Friday, April 9, 2010

Becoming a Historian (an in depth look)

Can of worms indeed. Okay so the Becoming a Historian ebook is gold. Where have you been all my life? Why weren't you in my undergrad advisors office? Oh that's right...I studied music theory and ESL. Nevermind. The Canadian version is the only one I can seem to find online at the moment, and lo and behold, it's actually relatable to an American. Imagine that. I wonder if they eat hamburgers over there, too?

Before I go on, I want to list the chapters for those who would like to read on their own:

Really though the book is full of incredibly helpful advice for someone in my position. It assumes virtually no prior knowledge which I appreciate because frankly I have none. It mentions how to pay for school, what to expect in terms of social life and teacher-student relationships, when to have children (no joke) and other useful tidbits that we've all thought about. It also looks like I'm not the only one who finds this a helpful guide.

As a sort of summary rundown, let's start at the beginning. It even mentions how long is grad school:
Each program in history is different, but there are basic similarities. Some history departments in Canada, and almost all graduate programs in the United States, admit students to the PhD program directly from the BA. Stand-alone Master’s programs usually demand a year of course work and either a major paper or a thesis. If you want to end your graduate education at the Master’s level, a one year program without a thesis is likely sufficient. If you would like to pursue a PhD, a two-year program which requires a Master’s thesis will prepare you well for the rigours of PhD work. Even in a one-year program, however, you can use the MA research paper to get you into the archives and produce an original – and potentially publishable – piece of scholarship. Both routes will get you into a doctoral program and help you learn critical skills directly related to PhD work.
Doctoral programs usually involve a year or two of courses; six months to a year devoted to studying for a set of comprehensive examinations; and then full-time attention to researching and writing a dissertation. The last phase may take two to four or more years to complete. These days, many Canadian graduate schools talk about "a four-year PhD." Public funding for graduate education is increasingly tied to enrolment numbers and degree completion times, so graduate schools want students to finish faster, and administrators worry about students "lingering" in graduate school. In many schools, students are rushed through the PhD, and it is difficult to secure funding after four years. Clearly, it is better to finish sooner rather than later, but realistically few students finish a history PhD in four years. You will need to juggle various commitments, such as teaching and research work, and you may need to work outside of the university in order to survive. In addition, some dissertations simply take longer than others to complete. In an era when many candidates want to have a "publishable" thesis to help them crack the job market, there is serious pressure to write an "important," not merely competent, thesis. You will need to work efficiently and effectively. (emphasis mine)
Answers that now, doesn't it? Here's something regarding Comps or Comprehensive Exams:
In most programs, doctoral students usually complete their comprehensive or qualifying exams at some point during their second or third year of study. [...] Faculty are looking for intelligent reflection, not quiz show answers. Of course, you will be asked to read and comment on historical developments or scholarly works that do not reflect your particular interests, but if you are going to claim expertise in an area of history you need to master the broad parameters of the field. And, if you get a teaching job, the chances are that you will be required to cover events and literatures outside the narrow confines of your specialties. The major objective of the comps is to give you breadth and prepare you for teaching. So, try to enjoy your reading, concentrate on what you do know, and avoid panicking about what you have yet to learn. And remember that almost everyone passes on the first attempt.
There's even some golden bits about the MA thesis and PhD dissertation:
[...] the MA thesis or research paper, or PhD dissertation, is the most important part of graduate study in history. The completion of an interesting, well-executed MA thesis or PhD dissertation is a significant accomplishment and should be a source of great pride and satisfaction. It is your PhD dissertation, moreover, that will define your career and determine how others in the historical profession will see you. Your dissertation is where you make an individual mark as a scholar. No matter how impressive your seminar performance has been, no matter how disappointing you found your comprehensive exams, your PhD dissertation will most directly determine your success on the academic job market. [...]
When choosing a dissertation topic, try to select a subject that fits with current scholarly trends but also strikes out in some new directions. The best topics are those that break fresh ground through new empirical discoveries, new modes of conceiving questions, or interpretive innovations. However, it is sometimes difficult to find support for topics that are out of the ordinary. It is a good idea to select a topic with potential for publication as a book (or article, if you are working on your Master’s), but choose something that interests you, as it will dominate your thoughts for a long time. It is also important to make sure your topic is “do-able,” in the sense that you can find and access sufficient primary sources. Your thesis should also be of a manageable size for a project that must be completed within a specific time frame, generally between two and four years for a PhD. [...]
When you have chosen a topic, your graduate program will submit it to the [...] American Historical Association for inclusion in their databases of history dissertations. [...] You can also use these databases to find out what topics are already being studied when you are in the process of choosing your own dissertation topic. (emphasis mine)
Take a look at the 125 entries just using the keyword "Korea". I am surprised to see so much about the Korean War, slavery and Japan colonization. Surely there's more to Korea than these three things? It reminds me of something Peter Bartholomew casually mentioned once. Once all the older scholars who focused on pre-1910 Korea history retire, who is going to replace them among the Women's Rights and North Korean historians? Something to think about.

The chapter on picking a school offers some great advice about being open minded and basing the decision not on prestige but on an individual professor and if the department matches your particular interest. Good advice but for someone like me who has no specific field yet it proves a bit frustrating. I know what I'm not interested in so maybe I should work backwards. Sounds like a good post for later.

As far as paying for school, a few questions to ask a potential school:
[...] tuition costs and financial aid [...] vary tremendously between schools and even between departments. Find out if financial aid is channeled through the department, or if you need to apply separately to a different office. Some important questions to ask include: is the financial aid package only for the first year or does it cover subsequent years of graduate study (and if so, how many)? Do you have to pay tuition out of your stipend or is it covered as part of your funding package? Must you pay tuition over the summer and when you are no longer taking courses? Does the financial aid package require you to work as a research or teaching assistant (or in another capacity), or is it an outright stipend? Is it contingent upon performance? Is there additional funding for travel to archives or conferences?
Also, some notes about full-time versus part-time grad school:

Although most financial aid packages require you to enrol as a full-time student, some people go to graduate school part time for economic or personal reasons. Being a part-time student does not mean that you are less committed to graduate study, and part-timers have the right to the same education as full-time students. Besides, "full-time" does not mean "all-the-time." Many full-time students have family responsibilities, have to work for wages at some point during their graduate education, or are engaged in activist pursuits outside the academy.
Graduate study does require a big commitment, however. It is not easy to do graduate course work and exam preparation on top of a long commute or another job, and it is even more difficult (though not impossible) to successfully complete a dissertation part-time. You will not be able to earn a PhD "on the side" if you already have a full life in another city or a demanding career. Moreover, you may miss the intellectual community of graduate school if you are not at the university during the day. 
 A mention on the application process caught my eye:
Unlike law schools, history departments do not receive thousands of applicants for admission. For this reason, try to pare down your choice of schools in advance of applying. Each application will cost you well over a hundred dollars, particularly when you factor in transcripts costs. Make multiple applications, but remember that well-qualified applicants will usually be admitted to one of the schools that peak their interest. One rule of thumb is to choose two or three programs that interest you most – including one ‘safe school’ – particularly if you have contacted potential supervisors in advance.
It is appropriate to discuss briefly how you became interested in history and to include something about your long-range career goals. Explain how your undergraduate reading, research, and course work have shaped your particular interests and prepared you to pursue them further. Avoid mention of extracurricular activities and achievements, no matter how outstanding, unless they have a direct bearing on the professional field to which you are seeking entry.
Your statement of purpose should sum up your scholarly interests and immediate academic objectives in a clear and straightforward fashion. Be as precise as possible about the time period, geographic region, research themes, and kind of history you want to study, and perhaps even the topic you wish ultimately to investigate. You must convince the readers of your application file that you are capable of developing a research project that is original, realistic, and appropriate to your level. At the same time, it is important that your focus not look too narrow. The first years of graduate education primarily involve general training rather than specific research. Therefore, your statement should convey your openness to acquiring a wide range of historical knowledge and research skills rather than a fixation on a single narrow topic.

The statement of purpose is also the place for you to address briefly any anomalies or ambiguities in your record, such as poor grades, course content that may not be clear from the transcript, or a health problem or disability that affected your grades. Do not appear defensive or apologetic; offer a one-sentence explanation of your situation and move on. If your undergraduate background in history is weak, or you have been out of school for a long time, you need to demonstrate that your commitment to the academic discipline of history is now firm. (emphasis mine)
Funding the courses, easily my biggest concern at the moment (hence the title of the blog) is adequately addressed in chapter three:
Many graduate students get university funding for all or part of their graduate education. The support, however, rarely comes from one source. You actively need to research and apply for a wide range of funding sources, from research, travel, and dissertation writing awards to various jobs on the university campus and beyond. [...]
You will need to consider not only fellowships and department-sponsored employment but also jobs outside the department and university. Your search should start early, before you enter a program, and it should be wide-ranging. Consult your university research and employment officer, graduate director, PhD supervisor, and other students who have won awards and secured jobs. [...] if at some point you find yourself in dire financial straits, there is nothing wrong with going to your supervisor or graduate director and simply saying, "I'm broke … is there any work I can do?"
Your department may offer you part-time academic employment. The job titles will differ from research assistant, to teaching assistant, to sessional instructor, but all fit the category of graduate student employment. The offer may come as an inducement to enter a graduate program, or when you accept admission into the program, or later, in your second or third year. [...]
Research assistantships help to build valuable skills and can allow for more flexible work schedules than teaching assistantships. As a research assistant, you may work for one professor or a faculty headed research team [...] You may undertake one or two of the following tasks: gathering statistical data, helping to edit a manuscript, arranging an archival collection, creating a website, drawing up the index to a book, photocopying published articles or primary documents, conducting or transcribing oral history interviews, or mounting a museum display. At some universities, research assistant jobs are given primarily to MA students, while teaching assistantships are reserved for PhD students. At other universities, you may have a choice between a teaching and research assistantship. If possible, pursue a research assistantship at least once in your years as a graduate student to develop your research skills. Students interested in a career in public history will particularly benefit from such jobs.
When you are hired as a research assistant you are most likely being paid out of funds awarded to a faculty member or group of faculty members. In other words, the faculty are investing their own research dollars in training you. [...] Usually, professors with funds to hire research assistants do not openly advertise this fact. Some faculty members may wish to support their own students, or they may approach a student in their course who has impressed them. But many are also open to the idea of hiring students who need the money. All this means that you need to make your desire for such a position known to your supervisor and other faculty members. Ask around to discover who has grant money and might be hiring.
As well as providing essential help to faculty, teaching assistantships are designed to provide you with teaching skills. Like an apprenticeship, a "TA-ship" affords you an opportunity to learn under professional guidance. You can gain experience in courses outside your particular field. It is a good idea to TA for several different courses. Obviously, it is less work to TA for the same course a number of times, and this may be the better strategy depending on where you are at in your own dissertation research or writing. If possible, make strategic choices.
There are at least two types of TA work: marking student assignments and leading small group discussions, or tutorials, within a larger class. A teaching assistantship will usually involve both sets of tasks. By contrast, a marker-grader has the more limited role of grading student assignments. [...] When you work as a TA in a course directed by a faculty member, that course instructor is in charge of your professional conduct in the course. Therefore, the instructor will likely stipulate the assignments for your students (for instance, weekly tutorial readings and essay topics) in whole or in part. The instructor will come to one of your tutorials to observe you and may also evaluate your abilities as a marker. You might be asked to explain to the instructor why you've assigned a particular grade for a paper and the instructor may ultimately revise the mark. Treat all of this as a learning opportunity. 
However, you do not need to TA in every year of your graduate career. Keep your eyes on the prize and get your dissertation done! While TA-ing is rewarding work, it is also demanding and time-consuming. Of course, certain teaching weeks will be more demanding than others, and teaching a course for the second time is easier than teaching it for the first time, but do not make the mistake of spending most of your work week on a part-time job that pays on the basis of 10 or 15 hours per week. 
In addition to external funding, university research and teaching assistantships, and course directorships, jobs are available for graduate students outside of teaching and research, and even outside the university. Your university may offer history-related jobs in the archives or library or, alternatively, in university offices, including graduate student associations or unions. Similar jobs might be had off-campus  (emphasis mine)
I couldn't believe the "when to have a baby" issue was included; I suppose it was naive to assume that I was the only one thinking about it:
Many graduate students wonder about the “best time” to have children. Some begin graduate study with young children or other family responsibilities that take time away from writing and studying. Others who do not have children when they begin their program start a family before finishing the PhD. If you have children, you will undoubtedly need some form of child care and a lot of support from family and friends. Having a baby is absorbing and may be intellectually isolating; you probably can’t attend many lecture series or social events, and you must make an extra effort to maintain friendships and intellectual bonds with grad student colleagues. Children also provide a quick lesson in the importance of managing your time. If your baby is napping or with the babysitter, take advantage of your “free” time to write that paper or work on your dissertation; it won’t last long, and you want to enjoy your child when she’s home and awake! Some student-parents treat graduate school like a conventional job and put preschool children in full-time day care so they can concentrate on writing or researching; others use part-time babysitters or trade off “time to work” with their partners and friends. There is no single “best time” to have children; you have to find what works best for your personal situation.
I also appreciate the "life happens" comment:
Sometimes “life happens” and your carefully-laid plans for taking MA courses or writing your dissertation go astray. You may find yourself unexpectedly pregnant, your partner might get a dream job and want you to move to another city, or you might face a financial downturn, family crisis, or major health problem of your own. If an unforeseen event gets in the way of studies that you want to continue, don’t simply give up your plans. Talk to your supervisor, graduate program director, and/or TA or student union representative to find out your options. They probably have lots of experience with students in similar situations, and most will be happy to advocate on your behalf.
Occasionally, even the most carefully chosen path needs to be revised. Old interests wane, circumstances irrevocably alter, or you find your program unsuitable or unbearable. If this occurs, consult with relevant faculty, graduate students and academic advisors about the possible ramifications of changing fields, programs, or institutions. Will your progress be delayed, and if so, by how much and in what way? Through serious consideration, you can decide whether the extra burdens associated with a major shift are worth enduring. Do not, however, confuse discouragement for failure or incompatibility with the historical profession. If you have feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, or if you feel like an “imposter” just waiting to be “found out” and kicked out of school, know that you are not alone. Your feelings indicate the need for many more support systems for graduate students at every stage of their careers. (emphasis mine)
The lecture circuit chapter is a little eye opening, too:
Historians do not spend all their time in the archives, library, or microfilm room. They also communicate their findings to other historians and scholars, to students, and the general public. [...] You should go to conferences but don’t fall under the mistaken assumption that you need to attend many of them. Nor should you be giving hastily written papers to umpteen conferences without informing your supervisor – who is actually well-qualified to help you decide whether this is the right paper, right time, and right venue! Presenting at two to four conferences during the course of your PhD studies is certainly sufficient. For senior PhD students nearing completion of the thesis or new scholars, delivering papers at one or two conferences each year is plenty. (Increasingly, MA students deliver papers based on their master’s research at graduate student conferences, which can be an important learning experience in giving a public presentation.) Conference papers should evolve into dissertation chapters (or vice versa), or eventual publications, especially for newly minted PhDs and untenured junior professors. Avoid the trap of writing many conferences papers that then end up in a drawer or a pile on your study floor. Keep in mind that you do not have to write a new paper for each conference. Most historians present papers based on current research; they are "works-in-progress" that might eventually become a scholarly article. It is acceptable to present the same paper in a revised form to several conferences as it develops into a dissertation chapter or publication. But don’t do this more than two or three times. Delivering papers that are already very familiar to the audience is usually frowned upon. So, too, is presenting a paper that has already been published. Nor should you deliver a paper that is too sketchy and lacks sufficient evidence to make your case.
Attend a few conferences before actually delivering a paper at one of them, and choose conferences carefully. Make sure that those you attend are relevant to your field of study and will allow you to network with colleagues and senior scholars in your field. The first few conferences may be intimidating. Most historians can tell tales about their early experiences: about finally getting introduced to that prominent historian in your field and then being too nervous to say anything; about convincing yourself you had destroyed your "career" by "putting your foot in your mouth" while talking to an influential scholar; or about simply feeling embarrassed about all those interrupted conversations with people who seemed more keen on talking to someone else. [...] As a novice, you're supposed to make yourself known to established scholars in your field, but no one knows quite how to do it. It can be as simple as approaching more senior scholars and indicating that you enjoy their work. Ask them about their current research interests. Draw parallels with your own scholarly interests, if this is relevant. Many senior scholars are interested in knowing about graduate students’ work. But keep in mind that a conference is not a place for long leisurely conversations: that senior historian you want to meet is extremely busy, so keep it brief and don't be mortified if your conversation ends abruptly. Many established historians make a point of talking to graduate students and junior colleagues, but they may need to hurry off to business meetings and are also seeing friends and colleagues whose company they rarely get a chance to enjoy. Don't be scared off by the few unfriendly ones; they are in the distinct minority. And giving a paper means you may be in the same session as established scholars in your field, which can act as an effective ice-breaker.
There are many practical ways to reduce tension. Attend the first few conferences with a friend, colleague, or group of graduate students. That way you will know some people, can discuss papers and sessions you've heard, and perhaps be emboldened to approach senior colleagues. I[...] Attending graduate student events at large conferences offers an excellent way of meeting your peers and future co-presenters. Taking time to do at least one or two activities unrelated to the conference – such as visiting a local museum, taking a walk, or even having dinner alone – can also help diffuse stress and make the overall conference experience more enjoyable. Some people thrive amidst the social interaction at conferences and others don’t. Whatever your personality, keep it in mind that it will get easier as the conference rituals become familiar. And veterans might well bear this in mind when encountering novices at conferences. (emphasis mine)
I don't have much to say about the last few chapters about publishing work, delivering my own original content and postdoctoral research because at my stage in the whole process, it's pretty far off. I'm still getting to know the players of the past and just trying to feel my way through. Once I get there, though, I'm sure that those chapter will prove to be helpful.


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