To Students Seeking the PhD in History

tags: graduate school, Vaughn Davist Bornet, advice, PhD students, grad school

The senior citizen who put together this insider’s essay of admonition has nine fulltime years of higher education behind him and has had the title “Distinguished” linked to him several times during the 77 years since he took his first History course. His 421 page illustrated memoir (written in the third person) is "An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America" (Ashland, Oregon: Bornet Books, 1995).

Credit Flickr/papalars.

When at my advanced age one turns nostalgic it is time to beware. “Never look back” is an appropriate motto for the aged. It is an utterly inappropriate slogan for any historian to live with. In any case, I’m about to peer back at aspects of the profession of historian as I have observed it for over three quarters of a century.

This little essay is targeted at students who are contemplating finally entering a doctoral program in history, at those already immersed in one, and the smaller number who are polishing up the very last draft of their dissertation. I am not interested, here, in suggesting changes in the Fields that are currently required all over the American graduate landscape. Nor am I concerned with reforming a System that may need it. One reason is I have no idea what the Fields and Graduation Requirements actually are from place to place, although it would indeed be an interesting detour to ascertain, count, generalize, and recommend changes in the history doctorate coast to coast, public and private, small to large. (Maybe it’s been done?)

My target is the student entering the traditional doctoral program in History. My goal is to make him/her alert to “situations” that can arise to complicate getting that lofty degree happily—certainly without tragedy. I don’t feel great need for a disclaimer, but here’s a gesture: I am possibly way out of date on many matters. In addition, I attended only three graduate schools. Regionally, they were limited to the Southeast and the Far West. Half the time I was a student on the GI Bill. Before entering the program I had six years of full time university work, and I had emerged from four and a half years on active duty in World War II to become employed as one university’s administrator and a second’s History instructor. From high school graduation to admission to doctoral work I was single nine years, married for seven. I think I know what I know. Forgive me, but I just had to write these words of counsel, guidance, caution, admonition, and even warning on some matters that time has not let slide from my memory.

* * * * *

So you want to become a professional historian, or at least you think you might. Why not? It’s clean, self improving through the years, and honest work. It is paid admiring lip service by many, and it puts one on the “inside” on many important matters of yesteryear that clarify today.

My very first counsel is not erudite, not complicated, not academic—but it is important. If you didn’t do it as a sophomore in high school or freshman in college, get busy and master Touch Typing. Learn the whole keyboard, study in a high school or college class; get borderline expert. Touch typing is the lifetime tool of the productive scholar, and it cannot be praised enough. Type on the traditional keyboard; learn the locations of all those obscure symbols—brackets, dashes, all punctuation signs, and the rest. Practice “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and “It is the duty of a man to do me a turn if he can and he is to do so.” Your goal is to type fast and accurately! (One reward few realize: those who can type well are not likely to end up shooting guns in the military—or get shot at.)

It may be too late to pay attention to this brief advice on undergraduate coursework, but I feel like passing it along anyway. Make certain you get a dozen or so courses like Philosophy, Abnormal Psychology, International and Constitutional Law, and others that will round out your History concentration and give enriched vocabulary and new ideas. Economics and Accounting are a must. Surely your college forced you to take a variety of science courses and several in math. It goes without saying that a Ph.D. destined student like you will have learned about the theory and practice of Computers in this day and age. (If void on all this, I’d give serious thought to an additional year of preparation for study leading to being a historian with a doctorate.

Now you have arrived in Graduate School beyond the Masters and are ready for some advanced guidance on what to do and what to avoid. Choose the Person at least as often as the Subject. Knowledge is indeed important, but calculated emulation, that is, trying to evolve into “the Great One” yourself, can’t begin soon enough. There was hero worship in the days when Frederick Jackson Turner was at the top, and we still need it, creating admiration that totally supplants carping and nitpicking. Many a future historian of note became comfortable with identification as “historian” only after through observation followed by emulation of one or more elderly colleagues.

Are you beginning to mutter, “Wonder if he knows what he’s talking about?” Well, I think I do, and here is a bit of advice about your next few years on which I feel more than certain. When signing up for a semester’s or quarter’s schedule, go for something wholly new to you. (It should sound hard and appear a bit esoteric—yet not so far so as to be cult like.)

Those of you with the best minds, and who are loaded with self confidence should not only take some version of Historiography, but you need to take Historical Method. One more opinion: If it is offered, dare to sign up for Philosophy of History. Nowhere else would I have encountered in one course—as my portion--Nicolai Berdyaev, Brooks Adams, and Immanuel Kant—the three learned ones I just happened to be told to familiarize myself with. Sign up for that tough course. You won’t flunk it; not you!

With all due respect to my conviction on taking courses that build the mind (my attitude to date), it is equally sound guidance to urge choosing many a course because it is essential to ending up successfully on that graduation platform. That is, be sure to meet all requirements!

If there is a course or two in which your college has long taken pride, well, I’d certainly take it, picking up good will and relieving the routine strain. At some places the localized course may be The Antebellum South; elsewhere, The Westward Movement; maybe Colonial Government, possibly The French Era in New Orleans, or The Gold Rush Era in California. (History doesn’t always have to be “meaningful” or deadly dull, and there’s no need to feel guilty.)

* * * * *

To introduce some remarks on life in graduate school, first make sure you are enrolled in and doing true graduate work—not just taking another round of lecture courses given in auditoriums by famous professor-authors. Do convert into taking seminars with a senior faculty member that meet weekly. In genuine seminars the expert holds forth a bit, of course, but you and your companions report routinely and are encouraged to pass judgment. Before too long a handful of you will rank as expert in “something” that even the professor knows not of. The course I want for you is one where you read, write, prepare, and report-- all exposed to the Great One and your peers. No more sitting, taking endless notes, and being examined interminably with stilted mimeographed questions.

I daringly recommend a course in nonsectarian Bible to all who arrived at their present life without a thorough grounding in the King James Bible and maybe its modifications. That book has been involved in causation for wars, population movements, and creation of literature for centuries. I don’t consider knowledge about it to be optional. You will learn odd things almost at once about chronological order of the books, their authorship, and what caused events and changes.

In a real doctoral environment in History there should be NO contact with graduate assistants (other than friendly and intellectual). So say I. Science labs may depend on them, but grad assistants in History should be serving undergraduates only, in my proud view. I don’t think I ever “worked with” such a person-in-training, ever, in any of my three graduate schools.

(Of course, I and the others in my graduate school program were nearly all no-kidding-adults. I was typical: after the B.A. I had two graduate years, then over four years on WWII active duty, a demanding job followed by two years as very full time Instructor of Civ and Survey before moving across the country to a university village that would house our family next to adult intellectuals for years.)

I hope your chosen mentor will not “shove off” for an extended period on personal business. Maybe you’ll have no choice. Maybe a top-drawer faculty member you’re counting on will accept a guest year someplace where he prays they’ll want him/her to stay permanently. Maybe he’ll settle at the Library of Congress or the Nat’l Archives on a yearlong grant or publisher’s contract. You and the other serious ones will be left high and dry. Hopefully it will all work well—and equitably—but it’s one of those damn things.

* * * * *

Switching gears, do bear in mind when fooling around with incorporating that “required Minor” into your program that it would be nice if it fits in sensibly with your forthcoming dissertation. Or, maybe it will be a neat intellectual fit. Here is a problem to be settled soonest.

Changing gears, all Fields of learning have a “History” that can be studied and that will be by their majors--but not by the rest of us. Maybe one such specialization as these is suitable in one course for you: History of Education, History of Business, and History of Athletics, even U.S. Naval History are good examples. Your Department may ease up, that is, compromise to help you with your earnest attempt at innovation. I wouldn’t assume out of hand that they will try to thwart your gingerly, even cautious, attempts to do something really original. In the long run things like this can turn out to be a life’s research and writing hobby, even a major interest. Don’t give up.

As one of the many who were abused, I’m going to sound off on that Language Requirement. That old “French and German, that’s what we do here” mandate has been diluted long since. It’s dead—or it should be. Try not to let them bully you the way Departments have for decades. It may be better to just leave that campus and enroll elsewhere than waste a year of your life on such an inflexible Language Requirement. One option may be Computerization. Intimate acquaintance with an exotic culture may satisfy in place of purely pro forma language time wasting. (If you bring a native tongue with you then serious negotiations with the Department are absolutely warranted.)

If your graduate program is truly interdisciplinary, see if you can strike a deal to delete part of that language drudgery. Interdisciplinary has become acceptable! Clear back in 1963, Chancellor Clark Kerr of UC actually wrote me that they had only departmental disciplines “here,” and they didn’t have a place for “interdisciplinary” people. (At the time I was hot in “social welfare,” “trade unions and radicalism,” “space,” and “thermonuclear war.” Boring!

* * * * *

One outsider’s forlorn comment from long ago: Do use caution when settling on a history department that centers their final ORAL examination on some “Fields” of Subject Matter, rather than on YOUR chosen Dissertation. You may be able to “write off” some subject fields you select, depending, but facing lifetime experts from the whole department in an impromptu conference for several hours is an ad hoc combat field that gives the examiner ALL the cards in a stacked deck. Candidates can and do pass, to be sure, but it’s a cinch for a departmental majority to fail almost anybody when encyclopedic knowledge is what’s being tested verbally in real time.

There’s more. Examinations before The Faculty on a few History Fields—even on “just” chunks of it--give a mean spirited one in a department (or a visitor!) a perfect tool for humiliating anybody they want, when they want. The student attacked can well be one being mentored by a colleague who may be despised for a distant past event or even that one whose political party advocacy—“Republican!”--grates on colleagues as election day nears.

(Not quite an example of that, but unforgettable, was when a department I knew well flunked in subject matter orals three solid candidates in a row, bang, bang, bang. That was back when the GI Bill facilitated keeping students enrolled many extra months, so the possible hardship deterrent involved in months of extra enrollment could not be offered in possible amelioration.)

* * * * *

Much of my advice from here on is directed at your imminent Career. First, the much denigrated Military can provide an extensive education for those who are willing to bend a little and look about them. (What I got out of serving over four years of active duty, enlisted and officer, was a more sophisticated knowledge of people, motivations, the rewards of patience, and the nature of things military. That’s my considered judgment.) I started my dissertation at 33 when married, with two children. Moving from one side of the country to another, twice, then, led to new perspectives on American History, I found with the passage of time.

Early on, I attended my first historical convention (Southern Historical Association, in Lexington, KY) in 1939 escorted and transported from distant Emory by several companionable outreaching faculty. Help arrange something like that gesture where you are at the very earliest opportunity! Seize the chance to meet and talk with the authors of textbooks you cut your teeth on. Professor William B. Hesseltine jolted me with these words: “Beware how you use the word sincere. Al Capone was a really sincere gangster.” Again, Arnold Toynbee said dryly as we strolled, “To answer you, when people at a banquet begin to ask me questions, I fill my mouth and chew; that way I finish about when they do and can start.” You need to talk with such people one to one.

When choosing a dissertation subject avoid making it catastrophically hard on yourself. (My 547 page manuscript would have satisfied just as well if I’d stopped after 300 pages or so, I now realize. I needlessly made a stenographic service happy.) Check carefully, well in advance, on how many continents and/or oceans away your sources are buried; how many dollars next year’s travel for research will cost; and what impact your impending marriage and/or new infants will have on your cash balance during that long delayed professional life.

If the opportunity presents itself, ask possible first college employers how many years they intend to let you have in which to get your doctorate. Exactly when will they say, “It’s been nice knowing you.” It shouldn’t be a secret. And don’t expect pity. They’re legitimately counting doctoral nose percentages in the Department. Ask exactly what they all agree is “a publication.”

If the college giving that job interview is Catholic, Mormon, Fundamentalist, or similar, dare ask if you must become married before too long and if every marriageable soul on the campus is to be beyond your reach.) Now and then peer forward during graduate years and envision where you are being led (or are you being dragged?). Never say “yes” to some senior scholar on his project until you have paused, chatted with an experienced third party, and stared at the deal cold turkey. Maybe your present direction can be amended more to your long-term benefit without so much sacrifice. I was downright lucky on two full year deals I struck. Somebody up there had my wellbeing in mind! My wife’s overall comfort was not being considered, I think.

We’re almost at the end: Yes, even in grad school stand up for principle pretty much the way you always did. But your situation has become decidedly different! Think about it. Graduate school doesn’t fit real well with the agitational life. You are at or over thirty. Your Family has become something of a Cause in itself. You’re in a doctoral program and happily on a narrow track that offers you a shot at becoming, well, a scholar for the rest of your days! Don’t blow it.

Employment for one who is finally doctored used to center on a life inside higher education (as a lecturing professor) and activity in a classroom somewhere. It may be instead that life will take you to academic administration, publishing houses, an encyclopedia, a think tank as researcher or literary specialist, editorial work for a corporation, authorship, or some job you never dreamed, one that requires alertness, literacy, drive, and imagination. Let’s hope it all works out and that, looking back, you’re satisfied.

What relevant counsel can I finally give, having taken my first college history course in 1935 and looking back after so long? Bluntly, this above all: “Don’t use your head for a hatrack.” You were given a brain. Use it, for heaven’s sake, in choosing an institution, a major professor, each course, both major and minor fields, those languages, and your first daring step in the real world after graduation. So far, it’s been your Life to fritter away. Now however, you have or are about to have a Partner in Life—and maybe Little Ones. Behave responsibly.

Looking back, I’d say that living your remaining adult days as a Historian in some environment can be just about as good as it gets. Make the most of these few years of Preparation. You’re going to live only once. In spite of everything, you’re lucky these days to be immersed all day, month after month, in the Library of some worthy graduate school.

Stay calm in times of adversity no matter what. Forge ahead. The goal that counts is to get that diploma in person if you can or in absentia if you must. In any case--Good Fortune attend each and every one of Ye as the time comes when you will be making your major contribution to the World that lies ahead.

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