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Second Ph.D. in history?

  1. May 12, 2010 #1
    I am a 28 year-old postdoctoral scholar at a major research university on the West Coast. Two years ago I finished my Ph.D. in physics at another major research university on the East Coast and now I am considering getting a second Ph.D. in history.

    I have regretfully concluded after much thinking that I do not want either to teach science or to continue doing research in science (be it physics, which is what my PhD is in, or any other science, for that matter).

    So I have been considering going back to graduate school to be a historian, which has always been one of my greatest passions. I feel that I would be much, much happier in the humanities than in the sciences. I do not like the lifestyle of a scientist anymore, especially the tedium of working on taxing problems for hours without end, applying for grants, writing scientific papers, thinking about science all the time, etc.

    This change in my perception of what I want from life has come about quite gradually throughout the past 6-7 years. When I started on my PhD I was very motivated, whereas now I am almost entirely unmotivated to continue on a scientific career path. And I am not interested in working in industry either as I do not feel that I belong there.

    Without going into complex details, I definitely feel that I made a big mistake long ago by going into science. Maybe this is not even the right board for this.

    I would like to know if anyone could offer any advice regarding my situation. I got the idea from other boards that PhD holders are generally discouraged by admission committees to pursue a second PhD. I probably wouldn't mind being a historian of science, but I cannot find any opportunities for such a thing anywhere given my background.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 12, 2010 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    And you think historians live on the different planet?
  4. May 12, 2010 #3
    Don't take my question the wrong way; but are you wealthy or do you have a wealthy benefactor? I understand the employment opportunities for physicists are tight right now, but I would imagine they're probably far better than the opportunities for professional historians.

    I share your love for history. With me it's been lifelong. But I never once considered trying to earn a living as a historian. Also the academic grind you describe for physics is likely to be far worse for historical research. How many government grants are there for research, say on the decline of the Merovigian dynasty? (Not many, even in France.)

    At 28, you need to be realistic. Can't you find some area of physics that provides at least some satisfaction? You can (like me) indulge your love of history on your own. I find my myself correcting "experts" on the American Civil War all the time. Do you know how many books have been written on this war and on Abraham Lincoln?

    I don't know your national origin or where you plan to work, but history, unlike physics, tends to be local. Perhaps in your country there is a lack of historical research and the government will be supportive. Otherwise, if I were in this position, I would think very hard about abandoning my career for what could be a rewarding avocation, without it being a profession.
    Last edited: May 12, 2010
  5. May 13, 2010 #4
    I think you don't realize connection between all the sciences (be it natural or social, etc.). In the deepest level, they are all very similar - but differ in their criteria for what is "proof" and establishment of results.

    I have spoken on such topics and other philosophical issues concerning current state of history and the subject in general with several history professors at my university, and after discussing issues of locating proof and writing history books, it all became clear. The idea is basically the same as in science, but method of proof differs. In history you go look at Archive and regular archives to find evidence, then you write a book on something and all you do there is trying to prove your point using the evidence you collect. Historical proof should be in such a way, that another professional historian can come around - check your sources, and come to same conclusion as you do.

    This is clearly very similar to science, where you need reproducible data and everything is supported by evidence (every new theory and model that is).

    That said, couple that with historians needing grants for traveling all the time (suppose you're doing research on West Africa, you are not going to do it without every visiting the place and collecting data, are you?). Also, you point out that you need hard tedious work for hours in natural sciences to get results. Guess what, you will be spending hours and hours in Archive and collecting evidence in history. On top of that, original view about some subject will be very difficult to come up with and also to prove after.

    Thus, if you dislike the things you listed above, history is not for you also. The problem that you have, as I see it, is not with physics, but with doing research in general - unless of course you just don't like to use math and computers but you like writing and different methods of data gatherings. So give it a thought.
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