You know you're a graduate student when you understand jokes about Foucault. What else should I read?
April 21, 2009 9:48 PM   Subscribe

So, it seems I'm changing vectors slightly, and taking up the challenge of getting a PhD in history. The problem? I did very little actual history classes as an undergrad and graduate student. I have until August to patch holes in my!

So, as a grad and undergrad, I was focused in philosophy and religious studies. I did a lot of methodology reading for rels, but that's about it. But I'm bright, and I read fast, and I have a summer with a light teaching load.

So answer me this, hivemind, what books should every history undergrad/MA student have read by the time they graduate, to be competent in the methods and conversations in history as an academic discipline?

Bonus: I'll be focusing on early modern Europe and its interactions with South East Asia - any books covering 1600-1900 in either field that might be interesting? Necessary? Useful?
posted by strixus to Education (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(To clarify: You've been admitted to a Ph.D. program already, and you want to be up to speed when classes start? Or you're going to start applying soon, and you want to make yourself a more attractive applicant?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:12 PM on April 21, 2009

I am not snarking at all here, but I think absolutely essential reading for someone who's planning to get a History Ph.D. is this article and the follow-on pieces at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Actually, reading the Chron for a few months is a good way to get a sense of the currents in academia these days.
Not much of my undergrad history reading was directly relevant to my history grad school experience. A PhD in history is a whole different beast from undergrad. The most relevant preparation I had was experience doing individual primary source research -- finding a topic, reading the existing material, narrowing down the subject, etc.
But if you're bent on getting ahead with reading monographs, look for reading lists for comprehensive exams and pick a few books that look interesting. Get into the groove of reading them quickly and extracting the arguments -- you'll be reading 3-5 of them a week once school starts, and needing to make cogent arguments about them in class. The skills involved in reading and analyzing them are more important, in my experience, than any particular set of facts you haven't yet learned.
(Dirty little secret: many history grad students can argue eloquently about the causes, effects, and subtleties of a given war but can't give you the actual dates it happened.)
Basically, though, what you're asking about is what the PhD is supposed to do for you. Instead of trying to get the jump on it you might consider trying to build up your reserves and relaxing while you wait for the ride to start.
posted by katemonster at 11:18 PM on April 21, 2009

You might want to look at the always-popular MIT Open Courseware site for recommended readings as well.
posted by waywardgirl at 3:50 AM on April 22, 2009

Speaking as a graduate of a super-duper ranked Ph.D. program in history who was supported by relatively generous fellowships and grants every bit of the way, I nonetheless encourage you to read the Chron article(s) Katemonster linked to. I know it's not the advice that you are looking for, but it's valuable advice nonetheless.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions you'd like to ask me privately.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:59 AM on April 22, 2009

I've already been accepted - in fact I've already pitched a plan of study which was accepted too.

I have an MA in philosophy - I've already had the "Dont become an academic" shpeal rammed down my throat for 4+ years since I decided to A) not get the MBA that should have followed my BBA, and B) since I had a second degree (BA) in philosophy as an undergrad + deciding to go to grad school in philosophy.

...Really, I KNOW how bad things are. I've been an "exploited" GTA. I've been teaching for nearly three years in a large urban college setting.

Nothing at this point is going to talk me out of a PhD. Sorry.
posted by strixus at 5:40 AM on April 22, 2009

Thanks for the advice on comprehensive reading lists. That looks like a good place to start. I've also already got the sylabi for my classes in the fall, and will be getting a jump on those.

I'm already used to the 2-4 books a week jog. Seminars in Rels and Philosophy usually move at that pace as well. Hell, I had lectures that moved at that pace. I have no problem keeping up with it; in fact that's the pace I use for my private reading as well.

But really, I'm sort of fed up with the fact that the first advice everyone seems to give me when I say PhD and ask a question is "You'll hate yourself for it" and "The job market sucks" and "You'll be poor for the next 5-8 years". I get that a lot of students dont understand those things. I do. And I still want to do this anyway.
posted by strixus at 5:52 AM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you have a faculty adviser yet? Your program knows you're coming from a different knowledge base. Go ask for a reading list, maybe broken into Must Read, Good to Know, and That Esoteric Reference (for brownie points in a seminar).

I had two degrees in English before I went into a PhD program that was a specialized history degree. I had to scramble to catch up, particularly in American 18th & 19thC, which is where my dissertation ended up sitting. The guidance of my adviser was invaluable, and I spent a lot of time reading far afield so I'd understand the connections that people in my history department seminars were making.

Good luck - I don't work in academe any more, but I'm still so glad I did it.
posted by catlet at 7:01 AM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know you're a graduate student when you understand jokes about Foucault.

I got a PhD in History and I've never heard of this genre of books. Hearing about it now makes me cringe. I don't think reading about getting a phd at this point is going to be very helpful nor are Chronicle articles telling you not to go. You're going.

My suggestions:

1) Are you supposed to take a historiographical course in the Fall? Familiarize yourself with the books on that reading list. Learn what "historiography" is. My grad students don't really know what it is and you'll be a step ahead if you learn about the history of history.

2) Take a look at "That Noble Dream" by Peter Novick presents the history of the US history profession. "Telling the Truth about History" by three women historians is just an all-around good book.

Actually I know a bit about your field and teach about this topic. I can surmise which school(s) you might be heading to. Your field is a small and fascinating one.

3) Read the articles in the Cambridge History of Southeast Asia about your era, even the boring ones that seem unrelated to your interests.

4) Cornell had an excellent series of Occasional Papers in the 1950s and 1960s on Southeast Asia-- read those too, although they are hard to come by.

5) Look through the Journal of World History (mostly free online, I think) for articles on this topic.

6) Many scholars in the field of "world history" deal with this era. Familiarize yourself with some of the big "world historians," who often focus on trade.

One mistake grad students make is thinking that older works are automatically worth less than the newest publications. Without a background in the foundational texts in your field, you'll have no way of contextualizing what the more recent scholars are arguing against, or how the evolution of problems in your field has progressed. That's important. Plus, older works are a minefield of primary sources.

7) Learn Dutch. Poke around for summer programs, so you can apply for money to go to one next summer. This is very important, learn to read Dutch.

Avoid the touchy-feeling or aiming and failing to be hip works on graduate school. You might as well skim the Chronicle, but the tone of so many of the writers is off-putting.

Get to work on learning what you need to know to be an expert in your field.

Contact me if you'd like.
posted by vincele at 10:10 AM on April 22, 2009

This textbook by Nau should give you a few good frameworks for understanding modern European relations. It was first-semester reading for my IAff major and really helped me organize/analyze the various relationships and events in terms of realist/liberal/gramscist theory. Just about every intro IAff text will cover this; Nau just happened to assign us his own book.

Weber's The Protestant Work Ethic is also a great text in helping to understand (Western) Europe, though I suspect you've already read it as part of your work in philosophy. You'll probably also want to dig deep into Smith, Ricardo, and the other classical economists, or even an intro int'l political economy text in order to get a feel for how money played into it all.

Finally, and on a lighter note, you should pick up a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which will give you a good public health primer at the very least.
posted by The White Hat at 8:27 PM on April 22, 2009

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