Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Career as a Historian - Part Eleven

Wow, I can't believe it's been three weeks since I posted something in this series. Getting pretty slack here lately I suppose. Well, here's post #11 and I'm thinking there will be only two or three more after this, which will bring my career up to the present or pretty close to it.

Fall semester 1998 I began earnestly working on getting the thesis together. I was still thinking Ph.D program and started looking at a couple of schools. My doctoral program thoughts were fueled by attending the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in both 1997 and 1998 (Atlanta and Birmingham, respectively) and getting a taste of what the professional academic world was all about. I met some excellent historians at those conferences, particularly David Goldfield and James C. Cobb. I was in awe of these men and wanted to be just like them. To that end, I presented papers at a few smaller conferences, particularly the NC Association of Historians and the UNC-Charlotte Graduate History Forum. My presentations at these functions were OK, but not stellar. Still, I connected with some great historians and other graduate students. I looked at Ph.D programs all over the South and some in the mid-Atlantic. Top choices on my list included University of South Carolina, West Virginia University, University of Tennessee, University of Georgia, and Vanderbilt. Not a single application was ever filled out.

My thesis advisor left for maternity leave the spring semester of 1999, leaving me to communicate with her via telephone and email, and mailing thesis chapters to her for review. At this point I was completely jaded, thoughts of a Ph.D had all but vanished, and now I just wanted to get finished and get out. I realized that what I was producing was not Ph.D worthy material. My research methodology had serious holes in it, my writing was good, but not great, and it just wasn't up to par. But, I figured if I could make it good enough to pass I'd be done with it. It was at this point when Otis Graham decided to share a bit of advice with me, albeit too late to do me much good. He knew I was on the brink of burnout and he said he wished he had met me as an undergrad. He would have given me the same advice he gave his own son when he graduated from college. He said, "I told him to get out of school, go out in the world, and become 28." 28? What was he talking about? He explained that his theory was college students should take a break after graduation, live in the real world for a few years, and by the time they were 28 they would know what they really wanted to do with their life and could go back to school and do it. My biggest fear had always been that if I took that break I'd never come back.

Along with the stress of writing and defending the thesis, I was trying to find a job. The search intensified once I realized that a doctoral program was not in my future. I applied for a number of jobs, and awaited call backs and interviews. Meanwhile, the thesis was almost finished and it was time to defend. I ended up having to do a lot of what I'll call remedial research. The first draft was absolutely shredded by my advisor and I had to do a lot of background research that I should have done earlier in order to catch up. The defense played out exactly as I had expected. Otis Graham threw me a couple of "softball" questions that I easily answered and he was satisfied. Alan Watson challenged me, which I was certain he would, but didn't give me anything I couldn't handle. Then it came time for what I knew would be the real test, my advisor Peggy Shaffer. She absolutely grilled me, even more so than I expected. At one point she said something that ruffled Alan Watson's feathers and he cut me off and argued a point with her in the middle of the defense. When it was all said and done I wasn't sure if I was going to successfully defend or not. It was all very uncomfortable. Dr. John Haley, the graduate coordinator at the time, told me it was the roughest thesis defense he'd ever witnessed and commended me on my handling of it. I got the feeling that he was less than pleased with my advisor at that point. Of course, I did successfully defend the thesis, much to my relief. But I knew that it wasn't the best work I could have done, and in fact when I received the bound copies back from the library a friend asked what I thought, and I responded "It's the same old piece of crap that I wrote, just with a hard cover on it."

As for the job search, I turned down an interview with the NC Transportation Museum, a state historic site, to take the position of Executive Director of the Carteret County Historical Society in Morehead City, NC. My first career move was in some ways good, and in other ways not so good. More on that in the next post.

1 comment:

Science Alan said...
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