extend beyond graduate school. For some of you it will. But for the rest, this is your first, last, and only time as a scholar. Take a step back before fall 2018. What kind of graduate experience do you want?

This post first appeared on AHA Today.


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