December 03, 2003

Life Outside the Academic History Box

Since 1990, there has been a growing disparity between the number of PhDs in history and the number of academic jobs, with American graduate programs overproducing historians on a yearly basis...

... For years, academics have maintained that this problem was only temporary. But the facts do not bear this out. The last ten years have witnessed a growing tendency to replace tenured positions with adjunct and visiting professors. Having found a good and steady source of cheap labor, it is unlikely that universities will rush to restore more expensive tenured positions. Further complicating the problem is the growing budget crunch facing almost every state...

-- Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo, Beyond Academe

Via The Cranky Professor, Beyond Academe is a new website designed "to educate historians about opportunities for historians 'outside the box' -- that is outside of academia." The creators are two history PhDs who left academe after years of teaching and who "have both come to love life 'outside the box,'" so much so that they can "heartily recommend it to others."

Among the "Useful Tools" on the site: The Culture of Academia, or How to Combat the Barriers Which May Prevent You From Leaving Academia, Five Quick tips for Transforming a CV into a Resume, and Rules of Conduct. Very useful indeed. Kudos to Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo for creating this site!

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 3, 2003 11:39 AM

"It is illegal for interviewers to ask personal questions. If you encounter this kind of behavior when interviewing for a non-academic position, you have the right to make a legal complaint-doing so will not hurt your chances in the on-academic job market."

You've got to be kidding me. Vast oversimplification.

Posted by: JT at December 3, 2003 01:00 PM

Yes, I agree, that's pretty serious oversimplification of the law (as well as of 'normal practice').

It's a nice site, though it raises the same question I had about some similar "postacademic" essays and reflections a while back, namely, that this amounts to making the best of a bad lot: most of what the two of them have achieved by giving up academia they could have achieved by never starting it in the first place.

There's relatively little that they have to say about what a historian in specific can deliver to a non-academic employer, and that's because, for the most part, there's a very small number of non-academic employers to which the specific disciplinary skill set of a historian is specifically useful--and there are at least a few highly competitive undergraduates out there in a given year who can probably reasonably boast that they have a functionally equivalent skill set in those key respects to a Ph.D in history.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 3, 2003 02:32 PM

What intrigued me about this site, is that both of its creators had or were offered tenure-track academic jobs and turned them down. Yet the rhetoric of the site and its main thrust is to provide options for people who were never able to get a foot into the academic door. This suggests that there are issues at play going beyond the usual "there are too many Ph.D.'s seeking too few jobs."

Posted by: In the provinces at December 3, 2003 04:05 PM

"This suggests that there are issues at play going beyond the usual "there are too many Ph.D.'s seeking too few jobs.""

I'm feeling a little dense at the moment--what do you have in mind, Provinces?

Posted by: Rose at December 3, 2003 04:48 PM

I checked out the site, and I must say that Alexandra Lord's comments about the advantages of leaving academia correspond very closely with my own thoughts on the subject (and I also love DC :) ). To hers I'd add one more - no grading!

Posted by: Matilde at December 3, 2003 06:20 PM

The issue at play is that a hackademic job isn't that great. Part of the reason for that is the crappy job market. Profs are dime a dozen, hence disposable.

Posted by: che at December 3, 2003 09:41 PM

Tim, above, says:

"most of what the two of them have achieved by giving up academia they could have achieved by never starting it in the first place."

Yes and No. I spent five years in a PhD program, then left academia. I left ABD, but I don't think things would have been different if I'd left PhD. So I went into the non-academic world at the age of 32 (I'd also dropped out as an undergraduate and worked a couple of years before going back). I started a bit above an entry level job, since I was a certified smart person. I had to push to get the usual early promotions a bit earlier than usual so as to catch up with my age cohort: an obviously middle aged man in a low level job will be forever passed over. But this wasn't terribly hard. Now some of my age cohort are retiring, but I can't since I haven't worked enough years. Since I still have a daughter in college, this isn't of practical importance. So the effect of starting later, while not negligible, wasn't large.

And a graduate education does help. Not so much directly (though there are advantages to being a certified smart person: one of my bosses argued to get me into a career-enhancing assignment, "He's almost a PhD."). But indirectly. You can stand up in front of a bunch of people and talk to them. You can lead a small group without them noticing. You can write.

And finally, graduate education is an experience in itself. After it, you aren't what you would have been if you'd never had it. I at least enjoyed my five years. Maybe that was Columbia. It may well have been Manhattan. I suspect that graudate school at Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, perhaps Chicago is different from graduate school at Dartmouth, UIUC, Texas, perhaps Princeton.

The minor impact of having started a non-academic career "late" was strongly outweighed by the major impact on me of having gone to graduate school in the first place.

Posted by: jam at December 4, 2003 01:08 PM

Yes, Tim, but there's still all these postacademics picking themselves up and dusting themselves off. I don't see why they -- no, *we*, because I'm in that category too -- should be totally written off as an audience.

I'm all in favor of realistic portrayals of grad school and academia, such that people make better-informed decisions. I just don't see why that should exclude wise counsel for those of us who tripped up.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at December 6, 2003 04:05 PM

Although this is probably a slightly futile exercise, I want to address some of the comments people made on our site. When creating our site, we realized that we can't please everyone and so it would be foolish to attempt to do so---I am sorry and more than a little puzzled that minor problems/issues on the site over-ride the entire point of the site for many people. Forty pages of text and the site boils down to one comment...okay...

Our site is intended for academics of all types. There are many PhDs who cannot and never will get an academic job and the site is directed for these people but I will be super candid and say that when Julie and I created the site, we had in mind people like ourselves (who had tenure-track offers and were unhappy---everyone told us we should be happy and that our concerns abt our personal life were misplaced---a little weird!). I have also met, since leaving academia, a lot of tenured people who left for non-academic jobs and these people were also intended as a target audience.

As for Tim's comment: I currently hold a job I could not have without a PhD so the idea that my graduate education was not relevant is silly and erroneous (please, I know this is a blog and people comment freely and wildly, but I would have thought an academic would do research---you could have goggled me, seen what my job is and realized that my job requires me to have a PhD---the field in which I currently works employs roughly 900 historians with PhDs---as a a grad student, I was never told about this option). Moreover as we say in the FAQs and elsewhere on the site, neither of us recommend that people view their graduate degree as a form of vocational training. I think you should view it the same way as someone who spent seven years pursuing their passion and desire to climb Mount Everest. It was an experience which you embarked on for a specific reason; it probably gave you pleasure; and it can be used, if you are very creative and work hard to think about the skills you learned as an historian, to help you find a job. This information is on the site (including the comparison to mountain climbing!).

Yes, you can spend years carping and moaning abt the fact that you lost time (and believe me, I have done that at different times)—however, living in DC has exposed me to many people who went to med school in their mid 30s, law school in their late 30s or who switched careers while in their early 40s etc. I even know someone who just switched careers completely at the age of 52. I know that academics sometimes have a tendency to see themselves and their positions as unique (and I include myself in this category) but listening to non-academics discuss their careers has led me to the realization that most people have delayed starts to their careers. The overwhelming majority of people I know feel that they started their careers behind—--yes, I know a few people who followed a straight career trajectory but most did not. Even my sister (determined to be a lawyer from the age of 2) took two years off to get a master’s before embarking on a legal career (which has no relationship to her master’s). When I graduated from college in 1987, the commencement speaker said people will switch careers at least three times. I have no idea where this person got that figure and whether it is accurate (I have heard five times and seven times)—--however, the fact that this was said at a BA commencement tells me that many people probably change careers and start from behind. It may kill us as academics to realize this: but we are not unique in starting careers late. I realize someone may say that x’s former job skills could be re-tooled for his/her new job but an academics’ skills cannot. But this is patently untrue (look at our monthly profiles as we put them up and we will demonstrate this).

Of course, no one will hire you for the specific things which you have learned how to do as an historian but you can use some of your skills in different settings. For example, a European, Asian, Latin American or African historian usually speaks a foreign language (at least one) fluently---the idea that this is not a valued skill is often lost on historians who say things like "I know everything about French opera---what good will that do me?" We are trying to get the historian to say "I speak French fluently and this is a valued skill for SOME employers." And yes, there are undergraduates who speak French fluently (and I mean fluently—many Americans claim to speak foreign languages but they aren’t truly fluent!) but oddly they are not wildly plentiful. In an article in the fall of 2002, the Washington Post quoted people at the CIA complaining about having to hire BAs from Middlebury (a great school and by no means a target of the article) to do their foreign research---the person said "these people are too young, too lacking in knowledge and understanding of global issues and frankly, their language skills while good are too limited for the work." I know that many people will say "the CIA? Never will I work for them"---and that's fine but recognize that there is a demand out there for people with certain skills.

As for the bit abt the problematic questions in interviews---yes, it's a slight simplification but the information and answer were written and shown to three lawyers who basically said the statement was correct. To be honest, we wrote that bit as a slap to academics who do this all the time in interviews. You have made me think about providing links to the labor department or any other organization which can assist people on this problem in a VERY specific way. When we wrote this piece we intended to demonstrate some of the key differences that people will experience when interviewing for academic and non-academic positions (difference number one being that, while all job applicants are supplicants, they need not grovel and debase themselves COMPLETELY for a job). I also have to say when I see a comment like that (does our site really boil down to one comment?!---it's a huge site---it was 40 text pages and that comment was one sentence!) I understand why I left academia.

Of course, much of the information on our site can be found elsewhere and yes, we do take a positive approach to this problem. But we seek simply to counteract the complete lack of information on careers for historians.

Posted by: Lexi at December 10, 2003 10:40 AM

Lexi, fair enough, and I apologize for the degree to which my comment may have seemed churlish.

What I was specifically commenting on, and I should have been clearer, is the part of your site where both of you describe the personal achievements that have been opened to you in a post-academic life--the ability to live where you want, to not feel guilty at certain uses of your time, to read for pleasure, and so on. What I'm really noting is not that it is absurd that you should feel this way, but instead that there is something problematic about academia that it should deny these things to many.

However, I also do think that it is valid to observe that graduate training in history or in other humanities does not per se prepare the ground for any other career, even those which do require the Ph.D--which I think is again something that refracts negatively on graduate pedagogy, not on you. There is no *necessary* reason that Ph.D programs in history should be as narrowly focused on academic careers as they are; it is simply that opening that training up to a wider variety of imagined uses and skills would be very unsettling for many of the people who teach within such programs.

What you're doing is very valuable in a great many ways. I just don't want any of this to take the heat off of the people who presently teach or design doctoral programs in history--that you *can* do other things with a doctorate in history does not mean that at present doctorates in history invite or encourage a wider utility. It is still true, by and large, for all your efforts, that you yourself have to do the hard work of retrofitting your graduate experience to other ends, of finding the hidden utilities within it. That's not your fault, but it is a failing on the part of graduate education in history, I think.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 10, 2003 03:30 PM

"I just don't want any of this to take the heat off of the people who presently teach or design doctoral programs in history--that you *can* do other things with a doctorate in history does not mean that at present doctorates in history invite or encourage a wider utility."

I think this is an important point. There is a certain line about alternative careers (not the line taken at Beyond Academe, I hasten to add) that is too often used (either naively or cynically) to justify/rationalize the continued overproduction of PhDs.

I think history grad programs need to scale back admissions. Alternatively and/or in addition to scaling back, they should be exploring alternative grad school models (eg, a more practical or "real-world"-oriented degree -- something that could be done in 1 to 3 years, perhaps, instead of the usual 6-8, aimed at careers in public history and other areas outside the academy). But of course most history grad programs are doing nothing of the sort -- not scaling back admissions, and not thinking of new models (though there are a few exceptions). Unless and until they commit to this kind of reform, I think the alternative careers line is very problematic -- as used by those running graduate programs that are still designed with academic careers in mind and that offer little to nothing by way of advice, information, practicums, connections, and etc., to the world outside the academy.

But that's not to say, of course, that there aren't any alternatives and that PhDs shouldn't be looking beyond academe.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 10, 2003 04:00 PM

But why arnt history programs thinking up new grad school models? Looking at biology. It has spawned biomedical engineering, bioinformatics, biostatistics, either by combining with other disciplines or by creating a sub-discipline altogether. Similar for mathematics, which in its purest form is very detach from the "real world". Instead of just math, there is operations research, industrial engineering, optimiation, computational mathemaics, acutural math, etc. This isnt a science only thing. In the social sciences, economics has branched into public policy, finance, accounting and control.
In these cases, there wasnt a large scale revolt by younger members or anything extreme. It just happened. No national body got together and decided for it to be so. It just did. So academia does change and adapt to the times. Why isnt this happening to history?

Posted by: Passing_through at December 10, 2003 04:19 PM

That's a damn good question.

Part of it might be that there's a different funding logic or incentive structure to biology and other natural sciences--there's a more concrete reason to have grad students who may not want to be academics themselves (to keep labs fully staffed). The market demand for trained biologists or other scientists is also much more assertive and aggressive in its demands, and much larger as well.

But still, one could easily imagine historical doctorates that were aimed at research skills, with the claim that a trained historian was an adroit "data miner" of use in a wide variety of professional contexts (say, as a specialized legal or policy researcher, or as a technical advisor in filmmaking/TV production, for example.)

Or you can easily imagine cultural anthropologists working as advertisers and business consultants, and of course, some do. It's just that it wouldn't occur to 99% of the academics teaching in doctoral programs to aim anything they do pedagogically at such outcomes.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 10, 2003 04:35 PM

I am extremely wary about the idea of history graduate programs offering degrees in public history as opposed to history. I am a public historian: I know and am active in societies for public historians and I know of no one who has a degree in public history (instead the people I know have straight PhDs from Princeton, U/Wisconsin, U/Penn, Emory, Yale etc.). I know that many graduate schools are attempting to offer PhDs or degrees in public history but frankly I think schools are doing this for bad reasons. Public historians (and I know there is a prejudice abt this in academia---a prejudice which I think needs to be addressed) do history; they research and they publish. Among my colleagues in my immediate field, I am the only without a book at the moment. The skills I learned in grad school are directly applicable to my current job and I am not impressed with the few grad programs which attempt to award degrees in public history (I also find it very telling that no one I know has a degree in this field). Sorry, IA, I really (!) appreciate your comment and your support of our site but I find myself troubled by the misconceptions which many academic historians hold regarding public history. I fault not just grad programs for perpetuating this myth but also the AHA. I could not meet with the top govt people with whom I work if I had not been trained in my field at a high level (when the Surgeon General asks us a question, the answer has to be a more faceted one than I would ever give an undergraduate! Thankfully, I don't answer his questions based on a cursory knowledge gleaned during one or two years in a grad program). I shared the usual prejudices abt public history before I came to work in this field so I do not want to seem harsh or super critical when I make these comments----in fact, I find the pervasive nature of this prejudice proof of the very poor job advice grad students receive and the lack of knowledge most faculty members have about careers outside of academia.

Yes, I fault, as everyone does, graduate schools for their failure to educate people. I don't want to lift the burden from these schools and faculty advisors. On the flip side, I saw a problem and I wanted to address it. When I left academia, I was desparate for advice and so the information on the site was intended for people like me (sorry but I tend, like most people, to see things thro' my own experiences). As I had completed my degree five years before I opted out, I was hesitant to go back to my advisor or even to the people with whom I had worked as a post-doc. While grad schools and advisors should give better advice, going back to your grad program isn't always feasible for everyone; I lived 1000 miles away from Madison when I began my search and my advisor had de-camped to Britain. We genuinely hope our site will encourage more grad schools to address these problems---if they don't address them, they don't address them but we don't want grad students to suffer for the sins of their grad programs.

Posted by: Lexi at December 10, 2003 04:48 PM

Also at the risk of beating a dead horse, one of the points that we try to make on our site (and please read it carefully, there is a lot of information there and as we say on our home page, it should not be read at one gulp), historians do have options as researchers. We will prove this with our monthly profiles: our next few months will feature historians who illustrate this. We did only cursory searches on the web for these people and we found them working at historic sites, in television, at think tanks, at cultural organizations, as journalists etc. I find myself puzzled and concerned that this information seems not to have been absorbed by so many of the people who looked at the site. Yes, our bios will be put up slowly (one a month---finding people who are geographically disparate and who work in various fields, getting them to agree to do bios etc. has all taken time---we are putting one up a month because we want people to return to the site and to read it slowly).

Posted by: at December 10, 2003 05:01 PM

Let me shift back a little to the snarky side. Looking over the site--maybe I'm missing it--I don't see an overall sense of how *many* such non-academic careers to which history is specifically relevant and within which specifically a *doctoral* training *as it is presently done* is not only possibly useful but more or less a requirement actually exist--and what the proportionate relationship between the number of students working on doctorates in history and the number of jobs fitting this description is.

Here's my guess: there are a very, very small number of jobs that fit this narrow description. Looking at the recommendations in the biographies section, most of those jobs are jobs for which *many* people might apply and have professional qualifications relevant to the job, and to which a doctorate in history might reasonably be described as a useful but not necessary or privileged qualification.

It is those jobs which historians are not taught to think about during their training, and to which their training is not made specifically or plausibly relevant. If one is to apply for them, then one must do the work (work urged by the site--indeed, this seems the site's main purpose) of bridging between doctoral training and the job in question.

I don't think it is a stretch in that regard to suggest that doctoral education in history would be enhanced if it addressed such possibilities more consciously. Nor do I think it's a stretch to observe that the specific training a historian receives is certainly useful to many such careers but is by no means the very best qualification that one could hold.

Jobs that in some sense actively require a *doctorate* in history and active scholarship which are not academic are an incredibly small class of jobs, in the end, most of them in public history. (And a decent number of posts under that heading do not *require* the doctorate, I might add.) Some years, I'd venture to say there are no more than two to three such positions open *anywhere* in the United States for a newly minted Ph.D in history (as opposed to someone leaving academia for public history, which is probably a more favorable vector of applications). So let's not put more weight on this branch than it can bear.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 10, 2003 06:34 PM

Well Tim, one area that comes to mind where history is relevant is in business-type disciplines. Case studies that are taught in MBA classes are one form of history. Yet the people teaching these classes are rarely have any history background. If historians had a strong quantitative background they can start teaching these classes as well.
Mathematics seems to be a common language among disciplines that have branced out. It links sociology types to policy types to economics people. It connects biology guys to computer science/engineering types. Perhaps its whats needed to connect history phds to business phds?

Posted by: at December 10, 2003 09:22 PM

oops that was me ...

Posted by: Passing_through at December 10, 2003 09:22 PM

Ah, but that's a different kind of argument, Passing_through. That's not about "careers for which a doctorate in history is required, or nearly so", but "careers where a doctorate in history could yield surprising, unanticipated yields that would differentiate one professional from another". I quite agree that there are many such opportunities--MBA pedagogy in a case-study environment is a marvelous example--but there is no sense in which any of those opportunities is going to articulate a history doctorate as a necessary or even optimal ground-floor requirement. The doctorate in question is going to have to make the case that they bring something unique to the table, and not merely unique in that they think historically, but that the *doctorate* in specific qualifies them differentially from someone who has a terminal MA in history, or even a BA history major who did a substantial, creditable work of research as a senior. That's an entrepreneurial possibility.

It's just different from the argument that there is a significant or meaningful class of positions out there for which a history doctorate is understood to be a necessary or optimal requirement, the kind that Lexi describes her own current job as. That's a perishingly small group of positions.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 10, 2003 10:47 PM

"I fault not just grad programs for perpetuating this myth but also the AHA. I could not meet with the top govt people with whom I work if I had not been trained in my field at a high level (when the Surgeon General asks us a question, the answer has to be a more faceted one than I would ever give an undergraduate! Thankfully, I don't answer his questions based on a cursory knowledge gleaned during one or two years in a grad program)."

I plead guilty to ignorance about public history. But I'm still troubled by a couple of things here. First, it seems to me that much of the alternative career advice is about transferring skills to new settings: you won't be using your deep knowledge of [property and kinship in medieval France; settlement patterns in colonial Chesapeake; women and philanthropy in Victorian Britain] but rather relying on the skills acquired while specializing in a particular area. When I think of the many different areas in which people pursue history PhDs (the various chronological and geograpical specialties) I have a hard time imagining the Surgeon General asking questions about most of those specific areas which would require training at a deep level. I can't really imagine that there are many nonacademic jobs at all that require deep knowledge of [property and kinship in medieval France; settlement patterns in colonial Chesapeake; women and philanthropy in Victorian Britain]. Indeed, the advice I've read is all about seeing beyond that specialization in academic terms to realize how many skills and talents one has that might be applied to very different areas.

The typical American-style history doctorate program includes a couple of years of coursework followed by exams followed by a research year followed by several years of writing. Now, I don't think a one-year graduate program is comparable to six years of intensive immersion in a specialized subject. On the other hand, if we were to unpack the training process and take a look at how and when various skills were acquired, I think we might find that it would be possible to design a shorter program if that program were no longer centred around the dissertation, which is a prelude or first draft to the monograph. I'll take your word that those few programs that offer an advanced degree in public hsitory aren't going about it in the right way. But I have to wonder if your dismissal of the "cursory knowledge" acquired through a one- or two-year program doesn't express another kind of prejudice, or at least another type of thinking inside the box. In any case, let's leave aside the notion of a one-year program, but rather think of two to three year program: law school, after all, takes three years, and those three years do represent training at a high level; the British PhD, moreover, is officially 3 years, which generally means 3 to 5 -- they don't do the kind of training that is done in an American program, and yet, curiously enough, British academics are by no means behind their American counterparts in research and teaching (which might raise questions about the American-style PhD if we stopped to think about it).

Anyway, I don't have a particular model in mind, and I may be utterly wrong about the possibilities of a shorter (say 2 to 3 year program). My larger point: given the current sad state of the academic history job market, what I'm suggesting is that academic historians should start to think differently and more broadly. If, as you suggest, public history jobs do require the traditional academic-oriented dissertation-centred PhD, then at the very least graduate programs should be doing more to educate themselves and their students about the public history option.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 11, 2003 08:27 AM

Invisible Adjunct: I realize that my job (and most federal/public history jobs) is a completely alien concept to most history students so I will give you a really quick answer to your question. The SG's office, the senators who call us etc. are looking for (and hopefully they get) extraordinarily detailed answers to questions about the history of the American health care profession and the history of disease. This is actually my speciality and I spent years studying it. I can't always answer the SG's questions off the top off my head (and I'd be an idiot if I did so)---however, the detailed training I rec'd as a medical historian is crucial when I begin to address a problem. I know this may seem startling to everyone but the federal govt (legislators etc.) all take history very seriously. When SARS occurred, for example, my boss and I had to produce detailed papers on the history of the use of quarantine, the rights of states vs. the rights of the federal govt in imposing these, the role of the private physician vs. the public health officer etc. These guys wanted us to go back to the origins of the Public Health Service (1798). If I had not spent years studying and understanding the evolution of the physician, the development of public health, the role of germ theory etc., I could never have written the paper and response in the two weeks which I was allotted (and this being the real world, I had the people contacting me every two days to see if I couldn't produce my answers/paper more quickly). I cannot and would not presume to speak for historians in the State Department, in the Labor Department, in Justice etc. but I cannot help but imagine that their jobs are very similar to mine. My predecessor who did not have a strong background in medical history (her PhD/dissertation dealt with environmental health but her focus was on environmental issues) left the job b/c, if I understand correctly, her background was insufficient to address the types of questions we routinely rec'e. I actually had a steep learning curve when I took my job as I was trained as a British medical historian not an American (altho' I had taught American medical history at the graduate level and had done work in the field)---my boss hired me for two reasons: one, he liked my scholarship and two, he believed that the nature of Anglo-American medical ties were such that I would be able to do the work but I will be candid and say that altho' my dissertation touched on and discussed American medical practitioners, I wish I had done a dissertation in the field of American medical history at least once a week. Fortunately, I like the fact that this keeps and makes my job a challenge but it can (and does!) lead to moments of panic on my part! Our office also addresses questions from reporters (NY Times, USA Today, JAMA etc.) all the time---again, you would be surprised (as I was) by how detailed and how historical these questions are.

As for the bit abt your inability to use your detailed knowledge of French medieval property rights, fair enough. But I'll be pretty candid and say that a) most professions do not require you to use the very specific and detailed knowledge you learn in grad school (speak to med students abt how often they encounter cases of the rare diseases which they learn abt in med school or ask a lawyer the last time he/she used specific information they learned in grad school and ask a medieval historian how often he or she lectures on medieval property rights to undergrads or even grad students---when I was in academia, I spent one class period in a broad class on the Scientific Revolution [a class I taught once every two years] on the subject of my dissertation. One class every two years! Most academics chose such narrow topics (and I think that's fine if it gives you pleasure---I was passionate abt my dissertation topic) that it is unlikely that they will spend much time teaching it. I gave conference papers and punlished on the subject...and nothing stops me from doing that now. In fact, despite my new identity as an American medical historian, I was just asked (yesterday!) to contribute an article on my dissertation for a book on a broader related topic. Nothing will stop me, if I chose, from pursuing my passion and interest in British medical issues and, in fact, I feel much more strongly abt the subject now that I know that I am not doing it for tenure (it also changes how I address the topic---I'm actually prepared to take a slightly more innovative approach to the topic---possibly b/c I have grown and changed as a scholar but also, I think, because I am not desparately seeking to publish at any and all costs---I kick myself b/c I did distort something in an article I published simply to ensure its publication in a specific journal which was important to me in the tenure process---it was minor and most people would not even be aware of it [it's three sentences in a paragraph] but I hate myself for having done that and I never read the article now.

What troubles me about this whole discussion is the assumption that simply b/c one completes a degree in a specific field, you are owed a job in that field. There is a bizarre sense of entitlement I think and again, I say this as someone who had that sense of entitlement so I am not attacking anyone for having it. My point is that people need to realize that a PhD is not a form of vocational training (I would assume that this was true only in the heady days of the 1960s). This is a super painful lesson (and again, this is where I fault grad schools and organizations like the AHA for not telling people this). A PhD is very different from a JD, an MD an MPH etc. You become a scholar---and that's great---but you are not owed a job as a scholar (and I think most lawyers would say that having a JD does not mean that you are owed a job as a lawyer---no one is owed a job---a very painful realization to make, I know, and one that I struggled with for years).

If you are savvy, you can find work in a related field. If you are genuinely interested in medieval French property rights, then consider working for the French govt, for the Catholic Church, for an auction house (yes, these guys have to search for the provenance of specific art pieces--this can entail property searches). The people we will be highlighting over the next few months will demonstrate how you can do this: a German historian who specialized in Nazism and worked for the Holocaust Museum, a French historian who became an archivist and works in the field he loves etc.

What troubles me abt all of this is the failure of imagination---again, I had this while in academia as well and so I am castigating myself. I was convinced no one would ever hire a British medical historian. Within 10 months of beginning my job search, I was offered two jobs which drew on my expertise and background. I know---I would not have believed it had someone told me that this was possible. And I had a chip on my shoulder (I was very arrogant and demanded a lot---it was a few months before I realized that many of the people with whom I did informational interviews had PhDs---my personal favorite, a woman with a PhD in religion from Yale, who worked for a think tank on reporoductive issues, the religious issues raised by these etc.---it was a job I wanted but frankly she was better qualified than I was---with a PhD in religion not history of medicine!).

I went to grad school b/c I loved my subject---really really loved it. I wanted to be a British historian beginning when I was 9 and my dad, a lawyer, explained to me what historians did (he was more passionate abt history than many historains!). In grad school, I experienced the usual: at times, I fell out of love with my subject (this is probably like the story of a marriage!) but I continued, because on most days, I loved the subject. I still am wild abt it. I actually have no regrets NOW abt having gone to grad school (if I had never gone, I would have always wondered). The passion I feel for Britain and Britsih history is probably stronger now than it has been for years. Nothing stops me from reading abt the subject (and reading what I please---no more dull books which I HAD to read). And nothing will stop from publishing on the subject. You can actually can continue to be a scholar even after you leave academia (again, check out our profiles and go to sites such as the National Coalition of Independent Scholars). There is a bizarre contempt among historians for independent scholars---again, this makes no sense and is the product of grad school and the AHA, I think. I actually have more respect for real independent scholars (they pursue the field at their own cost---no greater love!).

Posted by: Lexi at December 11, 2003 09:23 AM

Now I'm really feeling snarky again.

Lexi, the thing I don't feel you seem to understand is this: what many of us are observing is that graduate *pedagogy* in history and other humanities never seems to suggest any other possible utilities for the training it provides save academia, and therefore, no one teaches with a broader sense of what the transferable, marketable skills and knowledge are that a historian might have.

And there is a reason for that. EXCEPT for public history, the skills a historian possesses which are useful in many of the jobs you've outlined for your hypothetical retooling historians can be had elsewhere--they're not that distinctive to historical study. They can be had elsewhere, cheaper in terms of time investment and the labor of study.

Let's look at "Gregor Samsa": you suggest for him the following jobs:

Scientific foundations (National Academy of Sciences, National Science Foundation, American Association for the Advancement of Science etc.)
* Scientific journals with general audiences (Scientific American, National Geographic etc.)
* Organizations and businesses which seek to promote French culture
* French businesses
* International societies which emphasize the sciences
* Educational foundations which seek to integrate the sciences and humanities for students (these are very trendy)
* Museums of Science (these exist in many cities-from Baltimore to Boston)

For things requiring a knowledge of French and things French, there are many pathways to that skill set; Gregor Samsa will be up against a diverse set of competitors, and can make no especially *distinctive* argument that his training as a *historian* makes him uniquely qualified.

For the foundation jobs, his general training as an academic is very useful, but only the generality of it: anyone with a doctorate will probably be equally competitive. For the science positions, he may well be at a disadvantage if a scientist who is also a humanist by bent or outlook applies.

The lack of imagination here doesn't apply to us, nor are we the ones claiming an "entitlement". We're simply observing that a history doctorate is a specific qualification or credential for only two things, really: academia or public history. It's got nothing to do with whether you make use of what you did in your training, it's about the fit between credential and career requiring credential. There are a wide variety of careers that require a law degree or a medical degree; there are very small number of careers requiring an academic doctorate, and a smaller number beyond that requiring a history degree.

What does this all mean? It means the following:

1) Graduate pedagogy itself has to shift if there is a desire to make a history Ph.D have a broader utility, AND universities need to work hard to encourage a wider range of employers to regard specific doctorates as specific credentials.

2) What you're doing is immensely valuable as advice to people who have completed or will shortly complete a Ph.D in history and who don't wish to continue in academia. You're reminding them that their skills are transferrable and their credential has value--if not *unique* or *privileged* value, value nontheless. This is a very good thing, and you're doing something very productive, useful, helpful, etc.

3) BUT. The main point I want to take away from this is that is there is anyone out there who looks at your site and says, "Oh, the things I can do! The places I can go! I'll do a history doctorate and many doors open to me!" I want to get them to understand that your site is strictly for the end-user, for the person who is trying to get optimal value out of a training which is not designed or intended to return optimal value. It's a salvage project, not a reason to do a doctorate in history. If someone looks at "Gregor Samsa"'s suggested jobs, or any of the others, and says to themselves, "that's what I'd like to do with my life", I urgently want them to understand that doing a doctorate in history is NOT the wisest course to pursue to get to those end goals.

4) The reason it's important for me to say this, in part, is that you offer the potential for an alibi to graduate programs of study. They can say,
"See, there's tons of things you can do with a doctorate in history--we don't have to do a damn thing to alter the utility or pedagogy of our training, and we don't have to restrict the numbers of students seeking a Ph.D in history either--we can admit as many as we want." And I think that's what is unfair, because the process is long and costly for almost everyone who goes through it, and it is not at all "entitlement" to observe that it is almost exclusively targeted at obtaining a tenure-track academic post. The numbers of historians being trained ought to be roughly in line with the number of academic and public history positions out there--for all the other professional marketplaces you sketch out as places for historians, there are OTHER, BETTER ways to get there, and no one should pursue a doctorate in history with the thought that this is what they're pursuing.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 11, 2003 09:51 AM

Oddly, Tim, I am not offering an alibi to programs (read our contact page in which we ask people to contact professional organnizations and ask them to limit the number of PhDs produced---I know, again, I am asking you to do a detailed reading of our site before you condemn it---silly me!). Nowhere on our site do we tell people that they should go to grad school. Nowhere! And I would never ever advocate that and if I were a 21 year old, I would read the site and think about questions like "Will a Phd Hurt me on the job market?" and think "Oh my god, what if I can't find an academic job? Does that mean I won't be able to find a non-academic job either?"). What really makes me depressed when I read your comments is that you seem not to have read our site but you feel it's okay to pontificate on its failures.

We could, if you prefered, take a woe is me approach to our site. We could tell people "Woe! You will NEVER find work in your field. Give in to despair. We'll help you but realize you will lead a rotten life colored by your failure to find an academic job or even one which draws on all the things you learned in grad school" but, frankly, people get this enough in the Chronicle of Higher Education and I also think it's bunk. When we constructed the site, we met with people at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (which seeks to put PhDs to work outside of the academy for the simple reason that there aren't enough academic jobs); we met with people at various graduate programs and we even met with people at the AHA. They all told us: be positive on the site; PhDs are already experiencing depression etc. if they cannot find a job, do not add to that depression. Sure, we could cite statistics abt the inability of people to get jobs, we could rant and rave abt the university's failure to understand the importance of limiting the number of PhDs they produce....but guess what, that is not what our site is about. It's about helping people find productive work, which will give them an income upon which they can live, benefits and the ability to live where they want to live. I put a positive spin on my own graduate education b/c I genuinely don't have any regrets but frankly, I think there is no point in telling people: oh yeah, that PhD, a complete waste of time---you should have done something else. I am actually happy I did a Phd and so far, the twelve people we have doing the coming year's profiles ALL say "I am glad I did a PhD." Maybe they shouldn't be happy---I am sorry if they are. They all said this to us at different times in their bios or in our correspondance with them. I guess they aren't supposed to be pleased to have done this, they aren't supposed to love their subject (and I really hope I am wrong here), they aren't supposed to do work as independent scholars. I'll let them know.

What also troubles me is that you started by saying no job requires one to have a PhD in history---when I explained my job, you did a 180. Do you think it's possible that there are other jobs abt which you may not know (and which I may not know) which require an historian to use his or her skills? I actually think this is possible but well, call me silly. I spent 10 months doing informational interviews and learning abt job opportunities outside of academia and discovering a wider world than I had ever imagined (and I took time off before going to grad school so I should have known abt this wider world but grad school is very narrowing in this sense---by the time I finished my PhD, I really didn't know any non-academics except the numerous lawyers in my immediate family).

I applaud your snarkiness and as always, I applaud the academics' desire to fight to the death. I am genuinely not concerned abt the academic nature of this discussion---I am, however, concerned abt all those poor idiots who have a PhD and have no job advice. Are you suggesting that we should write these people off? No, they won't get the job of their dreams---altho' who knows the job of their dreams may be a nightmare (it was for me). I am actually genuinely concerned abt helping people find work. Gregor Samsa, my favorite bug, is actually modeled on someone I know who works for one of the above named types of institutions and loves it---he uses his skills (German language, knowledge of history) in his job. I realize more and more this is a silly and futile conversation b/c we are actually seeking different things. You want me, if I am correct, to find jobs which require each and every historian to use each and every skill he or she learned in grad school (preferably, I think, this should be, if I read your biases right, an academic job). If the individual does not get a job which requires that he or she use all their grad school knowledge, you want me to remind these people that they are not using all their skills in their job and that they should be aware of this. Oddly, I am not interested in doing that. I am writing for people who cannot find a job in academia or who are unhappy in academia. I am not advocating that people go to grad school (in fact, read the contact page again, please and you will see I do the opposite): I am trying to enable people to find good and productive work. Silly but there it is.

I am going to ask you a question (and this is really idiotic of me---I realize you are not the audience the site is aimed at): should we just write off all these people who have PhDs? Because to do nothing is to do that. Sure, it's a great idea to limit the number of people who go to grad school and I agree with the AHA which has taken that stance but what about the thousands of people who cannot find work or who are unhappy in their jobs right now? I was in the latter group---I was not married at the time, had no independent means of support. What do you really think people like me should do? Should I have remained in a job which made me miserable? Should I have taken a job adjuncting at a better school, sans health insurance and benefits? I genuinely ask but I realize it's a futile question. You have one idea of what a PhD should do and you cannot fit your mind around anything else. Oddly enough, I think that's great---you are happy; I was not and I knew lots of people who weren't. I am seeking to reach those people. I see no point in telling these people they are failures and that they have made a Big Mistake in going to grad school (especially as I don't view my own life and decisions in those terms). Obviously, we disagree on this issue---you are not one of those people who is searching for a job outside of academia but please don't dismiss these people or their needs....and, most importantly, I wish (but you are free to do this if you want) that you were not so determined to remind people that they are failures and that they wasted years of their lives. For me and for many people, this is not how we see ourselves, our work and/or our lives. And I think I---and people who are like me---have the final say in determining how we view ourselves, our successes, our pleasures and our lives.

Posted by: Lexi at December 11, 2003 11:01 AM

Well Tim, the same in almost all fields, not only history. If one were to claim that a history phd trains only academics and public historians, then one can also make the case that a JD is only good for training lawers, a MD only trains people to practive medicine. Whats the difference?

A more concrete example. Look at the people with degrees in Civil Engeering. That training pretty much trains people to be certified civil engineers, but not everyone eventually gets licenced.(CEs need to be licenced before they can sign off designs) The rest simply make good use of their skills and still do pretty well. They have a good background which is useful in many ways.So why is this different from a history phd who is only trained to be an academic but does other things?

I believe that the issue is not whether history is useful for only a small number of jobs. Its that the training for history phds is too long. The opporunity cost is too high. What is the average time for someone to get a history phd? I believe its around 8 years. The average time to get a economics/accounting phd is about 5. In the various engineering fields a phd takes about 6 years. Thats only slightly longer than a normal undergraduate degree. And thats not some ABD status, but getting the actual phd. By getting the phd at a younger age, a history grad with great analytical and writing skills but with little or no experince in a particular field can still afford to gain experience, learn new things. Employers are still willing to take them on board and provide training. But if you spend 10 years of your life doing a phd, you pretty much have too much invested in it to change.

Posted by: at December 11, 2003 11:34 AM

Lexi, you're determined to read me saying something I'm not; in fact, as saying things I specifically disavowed. Evidently you feel that I'm doing the same.

The poster in #24 points to exactly the thing which concerns me most: the opportunity costs involved in a history Ph.D, and the fact that most of the things that one can do with such a doctorate can be done with a lower cost in these terms.

My focus in almost all these discussions is on one of two things: 1) the advice I give or should give to promising undergraduates with an interest in pursuing a doctorate in history and 2) the reforms I would like to see made in graduate pedagogy.

In this respect, I see a site like Beyond Academe as *confirming* the advice I give undergraduates, namely, don't do a doctorate in history unless you're interested in being an academic. That is not the intention or utility of the site, so I apologize for hijacking it in this respect. And I see it as confirming that graduate pedagogy desperately needs reform, both in history and in other fields, precisely because there is a pressing need for recognizing the nature of the job market in history and having a pedagogy that speaks more broadly to history's utility. An argument which, as Lexi observes, the site is not hostile to. So ok.

My snarkier replies here are more aimed at Lexi's posts, particularly #21, than the site itself. Lexi presumes a level of ignorance about public history on my part and IA's part that is unwarranted--the basic fact that the number of positions similar to Lexi's current one is perishingly miniscule remains a fundamental point here.

Nor are we in any respect "writing off" people. As I've said, this is precisely the value of your site, and it's a desperately needed thing in this respect. It's simply that my primary reaction to it is that it confirms my feelings on some related issues (whether it is wise to pursue a doctorate in history and whether graduate pedagogy needs reform). It's precisely *because* I think that a Ph.D in history SHOULD be useful for more things, and understood to be useful, because I think that the public-sphere value of historical training is high, because I believe in the value of generalization over specialization, that I think your site incidentally documents the shortcomings of the historical doctorate as it presently stands.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 11, 2003 11:56 AM

900 federal history positions. Perishingly miniscule the number of available positions. Tim, if you want to tell people not to get PhDs, create a different site---in fact, create a site which addresse your two concerns (valid ones, I think) but recognize that our site is NOT about your two primary issues. For us to address your two issues (and they are your issues, not mine), I would have to scuttle my primary mission (that is telling PhDs that they are not failures and that they can support themselves with real jobs). I am not about to scuttle that mission on the grounds that an undergraduate reading our site (and failing to do any other research on this issue) will take the site as a green light to go ahead with an academic career. We really are at cross purposes here and, while I agree with your two primary concerns, I want to remind you that our site is not about and never asks the question: should you go to grad school? There are LOTS of sites (such as this one) which address this question and do it well. Oddly---and you seem to be missing this---that is NOT the issue of our site. You remind me of the people with whom I went to grad school who always critiqued a book because it was not the book they would have written. I was never really sure that that was a valid critique.

And finally, as far as graduate schools go, I think the greatest failure (beside the over-production business) is their failure to get students thro' quickly and we actually do address that question. I took 6 years to get my Phd, won awards, taught and worked part-time as a legal sec'y. I look at people who are still slogging thro' 14 years later and I know that if I were these people, I would be bitter and filled with regret. A PhD which takes at most 8 years to complete will not leave you embittered. That is where I would focus some of the push to reform grad schools and that is the one part of our site where I think we stray off-topic (and possibly lose our mission which is simply to help people get jobs). I sometimes think abt that part of the site and wonder if it's a mistake but it's a matter dear to my heart and I gave in to a foolish impulse---but perhaps that is why you fail to understand the mission of our site (we do have extraneous material on it).

Posted by: at December 11, 2003 12:30 PM

Really fascinating debate; I've posted a response to it on my site.

Posted by: Rana at December 11, 2003 01:25 PM

It's a foolish debate and I'm very sorry I ever embarked on it. I'm not Tim and I'm not going to create his website. I am genuinely troubled that I engaged in this---it's foolish. I knew when I created the site, I wouldn't please everyone but I thought that if I took the hard lessons I learned, I might be able to help some one (possibly our site will fail to help people but at least I tried and invested my money doing something which gave me pleasure if only as a form of therapy!). And I am troubled and worried that people will view the site thro' the stupidity of this discussion. I hope visitors will not do so.

Posted by: Lexi at December 11, 2003 02:28 PM

I don't misunderstand the purpose of the site. I am responding to it in terms of how it makes me mindful of my own concerns, responding here at a site where those concerns are often the substance of the discussion.

In terms of the mission of the site, you're doing a great job delivering the goods you promise. Noting that's not much of a discussion, per se: that's all I would have to say or that I think needs to be said: great job, keep it up, thanks for doing it. I suppose this thread could have looked more like that: a lot of "me too" compliments. Would that have made you happier?

It's not a matter of criticizing your site for what you fail to deliver, it's about springboarding from your site to the wider terrain of academic doctorates in history, and the issues contained on that terrain. Is that a bad thing, to be reminded of important issues by something which does not consciously set out to raise those issues?

If I have an issue with you, it's more with the things you've had to say here in this thread than with what is said on the site, and it's to those assertions I have largely replied. Hence my lack of direct address to the site itself, save to observe that many of the positions you suggest in your career profiles reinforce my sense that a history doctorate is an opportunity-costing way to get to those positions, and to redouble my sense that graduate pedagogy desperately needs to be reformed so that those other job trajectories are consciously offered as possibilities--and so that the time-to-completion is hastened appropriately.

A brief aside, however: do all 900 federal history positions require or even privilege holding a doctorate in history, and is a doctorate in history the only credential required? My outsider's sense is that at least some of those positions at the highest level also require that the candidate have spent some time in academia to be competitive. I'd also guess that the vast majority of those positions are aimed at American historians. But I'm honestly curious and would like to hear more about those 900 jobs, their breakdown, the kinds of qualifications they require, and so on. What all are we talking about here? (And lest I be accused once again of not reading the site, I don't see that information anywhere there: in fact, there is no systematic information about public history per se that I can see, just some reminders that it exists and some specific counsel to the various "transformers" you profile).

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 11, 2003 02:28 PM

I have a question, largely for Lexi. I'm not a historian, but I am a Ph.D. employed by the federal government.

Why do federal employers hiring Ph.D.s in history not interview at the national meetings or advertise openings in professional outlets that advertise academic openings for history Ph.D.s?
In other words, why would it be surprising to a large number of history Ph.D.s that your job exists? And if your representation of a large number of federal openings for Ph.D. historians is accurate, why wouldn't that be common information?

I am an economist currently working at a federal agency. Federal agencies seeking economists publish job openings in J.O.E. (Job Openings for Economists), interview at the annual AEA meetings, and follow the same interviewing/offer schedule as the academic market for economists. They do this not to make life easy for junior economists, but because if they want to get economists competitive for top university openings, they had best be in that market themselves.

If federal agencies have positions that specifically require a Ph.D. in history, why are they not advertising in the accepted outlets for openings for Ph.D.s in history? I can't think of a single good reason why they would exempt themselves from that marketplace, where they would have the best chance of snagging the best candidates and best fit.

Posted by: Matilde at December 11, 2003 02:33 PM

I am becoming a masochist. But here's a quick answer to Tim's question: oddly enough you don't have to have spent time in academia to be competitive for these jobs but you do have to have good credentials. I find myself slightly confused as to why anyone would think that you must be an academic to have a federal history position. I know it's a shocker but you can be a scholar without that. As for the bit abt American historians, okay, I think that's probably true but I also demonstrate that this is not a hard and fast rule. Like all employers the federal govt seeks simply to hire the best person for the job. I know people who came to their positions via academia and some who did not (I really am troubled by the idea that Tim has that one must have been an academic---why would you think that? The point I seek to make is that, wonder of wonders, being an academic is not necessarily, the path to happiness or even other scholarly jobs---the fact that academics seem to believe this is worrisome; I'll also be very candid and say that certain aspects of my job cannot be done if you have a true academic personality).

Mathilde: I think you ask a great question and here's the answer I can give but I honestly don't know the ins and outs of this. My position was advertised in the usual historical journals etc. but and I know that that is the problem with the culture (and that's what our website seeks to eat away in a VERY minor way---I have no illusions) most historians skip over the public history and non-academic jobs. There is a terrible scorn for this field---and I shared it. No one ever told me what public historians do and I was convinced, as are many academics, that anything but an academic career was death so I never researched it.

For this failure to do research and to be open-minded, I fault myself---not my graduate program. I think grad programs and advisors should take responsibility and help their students find out about jobs and job options. BUT I do think people need to take responsibility for themselves and their careers. An advisor and a graduate school are not obligated to find you a job---law schools do not guarantee that all their grads will find jobs nor do med schools, MBA programs etc. You have do have to do some legwork yourself and if you are determined to view a PhD as a vocational degree (not a good idea but I know people do it), then you should be very aggressive abt this throughout your grad career---seeking out all sorts of opportunities to do historical work. Yes, a graduate school and a graduate program should recommend that people find internships but...YOU have to do the legwork. When I was an undergrad, my undergrad school told me that internships were important; I believed 'em. I then contacted the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, altho' I was terrified, shy and an extraordinarily amazingly immature 20 year old, I arranged the internship following the advice Vassar gave me (I had a little sheet of paper with instructions and I called them with a quavering voice---but I did it). I'm troubled that many people in their mid to late 20s (or older) fail to do this and then blame their grad school for failing them. If you are in grad program now and/or were in a grad program in the period after abt 1993, I would say that you need to have your eyes open about what you are doing (and I don't understand how you can fail to have your eyes open at this point). No one will hand you an academic job---those days are gone. No one will hand you a non-academic job either.

Put this in context by thinking about other fields: my siblings all went to law school---chilling but true and yet I still love them! They went to the best law schools (Harvard, Columbia, and NYU) and yet, they all came out (law review and all) floundering and looking for work. None of their advisors or alma maters called law firms, the fed govt etc. for them. When my brother was miserable at a high pressure law firm, he didn't call up his alma mater and demand that they find him a new job and rant that they had failed to educate him abt the awfulness of that kind of job. He said "this sucks; let me find a new job." And he did. I had a sense of entitlement which astonished my siblings but again, I think I was simply reflecting what the academic culture told me: the good shall be rewarded; b/c I had been an extremely successful grad student, I believed that my grad school, which had given me thousands of dollars worth of fellowships, was also now obligated to give me a job. This is a weird sense of entitlement.

Here's what I say: grad schools should tell people this is not a vocational degree up front and there should be attempts to limit the number of PhDs produced. Do I or my website have the power to implement these changes? I wish we did but I am a realist (I'm also one person!). I can put up the website, I can go to the AHA meetings abt grad education (which I am abt to do again---I am struggling against a bureaucarcy here and with NO success) but fundamentally, I don't have the power to change this. I can, however, tell people how to pick themselves up and re-tool themselves. Can I get them a job? Nope. Can I help them to learn how to get a job? Sure, I can try. Can I hope grad schools will do that? Sure. Do I have the power, especially now that I am OUT of academia, to get grad schools, en masse, to change their message? Nope. Maybe Tim or other academics can work within the system to change it. I'm working outside the system. I could walk away from grad students and the whole issue---I'm taken care of. But I didn't. Every month I have someone contact me for an informational interview---this said to me, "there's a problem; you can try to address it or you can walk away." I chose to try to address it and I suddenly find myself charged with a belief that I can do everything; it's touching your belief in my powers. I am half-Greek but, alas, I am not Diana Prince.

Posted by: Lexi at December 11, 2003 03:48 PM


Re: academia as a qualification for federal history positions, I was thinking specifically of some of the top curatorial positions at the Smithsonian, where it's fairly common for people to circulate into those from academia and then back out into academia again, and where having been an academic is a credential that helps you get the position.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 11, 2003 04:02 PM

Tim: I have a genuine question for you and this not done in a nasty way (please don't interpret it as such). Since what I am doing is obviously problematic, I am curious to know what are YOU doing to address this problem, outside of telling undergrads NOT to go to grad school (which is fine but a very small step in the big scheme of things---many undergrads, as can be seen repeatedly in the CHE and elsewhere, ignore this advice---I actually know one who took this advice as a challenge along the lines of "I'll show you!"). I ask, b/c I genuinely want to know what academics are doing. I have been very unimpressed with the AHA, with whom I have met several times to discuss this issue and I am curious to know if there is any concentrated or real effort to address the problem by academics themselves. I also do not think that there can be any change until academics themselves are more open and learn more abt the world outside of academia.

Posted by: Lexi at December 11, 2003 04:07 PM

Tim: I know and work with the medical curators---none left acacdemia. All came directly from grad school. This may not be true of other areas within the Smithsonian but the curators (five of them) with whom I have worked and whom I know very well never held academic positions. Again, there are no hard and fast rules abt any of this (and why I love this field---some academics would hate the broad range of knowledge and the broad range of experiences people bring to this type of job and that is part of what I mean when I say not everyone is suited to a fed hist job---additionally, I DO work 9-5 which many academics don't like (altho' I am frightening myself as I don't seem to be working today---ugh and why I have to stop this---I also have to interact frequently with people and I have to bend answers to the kinds of questions which historians don't ask---I sometimes have to educate reporters or legislators to ask a different type of question but that's exciting and fun to me---some historians would hate it---my job is NOT for everyone just as an academic career is not for everyone. Nuff said? And now, b/c I have been so slothful all day, I will work outside of 9-5 today and be here very late. Alas, alack.

Posted by: at December 11, 2003 04:14 PM

Thanks Lexi. That's quite interesting.

Preferences for academic jobs exist in economics as well. We are trained to perceive a tenure-track position at a Research I or II university as the ultimate goal for the research economist.

However, many economists apply for federal agency positions. The appeal of such jobs is fairly obvious - location in Washington, DC, good salary, good job security, ability to have influence on policy, and no undergraduate teaching. For some this is a first choice, for many others a backup if a sufficiently tempting tenure-track offer is not to be had.

So I'm surprised to hear that in history, it's a hard sell, particularly given the fact that the academic job market in history is so much tighter than the market in economics. Why would so many prefer to adjunct rather than apply for federal historian positions? I'd be interested to hear from the other historians about the strength of this bias.

Posted by: Matilde at December 11, 2003 04:17 PM

Matilde (sorry I misspelt your name---and I also realize that I may be wrong in addressing Timothy as Tim---if so, I apologize): I am also eager for the answer to your question! But I cannot help but wonder if the lack of academic jobs doesn't spur some of this contempt for non-academic jobs and the corresponding glorification of the academic job---a la diamonds have value b/c they are rare; man-made diamonds have none b/c they are not rare. We have had a summer internship at our office (amazingly well-paid in the academic scheme of things) and altho' we dutifully advertise the position each year in all the "right places," we get only a handful of applications. The two people who held the internship used it to do research for their dissertations at the best archives in their field. We encouraged them to work, several days a week, on their dissertations (one was an American med historian, one was a Russian med historian so the dissertation, in one case, was not relevant to our office). I would have killed to have had a summer position [I had grants but none paid at the rate we did!] which enabled me to work on my dissertation full-time and to get, as both of our interns did, the right to go into the stacks at the Nat Lib of Medicine (academics don't get this privilege).

If anyone can answer this question and provide the magic answer as to how we can transform the culture, I'd love to hear it. I think, dear Horatio, that the fault lies not in our stars but ourselves. Academics need to learn about the world outside of academia and to give advice to undergrads and grad students based on real knowledge; non-academic PhDs need to talk to academics about what they do and why they are happy; grad schools need to change their tune and professional organizations need to put pressure on everyone to re-think and to think again and creatively about this issue. I can try and I hope others will do so as well---but unless people in each field attempt to do something, nothing will happen. I say this, b/c at the request of the AHA, I submitted a memo detailing some suggestions about this problem. The response of the AHA? Nada and b/f I did it, one of the leading people told me "academics won't accept the idea that a historian can be anyone who is not a professor." Wow! I spent several nights weeping abt this (I kid you not---I see the downfall of my profession in this belief that it can only be taught not practiced). I've moved on but I'm pessimistic abt the future of history if we keep it as an academic discipline (with the exception of a year of American history, it's not taught in high schools today! I don't want the field to go the way of Latin etc. but it can).

Posted by: Lexi at December 11, 2003 05:52 PM

Besides giving advice to undergraduates, and publishing my advice at my weblog? I would say one of the primary purposes of my weblog as a whole and of my participation in other ones like Invisible Adjunct is to argue for systematic reform to graduate pedagogy and the academy as a whole. My participation in foundations has also been aimed at this purpose, including my work for several selection committees awarding grants to doctoral students: I've tried very hard to argue for privileging proposals that have a broad sense of the purposes and utilities to which the grant is being put, and for including people with non-traditional training on an equal plane with conventional academics.

I am struggling to understand quite why this conversation became as adversarial as it has been, given that I both admire what the website is doing and agree broadly with the desire to have a Ph.D in history deliberately lead to a much wider range of possible careers than academia. I honestly think I'm being conflated with some off-stage ogres that I don't doubt Lexi has had to deal with. So let me be clear, again--I admire and support what the website is doing, and I think that our sense of what a doctorate is for is far too small and restricted. It's just that as a teacher, I have to be the first to acknowledge that if one does something else besides be an academic with a history doctorate, one is swimming upstream against what that doctorate typically offers as an understood sense of its utility and purpose. That is unfortunate, and it is because I regard as unfortunate that I want to insist that it should not be that way, and it is that insistence that occurs to me whenever I read accounts by "postacademics" of what they have done with their lives. There shouldn't be any sense at all that one has to fight to reclaim a professional life with dignity in the wake of doing a doctorate, and yet--and here I DID read the site--that is precisely what the biographies of the two founders of the site reflects.

Perhaps it is I who should suggest that my site be read than the other way around: you'll see at least some answers to your questions at my site, Lexi, if you scroll down past the things on computer games and so on. Let me especially mention


and you'll get some sense of where I'm coming from.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 11, 2003 06:21 PM

"And I am troubled and worried that people will view the site thro' the stupidity of this discussion. I hope visitors will not do so."

Again, I think it's an excellent site, and I'm pretty sure visitors (history PhDs and PhDs in other fields, too) will find it very useful. And of course the vast majority of visitors will not be arriving at your site via the comments section of this particular thread on this weblog.

I don't know why you find this discussion stupid, Lexi, and I have to say I am genuinely puzzled by how quick you were to assume a lack of good will/good faith on the part of Tim Burke. I see some differences in perspective, certainly, but I think they have more to do with the broader framing and implications of the "beyond academic careers" issue than with the particular emphasis of Beyond Academe. And I also see a good deal of common ground: at the very least, a sense that the academic culture has to adapt to changing circumstances both within and outside academe.

In any case, I found the discussion useful, and I think I have learned something about public history.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 11, 2003 09:56 PM

I am also honestly still wondering: are there really 900 GS-170 Historian positions out there? If so, I definitely apologize for underestimating the sheer number of such positions in existence. It just seems to be a much larger number than I would have guessed.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at December 11, 2003 11:27 PM

Well Tim, I think the original posting said
"the field in which I currently works employs roughly 900 historians with PhDs"
That doesnt necesary mean 900 people with phds in history. It could mean 900 people in political science, english ,etc who are working as historians and who have Phd.
As I have mentioned earlier, the opportunity cost of training a historian is too high.(#24) Med school is 4-5 years + 1-2 years residency. And they deal with human lives. Why does history take such a long time? I think the humanities in general take the longest time to obtain a phd compared to all disciplines. Can the time taken from entry to phd in hand be shortened to say a manageble 5 years? Why not?

Posted by: Passing_through at December 12, 2003 01:04 AM

I'd like to know if anyone knows of a similar site for outside the box historians in Britain.

Posted by: Claire at December 12, 2003 06:51 AM

By the way. Some of you were discussing the differences between British PhDs and American PhDs. This is the typical experience of the British PhD student.

Year 1- I know I'm doing a PhD but I don't know what I'm doing it on.
Year 2- I know what I'm doing it on but I don't know how to do it.
Year 3- Oh ****! I've wasted two years not knowing what I'm doing and now I've got to churn out a thesis on 12 months.
Year 4- Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!

Posted by: Claire at December 12, 2003 06:57 AM

I don't know of a similiar site for British PhDs. But if I find one, I will certainly post about it (and if you find one, please let me know).

"Year 3- Oh ****! I've wasted two years not knowing what I'm doing and now I've got to churn out a thesis on 12 months."
I've heard this from other people who went through the British PhD, who said they would have liked more American-style structure. On the other hand, it's not uncommon for someone in an American-style program to arrive at a similar "Oh ****! I've wasted two years..." -- not at year 3 but at year 5 or 6.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 12, 2003 09:31 AM

That's a reassuring thought. I get quite terrified when I see what's required of American PhDs to even get on to a PhD programme. The route I've taken seems to have been a lot less regulated and far more relaxed.

Just by the by. If anyone looking at this site studies the social context of early modern portrait prints I'd be delighted to hear from them. I'm writing my PhD on links between portrait prints and the news in later Stuart London.

Posted by: Claire at December 12, 2003 10:55 AM

When I make my remarks regarding the stupidity of the discussion (and it is a wrong word and undoubtedly more offensive than I intended but I was tired), I am refering to two ideas which deeply trouble me and which appear, at least to me, to be among Tim's recommendations.

First, many young academics must find a job which will pay them a basic salary and give them health insurance. Adjuncting really isn't possible for many singles (it is possible but health insurance for a single woman in her childbearing years costs $3600 a year---so adjuncts must earn a salary which will pay rent, food, etc. and allow them to set aside $3600 while also setting aside significant sums for their taxes, money for a pension etc. ---again, it's possible to do this but many people who do it do not seem happy or fulfilled). To include on our website an essay detailing why one should not attend grad school (which is, I think what I am being encouraged to do) would be deeply damaging to these people. One cannot dwell on past mistakes if one is to move forward (and I would, of course, hesitate to regard the 6 years of my life which I spent pursuing a PhD as a "mistake"---I don't think it's healthy and I think it's dangerous---I say this as someone who did spend time doing just that!). When I read Tim's comments, I am worried that people will dwell on this issue and think "That's right! I will never find a non-academic job which uses all my skills and I will start my career behind...I am already tired and depressed...I don't have the energy to embark on a fight [which is what getting a job requires], especially if the outcome of the fight will be less than I have been led to expect after my grad training." This is what deeply concerns me----I don't care abt the idea of criticism of the site (and I am speaking with people at the Labor Department to get a good web link to address JT's concern---the statement is correct, the Labor Department tells me, but it can always be expanded to provide more information).

Second, I really doubt that any undergrad who reads our site, which begins by discussing "the problem of the ovreproduction of PhDs" which moves on to say "some employers will not hire PhDs" and which then goes on to include a plea that visitors write their professional organizations to halt this production, and then goes on to grad school will go to grad school anyway. Reading the Jane Bast blog, I realized that she has made up her mind; she is going to grad school, regardless of what she is told. In fact, I think the idea of a challenge is what may be pushing her on.

So, I reacted very quickly to Tim's comments b/c I saw in them a tendency to push unhappy, worried, confused people into greater worry etc. (to undermine, in effect, the goals of our site) and I failed to see any benefit to the idea that our site should include material discouraging people from doing something which they are hell-bent on doing anyway (I also cannot help but think abt Wilkie Collins' comment that it is the "worst and most universsal of all human impertinences...telling a man to his face...that others are plainly better able than he is himself to judge what calling in life is fittest and worthiest for him"). I cannot presume to tell others how they should view themselves, their careers or their choices. I can offer information and I can say, "judging from my own experiences, focusing on the negative is not helpful" but that is all I can (or should) do.

My goal is to help people who cannot find jobs and who do not have the luxury of an independent or even a shared income. I think finding a good job is extraordinarily difficult---I am concerned that by focusing on or even reminding people of negatives will prevent people from engaging in this fight. We present it in positive terms b/c we are seeking to help people out of inertia, apathy and unhappiness (as well as acute poverty in some cases---and I think that poverty pushes one toward depression and stress). Reading Tim's comments or even the belief of someone that academic jobs allow one to engage fully in one's passions (they don't---I have tenured friends at Harvard and Columbia who complain about teaching intro courses or courses removed from their interests, who complain about grading etc.) will, I fear, simply increase people's reluctance to explore a world about which they usually, after six or more years in grad school, know very little or nothing. This is why I view the discussion as dangerous (a better word than stupid).

And I am glad that I provided information on federal history but I wish that it were not up to me to do so and I wish that more academics understood that they know nothing about the subject (as was true of me when I was an academic)! I hope that what comes out of that part of the discussion isn't the details of my job but rather an understanding that one may also have inaccurate prejudices about the jobs done by stockbrokers, PR people, editors, policy analysts, consultants and so on.

Posted by: Lexi at December 15, 2003 09:24 AM

"Reading the Jane Bast blog, I realized that she has made up her mind; she is going to grad school, regardless of what she is told. In fact, I think the idea of a challenge is what may be pushing her on."

Yes, I think she has made up her mind. But I also think there's a difference between Jane Bast (letting Jane stand in for current undergrads considering grad school in the humanities) and the people who entered a decade ago. Jane Bast knows she's taking a big risk, in a way that people didn't in the early 90s. While she probably doesn't yet know just what kind of risk, as her column indicated, she is very much aware that there are voices out there cautioning against grad school. Indeed, in her column, one of those voices is her undergrad mentor. I'm glad some undergrad mentors are discouraging people from entering, I wish more would follow suit. So yes, she is going to go to grad school, but she does so in the knowledge that some people think she shouldn't. This increases the likelihood that she will start thinking about/exploring alternatives while still in grad school. It may also increase the chances that if she finds herself unhappy/dissatisfied, she will leave grad school, and do so earlier on in the game than she might otherwise have done.

"To include on our website an essay detailing why one should not attend grad school (which is, I think what I am being encouraged to do) would be deeply damaging to these people."

I certainly would not encourage you to include such an essay on your site. I think you have taken just the right approach: a brief, hard-nosed account of the academic history market, followed by a positive, forward-looking focus on how to get a job in other areas/other markets. And if I were running a "leaving academe" site, I'm pretty sure that's what I do.

But of course I'm not running such a site, I'm running a personal weblog. Where I think we are speaking past one another: you seem to think that a discussion at another site (ie mine) of one of the larger problems which your site addresses (ie there aren't enough jobs within the academy) adds up to an harsh critique of your site. I just don't see it that way.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 15, 2003 10:25 AM

No, I don't see it as a harsh critique (which is why I tried to say in my previous post). I do, however, see the focus on the negative as potentially damaging to those who are ambivalent or on the fence. As I spent years on the fence, that is my concern. If I were to discuss a regret (and I try very hard not to) it would be the regret that I caved in to people who told me that I would not find "satisfying work" outside of academia and that anything I found would require my starting behind. This paralyzed me---I hope others are braver and stronger but I am afraid they may not be.

I think sites like this have value but I also think for many the tendency to dwell on rgret can be dangerous/

Posted by: at December 15, 2003 11:16 AM