SMU history graduate student Tim Seiter recently wrote an insightful and witty article for INSIDE HIGHER ED discussing what it’s really like to be a PhD student and shares what he’s learned along the way.
To read, click here.
One of the things no one told me about graduate school when I started was exactly how much rejection I would face as a graduate student. The application process to graduate school probably should have indicated that the academy includes a fair amount of rejection, but I’m not sure that I really understood that until I started the process of really putting myself out there for fellowships, conferences, and jobs.
Social media and departmental websites make it easy to witness our colleagues’ successes. When someone receives a prestigious grant, their name and picture, deservedly, show up on the department website. When conferences make decisions about accepted papers/panels, I often find out first from enthusiastic announcements on Twitter before I even have time to check my own inbox.
Conversely, people infrequently announce their rejections from fellowships, jobs, or conferences.
I’ve been fortunate enough over the past four years to receive my fair share of acceptance emails, and on occasion, I’ve even announced my delight on social media; however, a big part of my process of receiving more acceptances has involved learning from plenty of rejection.
I used to keep all of my deadlines in my head and just presumed that I wouldn’t forget any of them. Vaguely, I knew when conference proposals were due and which fellowships might apply to my research interests. I had a bit of success that way, but I also got my share of rejections. I occasionally missed a deadline because it came up more quickly than I anticipated or failed to pull a panel together in time because I didn’t start my work putting it together soon enough. My first few years as a grad student, I learned some of these lessons the hard way, through rejection and the occasional missed opportunity.
I don’t mind be open about those early struggles, failures, and rejections, though. First of all, I’ve learned and changed as I’ve developed as a scholar. Secondly, I recognize that this is part of the process of my learning as a graduate student and good preparation for future efforts to navigate the academic world.
So, what have I learned from all of this?
1) Keep a Spreadsheet
In light of the lessons I’ve learned, I do things differently now. Every August I sit down to prepare an excel sheet to keep track of all upcoming conference, fellowship, and job deadlines for the academic year. This year, as a fourth-year student, I knew I’d spend a lot of my time in the classroom, in the archives, and writing my dissertation, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the many opportunities that would come my way. Missing a few deadlines earlier in my career or being rejected because I knew I didn’t allot the appropriate amount of time to an application taught me a lesson. Knowing the importance of these applications forced me to set myself up to maximize my opportunities for success.
During this process, I also take time to scour fellowship announcements, research library grants, and a variety of other sources of support for graduate students. If I find something that looks like it will apply to my work, I enter it into my spreadsheet, copy the website into the appropriate line, and insert the due date. Most of these opportunities occur annually, so I can find them at any time of the year, and by doing much of the legwork ahead of time, funding opportunities are less likely to sneak up on me. Sure, things come up unexpectedly, but when they do, I put them in the spreadsheet and continue with the process.
With all of that information collected, I can arrange my spreadsheet by due date and pace my work appropriately without the fear of missing an important deadline.
2) Start Conference Planning Early
Plenty of rejections have also taught me quite a bit about the process of putting together panels for conferences. Most crucially, I’ve learned to start earlier rather than later. Sometimes things come together last minute, but I’ve often found more success when I started early. It takes work to put together a dynamic panel and as a graduate student, that meant leaning on my contacts in the field, sending emails to folks I’d never met, and in at least one instance, turning to Twitter to fill a last minute vacancy. It’s work that takes time. An important part of getting your work out there is the process of presenting at conferences, but coordinating between scholars, particularly over email, is something done best with plenty of time to spare.
When setting up a panel, it’s also important to know who you are and pay attention to creating panels that represent the diversity of voices in the field. That’s been hard sometimes, especially because as a graduate student many of my closest colleagues are other graduate students. I know of panels of graduate students that have been accepted at some conferences, but your odds always improve if you are able to folks at diverse points in their career—the same goes for representing all other forms of diversity working in the field. With a bit of time and chutzpah, you can often secure established scholars for a panel. In fact, I’ve often been surprised by how gracious, kind, and encouraging these folks are when approached about panel opportunities.
3) Don’t let fear of rejection stop you.
Rejection can be very hard, and with every letter or email I get, there’s a tinge of disappointment. But I’ve learned not to be afraid of it. More than once in the past year alone, I’ve been happily surprised because I took the time to apply for fellowships or ask well-known scholars to participate in a panel I was developing.
When I look back on my 2018-2019 spreadsheet, it’s a mixed bag. I still got plenty of rejections, but I also met almost every single one of my deadlines with time to spare. At the end of the day though, it was my most successful year by far, particularly for fellowships and panel and paper proposals.
By taking the lessons I learned from rejections earlier in my career, I received three wonderful research grants for the coming year from the Van Raalte Institute in Holland, Michigan, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the New-York Historical Society in New York City. I also managed to snag a small dissertation completion fellowship, which will certainly ease the stress of writing next year and a few conference travel grants. This year, I’ll also have the opportunity to present my work in a variety of contexts, including on panels that I organized at the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Academy of Religion.
Since I started graduate school four years ago, I’ve been rejected a lot. Those rejections have often been difficult, disappointing, or frustrating, but they’ve also been instructive. I’ve learned that rejection is a part of the process. The system I’ve developed isn’t perfect and it certainly doesn’t stop me from getting rejected. Ultimately, though, it works for me. It helped me, as a fourth year Ph.D. candidate, look back at 2018-2019 academic calendar as one filled with both instructive rejections and also plenty of acceptances.
During this past Spring semester, I assisted Dr. Brian Franklin with his survey course on Texas history. It was an excellent experience. The guidance Dr. Franklin imparted was invaluable. He is a model for how to lead a fun and engaging historical survey. Not only did I gain valuable skills from his example, but his willingness to allow me to lead discussion sections and give lectures in class gave me a head start for when I go to create my own syllabi on Texas history. Through Dr. Franklin’s lectures and guidance, as well as my own research in building lectures and discussion exercises, I came to the unequivocal understanding that regional history is global history. I also found that functionally, regional histories offer broad appeal to students through their recognizability and clear demonstration the historian’s craft. Teaching Texas history has offered me an even more positive perspective of regional history than I previously had.
Throughout its history, Texas has been a transnational space. Prior to European contact, indigenous groups migrated into and out of the region competing for trade, space, and natural resources. European attempts to settle Texas created even more contestation over the region as the Spanish and French entered into the already complicated competition over territory. After Mexico gained its independence, the new nation attempted to open Texas for the Atlantic World. Through the empresario system, Mexico contracted with independent agents to promote migration to Texas from Europe and North America. Ultimately, the empresario system drew in thousands of Anglo-Americans from the U.S. South who rebelled against Mexico in order to maintain their own notions of Jacksonian democracy and African chattel slavery. They established the Republic of Texas which became a hotbed of international intrigue and diplomacy that drew in the English, French, United States, and several German principalities. Those diplomatic struggles, particularly over the issues of the cotton trade and African chattel slavery, continued after Texas annexation to the United States and re-engulfed the Atlantic World during the U.S. Civil War. Transnational contestation in Texas remained unceasing.
By the twentieth century, Texas became a place where global conflicts played out. The confluence of the Mexican Revolution, increasing ethnic violence, and the Zimmerman Telegram pushed Texans to support the U.S. entering World War I. Oil speculations and the rising oil and gas economy in Texas helped dictate world economies and American foreign policy. Furthermore, the United States fought portions of the Cold War through Texas. Texas Instruments contributed to U.S. military technology to help build a vast American nuclear arsenal. Religious leaders based in Texas, like Billy Graham, developed theologies to combat Soviet atheism. The world moved in and out of this one region in the middle of North America.
In all of these examples showing how Texas was tied to the globe, teaching Texas history allows for various historical perspectives. Not only can one teach the subject from the points of view of Spain, Mexico, England, the Soviet Union or OPEC, Texas history promotes indigenous, African American, Mexican American, and various gendered perspectives. There is something in this regional history for everyone. Students can certainly find something to latch onto, something meaningful to them.
Even though Texas history is global, it remains a regional history with a limited geographic space that allows students a greater ability for analytical development and to better understand the historian’s craft. Dr. Franklin demonstrated this perfectly through a newspaper project that each student submitted individually. The assignment took place in stages and encouraged students to interact with primary sources throughout the semester. Students chose two separate Texas newspapers within a 3-month period between 1850-1877. They read four editions of each newspaper within their chosen timeframe and identified four topics that stood out to them as either being particularly significant or just interesting. Finally, they drew out the topic that they found most engaging and wrote a final report based on their primary sources and select secondary sources. Students wrote about a vast array of topics from slavery, to the Civil War, to railroad development, to border conflicts, to fashion. I thought the newspaper project a wonderful exercise for students to grasp the significance of Texas history and to learn how historians develop ideas.
I gained so much essential experience in my assistantship with Dr. Franklin. He included me in the early design phase of the course where we discussed possible readings and assignments for the students. We shared in the grading and student advisement. He also generously shared his lecture slides and notes when I got stuck on how best to frame a lecture. Perhaps most importantly, I learned in Dr. Franklin’s course how to construct a survey on a regional history that draws out its global implications.
 Randolph B. Campbell, Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, Third edition (New York ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); Randolph B Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009); Jesús F. de la Teja, Paula Mitchell Marks, and Ronnie C. Tyler, Texas: Crossroads of North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2004); David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
 Patricia Bernstein, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006); H. G Bissinger, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2015). Campbell, Gone to Texas; de la Teja, et. al, Texas: Crossroads of North America.
When I first entered graduate school, one of the last things from my mind was how to develop as a professional historian. I was worried about classes, keeping up with the readings, trying to maintain some semblance of a family life, etc. However, during my first semester it became apparent that participating in professional development outside the classroom was one of the most important activities to build my career in academia. I came to see that conferences, outside speakers, interdisciplinary events, and numerous other occasions help graduate students to learn from other scholars how the craft works. These events all help young historians make important contacts both within and outside their field that can pay dividends in the future. Even historians have to network. It can seem overwhelming, though. How can one totally swamped grad student keep up in the classroom and do all this stuff? Travel can seem totally out of the question as it would take way too much out of necessary reading time, therefore I thought it would be helpful to put together a brief and wholly unexhaustive overview of some the most accessible professional development events at SMU and in DFW.
At SMU, the Clements Center for Southwest Studies offers a variety of resources to build professional historians. The center brings in a group of four fellows of very high academic standing every year and each one gives a free public talk about their research. Further, their offices are located right on SMU’s campus in Dallas Hall where graduate students can pick their brains or just get to know them. The Clements Center also puts on an evening lecture series that hosts some of the best scholars from across the world. Additionally, the center organizes annual symposia of scholars who focus on the Southwest and borderlands who get together and produce a book of essays that relate to given theme. Last year, the “Understanding Global Migration” symposium delivered a two-day public event where scholars of world migrations shared their research.
For those interested in topics outside the Southwest and borderlands, there are similar academic centers located throughout SMU. Anyone interested in politics should definitely check out the Tower Center. The SMU Cox School of Business has the O’Neil Center which often has events about contemporary and historical economic issues. Finally, the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute produces several lecture series and fellowship opportunities for graduate students across campus.
SMU also offers resources for graduate students to become better teachers and to achieve funding for research. The Center for Teaching Excellence has multiple programs, workshops, and even a symposium designed to aid new and seasoned faculty in becoming more effective instructors in both the physical and online classroom. The Office of National Fellowships and Awards guides graduate students to the often-complicated processes of applying for scholarships and funding opportunities. In addition to their comprehensive online guides, the office also provides services to review grant applications so that you submit the best possible application to get the research funding you need.
If you want to meet some outstanding scholars in the DFW area and get out of the SMU bubble, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Most conveniently DASH (Dallas Area Society of Historians) meets monthly in locations at SMU and at TCU in Fort Worth. The organization draws in historians at all levels of the profession, from full professors down to graduate students, that allows for a comfortable atmosphere to socialize and present research. It really is a wonderful way to meet local historians, make connections, and learn how our craft is practiced at the highest level. Additionally, for those interested in religious history should attend the annual conferences of the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies in Irving, Texas every March. Their annual meeting marks a great way to interact with scholars across disciplines in religious studies. DASH and SWCRS make up two excellent local organizations to network and develop professionally.
Another great organization that is inviting and provides an excellent setting for professional development is the Transatlantic History Student Organization at UTA. Not only is THSO a great organization to meet other graduate students at neighboring universities, they host an annual graduate student conference that draws in grad students from all over the country. Their annual conference is a highly professional event that is well organized and allows for young, inexperienced historians to get their feet wet to learn how history conferences work. Whether you want to present a paper or just attend to get the conference experience without having to travel, THSO’s annual event remains a fantastic resource for grad students in DFW.
Obviously, this brief blog post is not an exhaustive list of all the professional development opportunities in DFW. These organizations and opportunities are the those I know about or have experienced first-hand. Those I have experienced have all not only helped me become a better scholar but taught me some of the most important aspects that go into being a professional academic. For those who read this and have additional suggestions, please contribute in the comments.
In Professor Ariel Ron’s Graduate Colloquium,
U.S. History, 1812-1877, I wrote a historiographical paper on the early development of agriculture in California. Since I wanted to broaden my understanding of U.S. agriculture, I knew that I wanted to continue to research themes that related to agriculture in forthcoming courses. Thus, I met with Professor Crista DeLuzio on a September evening to discuss my intentions for her fall colloquium on U.S. History from 1877-1929. In her office, we discussed my research interests, which helped me choose a topic for my historiographical assignment. During our conversation, I realized that I wanted to study women’s role in agricultural labor during the decades surrounding the twentieth century. I presented my idea to Professor DeLuzio and she approved my topic. As the semester progressed, I found only a handful of books and articles that addressed the subject in depth. Historians, of this field, raised questions about women’s role in agriculture. For example, what was the role of African American women in agriculture? How did women affect family farms? How did women’s labor differ throughout the United States? How did women perform agricultural labor alongside their husbands and sons? Ultimately, I was surprised to find that there are few works that discusses women’s role in agricultural labor from 1870-1920.
Marion Barthelme’s Women in the Texas Populist Movement: Letters to the Southern Mercuryreveals the speeches, essays, and letters women wrote to the influential Southern Mercury. The Farmers’ Alliance recognized the Southern Mercury’s significance in advancing policies of the Populist Movement. In her work, Bartheleme publishes the original documents, so readers can understand how women felt about everyday experiences. Women wrote letters that discussed themes such as: politics, farm life, women’s suffrage, education, clothing, temperance, as well as other matters. Through government advancements of the nuclear family, women were often characterized as individuals who focused on the nurture of their households. However, Texan women worked outside of their homes by helping men in fields and pastures. Women collected goods in gardens and pastures to exchange them for necessary commodities. During periods of economic downturns, however, women continued to financially struggle. While they kept on working in and outside of the home, their work did not bring them the financial security they needed. Thus, through Barthelme’s work, I was able to observe one trend of women in agricultural labor.[i]
From Mary Neth’s Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940, I learned about women’s agricultural labor in a different region. Neth acknowledges the gender inequalities that existed even in most cooperative family farms; however, men, women, and children cast aside such inequalities to preserve their farms as agribusiness grew in the Midwest. While historians have characterized such instances as opportunities for women’s resistance, Neth argues that Midwestern women put their families before themselves. By participating in field labor and family care, women created commodities such as poultry flocks and eggs for their families as well as the market. Also, young boys and girls dug and planted potatoes, picked berries, and set tobacco. Families utilized these subsistence mechanisms to stabilize their household budgets, so they would not be bought off by agribusiness agents. Neth describes how certain commodities required women’s labor. For example, in Wisconsin, mothers and daughters gathered tobacco. Since farmers could not afford to employ many laborers, all family members often worked together in tobacco fields. Thus, families kept some of their purchasing power by not hiring additional labor. Women’s work in pastures and field was clear. In times of government surveys of agricultural production, however, women reported that they only helped in production. Therefore, women’s full participation in agricultural production was unintentionally overlooked.[ii]
By the turn of the twentieth century, women’s role in agricultural labor significantly increased during World War I. Cecilia Gowdy Wygant’s Cultivating Victory: The Woman’s Land Army and the Victory Garden Movement examines British and American women’s role in agricultural labor during both World Wars. Wygant argues that between 1900 and 1950 both British and American governments utilized images of agrarian women as symbols of nationalism which questioned their roles in farming and gardening. Once the U.S. joined the Allies in World War I, the federal government created the Women’s Land Army of America (WLAA). The WLAA trained women, so they could serve as agricultural workers. Women’s groups and college campuses created agricultural training programs for women with the WLAA’s help. For example, the University of Virginia taught women how to plow, harrow, till land, and prepare land by horse-drawn plows. Women who completed the training were known as “farmerettes.” Through such endeavors, women contributed to the war effort by producing food for their respective nations. More importantly, women’s strong participation in agricultural labor reinterpreted women’s role in agriculture as well as society. For example, the WLAA recommended better labor standards for agricultural laborers. They advocated for better cleanliness in living quarters to protect workers and the food supply. Also, the group called for improved boarding, compensation, and working conditions when they were employed. Women used these organizations to change some of the unfair practices in agriculture. While they were not always successful, their activism altered perceptions of normal agricultural practices such as conditions of living quarters.
While these were not the only books I reviewed for my historiographical paper about women’s role in agricultural labor during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, they were the most influential. I learned a great deal from this assignment. However, I concluded there are still many questions that should be addressed about this topic. What was the role of women in agricultural labor in regions such as the Southwest or the Southeast? Did these roles vary by ethnic groups? How did women’s roles change through their participation in agricultural labor? While I have not solely focused on such questions, I will continue to observe how the scholarship has changed. As my research continues, I may be able to answer some of these questions in the future.[iii]
[ii]Mary Neth, Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 2,7, 12, 19, 20, 21, 23, 31,39.