Beyond Academe: The Internet Gateway to Nonacademic Careers
David Darlington, January 2005
From the News column of the January 2005 Perspectives
Editor's Note: In keeping with the AHA's efforts (and that of its Task Force on Public History in particular) to point history PhDs toward possible career paths outside the beaten tracks of academe, we bring you two articles in this issue: an article by Alexandra Lord, a cofounder of a web site dedicated to nonacademic history careers (see pages 30–32), and the following article, by Perspectives Associate Editor David Darlington, who draws upon e-mail interviews with Lord and cofounder Julie Taddeo to present a report on the web site.
Beyond Academe (www.beyondacademe.com) is a web site dedicated to helping history PhDs make the sometimes scary and often difficult transition to employment outside of academia. Founded by Alexandra Lord (a historian with the U.S. Public Health Service) and Julie Ann Taddeo (who helps to administer the Center for British Studies at the University of California at Berkeley), the web site offers practical advice and useful information for finding a nonacademic job. The web site also seeks to address the major issues that face nonacademic historians and to dispel some of the more pernicious myths academic historians believe about the nonacademic world. The Beyond Academe web site is divided into several different sections. The "Useful Tools" section offers the more practical advice about finding a job outside of academia: how to turn a c.v. into a resume; how to search for a job; how to translate skill sets developed in the classroom into a nonacademic setting; and how to combat various countervailing social and economic pressures against exploring different career options. This section also provides a list of recommended reading for job seekers, as well as FAQs about the job search, nonacademic careers, and life outside academia in general. The "Outside the Box" section of the web site offers profiles of successful history PhDs in nonacademic positions. It also gives examples of prominent individuals as well as fictional characters (often based on their author's real-life experiences) who earned the PhD but did not go to work in a university. These profiles are intended to provide positive role models for others who may be contemplating leaving academia but are feeling uneasy about their chances for success. The "Contact" page provides contact information for the site's authors and the major history professional organizations, as well as recent news about the site and the profession.
The idea for Beyond Academe came from responses to a letter to the editor from Lord that was published in the February 2003 Perspectives. After the letter's publication, a number of graduate students wrote directly to Lord asking for information on how to pursue a nonacademic career, as they felt their graduate programs were not providing enough information on the subject and that their advisers would look down on them should they broach the topic. Realizing that many of the graduate students asked the same questions, Lord and Taddeo saw the obvious need for a site like Beyond Academe; while they came across a number of sites about making the transition out of academia, "none of them dealt specifically with history PhDs." They set out compiling the information for Beyond Academe, starting with their own experiences, and adding information gathered from career web sites and books, as well as from interviews of nonacademic historians and potential employers.
Several of the articles on the Beyond Academe site are written to address the prevalent myths and the general ignorance of academics about the nonacademic world, which are really detrimental to people who are thinking about leaving academia, said Lord. The most damaging misconception is "this odd belief that history PhDs who work outside of the academy, whether as public historians, journalists, policy analysts, or whatever, are ‘failures'," a belief that has "no basis whatsoever," Lord said. Another pervasive myth is that history PhDs in nonacademic careers are anti-intellectuals who "must not have really loved history, teaching, or research if they left the field," said Lord. This is just the opposite of the usual testimony given by historians profiled on Beyond Academe, who comment that leaving academia opened doors for them intellectually, and that they are still passionate about history (for more about the relationship between academic and nonacademic historians, see Lord's article on pages 30–32). Lord admitted that she had harbored academic cultural prejudices herself for a while, but that her work experience prior to graduate school served as a useful counterweight. The question Lord then asked herself was, "How many PhDs hesitated to explore their options because they bought into these myths? And how many people were unhappy as a result?" Lord and Taddeo hope that profiling successful historians outside of academia on their web site will dispel these myths and encourage historians to think outside the box about their careers.
There are also some practical obstacles to making the transition to a nonacademic job, such as knowing where to start looking for one. Taddeo said, "as graduate students we tend to isolate ourselves—our only contacts are with each other and we tend to idolize our advisers and fear letting them down." Those seeking nonacademic positions have to learn what Taddeo said she learned to do: "aggressively network, approach complete strangers, and … ask for help." The "Useful Tools" section of the web site has a section entitled "How to Begin a Job Search and Factors to Bear in Mind While Searching" to assist seekers in that task.
Job seekers are told to think broadly about their knowledge and their skills. If historians regard themselves as narrow specialists in only one topic, and think that their graduate education provided no "real" skills, then "you cripple yourself on the job market," said Lord. "Getting a job, in or outside of academia, requires confidence and an understanding of your strengths and abilities. If you yourself dismiss your skills, then no employer will hire you." But what skills do historians possess? The Beyond Academe FAQ page (http://www.beyondacademe.com/usefultools.htm#2) gives an example of how historians may present themselves to potential employers: "Historians are analysts. They study, assess and determine the factors which cause cultural, political, social, economic, and religious change in a given society. To make these assessments, historians analyze written documents, visual evidence, material culture, economic data, and a range of other materials." If they have completed a dissertation, then historians can do complex and in-depth research, write well, and analyze problems. Most historians can read and write in at least one foreign language. Anyone who has written a dissertation or presented a paper at a professional conference has marketable writing and speaking skills, said Lord, "but as a job applicant, you need to understand this and you will need to educate a potential employer on this—but you won't be able to do this if you yourself don't believe it."
Graduate schools need to be clearer about what they are really teaching their students, said Lord. They are not training specialists in a narrow field, but rather individuals with significant research and analytical skills. After all, while a graduate student may spend much time and energy on a particular topic for her dissertation, her next book 10 years later may be on a completely unrelated topic, but the skills used in writing the second book are basically the same (though hopefully sharpened over time). The failure of many graduate students and historians to grasp this notion of a historian as a trained analyst—that is, the failure to think of oneself of being anything beyond a specialist in one's chosen field—"speaks volumes about serious problems in graduate education," said Lord. Graduate advisers especially, she said, have an obligation to educate themselves about all the career opportunities available to the trained historian, whether those opportunities are inside or outside of academia, so that they can educate their students.
The response to Beyond Academe has been generally positive, Lord and Taddeo say. Comments from graduate students (and even undergraduates) have been pretty much all positive, said Lord. Students say that the web site has helped them figure out what they want to do with their careers, and made them feel that they were not trapped in one career path. One correspondent even said that knowing she had freedom in her career options was "the best lesson I've learned since entering graduate school." Likewise, nonacademics, both historians and otherwise, "have been really enthusiastic," said Lord. Many of the individuals profiled on Beyond Academe themselves volunteered their stories to the creators upon discovering the project. Beyond Academe's FAQs and other informational resources are updated as viewers send their own experiences and advice. Lord said, "we definitely could not have written the FAQs about careers as varied as grant-writing, working at think tanks, and so on, without the help of these people," and she invited contributions from even more nonacademic historians. Some history departments have put links to the site from their web pages, as have several university career centers, "which I see as a huge compliment" said Taddeo, adding that since "so many universities still don't have career centers that assist graduate students either looking within or beyond academe, the site provides a very crucial, and free, service." Both Lord and Taddeo have been invited to speak by university career centers or humanities centers. The majority of academic historians they have encountered at conferences support the site, Lord said. A few have ignored it, and a few continue apparently to regard nonacademic careers as signifying failure.
If anything, Beyond Academe is a helpful guide for those contemplating their career options, because both Lord and Taddeo have made the transition from academic employment to nonacademic employment themselves. Both had to learn on-the-go what a history degree meant in the marketplace and what it meant to pursue a job aggressively. Lord said that reinventing herself for a new career "was the most interesting and most challenging educational experience I ever had." But as difficult as the switch was, both Lord and Taddeo report that making the switch was the right move for them, both professionally and personally. Both said that not having to deal with the pressures of academic life—teacher evaluations, curriculum committees, late nights spent grading, and so on—has given them time to pursue research interests they would have been less likely to pursue while teaching at a university, as well as volunteer for other causes. On a personal level, both got to pick the cities they lived in, rather than go where the jobs were, and be in close proximity to both choice research resources as well as family and loved ones. The personal experiences of Lord and Taddeo are certainly at the core of Beyond Academe. With the continued softness of the academic job market, graduate students looking to expand their options have a good resource in the career advice and personal testimonies provided by Beyond Academe.
— David Darlington is associate editor of Perspectives. He wishes to thank Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo for helping with the writing of this article by responding at length to his e-mail queries about Beyond Academe. David last wrote for Perspectives (in the May 2004 issue) on a web site providing teaching resources on world history.