Graduate School in History: To Go or Not To Go?

Today we’re excited to start a four-part series meant to help prospective students, current students, and alumni who are thinking about continuing their historical studies in graduate school. Helping us out are three of our alumni who are either in a doctoral program in history or have recently finished one:

  • Noel Stringham ’07 is a doctoral student in African history at the University of Virginia.
  • Katie Thostenson ’05 (M.Litt., University of St Andrews, Scotland) is currently working towards her PhD in Classics at the University of Edinburgh.
  • Ben Wright ’05 (M.A., Columbia University; PhD, Rice University) is assistant professor of history at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, a small school in the University of Georgia System. Ben is the coeditor of Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era (LSU, 2013) and The American Yawp.

In part one we focus on the initial decision of whether or not to apply to grad school. Look for subsequent posts to share advice on the application process and the challenges and opportunities awaiting students in grad school.

Complete the sentence: “A Bethel student should apply to graduate school in history or a related field if she _______.”

NS: “…has examined lots of other options and concluded that she is willing to devote many years to course work, research, and writing a dissertation before she can begin her career.”

BW: “…insists.” Simply put, if you can find another career track that might fulfill you, you should probably pursue that. If, however, you know what you want to do, and this is it, then you should go in expecting to have to beat a lot of odds.

At what point did you decide you wanted to continue your studies in history in graduate school? How did you come to that decision?

Katie Thostenson at Roman ruins in Cologne
Katie taught at Bethel in 2013-2014; she’s back in the UK this year, but in Spring 2015 will teach our Roman Civ course as an online class

KT: I came to Bethel already with the idea that I wanted to go to graduate school, but it wasn’t until my junior year that I felt completely committed to going. After spending a semester abroad at Oxford University, where I was required to do a lot of independent research, I felt much more confident in pursuing graduate study.

BW: I come from a pretty working class background, so I had never heard the words “graduate school” or “PhD” before I came to Bethel. I knew I wanted to teach, however, so I double majored in History and Soc Stud Ed expecting to teach high school history. I was surprised to discover that I also wanted to research. When I found nearly as much fulfillment in research and writing as teaching, I first began to wonder if I should switch tracks. My experiences student-teaching also made me question if high school was really the right place for me.

NS: I did not make that decision until several years after I graduated. I starting out working for an NGO overseas and with inner-city non-profits but found that, while I believed in the missions, I wanted more opportunities for thoughtful analysis. I also did not see the path I was on leading to a lifelong career.

KT: I found that I loved the challenge of historical research and I had the idea that I wanted to teach, but I did not feel called to teach high school students. So attending graduate school to pursue an academic career, which could combine these two things—research, and teaching seemed like a good fit for me.

NS: I had always loved history, even as a small child, but had not considered teaching history as a profession because of the US and European histories I had encountered. However enjoyable these histories were, they seemed both repetitive and disconnected from contemporary issues which I cared about in Africa or the US (Native American reservations, inner-city neighborhoods, etc.). Then I realized that all these places and topics obviously had histories of their own which I could research and then teach.

Read the next post in this series>>

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