Revisiting Grad School - Professors' Edition: Dr. Joseph Gabriel
Dr. Joseph Gabriel has a dual appointment in the Department of History and the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at the College of Medicine. He received his BA in Philosophy in 1992, his MA in History in 1999, both from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He earned his PhD at Rutgers University in 2006 and joined the History Department at FSU in 2016.
What is your area of research?
I’m a historian of medicine primarily, mostly 19th to 20th century United States. My focus is the pharmaceutical industry and its relationship to scientific medicine. I have a dual appointment in the History Department and the Medical School.
I received my PhD in 2006 from Rutgers University. It took me six years. I was able to finish quickly because I had two years during which I did not have to teach and could work exclusively on my dissertation. That was extremely fortunate for me.
At the undergraduate level in the FSU History department, I teach a class called Medicine and Society. It covers the medical history of the U.S. from the colonial period to the present. We focus a lot on how race and gender influence clinical decision making. At the medical school, I teach clinical interviewing skills, history of medicine, and topics dealing with ethics.
What was your university career like?
I think I had a nontraditional experience. If you look at my CV, though, it looks like a straightforward path. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in Philosophy. I took a break for a few years, then went back to graduate school for my MA and PhD, followed by a one-year postdoc. After that, I got a tenure-track job. From the outside, it looks like a very successful and standard-issue path for a historian.
Between my BA and graduate school, I went and lived in Taiwan, as I was studying Mandarin. I was interested in Chinese philosophy. I remember being in Taipei in the late 1980s and seeing a big parade of people walking down the street carrying signs that said, “Say no to drugs.” Later, when I returned to the United States and started learning about US drug policy, I associated that parade with Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign and American efforts to ramp up criminalization. I assumed the two were related and began telling people that witnessing that parade was the moment I became interested in the topic of drug control.
How did you arrive at your dissertation topic?
My dissertation was on drug addiction in the nineteenth-century. Each chapter focused on a different intoxicating good, or a set of goods – alcohol, opium, cannabis, ether, morphine, cocaine, and heroin. I did a lot of archival work, but it was also based on literary sources. And it didn’t change throughout my grad school career – I had decided on the topic before entering.
What kind of challenges did you face in grad school?
When I was in school, I was not very well professionalized. I didn’t do many of the things you were supposed to do to become a better graduate student. I ignored advice from my advisors. I almost failed my qualifying exams, and failed my proposal defense, so it was a rough process.
At Rutgers, we had to do two exams and a proposal defense. On one of the exams the professor didn’t approve of my writing from a philosophical perspective; he didn’t think it was appropriate for historians to do that.
For the proposal defense, I wrote a very bad proposal. I didn’t know how to write one, and I didn’t get feedback on it. When my committee failed me, it was hard on my ego, and it took me about a year to recover emotionally from that. I didn’t do any work for seven or eight months. And then I rewrote my proposal, and it was approved.
I liked my advisor, but he didn’t give me a lot of practical advice on how to succeed. It’s okay if you need to find someone else who will be more supportive and easier to work with. I think it’s really important for students—and young faculty, in particular—to establish relationships with people they think are intellectually engaging, emotionally supportive, and practical, who can help them accomplish their goals. Ideally, graduate students should have positive relationships with their advisors, but it’s not always the case. Scholarship is a community process, so students should still seek to establish those connections with their peers and the scholarly community at large.
I don’t want to be too hard on grad school. I had an overall positive experience as a graduate student. I liked to read and think, I enjoyed engaging with the world of ideas. I had some faculty who were very supportive of me. I had colleagues with whom I became friends. I didn’t get along with certain professors, and part of that was because of my background in philosophy. I personally think coming from a nontraditional background can lead people to ask different questions and draw on different methods. I think it leads to interesting work, so it should be encouraged.
Who do you think helped you most during your graduate school days?
My wife was very supportive of me, as well as many faculty members. My friends, too. Getting a PhD in history can be a deeply isolating and personal process. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how much help and support others can provide you; you have to deal with some of the issues yourself.
What advice would you give your pre-grad school self?
In my view, history is not just a subject since other academic disciplines also write about the past. History is more of a method: it teaches you how to approach the study of the past whether you are studying politics, society, culture, science or, like me, medicine. People come to PhD programs to learn this.