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Timothy A. Nunan ’08

Candidate for M.Phil. in Economic and Social History, University of Oxford

When I arrived in suburban New Jersey from sunny Southern California in the autumn of 2004, I had no idea that I would be doing the reverse of what the German novelist Thomas Mann had done some 60 years before. Mann, then exiled from his homeland, worked in the halls of the Princeton German department for several years before moving to Pacific Palisades, California, where he would join other German intellectuals working on several texts which would become classics of the 20th-century canon. After driving up I-95 with my parents through Trenton, hiking through the sweltering woods of Western Pennsylvania during Outdoor Action, and moving into a decommissioned party suite in the substance-free housing of Wilson College, however, I still could barely articulate precisely what it was I wanted to do at Princeton. I had a strong interest in history (American) and language (Spanish) in high school, as well as an interest in foreign policy, but struggled to translate these interests into course, let alone major, choices.

During the next two years things became clearer, but decisions still came hard. On the advice of professors, I took the humanities sequence, which dramatically expanded my horizons beyond even my excellent high school education and made me realize that I need not confine my interests to the United States, let alone this century. Increasingly, I sought what I thought a historian’s training should look like. On the advice of a then-girlfriend who spoke highly of Professor James Rankin’s introductory German classes, I plunged into German language sophomore year with minimal links (ancestry, travel) to German-speaking Europe, and also found mentors in history professors such as Michael Gordin, Anthony Grafton, and Theodore Rabb. By the end of sophomore year, I had developed a cosmopolitan set of interests—German, Spanish, Latin American archaeology, modern European history—and felt far more intellectually confident of myself than two years prior.

But where was I headed? When it came down to making a decision about my major, I was between history and German. I still felt strongly at that time, perhaps idealistically, that my aim was to become like my mentors—a sophisticated writer of history who would take care of younger generations of students. “But if that’s the case, shouldn’t I just major in history?” I told myself. Still, after much soul-searching, German won out. With professors such as Michael Jennings, Thomas Levin, Nikolaus Wegmann, and others, the German department had a very collegial feel. Given the department’s flexibility, I could still easily take courses in other subjects that interested me (Russian language and history, for example). Perhaps cockily, I thought that if I worked hard enough, surely I could swing a fellowship to spend the year in Germany. 

Still, I think that what spoke to me most was the sense of intellectual fellowship: that in a smaller (I dare say more intense) department such as German, I would be working with intensely learned professors who would invest themselves in me—that I wouldn’t simply be a cog passing through. As I’ve experienced the challenges of coping intellectually and emotionally in the more atomized confines of German and British academia since, I often long for the sense of closeness and shared mission I had in East Pyne Hall.

Building on a strong foundation

My parents’ initial skepticism about their son becoming a German major notwithstanding (this was 2006, after all—the days of easy hiring and heady bonuses on Wall Street), I believe that majoring in German turned out to be a wonderful decision. In the short term, I still was able to work closely with some of Princeton’s top professors in the history department, so any fears about betraying my ambitions for historical scholarship were soon assuaged. More seriously, the atmosphere in the German department at the time—one of curiosity, exploration, and skepticism toward traditional disciplinary boundaries—presented me with values of intellectual cosmopolitanism that I try to live up to in my own work and mental life. 

As far as employment straight out of Princeton was concerned, I had felt fairly certain from junior year onward that I was interested in pursuing further graduate study, preferably for free through postgraduate scholarships, so my situation may be atypical. But classmates pursued a wide variety of paths without, as it seemed to me, much difficulty: management consulting and admission to top graduate schools, postgraduate fellowships to the University of Oxford and Yale Law School, and working for the Holocaust Museum in Washington. In spite of our different vocations, decisive for all of us were the close relationships formed with faculty members, language training and experience in Europe’s most important economy, and resilience to adversity formed by long summers or academic years away from one’s immediate family and friends whilst in Germany.

In the medium term, I was fortunate enough to win a fellowship to study for a year in Germany following graduation, which I used in Göttingen (a university city in central Germany) and Berlin to pursue, logically enough, further coursework on East European and Russian history. The time and funding also gave me the freedom to produce a critical edited translation of several interwar works by Carl Schmitt, a German jurist whose complicated relationship with National Socialism interested me as a scholar in my junior year. Bringing this project, which began as an undergraduate, to completion and publication not only consolidated all of my training in German, but also taught me much about how to manage such a large, yearlong project in spite of the daily ups and downs, rejection letters, and setbacks.

Since the year in Germany, I have been studying at the University of Oxford for an M.Phil. degree in economic and social history. I’m still aiming (perhaps more obliquely than I originally intended) toward a career that balances scholarship, writing, a deep interest in foreign cultures, and, as if that weren’t enough, American foreign policy. Since learning German, I’ve gone on to reach a high standard of Russian, and have been studying Persian for a year and a half, both at Oxford as well as in central Asia; for me, the German department was less a home base in which I “merely” became acquainted with one section of Europe, but rather a broader intellectual springboard from which to learn how to analyze and ask the right questions about foreign cultures. What the next step may be, I’m not quite sure: Staying at Oxford to complete a doctorate here, pursuing a Ph.D. in history in the United States, and working for the U.S. federal government are all options. I can only assure students who follow their passions—and are willing to work hard and be unafraid to be idiosyncratically smart—that employers are looking for all of those qualities across sectors.

Letting curiosity lead the way

So, what to take away? Some clichés that you’ll hear again and again in this website: Follow what you love to do, don’t apologize for it, and work hard (the work itself should be rewarding to you). I’m hardly perfect, but I have seen too many classmates pursuing idols of money, prestige, and power (all to be found on Wall Street, at least prior to 2008), only to emerge two or three years later, certainly better compensated and often better fed than I, but lacking passion in their lives. True, as I grow older, I find myself pining for an apartment and Sunday brunches more than I did three years ago; but you shouldn’t dismiss your real interests and instrumentalize your work purely around the fantasies of young urban living. I know too many disillusioned consultants and bankers to advise someone who’s not truly interested in those fields to sacrifice their passions for what they perceive as the next step forward.

Secondly, mentors matter far more than course selection or, dare I say, even major choice. I majored in German in large part because I saw there a group of older scholars and professors who took an interest in my development and I knew would fight for me as I was moving on from Princeton. It’s certainly not impossible to find these qualities in professors in larger departments, but if you can find such people, hold on to them. If you’re as lucky as I was, they’ll support you after you’ve left Princeton, too.

Finally, although your department will be in many senses your home base, intellectually, for the second half of your time at Princeton, it’s crucial to remember that your intellectual life only begins there. The German department stoked my curiosity in ways that I would find further developed over long brunches at my eating club, evening drinks with friends, and in conversation and correspondence with the friends I made at Princeton. Based on my experience, I can only recommend a smaller department for the intellectual fellowship and camaraderie it offers—but remember that your choice of major has to be only one early step in a broader process of finding mentors and friends who will test you and encourage you to overcome your own prejudices and biases. Not only your department, but also your friends, families, and significant others—all of you should, ideally, participate in a shared quest to seek to maximize and express most authentically your own unique talents and interests.