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Reflections on my experience as PhD student, halfway through the program

As a third year student, I am more than halfway through the PhD program. So I thought now is as good a time as any to reflect.
In the same spirit of making public my undergraduate application to study at Columbia and my PhD application to study at Michigan, I am sharing the exam essays I wrote as a PhD student. When applying to Columbia, Oxford, Cambridge, and now Michigan, I struggled to find online example essays and statements that had worked for other applicants. In my case, I was fortunate to have academic parents to read my application statements and college professors to mentor me on how they saw admissions from the other side of the table. But I also realize that most applicants do not have these kinds of advantages in their social networks and must rely more on the internet for advice.
After 40 credits of coursework to be completed in no more than two years, I am expected to take a series of exams that qualify me to write the dissertation. When applying to PhD programs, I had no idea there were prelim exams or what the requirements were. Each prelim exam is different, unique to the student and my relationship with the faculty committee members on my dissertation. The exams consist of four things:

1. A Prelim Reading List: books assigned to me by committee members Robert Fishman, Ana Morcillo Pallarés, and Matthew Lassiter.
This list is the basis for their two questions.

2. A Minor Essay on Metropolitan History: written in 48 hours timed environment

3. A Major Essay on 20th-c. Urban History: written in 96 hours

4. A 90-minute exam with full committee to grill me on knowledge of reading list and topics not covered in the essays

I am posting them online, not as a “model” for what the ideal exam should look like and more as an inflection point and sample of the document that the members on your committee could expect you to write some day. In full disclosure, I am also sharing the draft of what will become my PhD proposal and the rough draft of three chapters completed. Maybe this reduces the cultural capital required to succeed at elite institutions. At the least, it is the kind of document I wish I could have had and known about when I was applying to PhD programs.

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Some Thoughts on Cultural Capital

Within the community of people who study history, there are different categories of scholars: academic historians (with advanced degrees at research universities), local historians, and independent historians (not associated with any university). As much as the PhD is a research degree, it is also structured as test that restricts the number of people qualified to teach within the research university. I think of it as a guild. The medieval guild of 15th-century Florence required applicants to submit a piece of virtuoso art, the best piece they could produce as public demonstration of their talent. Only after passing the test could artists call themselves a member of the guild and be licensed to sell their product in Florence. The models and assumptions of the PhD are similar to the medieval model of guild. The professor with a PhD is presumed “qualified.” Of course, this ignores times when community-generated research and the work of independent scholars is superior to the work of people with PhDs, when people outside the guild have more to contribute to society than people inside it.
My own activism in Newark spans Landmarks Commissioner to approve or deny building applications in historic districts, historic preservationist against demolition in my own neighborhood, archivist for the library’s collection of historic maps, and now PhD student writing my dissertation about the causes and origins of New Jersey’s urban-suburban racial wealth gap.
In this journey, I have probably met more scholars I admire who are outside academia than inside academia: the library archivist who assists homeless men browse the internet; my neighbor who dropped out of high school to repair business machines but speaks about politics with more wit and intelligence than most college professors; or my other neighbor who repaired every home on his street with the muscle of his hands and now lives four generations in one house since the Great Migration. In some ways, these are the people who make my work real. They are not the academics who study history from the distance of Oxford or Ann Arbor; they are the people who experienced history: the redlining that punished black home buyers, the higher mortgage rates charged to black folk, and the material evidence of segregation embedded in their own (my own) built environment.
Every institution operates according to unwritten norms and beliefs. Oxford and Cambridge excel at this. As a student at Oxford and now Michigan, I can say that the quality of classroom instruction at Michigan is in many ways superior to Oxford. For classics, European history, and some art history: Oxford is ideal. For sociology, research on the racial wealth gap, and opportunities for public scholarship: Michigan is ideal. Michigan’s PhD programs are funded four to six years with current stipend set at $38,000. Oxford and Cambridge are funded three years max at stipend $24,000 with near automatic expulsion beyond year four. The opportunities to teach as graduate student instructor are also non-existent at Oxford, and about half of PhD students are self funded by this British model.
Yet Oxford and Cambridge do excel at giving their alumni “cultural capital.” They teach graduates to speak a certain way, write a certain way, hold their knives at a certain angle at the dinner table, and all of the subtle social cues that communicate social class in cocktail room settings. As inane as these things sound, these behaviors probably translate into higher lifetime earnings, a way to demonstrate allegiance and belonging within the “in group.” French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls these behaviors “cultural capital.” It is not financial wealth, but it is cultural wealth that often translates into financial wealth. Sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack describes similar levers of power that keep elite institutions white and wealthy in his book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Admitting poor students to elite spaces is one thing in the name of affirmative action. Keeping them at these institutions, and making sure they feel comfortable there is another.
In some ways, I think I struggle with my own awkward positionality between these two spaces: between the elite spaces of the corporate university that pays me a stipend and the non-elite spaces of the city that inspires my research.
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