"The History department taught me the historian’s ability to see the present in all its dimensionality—arguments about the present become much more fruitful when you understand where the present came from."
Pursuing D.Phil in Politics, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
First Job after Graduation:
Policy researcher for a think tank in Santa Barbara, California
How did you end up pursuing your career? Do you have any advice for students contemplating similar career paths? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were an undergraduate?
After finishing up the History co-term at Stanford, I knew I wanted to spend some time doing practical policy research before eventually going back to school. In the long term, I knew I wanted to be either a) an academic or b) a lawyer and eventually a judge; in the short term, though, I wanted to apply the research skills I’d acquired while working on my History honors thesis to real-world policy problems, and see what the real world was like out there.
I ended up gaining some very positive practical experience at the think tank I joined. I learned how to present work to the public in a clear and straightforward way; was given the opportunity to work on research that was eventually picked up by a few major newspapers; and learned how to produce high volumes of material in a fast-paced work environment where I didn’t have the luxury of taking weeks to finish an essay, as I had at Stanford. I still really value those practical experiences, and I think they’ve helped me to become a more mature and more effective thinker and communicator.
In the end, working for a think tank reinforced for me one of the foremost values of the academy: being able to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and to follow the truth regardless of where it might lead you. Three years ago, I headed off to Oxford to pursue an M.Phil (the Oxford M.A. equivalent), this time in Politics. I’m now on the D.Phil and hoping to begin an academic career in political philosophy.
Everyone’s path is different - and I’m still figuring mine out! - and so the advice I would give students at this point is pretty limited. I do think that it can be valuable for students considering law or academia to enter the job market and gain some practical work experience right after graduation. You might find that you love the work and run with it - if so, great! And if you don’t, I think you can gain a deeper and more complex appreciation for the value of the academy by being outside its walls for a while. I appreciated how wonderful it is to be in a place where your only job is learning as much as you can to a greater degree after I came back to school, and I’ve heard similar things from colleagues.
Has your History training helped you along the way - and if so, how?
My History training at Stanford has been incredibly helpful in so many ways, some instrumental and some intrinsic. Instrumentally, my History training taught me how to maintain a good working memory for facts and data — and then synthesize those facts and data into a clear, coherent, and accessible argument. This is a skill as valuable for lawyers and analysts as it is for journalists and politicians, and it’s a skill I think a Stanford History degree inculcates particularly well. If you want to go into research, law, journalism, or policy, I think a Stanford History degree is, instrumentally speaking, a really terrific choice.
More intrinsically, the History department taught me the historian’s ability to see the present in all its dimensionality — by which I just mean that arguments about the present become much more fruitful when you understand where the present came from, and what the present might look like when it turns into the future. The historian is able to see, almost telescopically, in at least two of those dimensions and have a decent stab at the third, which I think makes our understanding of the reality we live in a little fuller and more complete. I’ve found my History training intrinsically enriching in this way, and it’s led me to look at the world differently.
Do you have any particularly fond memories of the History Department?
Four years out from Stanford, if I could go back and do it all over again, I would unquestionably still major in History and take the same courses with the same professors. I owe the joy that was my undergrad experience in the History Department to the amazing faculty in general and to a few professors in particular - James Campbell, Matthew Sommer, and Martin Lewis - with whom I took as many classes as humanly possible and whose courses I eagerly scanned the course catalogue for every term. The 106 intro series with Professor Lewis taught me more about the world in three quarters than I thought I would learn in a lifetime; Professor Sommer’s graduate classes in late imperial Chinese history inspired me to pursue graduate-level work for the first time; Professor Campbell’s brilliant lectures, from his sophomore-year History of South Africa survey to his mentorship during his intensive research seminar, were models I continue to (try to) emulate in my own writing and teaching. I owe them so much - thank you.