Friday, April 13, 2012

Blog CXIV (114): Eight Questions: Japanese History

The next contribution in the Eight Questions series comes from Greg Smits, an associate professor of
 history and East Asian studies at The Pennsylvania State University.  Smits recieved his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, his MA from the University of Hawaii and his BA from the University of Florida.  Before arriving at Penn State, he taught for five years at Eastern Washington University.  Smits is the author of Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics, which has been translated into Japanese.  He co-edited the anthology Economic Thought in Early-Modern Japan.  He has had articles published in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, the Journal of Social History, and the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies.  He has also published articles in Japanese-language academic journals and newspapers, including Okinawa Bunka Kenkyu [Journal of Okinawan Culture]. He is currently writing a book about the cultural reaction to earthquakes in Japan.

How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching is always valuable, but the precise role/value depends on the nature of the institution. Teaching is the most important component of a career at liberal arts colleges and smaller regional colleges and universities. At research 1 institutions, of course, research and publishing constitute the most important aspect of a career, though teaching still matters a great deal. So graduate students should take every opportunity to hone their teaching skills as early as possible. No matter where one may end up, good teaching is essential.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
This question depends on the nature of the institution. At a research 1 university, the first book should be a specialized monograph and it should be out in 4 years or less. By the 6th year (tenure time), it is often essential to have published a couple of articles from a new project to demonstrate that more is on the way. On the other hand, other types of institutions may look more favorably on publishing articles or books that can be used profitably in the undergraduate classroom. Nevertheless, it is probably a good idea to put out an academic monograph, if at all possible, regardless of the institution, to set the stage for a future move if that becomes desirable.

What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
Determination and willingness to keep his or her nose to the grindstone is perhaps most important. Avoid becoming involved in campus politics, large amounts of committee work, etc., and focus on teaching and research. For getting that first academic, job alma matter matters more than it should, and the topic of one’s research matters a great deal—probably more than it should. Selecting an obscure topic as a graduate student will be a major hindrance in landing a job. So, if it can’t be avoided, the trick is to hitch an otherwise obscure topic to a more popular trend.

Although it may sound counterintuitive, having “a life” that has nothing to do with academia is great for maintaining sanity. Volunteer work or a serious hobby, for example, can function this way. Even though there is an opportunity cost in terms of time and energy, regular participation in something completely unrelated to one job an university settings can actually result in greater productivity and all around happiness.

What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
My advice in all cases: Don’t do it! I have PDFs of “100 reasons not to get a PhD”-type articles I sometimes send to bolster my point.

What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
Assess your skills and knowledge, figure out what else you can do with them, and pursue every possible career path. Most important, do not join the ranks of untenured (often so-called “part-time”) instructors.


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  2. Ok, so I have been enjoying these interviews but one thing that is beginning to grate on me is how just about everyone has been emphatic in advising other aspiring historians like myself NOT to pursue a Phd. While I understand this advice is probably well intentioned I'm slowly forming an image of the academy in which old and newly minted Phds are desperately trying to figure out ever elaborate ways of locking the rest of us out of the Ivory Tower.