Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blog VIII: Grad School in the UK

Blog number eight is another “guest contributor.” This time Charles Steele, an assistant professor of history at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, discusses his experiences going to graduate school in the United Kingdom. Before crossing the Atlantic, Steele earned a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, where he played football for the Golden Bears. After playing in the National Football League with the Detroit Lions, he decided to become a historian. He then enrolled at King’s College London where he earned a MA degree. He then went to West Virginia University where he obtained his Ph.D. He was the Defense Editor for Rotor & Wing magazine and an assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Here is his guest blog:
One of the best experiences of my life was earning an MA in War Studies at King’s College London. When I started the program in 1989 I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, but as I have continued work on answering that question I have never regretted spending that year in England. If anyone reading this note has a desire to study abroad and gain a better appreciation for what exists within the military dimension, then you can’t go too far wrong if you elect to pursue a degree at King’s, or if you manage to find your way to any European university.

Personally, I think the best reason to consider studying abroad is that it puts you in proximity to so many things that are out of the ordinary for most Americans. Studying in England allowed me to travel extensively throughout Europe and to visit a vast array of historically significant sites. When the Berlin Wall “came down” it was only a day’s journey, by car and ferry, to take in a spectacle I will never forget. In less dramatic instances, my friends and I traveled to battlefields on weekends and during course breaks to gain valuable insights that I still consider when preparing for the classes I teach at the Air Force Academy.

The most valuable benefit to studying abroad is that it will expose you to a range of opinions that exceeds what you are likely to find here at home. In my war studies course, I attended seminars and other classes with students from places as varied as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya, Japan, Israel, Malaysia, and even Canada. I will never forget one heated exchange between two of my classmates on the subject of the exportation of revolutionary warfare. One of the discussants was the son of Cubans who had fled their homeland as Castro came to power; the other was a major in Zimbabwe’s army. The argument exposed the gulf that often exists between ideology and the practical concerns of people striving for a better way forward. The wide range of experiences found in a truly international student body, living and reflecting on the past far from home, created a unique environment that fostered the liveliest debates.

Beyond the international composition of the student body, the most practical reason to consider studying at King’s is that it possesses a faculty that cannot be matched. If it pertains to war, there is probably someone at King’s with the expertise necessary to guide you through your studies on the subject. Twenty years ago I had the good fortune to count Brian Bond, Lawrence Freidman, and Geoffrey Till among the many instructors running portions of the War Studies course at King’s. The department has grown considerably since 1989 and the opportunities available to prospective students are tremendous. Imagine being a student of naval history and getting to study under King’s Laughton Professor of Naval History, Andrew Lambert. While some history departments may boast one or two military historians, King’s offers a department full of experts on military and naval affairs. Check it out for yourself:

There are many other advantages to studying abroad that go beyond the quality of faculty at any particular university. For instance, despite unfavorable exchange rates, studying abroad can make good financial sense. Considering that it only takes one full year to earn an MA, or a mere three years to earn a PhD, there are savings to be realized from engaging in a shorter stint in graduate school in the UK. Indeed, the 11,700 pounds in tuition/fees might seem daunting at
first, but it is more than reasonable if you consider the cost of studying for an MA at either a private university, or as an out of state student at a large research one university. Again, the cost is minimized when you contrast the duration of time needed to complete your course of study.

One last point to consider is what the experience of studying abroad will mean to you in the pursuit of a career. In my case, I think that I have benefited tremendously from joining the ranks of King’s graduates. My current boss earned his PhD at King’s as did the deputy department head. While I don’t think this played a significant role in my being hired at USAFA, it is nice to be in the company of people with whom I have shared a significant experience (I mean this in general—we all graduated at some distance from each other). Even before I transitioned into academe I found my King’s connections useful. After leaving graduate school I worked for awhile as a defense journalist. One of my earliest and most bountiful sources of information was a fellow King’s graduate. In short, I have not only enjoyed the fruits of a good education in and out of the classroom, but also have enjoyed the fellowship that comes from sharing an extraordinary experience.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Blog VII: Getting a Foreign Ph.D.

The seventh entry in this blog is the first of several “guest contributions” that will explore the option of going to graduate school in a foreign country. In this case, Galen Roger Perras, an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa discusses graduate education in Canada. At Ottawa, he serves as the president of the history department’s financial aid committee, a subject that any potential graduate student should keep in mind. Perras did his undergraduate work at the University of Regina and then attended the Royal Military College of Canada where he obtained his MA degree. He then went to the University of Waterloo where he earned a PhD. He has written a series of articles and chapters that have seen publication in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. He is the author of two books: Franklin Roosevelt and the Origins of the Canadian-American Security Alliance, 1933-1945: Necessary But Not Necessary Enough (1998) and more recently: Stepping Stones to Nowhere: The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and American Military Strategy, 1867-1945 (2003). Here is his guest blog:

The graduate school experience in Canada for history students differs from the American experience in many key ways. First, Canada has far fewer universities, perhaps 60 relevant institutions. But while some of our universities are very large – the University of Toronto has over 60,000 students – others are small and lack PhD programs in any field.

Most importantly, Canadian universities, with a few exceptions (some new and very small institutions) are publicly funded by their relevant provincial governments. Education is a provincial responsibility under the Canadian Constitution. The one exception is the Royal Military College of Canada which is funded by the Federal Government. The national government, however, transfers money to the provinces for educational/social/health purposes given its control of the income tax system. But as any Canadian university president can tell you, not all of that federal cash may not find its way to the universities.

This financial division has direct consequences for graduate schools. First, the federal government provides funding to worthy MA and PhD students in the Sciences (NSERC), Medicine/Health (CIH), and the Humanities and Social Sciences (SSHRC). For SSCHRC, only MA and PhD thesis students may apply. One can get an MA SSCHRC for one year. A PhD student might obtain a SSRHC for one, two, three or four years, though the longer awards are rare and the number awarded per year, never great, is getting smaller. At the PhD level, SSHRC awards can amount to more than $20,000 annually. (All figures are in Canadian dollars) There is also a CGS award, $35,000 a year for three years, and a new Canada Vanier Scholarship at $50,000 annually for three years. Non-Canadians may apply only to the Vanier award. Some provinces also run their own graduate award programs. Ontario, where I work, has the OGS program. It gives students $15,000 per year but one must apply every year for renewal. All these awards require at least an A- average just to apply, but far more applicants are rejected than accepted.

How universities treat students who receive externally awarded scholarships varies too. Some provide financial bonuses to such students for bringing acclaim to the university. Others simply do not reduce internal funding to the winners. Others cut the number of Teaching Assistantships given to winners, and this policy can be mandated at the university, faculty, or department level. My university, the University of Ottawa, has a faculty policy to reduce internal funding to external award winners.

How does one get into a PhD program in history in Canada? First, to have any hope for internal university funding in the form of tuition waivers, teaching assistantships, and scholarships, one must have at least an A- average again. The University of Ottawa, promises full funding for all students who have an average of A- and up. For the one year MA memoir student, this means a tuition waiver, two TAships, and a scholarship. For the two year MA thesis option, this means a tuition waiver, 4 TAships, and a scholarship. A PhD student can expect a tuition waiver, 8 TAships, and a scholarship over four years (with no extra money usually forthcoming after year four). Second, Canadian universities do not ask applicants to take the GRE. Decisions are made on the basis of the student’s grade point average, his/her topic proposal (is it well written, can someone at the Department direct the work?), and two to three reference letters from former professors.

A key national difference is that the MA in Canada really matters. I cannot think of any student, no matter how promising, who made the jump from a BA to a PhD without doing an MA first. The trend recently in Canada has been to discourage a thesis at the MA level. But the University of Ottawa, like many universities, offers two MA options: a year-long memoir option, which involves taking 6 seminar courses and writing a 50-60 page memoir which is graded but not defended; and a two-year thesis option involving 4 seminar courses and a thesis of 120 to 150 pages which must be defended.

PhD programs in history vary across Canada. The number of Canadian universities with creditable doctorate programs, if I am to be generous, does not exceed three dozen. Some require students to take seminar courses–until this year the University of Ottawa required PhD students to take two seminars–others require students to take three “teachable” fields, one of which must be directly related to a student’s thesis topic in the general sense. Some require field students to complete written and oral comprehensive exams, others demand just an oral exam. Some departments set common field reading lists (York University in Toronto, for example), while I set my own reading list for a field in U.S. diplomatic history.

Competition to get into a good PhD program in History is steep. Most large university history departments take in five to ten PhD candidates annually. This is a reflection of large undergraduate teaching loads at many universities and limited teaching resources. The University of Ottawa, a mid-sized institution, has 35,000 students but my Department has thirty fulltime faculty. It is our policy, though sometimes there are exceptions, to take any students who can be fully funded internally. In the last few years the Ministry of Education in Ontario has placed an emphasis on graduate programs and students across the disciplines, and has given extra money for graduate student support. But while extra money for graduate rather than undergraduate students was attractive to many departments and universities, some departments now lose money now by taking on graduate students. While tuition in Canada is low by U.S. standards – about $6,000 annually for Canadian citizens, but more than double that for foreign students – students with little or no funding have little opportunity to succeed especially if their research requires extensive and expensive travel. Our acceptance quota is down due to the economic downturn, but our application numbers this year have gone up by fifty percent.

Unsurprisingly, most PhD students in history in Canada are taking Canadian history. What may surprise many of you is that the study of military history, spurned for decades, has made a very strong comeback across the country (about 1/3 of Canadian history departments offer credible military history programs). I am also overwhelmed with graduate students – MA, PhD fields, PhD thesis – in U.S. history. However, I prefer to send off my best students to American universities if they wish to do a PhD in U.S. history.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Blog VI: Getting in the Door: The Graduate Admissions Process

The sixth entry in this blog marks the first “guest contribution.” Several more will follow in the weeks ahead. The purpose of this blog is to share with budding and newly minted historians, things I have learned about “how the game is played.” Before you can play the game, however, you have to get into the stadium. That brings us to the admissions process, which is a topic with which I have had little direct experience from the faculty side. I am fortunate, though, in that I know people who do have that knowledge. Dr. Michael Creswell knows this topic well. He is the director of graduate studies in the history department at Florida State University. Creswell has a huge voice in determining which students are accepted and rejected for admission at this research university. He shares with us some of the insights he has gained from this position. An associate professor at Florida State, Creswell is a graduate of Indiana University and earned an MA and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Before arriving at Florida State, he was the Annenberg Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He also serves as an adjunct professor of strategy for the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe (2006). Here is his guest blog:

The application process is relatively straightforward and uniform throughout the country. You are required to take the Graduate Record Examination, write a personal statement, include a writing sample, arrange for letters of reference, send your undergraduate transcript, write a check, and wait for a response. Yet when that letter arrives, it might not contain the response you expected or offer any money or assistantship to help you pay for your studies. “How can this be?” you wonder. “I received excellent grades as an undergraduate. I also told them how much I love history and that I want to become a college professor. What went wrong?” As the director of graduate studies in my department, I read a great many graduate applications. What is surprising, and a bit saddening, is how many bright students submit poor applications. Some simply don’t know any better, while over confidence undermines the others. What follows are a few suggestions that, if followed closely, will improve your chances of being accepted to a graduate program and raise the odds that you will receive funding.

1. Start the process early. Your senior year of college is a special one and you should enjoy it to the fullest. Yet while most potential applicants are aware of deadline dates, some begin work on it only a week or two in advance. This is too late to start the process. You should begin thinking about graduate school well before your senior year, which means doing research on various programs and finding one that suits you. Once you have narrowed down the schools to which you intend to apply, you need to assemble an application package tailored to each individual program, as the procedure varies among the different history departments. Despite these differences, there are some elements common to all departments.

2. Decide what you want to study. All programs require a statement of purpose. Although many students write passionately about their love of history, it is often unclear what part of history they want to study and why. Admissions committee will want to know your intended primary focus. You should therefore ask yourself the following questions: Why do I want to pursue a graduate degree in history? Do I intend to focus exclusively on either teaching or research or am I committed to both? If teaching, do I want to teach in the public schools, a community college or a state university? Do I want a graduate degree for self-fulfillment or to augment my current teaching credentials? Or do I intend to work outside of education once I receive the degree?

3. Determine which area and period of history you want to study. Is it Medieval England, Colonial America, or Meji Japan? Choose a primary field of study from among those the department offers. Otherwise, you will have no one to guide you in your chosen area. You should also recount what sparked your interest in this field or period. Perhaps a book or a teacher or a vacation. If you wish to study a foreign nation, mention if you possess the appropriate language skills or have lived in that country.

4. Choose a major professor. You will be guided in your graduate studies by a major professor. Review the department website carefully and find a professor or professors whose scholarly interests mirror your own. You application will likely be denied if you apply to a department to study a field without faculty representation. And even if the department does accept you, having your thesis directed by someone who studies a completely different area of history will not increase your attractiveness to potential employers.

Once you have identified a professor who shares your scholarly interests, write to that person well in advance of applying. Introduce yourself, describe your academic interests, and indicate your intention to apply to the department. Ask the professor if he or she would be willing to serve as your major professor should you be admitted to the program. Some schools have admission committees, but others have systems whereby one professor can admit a graduate student on his or her own volition. In either case, strive for a match between your intellectual interests and the strengths of the faculty.

5. Indicate your previous training in history. This topic is especially important for applicants with majors other than history. If you have no prior training in the field, explain what led you to history and why you believe you are qualified to study it at the graduate level. Anticipate these and other concerns and respond to them fully and candidly. For example, if there has been a long gap in your education, explain why. If your GPA is relatively low, explain why they should nonetheless admit you into the department.

6. Draft a curriculum vitae (CV) or resumé that provides a clear representation of your experiences. Include honors (scholarships, fellowships, academic honors), publications (if appropriate), professional experience (museum volunteer, secondary school teacher, etc.), foreign language(s) taken (indicate the language, level, year, grade and institution). There are several guides available that contain samples of CVs and resumés.

7. Ask three professors who know you and your work well if they would write you a letter of recommendation. Professors are busy, so if they agree to write you a letter, give them at least three weeks advance notice before the deadline. A polite e-mail reminder a week before the deadline is usually well received—especially by absent-minded professors. Be sure to provide them with copies of your CV or resumé, as well as the statement of purpose you are submitting. You should make your request in person. Letters from academics are preferable to recommendations from employers.

8. Submit your best writing sample, preferably from a history course. Faculty on an admissions committee will evaluate you based on its analytic power, creativity, and clarity of expression. Ideally, it should be a research paper that demonstrates your facility with primary documents.

9. Make sure to visit your career and placement center. There you can find guides that explain what to say in an application statement. In addition, some of the universities to which you are applying might also provide examples of statements that secured not only admission, but funding as well.

10. Even prior to formal application, contact the graduate advisor or coordinator well before you submit your application. Ask if the department grants transfer credit. If so, consult with the academic adviser to see which of your previous courses are acceptable and which ones might benefit you the most. Knowing this information beforehand will make it easier to obtain the needed documents, such as syllabi, before you arrive on campus. You should also inquire about how to apply for departmental assistantships/fellowships.

While taking these suggestions to heart will not ensure that you will be accepted to the graduate program of your choice, ignoring them will likely guarantee that you will not be accepted to any program, preferred or not.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Blog V: Picking Your School

Okay, if you are still checking out this blog, you must be pretty determined to go to grad school. Picking where you do your graduate work is going to have an enormous impact on your career. What factors should you consider?

Well, the overall reputation of your school as an academic institution is extremely important. Where you got your undergraduate degree is going to have little impact on your career. I have seen several people well-served by letters from their undergraduate mentors, if they stayed in contact, but that example is not exactly the same thing. Regardless of the reputation of its history department schools with sterling academic reputations are always good bets. A degree from Duke University is a degree from Duke, and that is never a bad thing.

Okay, now before you start running off to apply to Dartmouth, Duke, and Emory, there is something else you should consider. What if you want to do a history of U.S.-Estonian diplomatic relations during the interwar period? How well will you be served if none of those schools have a specialist in Estonian or even eastern European history, or a language department that offered any courses in Estonian? Probably, not so much. That gets us to a second issue, you need to consider the strengths and resources of departments in choosing where you go to school. Now, if you are that budding U.S.-Estonia specialist, Columbia University might be the right place for you since it has a long, fifty year history in being a place that specializes in Russian and eastern European studies. None of the three schools that I mentioned earlier is particularly well-known for its European studies programs even though they are all pretty darn good. If, on the other hand, you wanted to write a study of Napoleon as a military innovator, Florida State University, is known as leader in both Napoleonic studies and military history, and that would be a very good place to study over say the University of Texas or the University of Washington, both of which have arguably better academic reputations than Florida State.

One of the most important factors you need to consider is the faculty member you are going to study under at the school you pick. The more focus you have the better when it comes to your application. Few selection committees expect you to have a dissertation topic already selected, but the more specifity you show the better. When I was in graduate school I was amazed at some of my classmates who had tired of selling insurance and decided to go back to school, but were uncertain what fields they wanted to study. A lot of them never graduated. If you are applying to a university to study with a specific individual that shows that you are pretty serious and not applying to graduate school on a whim.

The problem with going to a school to work with a certain individual is that they might not end up being a good mentor. Usually, this problem is the result of personality, but other factors can develop: they might get a good job offer at a different institution a year and a half after you arrive; the individual might be too busy with their own research, attending conferences and making media appearances to give you the supervision you need (often an issue when you are working with a “superstar”); or their personal life/health might prevent giving you their full attention (What happens if your advisor dies half way through your graduate studies?).

Being at a big, strong department can help to a degree. In these type of departments, the research interests of the faculty often overlap, so you can shift your focus. Many people can and do switch their interests, significantly in graduate school. A friend of mine went to grad school at one of the institutions of the Ivy League. After being there a year, he decided he did not want to study Eastern European history. Instead, he wanted to do U.S. colonial history.

More times than not, a shift is understandable. When making such a move, you need to consider that shift from a different angles, though. If you went to a lesser know school to work with a specific big name individual, is it in your best interests to stay at that institution if you will not end up working with that person? Are you as strong a candidate in another field as the one that you set out to study? This can be a real issue, if different language skills are involved in these fields. Think of going from general U.S. history to Latin America; what if you don’t read Spanish?

As a result, you need to keep a number of factors in mind when picking your grad school. There is no simple formula to use, but asking questions, visiting schools before hand, meeting with the faculty, explaining your interests, and talking with grad students in that department are all good ways of figuring what is best for you.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Blog IV: Going to Grad School

My advice on going to graduate school in history is simple: don’t.

I will bet that was not the advice you were expecting. You are probably wondering: Why?

Well, my reasoning is simple. The market is saturated. In the late 1980s an important study predicted that there would be a shortage of academics in the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, graduate schools increased the numbers of students they admitted in the early 1990s. The expected shortage never developed. Long story made short, the supply of people with Ph.D.s in history vastly exceeded the demand—and by demand I mean jobs—for these individuals.

We all know that when supply exceeds demand, the market favors the buyer. The results is that jobs become more and more difficult to acquire. Indeed, now even small regional state schools can require that their faculty have active research agendas and community colleges can and regularly do expect that their faculty will have Ph.D.s.

Is this a bad thing? All depends on what you want to do with your life and career. Most doctoral programs in history train you to expect to end up at a like institution. Harvard is preparing their students to expect jobs at Stanford and Chicago; UC, Berkley is educating people to end up at the University of Virginia and Indiana University, and so on. The expectation at these schools is that their faculty will have heavy and serious research agendas with light teaching loads. The average professor at the University of Michigan or the University of Texas teaches two courses a semester. The fact, though, is that most jobs, even for people coming from the best schools are going to be at teaching schools where the teaching load is three, four, or even five courses a semester. It is difficult to maintain an active research program when it is combined with the heavy demands that come with developing and teaching these courses. Students at top flight graduate schools usually get little preparation to handle heavy teaching loads, much less while maintaining active research efforts.

The other thing that happens when there is a surplus of supply is that price (in this case salary) goes down. Of course, that is if you are able to get a job. When the number of people exceeds the number of available positions, you end up with a lot of smart unemployed people. It takes on average seven years of schooling following the bachelor’s degree to earn a Ph.D. That is a lot of education and time to end up having nothing to show for your effort, and there is a real chance that is what you will have—nothing.

I know that a number of graduate students—or undergraduates about to start a graduate program—think that this won’t happen to them because they are going to Harvard, or Yale, or Princeton, or Stanford. Well, okay, but what happens if two people from your school apply for the same job. That means that someone from your prominent school is going to be rejected—can’t hire two people to work in one job. Numbers are numbers and they are the same for all of us, regardless of where you got your degree from. If you don’t think so, then the fall is going to be all that much harder.

Another thing that has happened with this surplus of supply is that academic administrators have turned to hiring adjunct faculty in massive numbers. The last figures I have seen are that about 45 percent of all undergraduate classes are now taught by part time instructors.

In an ideal world the use of adjuncts is a good thing. You can bring in people with impressive skills and have them add something to your degree program. Imagine having Walter Cronkite teach a class on journalism ethics on a once a year basis. Or, if you are unable to land a full-time, tenure-track job, working as an adjunct allows you to gain important experience in the classroom as you prepare for you next venture on the academic job market.

The problem is that administrators are using adjuncts as the equivalent of academic menial labor. From the administrator’s point of view this practice makes sense: adjuncts can cover the same number of classes as full-time faculty, and are cheaper. They often end up teaching the freshman surveys that the tenure track types do not want to teach. Adjuncts also keep the salaries of full time instructors from rising. It is a supply and demand situation. If a professor wants a pay raise or receives an offer from another school, most administrators can fill that position with two or three adjuncts and pay them $2-3,000 per class without having to cover their health benefits or retirement. When someone leaves or retires, why replace them another full-time salary, just hire an adjunct. When adjuncts get tired of being treated in this manner, they can easily be replaced with another part-timer. There are, after all, more people than jobs.

Don't believe me, here are a couple of news stories on this topic:

The Invisible Adjunct mentioned in those article titles is the most famous academic blogger out there. The Invisible Adjunct left the profession, but her postings are available at:

The result is that people getting a Ph.D. in history need to be prepared to end up looking for and working outside of academia. This might sound simple, but employment opportunities for history Ph.D.s are limited unlike individuals with a degree in a field like economics or public policy where there is ready demand for people with that degree. The history Ph.D. does produce important expertise analytical abilities, and communication skills that do have adaptability to other professions, but it will take a little more entrepreneurial effort on the individual historian’s part to adapt themselves to a non-academic career. The good news is that working outside of a history department is no bar to making important contributions to historical knowledge.

What anyone thinking of going to grad school in history (or any other field) needs to do is to answer one simple question: Do you really need a Ph.D. to do what you want to do? Of course, that begs another question: What do you want to do?

If you want to be a professor in a history department at a major college or university, then, yes, you do need a Ph.D., but you also need to realize that the odds of you being able to get that type of job are low, extremely low.

In the end, my purpose in writing this blog entry really is not to keep you from going to grad school, but for you to realize that you need to have a backup plan about post-graduate employment.