From Student to Art Historian: Transitioning into Professionalism

Posted in graduate students, interviews by Editor on December 1, 2011

As Enfilade’s internship program continues to develop and finds its way, I’m happy to give a large public word of thanks to Amanda Strasik as her two-months with us draws to an end. She’s done a fantastic job tracking down material — much of which was posted under her name (though plenty of things appeared generically under the ‘editor’ label). Even more, she patiently put up with my hectic fall schedule. Here, in her final posting, she, as a first-year Ph.D student, contemplates what the end of her graduate training might bring — all with the help of Amber Ludgwig, whom she interviewed for the essay. Many thanks, Amanda! -CH

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In ruminating over the development of academic identity, I’m grateful to Dr. Amber Ludwig for her insights. — AS

s a new Ph.D. student immersed in the world of the classroom, I’ve already noticed that it’s easy to become absorbed in my own research and neglect greater thought to the existence of the professional world of art history—the very world I’m striving to join. While the completion of my graduate work lies in the distant future, I’ve begun to consider the evolution of my own identity as a young scholar, progressing toward the “transitional phase” that all successful graduate students eventually face, the period when one looks to the job market but still has not entirely shed the identity of a student. In an effort to help demystify the “transition” from student to professional in terms of the development of scholarly identity, Dr. Amber Ludwig, a 2011 doctoral graduate of Boston University, kindly volunteered to share some of her experiences as she went from a “deferential graduate student to a commanding ‘doctor.’” Currently a Curatorial Assistant at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Interim Co-Director of the University of Hawaii Art Gallery, Dr. Ludwig has, through her own insights, encouraged me to conjoin, rather than separate, my identity as a student-professional, in the course of pursuing my own career as a young art historian.

During our interview, Amber mentioned that the dissertation writing process was a period of time when she felt very much alone with her thoughts. As a student, she worked independently on topics of her choosing, and she was really responsible only to the professors on her dissertation committee. In addition to the personal enjoyment she found in her subject matter, the notion of introducing new ideas to the field of eighteenth-century art history was inspiring in itself. Now as a museum professional, she’s been forced to adapt to a more “team-like” setting that is constrained by budgetary restrictions and the specific interests of the university audience. While this framework alleviates much of the “what comes next” pressure, it’s a very different working environment than graduate school.

Amber notes, for instance, that whereas her audience was previously dominated by her adviser, it’s now large and varied in terms of scholarly backgrounds — and she adds, “surprisingly more critical!” She credits the dissertation defense as an “incredibly helpful exercise” for instilling confidence in one’s work. She also stresses that the dissertation process is the beginning of one’s career, not the end. Thus, the dissertation is not simply about exhibiting expertise on a particular subject; rather, one is expected to “use the lessons learned throughout the process to improve one’s scholarship and professional practice.” In Amber’s case, she found herself constantly evaluating and re-evaluating how she could improve both her argument and the process itself in order to transition into the professional world more confidently confidently.[i]

As I evaluate my own development of scholarly identity and moments of academic self-discovery, I asked Amber if she had any advice that might make the transition from grad student to professional a little less intimidating. In response, she emphasized the value of presenting at conferences. The experience not only builds students’ confidence to speak authoritatively about their work, but also facilitates networking among others with similar interests.

She concluded our interview with a thought that has made a real impression me: don’t take criticism too personally. For a quasi-sensitive graduate student like me, criticism of one’s academic performance is both necessary and terrifying. And so I’m going to do my best to keep her words in mind: “if you were already perfect, there would be no need for education. Think of it as money well spent.”

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[i] For an interesting take on the dissertation as the beginning of one’s academic career, see Karen Kelsky’s article, “Dissertation Limits,” from InsideHigherEd.com (12 September 2011). Kelsky explains how little, in her opinion, the dissertation itself matters in the bigger picture for a prospective academic job candidate. It’s an intriguing perspective when thinking about the formation of a graduate student’s scholarly identity.

3 Responses

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  1. Michael Yonan said, on December 1, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Interesting discussion. Really appreciated Amber’s and Amanda’s comments. The Kelsky article linked to here, in my opinion, maybe overstresses the perfunctoriness of a dissertation. While never exactly fun, it can be really exciting to research and plan a larger project, which for most of us happens for the first time only with the dissertation. And I hope art history dissertations never become, as one commenter over there said, just three articles stapled together with some filler. Eeek!

    Does it seem to the current crop of grad students that expectations for them are getting higher and higher? Is this just my perception, or do others notice this as well? It worries me a bit. I wonder if the forces of academia aren’t shaping graduate study with a truly impossible set of expectations. I think forming a scholarly identity is a lot to ask of a grad student–not sure I’ve even formulated mine yet…

    • Editor said, on December 2, 2011 at 1:57 am

      Thanks, Michael, for the good observations. I hope that our graduate-level readers find them reassuring. Perhaps one common thread would simply be that we all continue to learn and develop as scholars. There are important mile-stones to be sure (and the finished Ph.D. is a big one), but ‘arriving’ seems rather more difficult to pin down. All of this calls to mind for me a conversation I had as an early doctoral student with the brilliant Medievalist, Michael Camille, with whom I was then taking a seminar; he really gave me permission not to have everything figured out as a student. I remember leaving his office with a terrific sense of relief. Good advice, indeed. -CH

  2. Amber Ludwig said, on December 5, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I agree with Michael that the dissertation is an exciting project. When I became frustrated with the writing and research, I would often remind myself that there would be very few times in my life when I could work on a single project, uninterrupted, for months on end. Best of luck to Amanda and many thanks to Craig for suggesting this interview!

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