Friday, September 10, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first piece of advice is that you need to go out and acquire a kitten immediately. Despite the fact that s/he would represent an additional expense, you could not only use an extra set of paws in your life, you need someone in the household who is relentlessly optimistic. Someone dashing about the apartment with her tail in the air sounds like just the ticket to me.

So let's get down to your real circumstances and the substance of your question: you went to graduate school in history under one set of assumptions about what your future held, and then your life changed dramatically. Although you have not indicated whether there are other relatives in the picture, you have been orphaned at an unusually early age and now are charged with the well-being of a sibling. You have not indicated whether said sibling has resources or other caregivers, but your point is clear: despite the lousy job market, you cannot afford not to work. You cannot even afford to work at a level that supports one person rather meanly, which is what some young historians can do when they only support themselves and/or can rely on others to bail them out when their cars die on I-95 on the way to a poorly paid adjunct job. Furthermore, even if you were willing to chuck your dream of being a historian, it doesn't seem realistic to quit graduate school now and retrain for something with a guaranteed future like bankruptcy law, refugee relief and disaster management, or the Border Patrol.

I agree. Let's look at the plus side for a moment.

Although you rightly portray your circumstances as mildly Dickensian, you also seem to have what all heroines of nineteenth century fiction require: pluck, ambition, prudence and character. You also have good judgement, and have focused at least some of your efforts on concrete accomplishments that will display your scholarly talents to others. You have done all the right things: gone to a great graduate school in a major city where there are jobs (teaching and non-teaching) a-plenty; you are publishing; and you are giving papers and reaching out to other historians to build a set of contacts that, while they can't necessarily get you a tenure-track job, will help to lift you out of obscurity. You have explored a number of other options for work, options that -- given the right circumstances -- will open paths to working in public history, or working in programs that help link the study of history to fields outside traditional academia.

I am also cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for academic employment over the next few years, barring a double-dip recession. The first issue of AHA Perspectives had a lot of good jobs, several of which were rank open, which suggests that purses are beginning to open up. Even big public universities that have taken a serious beating from their legislatures are advertising jobs -- Rutgers, Cal, CUNY and UI -- and Rutgers is committing to three more searches in the next couple years. My sense of things is that universities responded to the crash by closing their pocketbooks with a snap. That they were a little short of cash was one issue, but the bigger issue was not knowing where the bleeding would stop, so administrators did not want to make commitments that would make them look improvident down the line.

So I am cautiously optimistic that the job market is returning to normal bad, a state of things that will also bring with it the visiting positions, temporary work and post-docs that sustain this state of normal bad -- but were suspended immediately following the crash to cope with the cash crunch.

There is more good news: because you are not a snob, because you had no backup, and because you look forward and not backwards, you have explored other kinds of work. I have one relative who, suddenly left as a single mom with a small child, decided overnight to suck it up and go to law school, despite the fact that she really might have preferred to be an entrepeneur. In a moment of useful hardheadedness, she put the interests of her dependent first, and developed her talents in another way. And yet, I am quite sure that her immediate need -- to have a salary and benefits -- will ultimately dovetail with the creative talents that caused her to explore another kind of life entirely. Similarly, while you might end up making a career in public history, this does not bar you from a satisfying life of scholarship (have I ever told you how much time, in my cushy tenured job, I spend doing work I do not value and that detracts from my own writing and teaching?)

Let me offer another piece of advice following from this thought: Administrators Make More Money. A lot more money. There are more administrative jobs, and administrators have more flexibility in terms of where they work geographically. Some of them even have tenure (ask Lesboprof if you don't believe me.) You really need to keep this path open, and think about doing so by amplifying your work experience in areas of university administration that are interesting to you. Knowing how to run a budget, how to supervise a staff, how to write an institutional grant, how to construct and supervise a curriculum - these are things that they don't teach in graduate school but that, in combination with your PH.D. and your publishing, could take you far, my friend. There are very few good academic jobs nowadays, particularly academic deanships and directorships, that do not require a PH.D. and a record of publication. Not infrequently, these ads ask for a "distinguished" record of publication as well. Hence, regarding administration as a fallback option for failed scholars is not only less true than it ever was, but it also seems that in the near future, having street cred as a scholar will actually be critical to moving up the ladder administratively.

A great many graduate students are instructed that doing such work takes them off the fast-track, making them look unserious, unfocused and lacking in commitment to their scholarship. To this I say: Balls. Since when did the allegedly virtuous path of eking out a living on adjunct pay, moving around the country, and becoming increasingly bitter about what you have sacrificed prove to be a guarantee of tenure-track labor? Furthermore, while some narrow-minded person at Prestigious Ivy U. might look at your vita, overlook all your academic accomplishments and say, "Hmmm. Assistant to the Dean of the College? Yeccch!" someone at Zenith, or State U - Calabash might say happily, "Now here's a person who won't have to be taught how to walk, talk and find the chalk!" It is also true that you can send vitae to different schools that emphasize different things.

So you see? It's all in your perspective, isn't it? You are, in fact, doing the right thing. And while we all wake up in the middle of the night from time to time with disaster on our minds (yes, even Tenured Radicals who are full professors), you, my dear, have your head screwed on just right. Keep up the good work.

Yes, it's job season again. Got a question? Ask the Radical! Submit questions for publication to: tenuredDOTradicalATgmailDOTcom.


burab said...

Thanks for this post. After a summer internship that made me question my commitment to the PhD, this was exactly what I needed to read. My favorite part? "Balls." I think I'm ready to start the autumn quarter now.

Anonymous said...

Let me add a few things to Radical's v. sound advice. This applies not only to Young Historian but anyone in her position.

1. Networking matters but its not a skill taught or much talked about at this stage. Joining Berks is good, going to Prestigious Conference is good. As a young scholar I made my best contacts at Small Conference on a Theme. Some of these are invitation only but others have a call for papers. Try to get in one. They are usually small and clubby enough that you can get to know Real Professors in the Profession. At Prestigious Conference introduce yourself to people of all kinds. Have something ready to say about their work that you liked and something about your work. For people in your field ask for their advice about revisions on an article/chapter. This should actually be a fairly polished piece of work. In fact it should be your BEST piece of work. The advice is secondary (though sometimes helpful). The point here is to start circulating your work. Some people will say no. Don't be discouraged. There are also many who will say yes. And these are usually the people who talk a lot about the new stuff they are encountering. This gets you on the radar. It can be tough emotionally to shoulder the inevitable rejections and blowoffs in networking but the productive encounters are so crucial its necessary to push through the bad times.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I ain't no historian, but I echo the importance of networking at *small* conferences. These are the best venues for little peons to get the attention of huge-ass dicke-swingers. One important reason for this is that they are almost always held in bumfuck nowhere, and there is nothing for anyone to do but hange around the fucken evening poster sessions and shitte and get fucken drunke with the other attendees.

Janice said...

As a caregiver to a special needs family member, I would ask if Young Historian is going to be at all place-bound in caring for this sibling. If so, it's a very good idea to establish that regional network now -- look for the public talks at museums in the area. Attend some. Volunteer to speak. Reach out to faculty who share similar interests at the colleges and universities. Explore the prospect of public history in the region, high schools if that appeals and so on.

leah fritz said...

Dear Claire,
I've been trying to get in touch with you, and now I see you are alive and well and blogging up a storm - obviously very busy doing good works, so carry on. But please do get back to me and let me know what's happened since our interview in London. This is a personal note, so just send me an e-mail. You don't have to corrupt your brilliant blog with this.
All best,
Leah (Ancient History)

Tenured Radical said...

Back at you Leah: there's an email waiting for you and another, longer one coming tomorrow. xo, TR

Dan said...

This is hilarious. Young Historian is a friend of mine, who I did not know had written TR a letter asking for advice. I knew right off the bat that YH was my friend because I heard the phrase "she's 18, it's kind of ridiculous" in hir very own voice, and the following details confirmed hir identity. I would like to make one comment on otherwise sound advice: I have cat-sat for YH and that very elderly cat has three special-needs feline compatriots plus a dog that has the boundless optimism of a whole bevy of kittens. The feeding instructions for these animals took up, and I am not at all exaggerating, one 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and required the use of every room of the apartment plus a baby gate since each cat needed to be fed individually. By the second day I was standing in YH's living room at 6 AM in nothing but my underwear hurling expletives at four insouciant cats that insisted on waking me up with the dawn. By that point "Grandma" was off of IV fluids, so at least I didn't have to play amateur veterinarian, so at least in that I was lucky.

Little Midwestern College said...

I'd like to second TR's suggestion about administration, and add my own couple of suggestions. First, student affairs. Many of my grads who've done disciplinary graduate work and find the tenure-track rat race not to their future liking have made the transition to student affairs, and enjoy careers in student development/leadership, programming, first year programs, residential life, women's or minority student affairs, and the like. These can be interesting careers at interesting SLAC's, where you can be involved with students and faculty alike. And second, don't forget the nonprofit world. If you surf over to the job postings hosted at an organization like, Devjobs, the Feminist Majority Foundation, The Foundation Center's PND jobs, and other similar sites, you'll see a number of job listings that involve skills developed in your Ph.D. --looking for people to do communications, research, program development, public policy, directorships, etc. I notice, for example, PND jobs currently lists 790 jobs in their database that includes many career paths for which I would think a Ph.D. in history would be an asset.

Anonymous said...

It was a relief to see this conversation, as I have imposed a Dickensian perspective on myself lately, in the same type of situation as YH. My husband passed away the second year of my PhD - three years ago,I'm older (have four grandkids), and my soulmate and my income (my husband's... that is) disappeared, and I found myself trying to figure out what I should be doing... while finishing a doctorate, adjuncting, teaching online, and helping family members. What makes this post (YH/TR) so apt for me is a very recent administration I've recently applied for... and weighing myself down with concerns about taking this job (if even offered) when I really want to teach. Thank you for this...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, TR. I'm not in quite the same situation as YH, but I've taken on service responsibilities in my dept because I like them -- I do the ones I like because they interest me and I find (some) administrative/curricular work as interesting as scholarship. I know that makes me terrible in the eyes of the R!-scholars-only club but this post made me feel like I'm not crazy for taking on extra/other work that I find compelling and academically related, if not scholarly per se.