There And Back Again: Advice For History PhD Students

There And Back Again: Advice For History PhD Students August 22, 2018
panorama of Lost Lake

I am afraid of heights.

I first realized it when I was 16. I had hiked with my sister and father to the top of Lone Mountain near Big Sky, Montana. It was a 9 mile hike from the base, and the last 2.8 miles climb over 2000 feet to its full elevation of 11, 166 feet. I wasn’t too far  from the spectacular summit when the narrow ridge suddenly dropped off steeply on both sides. I remember kicking a pebble and watching it fall, hundreds of feet to the valley below.

Needless to say, I never made it to the top of that mountain.

I almost missed two more spectacular sites this summer because of my fear.

The first was Lost Lake, New Mexico. Nestled more than 11,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, Lost Lake was approximately 5 ¼ miles (one way) from a trailhead near where we were vacationing in Red River, New Mexico. Neither the steepness of the trail nor the thinning atmosphere bothered me too much. It wasn’t until about 4 miles up, when the end (and our sandwiches) were in sight, that I almost quit. The forested, wide switch-backs suddenly gave way to a narrow, slanted, rocky path. One side was the mountain. The other side sloped steadily downward with loose gravel, sometimes dropping off altogether into the valley below. The view was spectacular.

But I still freaked out.

Us at Lost Lakell freaked out.

All I wanted to do was crawl backward to the safety of the trees. If it hadn’t been for the helping hand of my husband, I would have done exactly that. As we sat on a narrow ledge together, with me trying to quash my panic and ignore the sounds of stones echoing as they bounced down the side of the cliff (courtesy of my teenage son who is not at all afraid of heights), my husband gave me some good advice. Keep your eyes on the path, take big steps, and let me know when you need help.

About 20 minutes later, we broke out onto a wide rocky path that sloped gently down to the blue glass of the smooth mountain lake. I got to eat my sandwich at the trail end—11,000 feet in the sky.

I wish I could say that the climb to Lost Lake cured me. After all, I made it, and none of my irrational fears happened—I didn’t bounce down the steep incline like a rock thrown by my son; the path didn’t crumble below my feet; I didn’t lose my balance and plunge off the side. Nevertheless, despite my success, the panic surfaced again just a couple of days later. This time I stood on a high, smooth rock ledge surrounding Delicate Arch in Arches National Park outside of Moab, Utah. My kids scampered around like mountain goats, jumping from stone to stone while my husband walked easily behind them.

For about 2 minutes, I didn’t think I could do it. To get to the arch, I would have to walk on sloping, smooth rocks that encircled a deep canyon.

But this time I had some experience on my side. Before the panic engulfed me, I stopped, took a deep breath, and thought about my husband’s advice—keep my eyes on the path; take big, firm steps; let someone know if I need help. I had done it once; I knew I could do it again. So I straightened up and started walking—there and back again to the arch (after we took lots of pictures, of course).

There and back again. J.R.R. Tolkien knew what he was talking about. A journey isn’t just about the goal; it is also about getting back home again. When I made it to Lost Lake and Delicate Arch, I still had to go back—back across the narrow mountain path, back across the sloping smooth rocks.

Last week I welcomed 3 new doctoral students to the Baylor History Graduate Program. I also just sent off two spectacular MA students to doctoral studies. Some of these students have been in academia since starting their bachelor degrees; some of these students are reentering school after time away from academia. All of these students have a goal to earn their PhD. But that is only part of their journey. They also have to make it back down the mountain to a job. They have to make it back home.

Delicate Arch

I made it back home on my PhD journey—literally. I started my journey in 1997 with a BA in History and Classics from Baylor, and I ended it when I accepted a tenure-track job in History at Baylor in 2008. My goal, as graduate director, is not only to get students to the mountain top (the PhD) but to get them back down the mountain to an academic job (if that is their desire). I am so pleased that our doctoral program at Baylor has been 100% successful in this. All of our current graduates have earned academic positions. Indeed, in my next post, we will hear from two students (Lynneth Miller and Elise Leal) who made the journey all the way home to tenure track jobs (at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina, and Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington).

Until next time, though, I have some general advice for those of you starting your doctoral journeys this fall. Based on the experience of our program, this is advice that seems to work.

1).Start with the End in Mind. The goal isn’t just the PhD; the goal is a job, preferably in academia for most students. Some students (and programs) get so distracted by the PhD that they don’t prepare for the aftermath. I was recently talking to as student from a top-tier doctoral program who told me that he had received zero preparation for the job market, which proved quite a shock. Data shows the growing gap between PhDs and tenure track jobs. To get a job requires more than just finishing a PhD; it requires a great deal of fore thought and strategy. I recommend starting a 5-year plan at the beginning of your graduate journey. Intentionally map out what your goals are for each year, and talk through them with your advisor. If your goal is a small teaching college, who do you need to meet to make yourself a known quantity, what sort of classes (and how many) do you need to have on your c.v., what professors do you need to take courses with so they will write for you, what comprehensive exam fields will make you a more attractive candidate, should you consider adding digital humanities or public history? You don’t have to know all the answers to these questions at the beginning, but you need to start thinking through them. Also, be prepared with a back up plan. What else could you do if the job market goes south? A plan doesn’t guarantee a job, but does it help you to be as prepared as possible when the time comes.

2) Be Prepared for the Panic Moments. I released my fall seminar syllabus for Medieval Sermons (my Fall graduate seminar) three weeks ago. I guarantee there was some panic when registered students realized we will hit the ground running with two books on the first day. But that really is okay. Everyone panics in graduate school. The daunting challenge of reading more than you ever have in your life and being able to intelligently discuss it in public can be overwhelming (especially in the beginning). Then, after a couple of years, the comforting shade of coursework drops away to the stark unknown of comprehensive exams and prospectus writing. Or, when new evidence surfaces in an ILL book that just arrived which completely undermines the seminar paper due in 3 days. Failing a language exam, falling apart during the Q&A of a seminar presentation, and/or showing up unprepared for seminar and being found out by the seminar professor. Or simply realizing that the amount of work you have to do within the next ten days is inhumanely possible. Panic is inevitable.

I suggest you take the advice my husband gave me—focus on the path in front of you. What are the immediate next steps? Do those before worrying about the next stretch. Take big steps. My panic reaction on narrow mountain trails is to shuffle my feet. This really makes it worse, as I am more likely to stumble and I slow down so much I can’t see my progress. Don’t do this. Keep moving forward with the things you know you can do. If you can’t figure out how to incorporate the evidence from a primary source, move to the historiography section. If you can’t figure out how to read 500 pages in 24 hours, read the intro, conclusion, taking copious notes, and then start reading through body chapters. If you can’t figure out how to pass a language exam, just stop proscratinating and sign up for the summer class. If you are so overwhelmed you can’t breathe, don’t just sit in your apartment. Go talk to a fellow graduate student; go talk to your advisor or program director. Focus on the path in front of you and keep moving forward. When your old plan stops working, it is time to make a new one.

3) Be Flexible Enough to Take the Longer Path. On our hike to Lost Lake, I confess I got a little tired of the switchbacks. They seemed to take you so far out of your way before turning back to cover (what seemed at the time) almost the same territory. Once I decided to take a short cut and climb up the short distance between two switch backs. That was a mistake! The climb was must steeper and difficult then I had imagined. I only made it because my husband dragged me up the last few inches. In graduate school, the shortest distance isn’t always the best path. Yes, it is worth it to take an extra seminar so that you can work with a particular professor and/or gain teaching competence in a new area. Yes, it is worth it to spend the extra time and learn another language (even for Americanists! Language proficiency always pays off). Yes, it is worth it to become certified in digital humanities and public history (just to give a couple of examples). Yes, it is worth it to teach a couple of extra classes even if they might slow you down–teaching experience is so valuable on the job market! No, you don’t want to become too sidetrack. But you do want to take advantage of your program offerings and become as skilled as possible. In other words, don’t be lazy.

4) Don’t Forget Your Travelling Companions. I only made it to Lost Lake because of my husband. I needed his companionship to motivate me through the difficult parts. I guarantee you will need your fellow graduate students, family, and friends to help you as well. Don’t become so focused on your work that you neglect the people traveling with you. Not only will these folk be your first line of assistance when panic strikes and/or you only can find half the reading assignment, but these folk will also graduate, get jobs, and be links to help you get publications, conference presentations, even jobs. One of my biggest regrets from graduate school is allowing myself to become isolated. Don’t make my mistake. Also, don’t forget that everyone travels at different speeds. My teenage son spent most of the hike well ahead of me. But we both made it to the lake and back down the mountain. Just because you seem to be moving slower then other folk in your cohort doesn’t mean you aren’t doing well. Do you best at the pace that works best for you. Don’t worry, if you really are moving too slowly through the program, your graduate program director will tell you. Trust me on that. So keep your eyes on the path and don’t worry about the teenager who has skipped way ahead of you. Perhaps rather than comparing yourself to those around you, learn from those who have gone ahead. What better way to prepare for comps then study with your cohort member who took them three months before you!

Hang in there! Next time I will introduce you to two students who made it all the way to the PhD and tenure-track jobs.

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