Discussion

Are Graduate Students Having Fun?

Amanda I. Seligman, September 2002

Editor's Note: The following is one of the letters received in response to AHA President Lynn Hunt's recent presidential column essays on various subjects.

Dear Professor Hunt:

I am writing to let you know that I have been haunted by your column in the February issue of Perspectives, in which you asked whether professionalization has gone too far—or rather, whether graduate students are having fun. As a recent PhD (1999) who loves her job and does have fun doing it, I think you are dead on to point out this problem. I think I have been so struck by this column because I feel a bit ripped off to realize that I should have been having more fun in graduate school!

I did, in fact, have fun, but not as much as you suggest is ideal. When I thought about this in the midst of reading your essay, I wondered how I managed to have any fun at all, since I certainly had all the rational anxieties about whether I would be able to get a job at the end of the line. How did I have fun, as you put it, intellectually? I was deeply engaged outside the university. First, I had a job that put me to work writing history for the public. Second, I was very much involved in an antiracism initiative at my church, which not only constantly held up before me the moral implications of my scholarship but also ended up helping me to frame my dissertation in entirely unanticipated ways once I found sources that pushed me to those new areas as well. Both of these external activities constantly reminded me of the importance of the work that I was doing and hoped to do. In short, my work was meaningful and exciting because I knew I was not writing a dissertation that would sit alone in the library for eternity.

It seems to me that more history graduate students should be put to work on projects other than their own research, maybe within, maybe outside, the university setting where they are getting their degrees. I also wonder if some cross-disciplinary examinations might be useful. Are science graduate students who work in their advisers' labs more excited, having more fun, than history grad students? Maybe.

—Amanda I. Seligman
Urban Studies Programs
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee