Michael S. Neiberg, 38
Professor of History and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society, the University of
Southern Mississippi, 2005-present
"Mike, any idiot can get a Ph.D."
Such was the advice I got shortly after I had begun graduate school. I was visiting with a high school friend of mine whose mother had been a dean of a college of social work. She had asked me about my first reactions to entering a doctoral program. I told her that I was concerned that most of the people in my cohort seemed a good deal smarter than I was. At first I was taken aback by her response, but she soon explained what she meant. Being smart was, in her opinion, no guarantee of success in graduate school. The key, she told me, was to work hard and be creative.
Of course, I didn't fully understand what she was trying to tell me any more than I understood the advice of one of my undergraduate mentors that"Professors aren't what you think they are." Nevertheless, both comments stuck in my head and wouldn't leave me alone. But as I completed course work and prepared a dissertation topic, I began to understand at least the first comment. What I needed to do was take a subject that seemed banal or prosaic and make people see its importance. Better still, I might take a subject people thought they understood and make them see it in an entirely new light.
Along the way I realized another aspect of the historian's mind. We all have a time and place that interests us and draws our attention, such as Antebellum America or Third Republic France. But we also have a set of questions that we seek answers to, even if, in my case, it took me years to figure out what those questions were. I finally concluded that my core interests revolved around warfare and the impacts it has on both societies and individuals.
Eventually that path has led me to an intensive study of the First World War. I think I have been drawn to the 1914-1918 period because the causes of the war have always struck me as so disproportionate to its effects. Currently, I am examining the process by which the lives of millions of Europeans were forever altered by a chain of events begun by the assassination of little-known and less-admired Austrian Archduke. I am interested less in understanding how the war began than in understanding how the war that followed was possible. This project is informed by recent trends in transnational history, an exciting and potentially fruitful method for answering the questions I am posing.
For the past 15 years, I have kept the sage words of my friend's mother at heart. I am still not sure if she meant them literally or facetiously, although I have always hoped it was the latter. It has taken me a long time to figure out what those words mean, but now I think I have it. They have turned out to be the best words of wisdom I ever received.
By Michael Neiberg
About Michael Neiberg
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