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.

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