The Thesis Isn’t Everything: In Defense of Hobbies during Graduate School
By Christopher M. Church | March 8, 2019
Upon entering graduate school, it’s tempting to put life on hold, dropping all extracurricular activities and instead focusing exclusively on coursework. Then, once coursework concludes, it’s even more tempting to allow dissertation work to become all-enveloping. The mental strain of always working—or rather, of always thinking about work—is massive. When asking graduate students to participate in activities, I frequently hear a dejected refrain of “I can’t, because I have to study.” However, resisting the temptation of putting life on hold and instead maintaining a healthy work-life balance can prove not only essential to your mental health, but also essential to securing a job after you graduate, whether inside or outside the academy.
Preserving your existing hobbies, while seeking out new ones, will make you a better-rounded professional, turning you from a student into a teacher-scholar who displays a growth mindset. Paradoxically, participating in the world outside the academy will also make you more attractive on the job market. Having served on several searches, while being a candidate for many more, I have observed that academic search committees routinely seek researchers who have a clear understanding of their work’s significance beyond the nitty-gritty nuance of detailed archival research. Searches sift between applicants who all have outstanding academic pedigrees and solid research agendas, so that the delimiting factor often becomes whether someone demonstrates a groundedness that helps them relate to undergraduates or a broad enough perspective that makes their monograph book project appeal to publishers. Meanwhile, non-academic employers look for smart, self-motivated individuals who demonstrate that they can communicate to those beyond the walls of the ivory tower.
The key then is synergy, a term that has been sapped of all its meaning by corporate managers but is nonetheless applicable. With respect to hobbies and extracurricular activities, think about how you might translate non-academic experiences into professional skills. In other words, seek out opportunities that demonstrate leadership, such as serving as the captain of a sports team or the frontperson for a band, or those that hone public speaking skills, such as stand-up comedy or public performance. And so on and so forth.
While I would contend that virtually all hobbies can somehow be translated into professional skills, I also recommend exploring activities tangential to your research—in the truest sense of the word “tangential.” If you study French history and enjoy wine, study viniculture and start a wine club. If you are interested in the digital humanities, cultivate your interests in video games and comic books. If you enjoy theater and performance, then take an improv class, join a tabletop gaming group, or nab a role in a local play or recital. Then infuse those side interests into your teaching and research: your wine club might blossom into a study abroad program in the Italian countryside, your interest in video games might turn into a popular undergraduate course—crucial at a time when history departments face declining enrolments—and your penchant for performance might translate into novel teaching methods, like the experiential learning activities pioneered by the Reacting to the Past series from Barnard College.
Hobbies are also key to getting away from work. Though it may seem like the best approach is to power through graduate school by focusing exclusively on your studies and dissertation, doing so will likely do yourself a disservice: not only will your stress levels be higher on average, but you may actually find it more difficult to find employment once you graduate. This is not to say that you should not devote hours upon hours to your research (you should, of course), but it is to say that you should understand that your dissertation will not be your magnum opus. As Carla Hesse once told me, “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” In the years after graduation, your manuscript will continue to improve from editorial advice, peer review, and revisions made with the benefit of hindsight and scholarly distance.
Graduate school is not the time to demonstrate perfection, but the time to expand potential. Therefore, while you should definitely work hard (I recommend scheduling 40 hours per week during traditional business hours, based on research about productivity), you should also play hard. When not engaged in your graduate education, cultivate your imagination, seek out opportunities for growth, and build community connections, because studying need not—and indeed should not—be the totality of the graduate school experience.
Christopher M. Church (MA '09, PhD '14) is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is affiliated faculty at UNR’s Cybersecurity Center and the Ozmen Institute for Global Studies. He is the author of Paradise Destroyed: Catastrophe and Citizenship in the French Caribbean, which won the Alf Andrew Heggoy Book Prize in 2018. His current research project focuses on the historical development of and resistance to our increasingly globalized world, which includes, among other things, the cultural, social, and economic ties between historical piracy and present-day hacking.
Interning with the U.S. Department of State: Putting History into Action
By Daniel Bowen | February 4, 2019
During the summer of 2018, I took the opportunity to combine my training as a historian with my wish to serve my country. At the suggestion of a friend, I applied for and accepted an online internship with the (nonpartisan) Office of the Historian in the Bureau of Public Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. The Department of State’s Office of the Historian is responsible for preparing and publishing the Foreign Relations of the United States(FRUS) – a text series of collected documents on U.S. foreign relations and diplomacy – and for providing historically based studies for other parts of the Department of State. I have been lucky to work on this internship remotely in Berkeley while remaining in active correspondence with my Washington, D.C.-based supervisors. During the academic year, I am working between five and ten hours per week. Although it is unpaid, I have the opportunity to connect with folks not only in the Department of State, but across other departments related to national security – an opportunity which I hope will help support my career after finishing my PhD.
My specific role as an intern consists of creating timelines of U.S. relations with a specific sub-Saharan country. The timelines highlight big turning points in our relationship in addition to noting the visits of respective heads of state and government and ambassadorial changes. It is our hope in constructing these timelines that diplomats stationed in our embassy in a given country can consult them to better understand how our relationship has evolved over time. I love my internship and throughout the past year, I can affirmatively state that it is the part of my professional life I most look forward to everyday – more than teaching and seminars!
My first assignment focused on Angola – a big challenge considering the United States’ history of intervention in Angola during their civil war. Throughout my weeks of crafting the timeline, I learned a great deal about our how relationship has changed. The documents I used to build the timeline mainly came from FRUS. FRUS is one of the largest primary document databases I’ve ever encountered and it is completely free and available to anyone from the general public to consult. What was especially interesting about our relationship with Angola was how we had commercial and political interests in the country even during the colonial period, which was handled by our embassy in Lisbon, Portugal. Reading about the evolution of U.S. relations with Angola – at first as a colony and then as an independent state – allowed me to explore some of the intricacies of foreign and security policy-making at the highest level. For example, I consulted documents from meetings between the National Security Council, memorandum between high level State and DoD officials, and summaries of interactions between the President and other heads of government for the Angolan Civil War years. While my internship has aided me in putting my skills as a historian into practice, it has also given me the opportunity to learn tremendously about places and time periods that I otherwise would not have had the chance to study.
This internship has allowed me to strengthen my research and writing skills and more broadly to learn more about Africa. I am very thankful to have the opportunity to work for the United States Government, an institution which means a great deal to me. I encourage my colleagues to try an internship or volunteer experience with a company or government (local through federal) that will allow them to put their skills to use. Too often are historians caught up in the pages of a book or the myriad of characters on a word document and we can forget our potential to positively affect those around us through public service. Take the plunge and get out into the world.
By Maelia DuBois | January 11, 2019
The summer after my first year at UC Berkeley, I looked for a summer job on campus that would give me the chance to both learn a new skill and earn some much-needed cash. Despite having no experience in coding or web development, I was lucky enough to be hired by Digital Humanities @ Berkeley as a Digital Communications Assistant. DH staff trained me in back-end website management and basic website code debugging, and by the end of the summer, I was able to assist in the copying and migration of the redesigned website to a new address. The skills I learned that summer have been useful in organizing and hosting data relevant to my own research, and looking at large volumes of digital data in new ways.
Thanks to these new DH connections, I was hired the following year as Digital Humanities Program Assessment Fellow, a paid position that also allowed me to enroll in the Center for Teaching & Learning’s Graduate Student Assessment Fellowship (GSAF) program. Through the program’s biweekly seminar meetings, I learned different methods for assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of course offerings within a program, department, or workshop. These skills have allowed me to be more aware of long-term learning goals and how to measure them in my own lesson plans, and have also stood me in good stead as I have graduated to planning larger-scale academic workshops and panel sessions at conferences.
This year, after returning from two semesters of research abroad, I applied for a position as Graduate Professional Development Liaison (PDL) with the Graduate Division at UC Berkeley, one of ten graduate students from different departments chosen to help promote and expand professional development efforts and offerings across a variety of graduate programs at the university. Through this internship, I have built on, honed, and elevated my previously existing skills in communications, project management, needs assessment, academic program development, mentoring, leadership, and event planning.
From my experience in the above programs, I have learned that searching for a paid position that offers professional development opportunities does not have to be intimidating, and can easily allow you to earn a bit of extra money working an additional five to ten hours per week while simultaneously learning new skills and developing capabilities that will make you a stronger job candidate, regardless of whether you go on the academic job market or pursue an alternative path. Here are a few pointers to help you get started:
- Look for positions within extra-departmental academic units on campus. Organs like DH @ Berkeley, the Graduate Assembly, the Center for New Media, the Graduate Division, the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Academic Innovation Studio, or your field-specific institute usually look for a few new graduate interns each semester, and some programs are quite competitive in their selection process. Keep your eye out for emails advertising positions in September/October (for the Fall term) and December/January (for the Spring term).
- Seek positions with flexible hours or distance work opportunities. Keeping your work flexible will allow you to do the work during times you are not occupied with teaching, and enable you to keep your favorite work slots open for your academic research and reading. Discuss flexible options with the position’s supervisor or administrator right when you begin and they may be willing to accommodate you, even if that flexibility was not listed in the original job description.
- Apply early and often. A wave of positions tend to open up cyclically at the beginning of each term, so it is good to submit applications to several organizations at once (with a good resume that shows your previous work experience and skills as well as a carefully customized cover letter) and have your pick of the positions afterwards. Once you have several offers in front of you, you can reevaluate them in the context of your academic schedule for the semester and see what combination might by the best match for you.
- Do not bite off more than you can chew. It can be difficult to manage more than your standard academic duties as a student and GSI, so know your limits and make your availability clear to your on-campus employer early in the interview process. As a general rule of thumb, an appointment below 12.5% (5 hours per week) may not be worth your time, while an appointment above 25% (10 hours per week) may make it difficult to meet your teaching obligation. Most campus positions pay between $15 and $25 per hour, so check which pay grade classification the position has (I through IV) when applying.
- Clear everything properly with the history department and Campus Shared Services (HR). Once you’ve been officially hired, make sure to get the position approved by the Head Graduate Advisor if adding the hours will put you at over 50% time, and run your hiring paperwork by History Human Resources to make sure that all positions have been officially entered onto your payroll and associated with your SID.
Maelia DuBois is a Ph.D. Candidate in European History specializing in German History at UC Berkeley. Before attending graduate school, she worked as an ESL teacher overseas with the Fulbright Program in Germany.
Panel on the Many Careers of Historians as Writers
By Sarah Stoller | December 13, 2018
At our final event of this semester, on December 4th the department’s Career Development Initiative hosted a panel discussion on the many careers of historians as writers moderated by Professor James Vernon. We were joined by Professor Elena Schneider, who prior to her academic career worked in the publishing industry, and by four of our PhD alumni who work in writing careers beyond higher education: Katie Harper, a grant writer for the Sierra Club; Andrea Horbinski, a freelance writer and writer for Netflix; Karen McNeill, a family historian at US Bank; and Jacob Mikanowski, a freelance journalist and writer. I also chimed in to talk about opportunities available for part-time writing and editing gigs while in grad school.
Our discussion began with the various experiences panelists had with academic writing as graduate students and how this writing compared to their current work. While a number of the panelists spoke very positively about their experiences of dissertation writing and their ongoing academic writing, many talked about their discomfort with the individuated voice of academic writing and their enjoyment of writing in other, and more collaborative, forms - both short and long - and for different audiences - from the general public to the private and non-profit sectors - in their current work. Elena Schneider also drew attention to the many different kinds of writing required of faculty within higher ed beyond journal articles and monographs, including lectures, grant applications, and letters of recommendation, and to the different voices required to address these different audiences.
The paths our panelists took to paid writing work outside of academia were varied. For some, opportunities to do paid writing work emerged from exploring other interests and voices as a writer while in graduate school - for fun, as a way to make ends meet, or both. For two of our panelists, the experience of adjuncting and the desire for secure employment in the Bay Area were important factors. For all of our alumni, the decision to pursue a career beyond higher ed was made gradually, and at multiple different junctures after Qualifying Exams.
In the course of our discussion, all of the panelists emphasized the tremendous skill set history PhD students have already as writers and editors. They urged current students to recognize their expertise and to pursue opportunities to write for a variety of audiences while in grad school, whether by pitching an op-ed to a newspaper or magazine, or simply blogging on a subject of interest. They also recognized the difficulty of cultivating several different sets of professional experience and expertise while in grad school and urged us to see normal parts of graduate school such as seminars, dissertation writing, reading and writing groups, and in particular teaching and grading, as important aspects of our professional development for a wide range of careers.
They also spoke about the ways in which they had grown as writers in their current careers. Our panelists highlighted collaborative writing and the collaborative editing process as major features of writing outside of academia across sectors. They also spoke about the skill of writing for a general rather than specialist audience, and the importance of hustling, pitching, and taking risks - aspects of writing that we tend to un-learn as graduate students. A good deal of our discussion was about how infantilizing graduate school can be, and the necessity of claiming back our own agency.
Panelists had a number of tips for current students. They urged us to care about style and to seek out good rather than bad academic writing as readers. They suggested joining a writing group or otherwise looking for opportunities to collaborate on writing, and to get and give feedback to others. Finally they recommended taking more classes outside of the history department to gain exposure to different methods and different kinds of writing. Lastly, they encouraged grad students not to wait but to seek out paid opportunities now - whether as editors for department faculty, or through the countless organizations within and beyond higher ed that pay for writing and editing.
Jacob Mikanowski also had a number of specific tips for anyone interested in pitching editors. He described the pitching process as one of trial and error and urged persistence. He also emphasized that what works with an editor once might not work again, and noted that the process of pitching a long piece might involve a series of pitches of increasing length. To pitch a piece, you should pay attention to the flow of news and public debate and then find the contact information of an editor who tends to publish pieces similar to what you have in mind (for this Twitter is a great resource).
Thank you again to our panelists for taking the time to talk with us, and a special thanks for Maelia Dubois for her detailed minutes!
Spotlight on Grad Student Side-gigs: Working as a Trip Leader and Curriculum Developer for High School Study Abroad Programs
By Derek Kane O'Leary | November 28, 2018
No matter how dead the civilization or period we study is, all of us have regional expertise of some variety. Our careful work in the archives, languages, and cultures of different places enables us to be especially good guides to students seeking to understand those places, as well as to practice the more abstract and increasingly popular skill of “global citizenry."
Study abroad is a huge and competitive industry, and I find that a lot of it is pretty lousy. The criticisms aren’t hard to list. But while at Berkeley, I’ve also worked with high school study abroad programs that are sincerely committed to good pedagogy, respectful and responsible travel, and grappling with the challenging questions raised by globalization and one’s privilege within it. Teaching high school students through experiential, rather than classroom, learning can be particularly hard and fulfilling. The architecture of a city can be a much more compelling resource than a powerpoint slide; the way people behave on a bus more engaging than a PDF. And working with students in real time as they encounter and process these experiences can be very rewarding. I got involved in these programs because it’s fun to be paid to travel and teach, but also because one can make a meaningful and lasting impact on how students perceive and engage with the world. That is, to the extent that one thinks of a liberal arts education as a type of civics training, intensive study abroad can be a more influential way to mentor students in that spirit.
Our time in the seminar room and our experience outside of it make us well-suited for this kind of work. In return, the experience writing curricula for study abroad programs is fun and, I think, a marketable skill for those of us applying to academic jobs in high schools (especially elite private ones, which often encourage global programs) or colleges where we might participate in global studies or internship programs. It pays well too, often in one or two-week clusters. The pedagogical and ethical quality of study abroad varies widely. I have been a trip leader and curricular developer for Envoys (envoys.com) for the past five years, since a friend of mine launched the company. I would strongly recommend checking out their programs. In general, such companies always need talented people, and I would suggest reaching out directly. I would be very happy to talk more or make specific recommendations about this, so please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Derek Kane O'Leary is an advanced PhD candidate in U.S. History at UC Berkeley. Before attending graduate school, he worked for the European Parliament and received an MA in International Relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Visit to Box Campus
By Sarah Stoller | November 6, 2018
On November 5th, History Department alumnus and Alumni Advisory Board member Andrew Keating generously hosted a group of grad students at the Box campus for the day. Andrew works as Managing Director for Healthcare and Education at Box. In addition to talking to us about his own career trajectory from academia into tech, Andrew invited a number of other ‘Boxers’ to speak to us about their experiences and current work at the company.
We heard from Emily Vogel, Manager of University Recruiting; Anand Subramaian, Data Scientist; and Laura O’Neil, Customer Content Program Manager. We then had the opportunity to enjoy Box’s bountiful cafeteria and to tour the offices with Pamela Sherman, Executive Innovation Center Specialist. Over the course of the day, we learned about how these Boxers have translated their diverse educational and professional backgrounds into careers in the tech industry, discussed the professional skill set of PhD students in the humanities, and gained insight into the mechanics of landing a job.
Andrew and his colleagues advised us to be open to the possibility of surprising professional opportunities. They spoke about the diverse ways in which they find intellectual stimulation through their jobs and, in particular, through interaction with colleagues. They encouraged us to think about all of our interests and skills when considering our professional trajectories - not only those gleaned through our coursework or research - and to be confident about what we have to offer. They cautioned, however, to be humble about our areas of inexperience and to focus on getting a foot in the door after finishing a degree. Finally, they reminded us that a great deal of job training happens on the job.
Through our discussions over the course of the day, we honed in on a number of skills that PhD students have and which are highly valued at Box. Among these were the ability to learn quickly on the job, to be self-directed, to work in collaborative environments (like a classroom or reading group), to delve deeply into a topic, to digest and manage large amounts of material, to own a project, and to take initiative. All of these skills are great assets in project management, but equally in problem solving. We also talked about the relevance of research and storytelling skills to work at Box, particularly within marketing.
Visiting Box gave us the incredible opportunity to get a feel for the work environment and culture of a Silicon Valley tech company. Happily, this helped us to take one of Emily’s suggestions to consider the environment and people as well as the content of the work when thinking about career options.
For those who might be interested in careers in tech, or simply in tips on landing a job, below are some additional pieces of advice from Emily Vogel on the mechanics of a job search:
Attend university career fairs and events and meet recruiters. Face time is valuable.
Follow up with recruiters after meeting them to express your interest. Recruiters are extremely busy, so try to direct specific questions to them. Following up politely once every couple of weeks if you don’t hear back immediately is fine.
If you are looking for more general advice about job fit or careers, try to get in touch with the relevant hiring manager for a job that interests you.
Referrals from a current employee can help your application - but only if that employee knows you and can speak to your experience and interest. Try to have a conversation with someone before asking for a referral.
Get advice from someone within the industry about your resume and cover letter. Every sector and field has its own language.
Recruiters won't be concerned about your subject area or coursework, or necessarily even your degree level. Instead, they are interested in your ability to translate that experience into a different environment, and in your interest and passion.
Think of careers not as sequenced steps but as a lattice that might also involve lateral moves.
Alumni Panel on Teaching Beyond Four-Year College
By Sarah Stoller | October 22, 2018
On September 27th, the History Department hosted a panel featuring six of our PhD alumni who work in teaching and education beyond four-year colleges. Mike Buckley (Convent and Stuart Hall High Schools), Adrianne Francisco (Drew School), Ashley Leyba (BASIS Independent Fremont), Joseph Nejad-Duong (Fremont High), Tim Rose (Berkeley City College), and Rachel Reinhard (UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project) generously took the time to talk to current grad students about their work as educators in institutions public and private across the K-16 span.
In the course of our two-hour discussion, we had the chance to learn about numerous aspects of teaching in these very different contexts, as well as gaining insight into how our alumni navigated the transition from the PhD to their current roles. All of our panelists highlighted the pleasure of working with different ages and kinds of students from those they had worked with during their time at Berkeley. They also emphasized the collegiality of their workplaces and the opportunity to learn from other teachers. In addition, they drew attention to the need for creativity and on-the-fly thinking in their roles in the classroom and spoke about the ways in which they had grown as instructors and as thinkers in the time since finishing their PhDs. Finally, they talked about the quick pace of their work-days and the need for lots of energy in working with students.
For grad students who are potentially interested in teaching in public or private schools or in community colleges in the future, the panelists agreed that gaining experience working with different age groups and in different institutions was critical. Whether by volunteering, taking on a semester of adjunct teaching in a community college, or substitute teaching at a local high school, our panelists conveyed that testing out the waters and building a network of contacts was key. Our panelists also expressed tremendous willingness to talk to current students interested in teaching beyond the 4-year college in the future.