Thoughts on Transatlantic Academia

It’s now been a scant two weeks since I sat down with my undergraduate mentor and started to draw up a list of all the Ph.D. programs I’m interested in applying to this coming autumn, and just a week since I met with my current supervisor and decided not to apply to any UK programs at all. When I realized earlier this year that, if one works on British and/or European topics in a well-funded US program (as any US program that a student hopes to attend should be), one will realistically have opportunities to come back all the time, for summers and possibly even a year of the dissertation, and maybe even for a postdoc, it made it easier to know that I’ll have to say goodbye at this time next year to my favorite country and city. I’m not making a decision now about the country in which I’ll spend the rest of my life.

But as I correspond with faculty and grad students at the institutions where I’m considering applying, it is being strongly impressed upon me what serious decisions I am making, and the high stakes even of writing a simple email of introduction to faculty, months before the application process really begins. One of the reasons I decided not to apply in the UK is that I am intellectually exhausted: after the BA and master’s theses, both of which I’m still working on, I don’t yet have in me a third project for a UK doctoral proposal, much less the energy to turn round and start researching and writing a significant piece of original work immediately after turning in my master’s thesis. I want to feel as if I can take next summer off, and then spend a couple years writing research papers and just trying out ideas before I commit to the one that’s going to stay with me at least through the dissertation and first book, if not forever.

Those, too, are considerations that American programs take seriously, and another reason I’ve decided to go back is that I’d like to be in a program that cares about what you’ll become after the doctorate, regardless of whether you wind up in a traditional academic position. As someone who thinks teaching is the most important part of academia, I’m looking more favorably upon programs that provide for a significant amount of teaching experience (one program I’m interested in has you teaching one class/section a semester for three years, starting in your second year, which sounds like the perfect balance of significant experience without preventing you from finishing the degree)—not to mention that this will be the best training for my Plan B career, teaching school. That said, even though I know we’re not supposed to think of non-academic careers as “Plan B” these days, it is for me: I recognize that not everyone who wants an academic job can have one, but I’ve wanted an academic job nearly all my sentient life, and I’d like to be in a program that will prepare me to go on the job market, and that will teach me intellectual independence without just throwing me in the deep end and seeing if I will sink or swim.

There’s a certain amateur quality to the British Ph.D., at least in its Oxbridge form (I strongly suspect it may be different elsewhere, and am surprised by how isolated Oxford grad students and faculty seem to continue to be from the rest of the top British research universities where people are doing excellent work). You notice this among the many doctoral students who don’t have any particular desire to be professional academics, as well as among the many doctoral students who do, but who are clueless about how to prepare for the job market, don’t have the institutional support to do so, and simply haven’t been given the talks that my advisors gave me all throughout undergrad about how few jobs there are and how statistically unlikely it is that you’ll be the one who bags one. There’s a sort of gentlemanly attitude here of pretending that you’re just in it for the life of the mind, which would all be very well if we really were all gentle(wo)men of leisure who didn’t have to put food on the table at the end of the day. As infuriating as this is, it’s also just interesting to note how it’s manifested itself in an application process that differs greatly from the US. My British friends on master’s courses here who applied to continue to the doctorate had to write a doctoral research proposal, sure, but they don’t seem to have worried too much or thought too deeply otherwise about the different strengths and weaknesses of all the available programs in the country (or world!), applied to a wide swathe of programs to ensure they would have a couple options to choose from, or taken into consideration the placement statistics of their selected programs. Most just assumed they would carry on at Oxford (many of them had also done their undergrad here), and maybe a few also applied to Cambridge or to another Russell Group university in case they didn’t get a funded place at Oxford. Some didn’t get funding, and carried on at Oxford anyway, the major no-no of American grad-school-application advice. For them, it seems, it’s all been a matter of routine.

Compare, then, the emails I’ve been getting from American faculty and grad students, and from my own mentors, all impressing upon me the seriousness of this decision. While most of the faculty I’ve approached have been kind and helpful, some have given me the sense that I’m auditioning for them and have to prove myself, reminding me of the at times cutthroat nature of American grad school, particularly in the most elite programs. (Indeed, what prompted me to write this post was an offhand remark in Historiann’s latest post about the “paranoid fantasies” grad students tell each other to freak each other out.) I may not be deciding which country to live in forever, but the American system makes it clear to me that I am making decisions that will determine my future career prospects, or at least my happiness and intellectual fulfillment for the next six or so years, and the city where I’m going to spend the rest of my twenties. At least there’s also an expectation in the American system that this is a decision older and wiser people will help you to make, and I’ve welcomed the vast quantity of advice I’ve received from sage and well-informed elders, even as difficult as it is to sift through it all.

The question that lingers in the back of my mind, though, is whether I can take the heat. In some respects I’ve felt under-stimulated by the amateur, and entirely self-directed, quality of Oxford academic life. But can I handle the pressure-cooker that is American academia? Will I learn to develop a thicker skin and more intellectual self-confidence, and withstand the atmosphere of direct competition with the most brilliant young historians in America? Will I, indeed, be on the face of it clever enough to compete with them at all? After all, I feel as if I have so much catching-up to do in terms of knowledge of the past and of the historiography. And, most importantly, am I willing to spend the rest of the decade halfway up a greasy pole (there’s a nice Victorian metaphor for you!), knocking off others in order to shin my way up to the top? If it gets too ugly, will I be able to let my dreams of status and intellectual fame go, and take an unhistoric teaching job anywhere that will have me?

Never mind the historical questions I have to wrestle with as I revise my writing sample and begin to think about how to structure my personal statement. I feel like I’m in a reality television show, and shit just got real.

One thought on “Thoughts on Transatlantic Academia

  1. Yeah, that’s true. Not one bit of it is easy. But if you keep those good values and sharp questions in the center of your view screen–yes, teaching is the most important thing we do, and we never do it well enough; yes, we have to find ways of maintaining ties of affection and support with the very people we compete with–you’ll be facing the opportunities and problems squarely. That’s all anyone can do.

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