Help me conduct research and write at the graduate level
June 27, 2017 10:34 AM   Subscribe

In the next couple of years (there is no official timeline), I would like to go back to school and pursue a PhD in history or a related discipline. Before I do that, though, I want to spend time developing my research and writing skills.

My undergraduate degree is in English, and most of the assigned essays were based on close reading and didn't really incorporate non-literary sources or require much attention to historical or biographical context, existing scholarship, etc. They were basically my original reactions to the texts.

I would like to build research skills from the ground up: determining how my research question is addressed by existing scholarship, conducting original research with archival and scholarly sources, organizing those findings, and then creating a publishable paper. I don't really have a lot of experience going from "interesting research question" to "paper," and am hoping to take myself through the process at least a few times before I apply to grad school.

I would appreciate any books, websites, online courses, resources or general suggestions for developing these skills. Even birds-eye "how to think about research in general" topics are great.

Sorry I can't be more specific with the discipline -- I am still honing what I am interested in, and I know that I will be dealing with historical materials, so I'm starting there.

posted by delight to Education (5 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This looks a bit basic, but it might help as a start: Learning Historical Research.

I went through a similar learning curve when I moved from undergraduate work in English lit to social science research in grad school. It was steep but very rewarding. Good luck!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:58 AM on June 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

The most obvious place to start is a two step process:

(1) Figure out which are the top journals in history. You'd be able to pull a list of highest-impact-factor journals, but those (or other mechanically-calculated scores) can be pretty far off from a list of the actual top journals.

(2) Read lots and lots of articles in those journals. Unless history publication is very very weird, those articles will describe how they fit into a larger literature (which will tell you where they came from) and why they're important and how their research strategy worked. More importantly, looking at output like this will help you figure out whether you want to spend a shitload of hours making more of it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:09 PM on June 27, 2017

The term that will help you Google this out more effectively is "research methods." You can find books about research methods in nearly every field. Broadly speaking, there are qualitative and quantitative methods in the social sciences. Sometimes this paradigm gets applied to research in the humanities domain, sometimes it is actively resisted.

I work in university research. My unsolicited advice to you is to consider what you would like your PhD to enable you to do. If you want to become a professor, do some research up front about the job market in your field; many humanities fields have a huge oversupply of PhDs and not enough jobs to go around. This yields a situation where you had better have a PhD from an A-list school to even be in the running for a tenure-track job (even at no-name school, you can find faculty members with PhDs from Ivy League / Berkeley type places). I don't mean to sound discouraging but it's best to have the knowledge up-front.
posted by rachelpapers at 1:05 PM on June 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a librarian who went back and got a Phd in Public History, I second the suggestion to read a great deal in the field to see how historians write. The Public Historian, published by the National Council of Public History is a good place to start as is THe Journal of American History and History and Theory.

The biggest shift you are going to experience is the focus on primary resources. The original documents, artifacts, and so forth are extremely important in historical research. However, right next to that is the historiography of the topic. Who said what about that letter or book is also an area that gets explored a great deal in history research.

I'd also second what rachelpapers said above and encourage you to think long and hard about what you want to do with a degree in history. In this political environment, academic and cultural institutions are not the most secure and easy places to get jobs anymore. The back for many historians I know has always been museums or the park service, which is also under fire. Personally, if I didn't have strong background in technology and 17 years of experience in the library world, my PhD in Public History wouldn't have helped me get my current or previous positions. It's a hard field to find jobs in at the moment. That said, I would also strongly encourage you to investigate the Public History track rather than just straight history. It provides a few more outlets that are strictly dependent on the academy and can be applied in a number of different areas. Unfortunately, eveything in the humanities is a little dodgey right now, but Clio willing, this too shall pass.
posted by teleri025 at 2:25 PM on June 27, 2017

I teach skills in this area and can help with specific questions if you want to memail me. The others have already provided some great advice. If you want a resource with advice on all aspects of a PhD project, I highly recommend the Thesis Whisperer's blog.
posted by latnahc at 3:26 PM on June 27, 2017

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