Matt Saionz is a 2011 graduate of the MA in History Program at Virginia Tech. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in History at the University of Florida.
Q: After graduating from Virginia Tech’s M.A. program, what have you done professionally?
A: After earning my M.A. from the program in 2011, the Virginia Tech history department generously offered me an adjunct position for the following academic year. I jumped on that fantastic opportunity to build a teaching portfolio and prepare my applications to Ph.D. programs. In the fall of 2012, I began my studies at the University of Florida, where I worked through a couple years of coursework, took my exams, and conducted research for my dissertation. With a lot of material from archives in Mexico and the United States, I am currently writing my dissertation and working on some conference presentations and potential publications.
Q: What is one thing that you did at Virginia Tech that aided you in your professional or academic path?
A: The program at Virginia Tech can be best understood as a compressed, intense 2-year version of a Ph.D. Program. Looking back on my time in the department, I really can’t believe how much we did in such a short span: took a full load of classes, performed TA duties, developed an original research project, researched and wrote a sizeable three-chapter thesis, organized a conference, and, in some cases, taught a class as the instructor of record. All of these tasks aided me in one way or another since my time there. However, in my personal experience, having the opportunity to teach my own class in my final semester at Virginia Tech has been particularly rewarding. In addition to helping me land that adjunct position, the experience allowed me to begin teaching my own courses at the University of Florida much earlier than most and has therefore put me in a favorable position once I go onto the job market.
Q: What advice would you give current or future students wanting to pursue a path similar to yours?
A: There are a few things I would advise. First, if you’re unsure about committing to a Ph.D. program and a possible career as a professional historian, do consider a terminal M.A. If you are not beaten into the ground and are still enthusiastic about all things history by the end, then perhaps a Ph.D. is in your future. It’s a grueling, long, tedious process, and a terminal M.A. is a good way to figure out what you can handle and what you want long-term. Second, do take seriously the poor academic job market in history (and the humanities in general). Thankfully, a growing number of programs and graduate coordinators are being honest with their students and educating them about alternate career paths. It’s important to keep an open mind when it comes to jobs, but I also think it’s essential not to settle for a job you won’t be happy with. If you can only envision yourself as a full-tenured professor at a research institution and absolutely cringe at the thought of anything else, then, frankly, consider another line of work. But there are shades of gray in this field across the public and private sectors, and if you are open to working for the government (all levels) or a museum, at least for a time, then proceed! Third (and this connects to the next question), it should be a top priority to develop and maintain a life outside of graduate school and work. There will always be more reading to do, papers to write, assignments to grade, research to conduct, etc. Do not let graduate school jeopardize your happiness, because it will if you let it. Go out, volunteer, date, watch football, cook, practice your hobbies, or go for a run. If you can work out a healthy balance between your professional and personal lives, you’ll find that one rewards the other. Remember that, despite what your parents might think, graduate school is your job, and you’re allowed to have fun.
Q: What has been a major challenge you have encountered in your career? How have you dealt with it?
A: Given my path from an M.A. program at one school to a Ph.D. program at another, the burn-out factor has been in play at times. Most schools don’t allow graduate coursework to transfer, so I suspect this isn’t uncommon. By the time I finally took my exams, I had three to fours years of coursework under my belt. The weekly grind became difficult and I wasn’t always as motivated as I would have liked. The prospect of dealing with my own research and projects ultimately carried me through, and I would recommend that students facing this problem should do something similar. To be perfectly honest, I still haven’t fully re-emerged and find it difficult to focus at times. Ultimately, what one eventually realizes is that remaining invigorated and energized professionally requires a dedication to also groom and grow a fulfilling personal life.
Q: What are your plans from here?
A: My immediate plans are admittedly rather modest: write the dissertation and finish. If I can publish an article or two along the way, even better. As I begin to think more seriously about job prospects, non-academic careers become more and more appealing (and realistic). Government jobs in particular can be fulfilling. While I would miss the chance to teach regularly, an employer like, say, the National Park Service would afford me ample opportunities to do my own research and, importantly, bridge that still-wide gap between professional historians and the general public.