Light at the end of the grad school tunnel

Dimitri Rotov directs our attention to a series of items on the hazards of a graduate education in the humanities.  The specific problem is the scarcity of lucrative positions relative to the number of people who want them.  It’s definitely something to consider.

As someone who’s currently holding two part-time teaching positions instead of a single, higher-salaried full-time one, I know as well as anyone how hard it can be to try to start an academic career.  At the same time, though, I think history grads who convince themselves that they’ll never land a decent job are missing an important point.

The next time somebody tells you that there aren’t enough jobs, find out what they mean.  If their point is that there aren’t that many tenure-track openings at research universities that confer terminal degrees…well, what else is new?  Such a job isn’t the only possible outcome for someone with a history degree.

I know, I know—nobody wants to pull 40+ hours (at minimum) at a museum or documentary project when they can teach four classes a semester and have the summers off, with the balance of their time devoted to whatever research they darn well please.  But I think one of the reasons history grads are so desperate about the job market is because they limit themselves.

My career in history has been short, but I’ve sampled quite a bit of what the discipline offers.  Let me take this opportunity to assure any students who might be reading this that historical work outside the academy is not only fulfilling, but a genuine privilege and an occasional blast. 

Don’t get me wrong; being a college instructor has its perks.  But it’s also a trade-off.  I miss the days when I could step into the vault and do my research in the original documents, instead of chasing down edited transcripts.  I miss holding in my (properly gloved!) hands the cane Lincoln carried to Ford’s Theater, the captain’s speaking trumpet from the Monitor, Mary Todd’s china, Lee’s personal correspondence, Sherman’s handwritten report from Bull Run, an order jotted down by Grant at Appomattox.

Rather than complaining that departments don’t explain how poor the job market is, I would complain that they don’t make students aware of the range of possibilities open to them.  By assuming that every successful student should aspire to an academic career, they limit graduates’ prospects and therefore do them a disservice.

Departments should encourage students who are interested in a career outside of higher ed.  They should provide them with information about job openings and access to people in their field who can provide advice.  They should direct them to internships where they can try different types of historical work for themselves.  (An annual panel discussion on historical careers, with representatives from museums, secondary ed, and so on might be worth trying, too.) 

Furthermore, and not least importantly, professors should watch what they say around students.  Casual remarks about non-academic history careers can stifle any interest in these valuable and important jobs that a student might have had, and will rightly offend those students who entered the program to pursue these paths.

Students, meanwhile, should broaden their vision of the profession—and should examine their reasons for entering a graduate program in the first place.  If you’re attracted by the notion of intellectual respectability, three months of freedom, and a nice diploma, then by all means bail out now.  If, on the other hand, you passionately love history and can’t imagine doing anything else, then be aware that historians aren’t found only in university classrooms.  There are far easier ways to secure wealth and renown than the long, tortuous process of a graduate education in history.

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1 Comment

Filed under Teaching History

One response to “Light at the end of the grad school tunnel

  1. Nellie Johnson

    Thank you so much Michael, your article is very inspiring! I am a graduate student who is very worried about what the future might hold. Reading of your archival work sounds facinating and rewarding! You are very correct that we historians limit ourselves when in actuality, the sky’s the limit when remember we why we became historians in the first place!

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