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Becoming a “Bilkent Historian”


Individuals considering the pursuit of a Master of Arts or Doctor of Philosophy in History at Bilkent University normally have a desire to read about people and events from the past. While a valid purpose for studying history, that alone does not qualify an applicant to become a historian. Anyone can read twenty or thirty books and “study history.” By seeking an advanced degree in history, a candidate is declaring an interest in the past to be more than just reading history books.

In joining Bilkent University’s Department of History, students will be among peers and faculty seeking to devote their lives toward becoming academic historians. Graduate students will be expected to dedicate themselves to earning both an MA and Ph.D. in some area of History at Bilkent. Such a life-long commitment must not be made lightly but it must be made nonethelessif one is to succeed. To assist in making this very important decision, this article provides some idea of what it means to be a historian, what is expected of a graduate student in History at Bilkent University, and what can be anticipated after graduation.

What is a historian? In general, a historian is a person who studies the past to gain a better understanding of the human condition. Human experience is very broad and includes not only persons, places, and events but also what affects the human condition: society, farming, disease, culture, business, labor, education, art, religion, war, diplomacy, newspapers, literature, ideas, politics, economics, the environment, and many, many other areas.

Historians usually focus their work in three ways. The first is geographic (the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Asia, or Africa are some examples). A second way is by selecting fields of interest (diplomatic, political, economic, military, social, or cultural history are but a few choices). The third is by period (either a time frame such as the 17th Century or an “age” such as Classical, the Enlightenment or Gilded).

History is not a science therefore historians are not scientists. Historians do not conduct experiments, attempt to falsify theories, or seek to predict future outcomes. Instead, historians study the past for its own sake and what it suggests about the human condition. Historians study history broadly to encompass as much of the human experience as possible, in depth to understand details, and in context to appreciate what life was like at the time and place under investigation. Where the political scientist or international relations academic attempts to explain today’s issues, the historian seeks to understand what life was like for people and their environment hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Bilkent University’s Department of History faculty contains experts in many areas of History but not all of them; thus the candidate must ensure that their interests closely match a faculty member who can guide their study. This is especially the case when working on a Ph.D.

What do historians do? Historians examine the past in an attempt to understand how and why things happen, how and why people think the way they did at a particular time, why change or the lack of it occurs over time and with what results. From such study, historians try to figure out the patterns of human life. For example, an historian might scrutinize 11th Century Europe to gain insight into why William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. Historians do not stop there but also explore how the invasion changed both conquered and conquerors through politics, economics, language, art, customs, laws and a host of other reasons.

Historians share their findings with others by publishing books and journal articles; therefore a historian must be interested in writing as well as reading about the past. Historians also attend conferences where they present academic papers about their work and open themselves to criticism from colleagues with similar interests. They also share their views by teaching others about their subject. Within the History Department at Bilkent, students read from many sources, conduct research in libraries and archives, and write numerous papers to develop their skills as an historian.

How do historians study the past? Historians consult a variety of sources and think about the meaning of what they have read. They not only read books, journal articles, newspapers, and magazines but also official and unofficial documents, diaries, letters, personal papers, and anything else that can help them better understand the past. Historians also use evidence from other disciplines such as archaeology, numismatics, anthropology, and linguistics.

Much of the material historians seek is located in archives in both native and foreign languages. To conduct research, historians may be required to visit various archives within the country or in foreign lands. Research trips can be expensive and require funds provided by the historian or through competitive research grants from the private and public sectors. Thus, an historian must be an investigator, a detective, and a researcher who hunts for clues, answers questions, and resolves problems.

Historians must have strong analytical skills, for they compile evidence, determine its value, and make sense out of it. They may conduct interviews with people who lived through past events. In the search for understanding, historians may use techniques from other fields such as sociology, political science, journalism, anthropology, international relations, and culture and literature among a few disciplines.

History students at Bilkent University must read, write, and speak English, as it is the language of instruction. In addition, students may be required to master other languages depending upon research topics and the languages contained within both the primary and secondary sources under investigation. For example, Ottomanist historians at Bilkent must understand Ottoman Turkish and possibly other languages to include Arabic, Persian, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, or others depending upon the thesis/dissertation topic. Europeanists are also expected to be able to translate languages commensurate with their interests such as Latin, Greek, or French. For American History, a student might be required to understand and translate German, French, or Spanish depending upon the scope of study.

What can I do with a Bilkent University MA or Ph.D. in History? The History faculty views the MA as a step toward the Ph.D. and expects each student to have intentions of continuing in that way, preferably at Bilkent University. Some students have gone on to Ph.D. work at another institution in Turkey or abroad but the opportunities and the advisability for this direction depends very much on the individual student and the subject of study. Some students finish their studies at the MA level, either because the students’ plans change or because they are found unsuitable for Ph.D. work.

Within Turkey, the prospects for a graduate with an MA in History are the same as other Master-level degree holders: oneindicator that the individual is disciplined and bright enough to achieve an advanced degree. The possibility exists that a Bilkent graduate with an MA in History may teach courses at Turkey’s college (high school) level. Perhaps a position within government service or in the commercial sector is also attainable, though in many cases the student’s MA studies will be of only indirect benefit in a non-academic career.

For those students who do go on to achieve a Ph.D., it is hoped that they will find an academic position at a private or state university within Turkey as more history departments are established in the coming years. Some students may be able to attain a position in other academic departments such as American Culture and Literature, International Relations or Political Science. A few graduates may be able to compete for post-doctoral work or an academic position in other countries depending upon their qualifications but this is very difficult.

How can I find out more about the History profession? The Bilkent Department of History faculty is available to advise individuals interested in graduate studies that lead toward becoming an historian. We also suggest the following books that discuss historians and the history profession in general.

Black, Jeremy and Donald M. McRaild, Studying History, 2d ed. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Breisach, Ernst, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Carr, E.H., What Is History?, 2d ed. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

 Marius, Richard, A Short Guide to Writing About History, 3d ed. New York: Longman, 1999.