EPISODE 4 (May 2020): Sarah Osten on Life in Academia after the LACS MA
This is entreVistas, chat about Latin American politics, culture and history. Featuring faculty, students and visitors at the Center for Latin American Studies at The University of Chicago.
Sarah Osten, who earned her PhD from the University of Chicago in 2010, and an MA in Latin American Studies from CLAS in 2004, is Assistant Professor of History [now Associate Professor of History] at the University of Vermont. Osten came to campus this Spring  to present her book, The Mexican Revolution’s Wake: The Making of a Political System, 1920–1929. The book examines a cluster of groundbreaking political experiments conducted in the Southeast of Mexico in the 1920s and shows that the socialist parties of the region reconceptualized the relationship between Mexican citizens and the state, and pioneered a new style of party-driven mass politics that served as a crucial precedent for the rise of the modern Mexican political system. While Osten was on campus, CLAS MA alumna Jamie Gentry engaged her in a conversation about what led her to an interdisciplinary Latin American Studies program, what she took from it to her PhD program, and her thoughts about careers in academia today.
Jamie Gentry: What drew you to an interdisciplinary Latin American Studies program?
Sarah Osten: I actually came from an interdisciplinary BA and I think, like most undergraduates, it just didn’t occur to me that I needed to specialize. I knew I loved Latin America. I knew I wanted to study Latin America. I just wanted to take Latin America courses, and again, like most undergrads, I think disciplinary boundaries just didn’t matter to me that much. I initially had this idea in my head that I was going to do a PhD in Latin American Studies, not knowing that [it is] basically not a thing. That was, has always been, and remains my way of studying the region—I think in really interdisciplinary ways and work in interdisciplinary ways, so the Master’s program was a natural fit for me. Again, coming out of an undergraduate background that was really similar, and then having to choose a discipline to do a doctorate was really difficult. I was really on the fence. History ended up being absolutely the right fit for me, but I think I never gave up that perspective of crossing lines between disciplines.
When you were thinking through which discipline to apply to [for a PhD], did the Master’s program help you with that at all? Or did you have a lot of guidance from the people you had worked with while you were here?
By the time I got here, I knew I wanted to do history. I had already been through that process just by doing soul searching, doing a lot of reading, thinking about how my brain works. So by the time I got here I was very determined to do history, and one of the things I really loved about this program was that I came in knowing I wanted to apply to the history program a second time, because I was deferred for admission…or [rather] deferred to the Master’s program. I had applied to the history department and one of the things I really loved was they just let me be a historian even within this context of this really enriching interdisciplinary program. So my approach to my Master’s, because I wanted to stay in the PhD program, was that I was going to act like a first-year PhD history student in the hopes that they would keep me.
It clearly worked!
It did, but actually one of the things the [MA] program did for me was—because I was taking classes in other departments and I did the MA Proseminar, which was very interdisciplinary—it reinforced that my heart was in history. In a way, that interdisciplinary-ness let me find my voice in history and discover the degree to which it was a really good intellectual fit for me, because I was not a history major in college, which I think was part of the reason why they wanted me to do the Master’s, to see if I had the right stuff to be a historian.
Tell us about where you are now. What have you found most challenging about pursuing a career in academia?
I am a professor at the University of Vermont, where I am the only historian of Latin America.
That is a challenge, especially coming from the University of Chicago, just because it’s a bit lonely and I have to fight to explain why Mexico is interesting, which isn’t something I was used to having to do, particularly at UofC.
I think it was a bit of a rude awakening, probably for most people because most history departments have a one-of-each approach especially to non-US and non-European history. So we have me, the sole Latin Americanist, and then we have one historian of Africa and one historian of Asia. I am a little jealous of my colleagues who just get to study and teach one country. Because I am the only Latin Americanist, I have to teach all of Latin American history: ancient, colonial, Caribbean, South American, everything.
Have you found that you developed affinity for another country beyond Mexico because of it?
I find that lately, because of current events, I’ve been enjoying teaching about Central America, in part because my students are so interested because of things going on in the news. It’s been an interesting personal, intellectual journey because I started out wanting to study Central America in college and then became a Mexicanist, and now I am coming full-circle and doing things related to Central America particularly, but not exclusively, in my teaching. It’s funny, I feel like after teaching for so long I understand other regions so much better than I did even in grad school because, as Dain [Borges] once told me, “You learn it when you teach it.”
You talked a little bit about the skills that you developed in the Master’s program that sort of led you to your PhD program. What knowledge and skills do you draw on now that you didn’t expect to draw from the Master’s program?
I think part of it is thinking about the education I got and guiding my own students who are like [I was] in college and had no real sense of disciplinary boundaries. Really, there’s no reason for undergrads to have [disciplinary boundaries] the way we do in graduate school and beyond, as much as we try to mold them into history or anthropology students.
I think about the education that I got here and the stuff I was reading and all the different perspectives I got from other disciplines, even as I was learning to specialize as a historian. I think a big part of it is just how I put a syllabus together, how I conceive of a course, and the journey I want to craft for my students through particular subject areas—that definitely comes out of my training here.
What advice would you offer Latin American Studies students about how to best use their time in the program and the resources on campus?
I think building faculty relationships is probably the most important. I think it’s very easy for people—particularly coming in at the beginning of a Master’s program—to feel very daunted about talking to faculty. I would say get over that and just build those relationships because no matter what you go into, you’re going to need that support, networking, and guidance.
Particularly for people who want to go into PhD programs, it’s important not only to get to know faculty, but to allow them to get to know you, especially because the Master’s program is so fast. A lot of Master’s programs are two years, so I think you just have to hit the ground running. Particularly for anyone who wants to stay in a PhD program at Chicago, you have to start building faculty relationships from the beginning.
Then, use the library and appreciate that the Seminary Co-Op is the best bookstore in the world. Again, those are resources that you just are not going to have in other institutions.
Were you a three-quarter thesis writer? Did you finish by your Spring quarter?
No, I think I graduated the following December. But my situation was weird because I was reapplying without taking a gap year for the PhD program, so I was doing my Master’s thesis at the same time I was doing my first-year history seminar. I’m glad I did not have to take the gap year, but I don’t know if that is a course I would recommend. It was a lot and I had to write two separate research projects that were related but distinct. It was a very intense year and also it was a year of adjusting to the culture of the University of Chicago, which is sort of intense in it of itself. I was in Dain’s seminar and his twenty-page syllabus literally made me cry.
What if anything do you wish you’d known when you entered your PhD program? Do you have any advice to students who are preparing to do so?
My very honest answer...I entered my PhD program in 2004 and that was the time when the job market was still great and people from my PhD program were getting jobs with two dissertation chapters. Everyone got a great job and nobody had actually finished their dissertations when they got a job.
I went on the market in 2008. My honest answer is: I wish I had known that the financial crisis was coming. I was of a generation of students that were hit right in the middle, so we experienced such a big change in the nature of academia and academic hiring. No one knew what was going to happen and there was just so much uncertainty. The first year that I went on the market, half the searches I applied for were canceled.
It took me four years to get a tenure-track job. I was going to say no one could have foreseen that, but I’m sure there were people who did foresee that. But I did not know what that was going to be like, because up until that point I thought I was going to get to be a professor, and then there was a long period where I was not sure I was going to get to be a professor.
I think for people doing it now, you just have to be very realistic about what you can do with a PhD and what the job market is like. As an academic, it’s really sad and hard to watch and hard to say. I just got tenure and I feel very fortunate and have a little bit of survivor’s guilt about it honestly, but again, I was of a generation in this history program where things changed so radically in ways I certainly did not anticipate.
If you had to do it over again, would you do it?
Having just said all this stuff about the job market, yeah. I love my job and I love teaching, which is something I did not anticipate. I knew I loved research. It took me a long time to come to love teaching and be comfortable and happy as a teacher. But that actually has ended up being a part of my job I do really love. You know, I am very grateful for the opportunity to do the Master’s. I think as disappointed as I was that I didn’t get to go straight into the PhD program, it ended up being a really good thing for me.
You were a multi-recipient of the CLAS Tinker Field Research Grant. I think three, did I count that correctly?
Yeah, that sounds right.
Would you like to say anything about what you found valuable about the CLAS Tinker Field Research Grant?
It enabled me to do my work. I didn’t have any summer research funding. Funding was really different then that it is now. One of the best parts of grad school was that there were funds like that available. They were competitive, but available, and I got to spend every summer in Mexico City and Chiapas. How many people get to do that?
Sarah, thank you very much for joining us today.
Thanks for having me.
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