Timothy Newfield graduated with a PhD in History in 2011. He is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the Department of Biology at Georgetown University.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?
I went to university in order to become a high school history teacher. In the second year of my undergraduate at York University, I started volunteering at a high school and quickly discovered it was not for me. The volunteering experience was difficult, to put it mildly. At York it was made apparent to me that I could do history professionally. I concentrated in pre-modern European history and the professor that took me under his wing was a pre-modern Europeanist. He helped me prepare for a Master’s program and it just took off from there.
Q: How did you end up in your current position as an Assistant Professor of both history and biology?
I applied for a job and placed second in the interview process. I did well enough at my on-campus visit for the history department that the department, in connection with the provost, who was interested at the time in making cross-disciplinary hires, brought me back to campus to do a job talk in biology. I was hired in both departments. Twenty-five percent in biology and seventy-five percent in history.
Q: Did you get that position right out of the PhD?
No. I did five and a half years of postdocs, which is unusual for someone in the humanities. I decided to apply for a SSHRC postdoc in my fourth year of my PhD and I got it. If I did not defend my thesis within a certain period of time, I would lose the postdoc. I started putting in 16-hour days and wrote my entire thesis over about three and a half months. My fantastic supervisor at McGill in History and Classics kept up with me throughout that process and helped to ensure that I could take up that first postdoc at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I held that for two years and then I applied for what was called an Impact Fellowship at a U.K. university. I spent a year in Scotland and then I applied for a SSHRC Banting in History Princeton University. Subsequently, I was awarded a research assistantship in what was then called the Princeton Environmental Institute.
Q: What kind of financial support did you receive during your PhD?
I started at McGill in 2006 and I had no funding package, so I worked. I worked in North Toronto at a group home caring for young adult males with autism. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I would take the train to Montreal, and when in Toronto, until I was awarded a SSHRC doctoral fellowship in late 2008, I worked a 40-hour week at the non-profit organization caring for people with autism.
Q: What did you value most about your time in graduate school?
The freedom I was given to pursue topics that interested me and the support I received from my supervisor. I wouldn’t say that I received a lot of support from the department, but I also didn’t reach out for support from the department. My supervisor was great.
Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges for you during your PhD?
Applying for funding to go to conferences. I trained as a (pre-modern) Europeanist, so most of the conferences I attend are not cheap especially for graduate students. I would apply for a grant to go to a conference and only find out a couple weeks before the conference if I would be reimbursed or not.
Q: What were the biggest challenges for you post-graduation?
The constant post-docs were great, but as soon as you land one of them you are mainly thinking about what’s next. You are just constantly working on your applications, fixing and altering them. There was so much uncertainty, regarding what was going to happen. When I was wrapping up at Ann Arbor, my wife and I had a son and that put more pressure on everything. The financial uncertainty was just constant.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD?
Two things. First, you need to work on a topic that interests you or you will never finish. I will never forget that one of my graduate-level Latin instructors was in the fourteenth year of his PhD. He was working on a topic that he said he hated. You need to do something that really appeals to you. At the same time, it is important to stay tuned to current events. Had I done the environmental history of Canada as opposed to doing the environmental history of pre-modern Europe, I would have perhaps ended up in Canada. My primary concern has always been the history of climate and disease, which were not hot topics when I graduated in 2011, and which I could have pursued in another world region and period.
Q: Is there something you wish you knew before you started your PhD?
Aim as high as you can, right out of the gate. My first article was my Master’s thesis that I rewrote and published in 2009 and I published it in a good journal, but I only submitted it to that journal. I could have aimed higher, which might have helped me land a job sooner than I did. Then I submitted my next article, in the final year of my PhD, to an obscure journal, and I only submitted it to that journal as well. That was a mistake. Now, I have my own students submit to big journals and if they get turned down, they can always submit someplace else.
Many thanks to Timothy for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find more about him here.
This interview took place in March 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.