From the National History Center

Thinking Locally: Washington, DC, Grad Students Shape the Future

Amanda Perry and Thomas Patteson, October 2017

Laurentius de Voltolina’s depiction of a university class in Bologna, 1530s. Wikimedia Commons Last year, the National History Center (NHC) adopted DC History Grad, an organization we founded three years ago in an effort to create a supportive community of history graduate students in the Washington, DC, area. DC History Grad aims to build relationships among the many active history departments here, creating a venue for grad students to socialize, strategize about survival, plan for what comes next, and work together to improve our collective experience. We operate on a simple principle: holding regular events will help graduate students in DC meet, learn, network, and support each other.

Even with discrete scholarly pursuits, all grad students share some common concerns. As graduate education changes in new and exciting ways, we can play active roles in shaping it for ourselves. Traditional graduate education in history must adapt to meet the new needs of PhD students who won’t enter the academy. It also needs to provide training in new skills for all students, whether they enter academe or not. Because graduate history programs at research universities are largely designed to reproduce R1 faculty, they often discourage students (implicitly or explicitly) from seeking experience superficially tangential to tenure-track job applications. Even when faculty encourage students to explore many options, they may be ill-equipped to facilitate these endeavors, having little to no experience outside the academy themselves. Change is slow. That’s why groups like DC History Grad can provide the support, advice, and connections departments lack, serving as an important supplement to a formal program.

DC History Grad can provide support, advice, and connections, serving as an important supplement to a formal program.

Members of DC History Grad actively shape their own education and professionalization. We’ve held skill-­building workshops, from Zotero tutorials to strategies for writing for a broader audience, and we also host occasional happy hours, encouraging new and visiting students to get involved and meet their peers. This academic year, we are planning events to help us develop the “Five Skills” the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative identified—skills often not taught in grad school but essential to succeed in the academy and beyond. (For more information on the Five Skills and Career Diversity for Historians, see historians.org/fiveskills.)

The uncertainty about postgraduate careers adds stress to the already challenging mental burden of grad school. As coursework grinds on and the workload expands, even supportive family and friends may not fully understand the unique demands that come with earning a degree. It’s natural, then, to turn toward other graduate students for support. But depending on the size of your field, your department, or your place in the program, you might lack a strong group of fellow grads in whom you can confide. Moreover, departmental cultures vary widely, and some grad students might not feel comfortable going to new colleagues with failures or successes.

While many historians have acknowledged mental health issues both in the academy and in the discipline, as grad students we can do more to build and sustain support networks, helping change the culture. Though we aren’t mental health professionals, broader networks do provide a foundation for intellectual security, offering new scholars a forum to exchange ideas and frustrations outside their departments (which can sometimes be unhealthily competitive).

A thriving intellectual community benefits students. Conversations with other grads beyond your department and field can be enlightening, leaving you with new ideas about how to approach your research or address challenging questions. Given the methodological pluralism of history, different departments can emphasize radically different approaches; an intellectual community like DC History Grad helps expand conceptualizations of what “doing history” looks like. This intradisciplinary exposure can lead to collaboration, as grads conceive and develop new projects together. Practically, grads can swap advice for archival research or tips about how to manage all that data. The camaraderie an extended community provides can help us better understand and manage challenges we all face. By building relationships across universities, we hope to create an open and engaged forum, encouraging collaboration on research, writing, and more.

In the coming years, we hope to expand the group both physically and virtually (for example, we plan to create a digital forum on our website, dchistorygrad.wordpress.com). Gaining support from the NHC is essential; by providing an institutional home for DC History Grad, the NHC ensures that the program will endure over the long run, after the two of us have moved on. The NHC also helps DC History Grad to establish liaisons with programs like Career Diversity and the many scholarly centers in DC. We hope that university departments will encourage students to attend events and get involved, recognizing the benefits the organization can provide.

An intellectual community like ours helps expand conceptualizations of what “doing history” looks like.

We began DC History Grad to confront difficult issues and help address them outside of the classroom and the department. We hope that ultimately the group enhances the local community of graduate students, reducing the isolation that comes with field specialization. We can be the best advocates for actively shaping our own experiences, taking a leading role in preparing ourselves for the world that awaits us after coursework (and, of course, finishing that dissertation). Relationships with fellow grads can be the most rewarding aspect of your experience. Beyond the outlet for sizing up the academic job market or dealing with rejection, these friendships can be lasting avenues for feedback on works in progress, grant applications, and, yes, commiseration over the course of your career.

Amanda Perry is a PhD candidate at the Catholic University of America. Her dissertation examines the social world of British imperial diplomacy in the Middle East after the First World War. She currently serves as assistant director for the National History Center. Thomas Patteson is a PhD candidate at the Catholic University of America. His dissertation examines German-speaking European and American intellectuals in the 20th century who explored human interaction with the increasingly complex modern world.


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