The Historian Interviews Apprentice Historians

By Johnson, Linda Cooke | The Historian, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Historian Interviews Apprentice Historians

Johnson, Linda Cooke, The Historian

The Historian regularly publishes interviews with celebrated senior historians who have been recognized for their contributions to the historical profession and who recount their careers. To the student contemplating a future in history, however, the ideal of a long and successful academic career may seem so impossibly distant as to be unattainable. Such readers might want to ask how young historians start their careers, how they select graduate schools and finance their further educations toward an M.A. or Ph.D. degree, how they discover dissertation topics, and how they find teaching positions in today's academic world. What are the typical steps that an apprentice historian might follow as a graduate student?

To respond to questions such as these, The Historian conducted interviews with three graduate students from different backgrounds and at different stages of their careers. As it happens, all three students are studying aspects of twentieth-century U.S. history. The first interview features a first-year graduate student attending the University of California, Berkeley. In the second, a graduate student who came back to study for a Ph.D. in history after 20 years in the workforce recounts her career. She is now in the middle of her graduate program, having completed her coursework, and is about to embark on her dissertation at the University of Colorado. The third interview features a graduate student who will shortly receive his Ph.D. degree from Columbia University and is searching for a job. The interviews were conducted by Historian editor Linda Cooke Johnson on the Berkeley campus, at the Organization of American Historians meeting in San Francisco, in April 1997, and at the American Historical Association meeting in Seattle, January 1998.


THE HISTORIAN: Here you are at the end of your first year of graduate school in history at the University of California. Can you introduce yourself and tell us how you got here and what do you want to do as an apprentice historian?

BARBAS: Thank you. I am Samantha Barbas. I was born in Japan, lived there for two years, and then moved to Sacramento, California. My mother is Japanese and my father is an American, and because of my background, I am considered a Japanese American even though both of my parents were not of Japanese ancestry. I attended public school in Sacramento, where I was in the honors program, and then went to Williams College in Amherst, Mass., where I graduated with a degree in political science.

But history is my first love. I have always been interested in history and American culture. My dad, who is quite a bit older than most of the parents of my generation, grew up in a cultural environment quite different from mine. At home, we always watched old films, sang old songs, and listened to old records. My dad's interests inspired me to investigate my first research project on Franklin Delano Roosevelt--this was when I was eight! However, my exposure to American history in high school was not very enlightening, so my interests in American history, so to speak, were unfulfilled.

THE HISTORIAN: What was your undergraduate major?

BARBAS: At Williams, I majored in political science but with a historical bent. I was interested in things like voting records, partisan politics, and policy changes, and I did a lot of work with welfare policy. My senior thesis examined the discourse of welfare in the 1980s.

THE HISTORIAN: How did you get from political science at Williams to history at Berkeley?

BARBAS: First, I tried the graduate program in political science at Stanford. When that didn't seem to work out for me, I took a year off and went to Japan where I taught English for a year. That seemed ironic--a Japanese American teaching English. But along the way I learned some Japanese too. I guess I was looking for my roots.

I switched to history because I felt that my real interest had more to do with the cultural element--what cultural factors were affecting the decisions and perceptions of people of different classes or race. …

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