U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Weekend Bleg: Where Would You Go To Get a USIH PhD?

A colleague in the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma informed me on Friday that he had sent a student my way to ask me advice about graduate programs that he might apply to. Apparently he’s interested in pursuing a PhD in either political theory or U.S. intellectual history (insert joke about “or unemployment” if you must).

As to political theory programs, I simply have no informed opinion (nor do I feel I should). And while I would have some advice to give about what programs are good for U.S. intellectual history, I fear my advice may be out of date. I will probably tell the student that our subfield is small enough that, with the exception of a handful of places, the choice ought really to be based on a consideration of the overall program in history, as well as a consideration of the particular person with whom one would be likely to write a PhD in intellectual history.

Most of my fellow bloggers are closer to the PhD (and the job market) than I am, so they might have a better sense of the graduate educational lay of the land these days. And I’d imagine many of our readers are at institutions with PhDs programs featuring a greater (or lesser) emphasis on intellectual history who can share some local knowledge about their own institutions.

FWIW, the University of Oklahoma has some fine intellectual historians, but has a graduate history program very much focused on Western, Native American, and environmental history. We also have a first-rate, stand-alone History of Science department.

So consider the comment thread below an open conversation about my colleague’s student’s question. And be warned that I might share whatever advice you give with him.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. For political theory Princeton and NYU come to mind. Both are very strong in philosophy, too, and on that score the student might want to investigate philosophy programs to see which ones are highly regarded for their political philosophy offerings. It would also depend on whether the student is interested in normative political theory or in what on the historical side is called the history of political thought. There’s usually overlap, but emphases vary. McGill has some good people, too, so that’s another one to consider.

    For U.S. intellectual history, Hopkins offers a dedicated graduate program in intellectual history. It’s not in their history department, though, if I recall correctly. That’s the only thing that springs to mind. USIH is not my area of expertise. My advice would be for the student to figure out what areas he’s interested in and/or which historians’ work he likes, and apply to programs with strengths in those areas and/or where those historians teach.

  2. First off, I’d say that your advice about picking an overall strong program is sound. Hopefully, over the course of one’s graduate career, one changes ideas, interests, and approaches, so being someplace where you can do that makes a lot of sense to me.

    Second, I’d encourage any undergrad to take a couple of years off between finishing their bachelor’s degree and heading to grad school. Even if you are pretty sure that you want to eventually go through with a doctorate, I think that a couple of years outside of academia serves one well.

    Third–and here my advice may tend toward crass considerations–I would push the student to only consider grad school if offered a generous funding package from a school that has an excellent record of placement, esp. in the past few years. The first two programs that came to my mind were Berkeley and Harvard, neither of which are dark horses, I know. Both are strong in intellectual history, both US and European, and overall solid programs. Both will put you in a good position when competing for outside funding and when on the job market. (For the record, I’m not a product of either school, and I’m sure that there are other schools that fit the bill, but these two popped to my head first.) As someone who is on the job market right now and throwing my name in the hat for positions that receive 450+ applications, I surely wish that I had more impressive letterhead for my cover letters and bigger names on my recs. This is not to say that I think my education would have been that much better at Harvard or Berkeley. But I’m pretty sure that my levels of anxiety would be at least a little bit lower.

  3. Ben & Colleagues,

    A Monmouth colleague recently sent a high-quality student my way to ask about intellectual history programs. I told the student that approaching it *by program* was only getting at half the question.

    To get at the non-program part of the question, I said that one should think intensely about the areas he/she wants to study—compiling an honest list of possibilities (modern Europe, 19th-century America, the Cold War, colonialism, U.S. colonial, etc.). I then recommended that the student make a kind of top-10/20 list of academic books in their targeted areas (from discussions, internet searches, experience in her/his history classes, etc.). The student should then distill from that effort a list of living authors of those books, and find where those academic authors work. Once that list narrowed down by university employment, then the student should try and match up the professor list with her/his topics and program list. Finally, once the student has compiled a list of, say, five matches, then he/she should write each professor an introduction letter that outlines the student’s desired areas of study, project ideas, and inquire whether the professor is accepting new students.

    This might seem incredibly tedious, but I think it represents a good faith effort that increases the student’s probability of happiness in their program of choice. Most historians are nice, forthright people (if slightly pessimistic), so the student’s missives stand a chance of getting better responses than they might expect. This ground game will decrease the chance of being surprised later by conflicts of interest, personality issues, and poor job prospects.

    Of course I don’t at all disagree with the advice about getting the best possible funding package. The student will need money to travel to archives, avoid student loan debt, attend conferences, etc. Debt accumulated in grad school will color all of one’s future professional and personal endeavors ever after (pace of professional advancement, willingness and/or ability to relocate, family planning, etc.). Monetary considerations can’t be avoided because of idealistic attachments to the field. Take it from me.

    I hope this helps. I offer this advice from the *Tim Lacy School of Hard Knocks*. I wish I had been advised to engage in this kind of ground game in the mid-1990s before I made my star-crossed plunge into graduate school.

    – TL

  4. I also STRONGLY AGREE with the “couple of years off” advice offered above. Ideally, this time will be spent reading history works in one’s areas of interest. – TL

  5. I wish there was someway of knowing ahead of time what kind of advisor the big names make. I’ve met several people who went somewhere to work with Big Named professor X who then basically had to figure out how to write their dissertation on their own.

    I love Tim’s suggestions and agree with them. I just wish there was some additional way of figuring out how you might work with someone. In the heat of the diss, that seems to be the most important for getting done. Of course, getting a job is another thing entirely.

  6. Dear Anon 11/7, 9:26:

    My hope in relation to the student’s letter writing effort is that they will gain something—if even small—about the personality of their chosen guru by way of: (a) whether a reply comes or not; (b) the tone of the reply; and (c) the helpfulness in terms of factual advice in the reply. Of course some people are better in 2-D than 3-D, but the reply might provide some hint. Scheduling an in-person meeting after a reply would be great too (if possible).

    – TL

  7. it’s not always possible, but i do think it’s good to visit in advance if you’re at all concerned about the professor. certainly once you’ve been admitted, grad students can be felt out about these things, and this will in the end tell you a great deal about the culture of the place that you’re thinking about spending the next 5-9 years of your life. for instance, if no one says even one bad thing about the program or any of the professors, you maybe should investigate further. in any event, i think some frank over-beer (or whatever) conversations with the other students will tell you most of what it’s possible to know in advance.

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