Notorious Ph.D. writes in a post called “No, really: I AM a fraud” that she’s struggling with seeing herself as an expert in her field because of deficits in her graduate training in the historiography of medieval “Blargistan,” her pseudonym for her region of specialization:
I went to grad school specifically to study the history of Blargistan. I was fascinated by it for various reasons that I won’t get into here. And sure enough, I did my M.A. with a professor whose research was in the history of Blargistan. But most of his reading on the subject was a couple of decades out of date, and since I wasn’t yet savvy enough to find the best current scholarship on my own, I ended up reading a lot of the same books he had read in grad school many years ago, and little else.
For the Ph.D., I switched to work with a professor whose advising style I worked better with. It was a good choice, and I don’t regret it one bit. But this professor’s work had nothing at all to do with Blargistan. He read and wrote fluently — even elegantly — in Blarg, but his area of specialty was thematic — let’s say, for the sake of argument, scholastic theology. So, I ended up writing a dissertation (and later a book) on scholastic theology and kittens in Blargistan.
And as I’m now moving on to another project, I’m realizing that I now know a great deal more about both scholastic theology and kittens (separately and together) in the Blargistanian context than probably most medieval Blargistan historians working in this country. What I don’t have, I’m coming to realize, is a good grasp on the general literature of medieval Blargistan — all that stuff that my friends read as a matter of course in grad school completely passed me by.
Welcome to the world of writing a second book, Notorious! I think this feeling is pretty common to most of us who are intellectually honest and have a decent grasp of the magnitude of what we don’t know. But, were our graduate programs designed to make us experts in one tiny sub-subfield for the next forty years, or did they aim more broadly to teach us how to teach ourselves for the rest of our lives? I go with the latter theory of graduate education myself, since most of us find that the shelf life of our specific training is pretty short. This may be a self-interested view, since I decided more than a decade ago that I didn’t want to revise my dissertation for publication–it was in my estimation too narrowly focused, and missed much of what I myself found exciting and new in my field. So, I wrote my second book first, in effect, by taking just a few theories about colonialism, conflict and social change from the dissertation and conducting a raft of new research on a new topic. I had to train myself competently in Indian history and early Canadian history, as well as understand some basic military history.
None of those subfields was an intensive part of my education at Ben Franklin U. twenty years ago, aside from one token book in most reading seminars on Native American history. (In one seminar, quite memorably, “Women, Indians, and Blacks” had to squeeze into a single week on the syllabus, because the huuuuuuuuuge significance of elite, white men and their political history filled the other thirteen weeks entirely.) Even people who are revising dissertations may decide to expand one section of their project a great deal, or to explore their ideas in some fresh contexts, all of which requires some serious off-roading from our graduate training.
I say we have to think of our careers as scholars as though we are sharks: we must keep moving forward. (This is not to say that we should act as though we inhabit a shark tank! But, apparently, others disagree–h/t The Way of Improvement Leads Home.) How do you think about retraining yourself in new fields? What have you had to learn in order to keep moving forward?
I’ll write more about the specifics of auto-retraining in Part II.