Ask the Radical: A Young Historian Seeks Advice On Overcoming Obstacles

September 10, 2010, 11:56 am

A SLAC graduate in the midst of a prestigious PhD program in history asks us for advice, dear readers:

I write to you today with a very elderly cat sleeping next to me (she’s 18, it’s kind of ridiculous) and thoughts of the job market and my ability to provide food for the very elderly cat foremost in my mind. What I’ve been wondering, lately, is what I’m supposed to do with the knowledge BOTH that the job market is very bad AND that, as it happens, a graduate program is probably the best place for me right now.

(Brief aside: I say this not because I’m Special and Being A Historian Is What I Was Meant To Do, but because, in practical terms, it’s true. It’s sort of weird to tell a stranger this, but the flexibility inherent in graduate school–the ability to disappear for months at a
time and still have money to pay [most] bills has been vital. My parents are both dead and I am solely responsible for the care of a very ill younger sibling. I didn’t know any of that would happen when I started, but at this point, bailing is just not logistically reasonable.)

So put another way, what do I do now, exactly? What steps can I take to make myself appear employable, maybe on the market, but maybe not? Like, yeah, I shouldn’t have gone to graduate school, but I did and I can’t really quit. So . . . now what? It’s a question I don’t really
see addressed in online conversations or, particularly, in my program.

I’ve done a lot of things to try to make it work, including cobbling together a bunch of odd jobs–as a museum docent, as a freelance researcher doing copy editing, image identification, and everything else in between, as an advisor to an undergraduate research program. I was invited to give a lecture in an undergraduate course as a pinch-hitter when a prof had a health crisis. I’ve a paper coming out in Prestigious History Journal and am giving a paper at Prestigious Conference next year. I’ve JOINED the Berks in the hopes of cultivating some friend/mentorships with Lady Historians. Is that all there is to the circus? That and, as everyone says, “Write a really good dissertation?”

I’m curious what you think about this–about how one might go about making the best of a bad lot, and whether it’s specific to every person or there are more general ways to think about this.

My first piece of advice is that you need to go out and acquire a kitten immediately. Despite the fact that s/he would represent an additional expense, you could not only use an extra set of paws in your life, you need someone in the household who is relentlessly optimistic. Someone dashing about the apartment with her tail in the air sounds like just the ticket to me.
So let’s get down to your real circumstances and the substance of your question: you went to graduate school in history under one set of assumptions about what your future held, and then your life changed dramatically. Although you have not indicated whether there are other relatives in the picture, you have been orphaned at an unusually early age and now are charged with the well-being of a sibling. You have not indicated whether said sibling has resources or other caregivers, but your point is clear: despite the lousy job market, you cannot afford not to work. You cannot even afford to work at a level that supports one person rather meanly, which is what some young historians can do when they only support themselves and/or can rely on others to bail them out when their cars die on I-95 on the way to a poorly paid adjunct job. Furthermore, even if you were willing to chuck your dream of being a historian, it doesn’t seem realistic to quit graduate school now and retrain for something with a guaranteed future like bankruptcy law, refugee relief and disaster management, or the Border Patrol.
I agree. Let’s look at the plus side for a moment.
Although you rightly portray your circumstances as mildly Dickensian, you also seem to have what all heroines of nineteenth century fiction require: pluck, ambition, prudence and character. You also have good judgement, and have focused at least some of your efforts on concrete accomplishments that will display your scholarly talents to others. You have done all the right things: gone to a great graduate school in a major city where there are jobs (teaching and non-teaching) a-plenty; you are publishing; and you are giving papers and reaching out to other historians to build a set of contacts that, while they can’t necessarily get you a tenure-track job, will help to lift you out of obscurity. You have explored a number of other options for work, options that — given the right circumstances — will open paths to working in public history, or working in programs that help link the study of history to fields outside traditional academia.
I am also cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for academic employment over the next few years, barring a double-dip recession. The first issue of AHA Perspectives had a lot of good jobs, several of which were rank open, which suggests that purses are beginning to open up. Even big public universities that have taken a serious beating from their legislatures are advertising jobs — Rutgers, Cal, CUNY and UI — and Rutgers is committing to three more searches in the next couple years. My sense of things is that universities responded to the crash by closing their pocketbooks with a snap. That they were a little short of cash was one issue, but the bigger issue was not knowing where the bleeding would stop, so administrators did not want to make commitments that would make them look improvident down the line.
So I am cautiously optimistic that the job market is returning to normal bad, a state of things that will also bring with it the visiting positions, temporary work and post-docs that sustain this state of normal bad — but were suspended immediately following the crash to cope with the cash crunch.
There is more good news: because you are not a snob, because you had no backup, and because you look forward and not backwards, you have explored other kinds of work. I have one relative who, suddenly left as a single mom with a small child, decided overnight to suck it up and go to law school, despite the fact that she really might have preferred to be an entrepeneur. In a moment of useful hardheadedness, she put the interests of her dependent first, and developed her talents in another way. And yet, I am quite sure that her immediate need — to have a salary and benefits — will ultimately dovetail with the creative talents that caused her to explore another kind of life entirely. Similarly, while you might end up making a career in public history, this does not bar you from a satisfying life of scholarship (have I ever told you how much time, in my cushy tenured job, I spend doing work I do not value and that detracts from my own writing and teaching?)
Let me offer another piece of advice following from this thought: Administrators Make More Money. A lot more money. There are more administrative jobs, and administrators have more flexibility in terms of where
they work geographically. Some of them even have tenure (ask Lesboprof if you don’t believe me.) You really need to keep this path open, and think about doing so by amplifying your work experience in areas of university administration that are interesting to you. Knowing how to run a budget, how to supervise a staff, how to write an institutional grant, how to construct and supervise a curriculum – these are things that they don’t teach in graduate school but that, in combination with your PH.D. and your publishing, could take you far, my friend. There are very few good academic jobs nowadays, particularly academic deanships and directorships, that do not require a PH.D. and a record of publication. Not infrequently, these ads ask for a “distinguished” record of publication as well. Hence, regarding administration as a fallback option for failed scholars is not only less true than it ever was, but it also seems that in the near future, having street cred as a scholar will actually be critical to moving up the ladder administratively.
A great many graduate students are instructed that doing such work takes them off the fast-track, making them look unserious, unfocused and lacking in commitment to their scholarship. To this I say: Balls. Since when did the allegedly virtuous path of eking out a living on adjunct pay, moving around the country, and becoming increasingly bitter about what you have sacrificed prove to be a guarantee of tenure-track labor? Furthermore, while some narrow-minded person at Prestigious Ivy U. might look at your vita, overlook all your academic accomplishments and say, “Hmmm. Assistant to the Dean of the College? Yeccch!” someone at Zenith, or State U – Calabash might say happily, “Now here’s a person who won’t have to be taught how to walk, talk and find the chalk!” It is also true that you can send vitae to different schools that emphasize different things.
So you see? It’s all in your perspective, isn’t it? You are, in fact, doing the right thing. And while we all wake up in the middle of the night from time to time with disaster on our minds (yes, even Tenured Radicals who are full professors), you, my dear, have your head screwed on just right. Keep up the good work.
Yes, it’s job season again. Got a question? Ask the Radical! Submit questions for publication to: tenuredDOTradicalATgmailDOTcom.
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