Thursday, August 23, 2012

From the J.D. to the Ph.D.: My Two Cents

Karen's post prompts me to offer two pieces of advice that occur to me when I look back on my transition, almost thirty years ago, from the J.D. to the Ph.D.  First, it is okay to skim.  You will never make it through a thousand-page weekly assignment if you read every word like it was in the UCC.  I’m still only up to page 357 of Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic.

Second, a doctoral program in history is professional training, too.  To elaborate: that law school is training for a profession, with its own norms, ethics, and institutions, is obvious on the first day of almost any law school.  Depending on the school, however, you might not realize at first that law is also an intellectual discipline, with its own canonical works (a point Josh makes in his post).  Because of how I was introduced to history (thank you, Mary Kelley, Charles Wood and Michael Ermarth), I understood that it involved the mastery of a literature, but I only gradually came to understand that it was also a profession, one centered in the academe but not confined to it, with its own norms about what work is worthy and how to pursue it.  Even if there hadn’t been popular books describing the first year of law school I would have realized that it was predominantly a process of socialization into a profession, but because I knew of no One L or Paper Chase for doctoral programs in history, I was more at sea about what professional socialization meant in one.  That said, I’m not sure that having a semi-fictional vantage point from which to observe my first years of graduate study would have helped all that much.  Just as you can’t take the first year of law school ironically, you also have to throw yourself into the professional study of history.

The challenge then becomes figuring out how to reconcile your two different professions–how to draw upon what you took all that time to learn in law school without letting it dictate what you should learn in a doctoral program.  Having mentors who understand both worlds is an enormous help (thank you, Stan Katz and Dirk Hartog), but ultimately every person who confronts that puzzle has to solve it on her or his own.

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