Texas Tech University

Studying History the Perfect Complement to Engineering Background

Doug Hensley

March 7, 2023

David Foster

David Foster sees pursuit of doctorate in history at Texas Tech as the next logical step in what has been a lifelong educational journey.

David Foster looks around the busy Student Union Building on the campus of Texas Tech University, taking in all the random activity before settling into a chair and zeroing in on a discussion about one of his favorite topics: education.

“I think it's almost a personal responsibility to constantly be educated,” he said, “and so one of the few dad-isms I tell my kids is, ‘Don't ever think you know enough; always try to learn something new.”

Foster has long practiced for himself what he now preaches to his kids, and these days he is busy working toward a doctorate in history, which would be his fourth post-graduate degree. In pursuing this dream, he commutes to class each week – from San Antonio.

“You should never be satisfied with what you know,” he said. “What I've found in having access to this big university and all the resources here is that the amount you can accumulate and know about something is limited. I took a class on the Civil War and read in a 20-year-old article that there had been 80,000 books written on the Civil War. So, no work is the final story, and there are new sources of information providing new ability to interpret. I don't think there can ever be enough study of history.”

For Foster, the doctorate in history will provide the perfect complement to his previous degree work in which he earned a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, a master's in engineering, a master's in history and a master's in business. He said the methods and discipline required in pursuing this degree will support his work as a consultant for a global technology firm.

“I held off on this idea for a long time,” he said. “I thought, ‘What would be the purpose?' It had to be more than just an intellectual quest. I would like to do something so there may be an opportunity to dig a little deeper, have more of a research-oriented focus, rather than just the week-to-week and month-to-month practical data solutions.”

The history application makes sense as it typically requires dealing with large quantities of information and drawing conclusions based on that information despite variables and even possible ambiguity. 

“He brings a scientist's mind to his understanding of intellectual issues,” Justin Hart, an associate professor in the history department, said. “He has a really good understanding of how human beings are cogs in a machine. He thinks in terms of systems, and so the government is a system and policy has a system behind it. I've never had another student who approached it quite that way.”

That is most likely the result of Foster's technology-heavy background. In addition to engineering, he also served in the Marine Corps as a helicopter pilot and worked for the government in the Department of Defense, each of which could be seen as a huge system driven by large numbers of individuals typically limited to performance of only their assigned duties.

“Ultimately, I became a civilian employee of the Department of the Navy,” he said. “I worked 10 years as a contractor and 10 as a Navy employee, working mostly on aviation-related systems. A lot of testing and evaluation goes into making sure it works as far as all the engineering parameters. In any military scenario, you create a simulation and see how it works and then assess the cost.”

In many ways, that's a much different approach from history, which is part of the appeal for Foster.

“It's been an eye-opener,” he said. “Studying history, just the ambiguity, coming from a technical background where physics and truths dictate what can be done, is different. Human behavior is not entirely random, and there aren't records for what everyone did all the time, so trying to piece together the reason behind events, why people did something they thought was important, I find that fascinating.”

The academic side, though, is only part of the equation for Foster. There's also the not-so-simple logistical challenges of driving a dozen or so hours round trip each week.

“I come up on Sunday and normally will go back home Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning,” he said. “I've juggled work and my class schedule to make it happen. The thing is, once you get south of Sweetwater, it's deer country, and some evenings are quite hellacious seeing all those nocturnal creatures on the side of the road. It's unnerving.”

As it stands, Foster expects to complete his classwork this semester after which he will tackle the series of four comprehensive exams required before beginning work on his dissertation. He hopes to start that in the spring of 2024 and plans to incorporate aspects of his previous professional experiences into the topic he will explore.

“With my background, I understand the language of the Marine Corps and the structure, and I've spent my life working with computers,” he said. “I'm looking at some combination of those two things going into my dissertation project. I've spent time trying to understand the history of our own systems, and I feel like the history research has really improved my analytical brain.”

The connection between organizational decision-making and how it is influenced is something Foster has been deeply interested in studying.

“He emailed me before he applied and talked about some of his interests in technology and how technology functions to both make and to enable policy to come into action,” Hart said. “It plays a role in generating policy and in implementing policy. He has diligence, dedication, creativity – a unique perspective.”

It's also an outlook that aligns with his personal idea of being a lifelong learner. Education provides pathways to previously uncharted territory, always making the journey worth the time.

“I think it's having an understanding that most of what's there, you don't know,” he said. “So be open to people, talk to people, be curious. The rigor of the path is valuable, and I like the challenge. If I wasn't in a formal program, I would still be studying many of the same things I'm studying anyway, but I like being in someone's program studying under an expert. I've found that to be really awesome.”