Why a PhD? Why History?

Why would you study History? Why would you do a PhD? Why would you sacrifice several years of your life for something that perhaps only a dozen people will read? What are you doing with your life?

Questions like this haunt a History PhD student, and every person will have their own personal reply to these questions. There is the well worn answers that I give lightheartedly “It keeps me off the streets at night”; “I was thinking of doing business but the real world scares me”; “Why get a job? I want to stay in college forever”.

Most people who ask this question are not actually looking for an answer and are simply trying to take you down a peg, believing that PhD students are an entitled and arrogant bunch, which some probably are, however all PhD’s quickly realise the truth about doing a PhD. It only represents determination, not intelligence.

For me I started my PhD looking to learn more about people that have been overlooked in history. To tell a story that has not been told before. The path of my dissertation has conveniently overlapped with my goal to try and understand that enigmatic country the United States of America. It is a source of confusion and consternation to me that, as I am researching nineteenth century society, I can see so many parallels with the inequalities that existed then and those that exist now. As an optimist I hoped that we could learn from the past! But that is a topic for another day. For me, a student of history, this PhD research is also an odyssey of learning for myself, and as my life and my learning has taken me to many strange and wonderful places so far, I hope that this blog will trace and catalogue some of those changes as I continue on this journey.

What are you doing with your life? Learning. I cannot give a better answer.

Some advice that I live by under a statue of some dead guy in a toga in Washinton D.C.


About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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