Working towards a PhD in the US: How it happened

First of all, let me explain where I’m coming from. I am one of those academic hybrids who don’t really have a home anywhere because they are schizophrenics in their academic training and their country allegiances. I’m a German citizen and followed a “normal” educational path until the third year of my studies at a German university, when I discovered American History as taught in the US, as opposed to American Studies as taught in Europe; I followed this discovery back to its source and emigrated to the US in 2005.

But first, I  earned a Staatsexamen degree in Germany, which is somewhat equivalent to an American M.A. but also includes a teaching component. After 6 years of studying English and History to become a teacher in a Gymnasium (no, not a gym but the German word for High School), I graduated in 2005 and left Germany for the US. More specifically, I returned to Wyoming, where I had completed a student exchange year previously. What did I do in Wyoming, you ask? Well, I applied to grad school programs, of course, while my American husband served a year patrolling the desert sands of Iraq.

Due to the fact that I had married an American (and, inadvertently and unknowingly, one of those who was then sent off to deploy after he had just brought me here) I was the proud owner of a Green Card (the picture being a sorry representation of myself because I was told not to smile). Thus, I had no issues with obtaining a visa, a work permit, or even with the application for scholarships.

Back in Germany, my academic training had been in American Studies, consisting of a mix of history, contemporary issues, and a spotty overview of American cultural values. After my exchange year to Wyoming, I convinced my examination committee to let me write my thesis about a topic in Western American history, an area of study that I had first encountered in Wyoming but that was not a core part of the program’s curriculum.

In other words, when I applied to grad school in the US, I was utterly naive and unprepared for the rigor of the program and the content of the area that I had chosen.

I was accepted to the PhD program in American History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2006. Yes. There is a university in Las Vegas. Yes, it is next to the Strip. Is it awesome to be a student in Vegas? No. Because you’re poor, and all the cool shows cost money. And even though I was awarded a full scholarship, I still had no money to even go out to eat (except for beer at the Hofbrauhaus,which of course counts as food because beer is food). And when you go out in small groups of girls, you get asked if your apartment complex has a pool and why you don’t want to go skinny-dipping with the random drunk male tourist who loudly proclaims that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Well, when you live there, that’s exactly part of the problem.

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Anyway, back to the program. Holy cow. Here I thought I had worked hard for my German degree. I knew nothing.

And let me say here, without bragging, that my English language skills were pretty damn good at that point even. No, English isn’t my native language, I don’t have American parents, I am not a military brat, and I had never even spoken to an American until my first year in college. (In fact, I credit Michael Jackson with teaching me English.-He was cool in the 80s and 90s!) I acquired English through hard work and repetition, and by not being offended when I got corrected (which happened constantly). At this point, nobody can tell that I’m not a native speaker, unless I drink beer.

My area of emphasis was, and still is, the history of the American West. I am particularly interested in identity and memory studies and in the ways a region defines itself. But I am also interested in public history: the way history affects people’s lives in an everyday setting. I took classes in museum studies, historic preservation and oral history, and have recently been working in the museum field. I studied with a couple of wonderful and supportive faculty mentors, who have guided and shaped my intellect and my scholarship in crucial ways. I appreciated them then, but even  more so, I appreciate them now. Let me say this about American faculty members:

They care about their students. I have never felt as supported as I did during the time of my PhD student time. I never once made a cup of coffee for anybody, or made copies, or taught classes that my advisor didn’t want to teach. Instead, I was given the opportunity to teach classes that I wanted to teach, to work for a non-profit organization, to direct an oral history program, and to write an exhibit proposal for a local museum. On top of that, I was awarded a couple of stipends from the university to support my dissertation research.

But man do they make you work. And if it turns out that you have little or no background in the subject matter, you are in for a hell of a ride. During my first semester, I took three classes. I read an average of 6 books a week, not including book reviews and my fellow students’ papers. And it doesn’t stop with mere reading of the books. You have to take notes and write short summaries, source analyses, book reviews, historiographical papers, and put the texts in context. And of that’s not enough yet, you have to look alive in class, participate in the conversation, and draw on additional readings that are considered fundamental but you have no clue about because you didn’t earn your MA here but in Germany in American Studies, which is, as you find out, fundamentally different. When you get your papers back, they are soaked in red, with scribbles that are hard to decipher but meant to improve everything from structure to argumentation to extra points to consider to suggestions for grammar and spelling improvements.

Did I have a life in Vegas? If it happened between the pages of monographs, sure. Otherwise, are you kidding?!

Am I happy I went there and subjected myself to this process of rigorous and relentless improvement of my thinking and analytical skills, my writing and reading skills, my whole outlook on history and academia? The answer is an unequivocal YES. I want to do a Vulcan mind melt with my advisor and know everything he knows. (I’m in love with your brain, David!)

julia gradA word about the “American system” to earn a PhD. It is SO NOT THE SAME as the European system. The degrees should not be considered equal. Sorry, if you’re European and earned a PhD in two or three years, that’s great for you but it is not comparable. Europeans usually argue that their High School prepares them better for college, and thus they only take classes in their major, which leads them to graduating with a comparable level of knowledge. Fair enough. BUT: when it comes to PhD programs, the American system is far superior, in my humble opinion. There’s a reason why it takes us six years to complete the program. It is not to “make up” content material that Europeans have acquired in their MA program. Instead, it is to deepen our knowledge in our subject area on a BROAD scale and not just in our immediate dissertation topic. It is to give us a BROAD foundation in historical methods, a BROAD understanding of the historiography of the field and the pressing questions and issues that historians have grappled with over the decades. And it is to uncover and draw parallels between our area of specialty and a variety of other issues that offers new angles and areas of inquiry. The three years of coursework lay the foundation for the dissertation, which is framed broadly and analyzes its content rigorously and thoroughly. I mean no disrespect to my European colleagues; I do believe, though, that the American PhD adds a dimension that is missing from the European doctoral education.

Now that I’ve put this into perspective, I’ll start collecting some resources that I have discovered throughout the course of my studies and by the virtue of living in this country.

Please feel free to share your opinion. I’d love to hear from you!

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