U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Studying U.S. Intellectual History In Graduate School

If we were to write one of these for U.S. intellectual history, what would be the same or different? Here are some random thoughts, laid down in no particular order:

1. Since USIH topics are not universally covered by graduate schools, finding the program for you may be difficult. Some programs explicitly address USIH (i.e. Rice, UNLV) but many universities—including high-profile ones—simply offer intellectual history along the way, perhaps even in conjunction with European subfields (Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago). In the latter case you’re applying to study U.S. history or American Studies, and hoping to work under a professor who will set you up in the field.

2. Study philosophy in some fashion as an undergraduate to set yourself up for admission. Whether you make it a minor or major, or study it in an interdisciplinary setting (i.e. American Studies), make sure that you are conversant in the major areas of Western thought.

3. Even if you don’t pursue it in graduate school, have an area of preliminary expertise on which to hang your hat (i.e. Pragmatism). Be really well read in some aspect of intellectual history to give yourself the confidence you need to compete. That said, don’t twist everything back to your reading and knowledge. Don’t be the proverbial one-trick pony. Having your own area of knowledge gives you a basis from which you can approach the meta-level topics in the field. Nobody wants to deal with a “closed off” applicant/graduate student: give your potential mentor a chance to mold you.

4. Go in with your eyes wide open concerning future employment plans. Tenure-track professorships in U.S. intellectual history are an endangered and/or rare species. Study a secondary area (that you enjoy) that will help you be marketable in general U.S. searches. Since you’re studying U.S. intellectual history, you probably won’t be called upon to know another language (although Spanish would be helpful), but work on a non-European history subfield. “U.S. and the World” positions are trendy right now. But who knows how long that will last? So back to my first sentence, be flexible with regard to future expectations.

Other thoughts on studying U.S. intellectual history in graduate school? Leave a comment. – TL

PS – Perhaps we should develop a links section on the right for departments and institutes that encourage the study of U.S. intellectual history?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I am always troubled by advice along the lines of #4: “go in with your eyes wide-open concerning future employment plans.” When I was younger and looking for advice, people often said things like that to me. In retrospect, I think people find it difficult both to recommend grad school and to not recommend it. So what I suspect many of them meant, but did not want to say, was, “For God’s sake, do not go to grad school in the humanities!!!” (A friend of mine told me that one of her professors advised her by simply saying, “People’s lives are ruined.”) I was pretty determined to go to grad school, and probably would not have heeded such strong advice, but I don’t feel like I had any idea what I was getting into.

    Tim’s statement above, that good jobs are “endangered and/or rare species,” while certainly true, does not capture the emotional flavor of what it is like to invest one’s heart, soul, emotional well-being, fiscal responsibilities and professional prospects in what is essentially a desperate gamble.

    I see a certain academic social Dawinism among the professoriate: they think that since they made it, that if you cannot there must be something wrong with you. But the numbers do not lie–there are way more Ph.Ds than jobs. All those people have to wind up somewhere, and many of them have to go outside academia: most of them, in my experience, unwillingly.

    On the other hand, I was always suspicious of my professors pooh-poohing the academic life: what they had always looked pretty good to me, and them discouraging others made it look to me like they were pulling up the ladder once they themselves got on board. But most of them probably lived somewhere else than they wanted to live, had put tremendous strain on their marriages or other relationships, borrowed tens of thousands of dollars and fretted constantly about tenure. More importantly, I now realize that they had friends–most likely very talented friends–who could not get full-time work anywhere in the United States of America.

    The problem is that young college students ask their professors for advice, not marginally employed Ph.D. adjuncts. That skews their sample.

    So overall, my advice has little to do with what to do specifically with regard to U.S. intellectual history, and more to do with humanities grad programs in general.

    1. Seriously consider not going. Consult the stats about Ph.D.s without jobs, count up how many classes you’d have to teach as an adjunct to make a living and contemplate life without health insurance.
    2. If you feel you must go, recognize that grad school, no matter what its pretensions to the contrary, is pre-professional training and not an attempt to make yourself a wiser and more well-rounded person.
    3. To that end, never turn down an opportunity to do anything that can help your CV: publish early in your career in smaller regional journals, go to lots of conferences, etc.
    4. Write a dissertation that is clearly part of a recognizeable field that does some minimal amount of hiring. (Seriously–study job ads before picking a dissertation topic.) That means that you may have to put off until later your dream topic.
    5. Get teaching experience in subjects that you will want to teach–if your grad program won’t give it to you, approach the local community college as soon as you get your M.A.


  2. I’ve always thought Timothy Burke has some of the best advice for students on grad school in general, which can just as easily be applied to intellectual history:

    A taste of his medicine:

    “Should I go to graduate school?

    Short answer: no.

    Long answer: maybe, but only if you have some glimmering of what you are about to do to yourself. Undergraduates coming out of liberal arts institutions are particularly vulnerable to ignorance in this regard. For four years, they’ve been asked to take chances, experiment, change course when it suits them, freely enrich their minds and their hearts. Most such students then approach careers with something of the same spirit, and generally, they should. Take some chances after you graduate, try different things. Why not?

    Just don’t try graduate school in an academic subject with the same spirit of carefree experimention. Medical school, sure. Law school, no problem. But a Ph.D in an academic field? Forget it. If you take one step down that path, I promise you, it’ll hurt like blazes to get off, even if you’re sure that you want to quit after only one year.

    Two years in, and quitting will be like gnawing your own leg off.

    Past that, and you’re talking therapy and life-long bitterness.”

    For the complete post, see http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?page_id=4

    Just for the record, I want to do nothing other than teach in a university, so I’m am happy with the path I’ve chosen. But to every student who asks me, I will echo Burke’s advice.

  3. I just today realized that I forgot an extremely important point on a topic that’s come up in another recent USIH post.

    5. Work ~intensely~ on your writing ~before~ seeking admission into a USIH graduate program. At the very least, have a plan in place to improve your writing—on your own—while in your program. Why? Because some history faculty members don’t believe that good writing can be taught. That pessimistic cohort may or may not exist in your program, but don’t take any chances.

    Furthermore, work on two writing styles. Develop one for public consumption and test its workability through weblogs or magazine/newspaper article writing. This is the one that will matter a great deal ~after~ finishing your program. The other style you’ll need is a highly techical one, the “scholarly prose” that satisfies a dissertation committee. This style will also work in some cases for editors of history journals—but not for book publishers. In sum, do not underestimate the need for developing good writing skills. – TL

  4. Allow me to follow Tim’s last point with even more nuts-and-bolts gusto. If you an undergraduate student and considering graduate school in History, American Studies, English, Musicology, whatever, write a bachelor’s thesis, honors thesis, extended senior paper, extensed independent study, or whatever they call it at your school. Plan on this, especially if you’re also thinking of doing some studying abroad. The senior paper (which is usually optional) will be the best source for the all-important writing sample, and the work on it will give you the experience of independent research in an area of your choosing; you will then write about this experience in your Statement of Purpose for grad admissions. Oh, and study for the GRE: there are plenty of study-guides for $20 and it’s very much worth it.

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