Historians and the Job Market

Benjamin Johnson and Deana Heath, September 2000

To the Editor:

John Burnham's impassioned argument that "the world is changing, and changing for the better for history" ("Historians Have the 'Job Market' All Wrong," Perspectives April 2000) is a poor interpretation of the state of the profession.

Burnham is surely right to point out that graduate training in history qualifies students for a range of useful and stimulating jobs outside the academy. But this fact should not lead us to become smugly satisfied with the lot of younger historians. Indeed, we need look no farther than the same issue of Perspectives to find cause for concern. Robert B. Townsend's report on the ongoing AHA survey of part-time teachers ("Part-Time Teachers: The AHA Survey") is more evidence of the demeaning and tenuous position of a large portion of academic historians. Arnita Jones ("Part-Time Teaching: A Many-Faceted Challenge") reminds us that the steady increase in nontenure-track positions threatens the integrity of the basic educational mission of universities.

The job market crisis in history and other fields did not simply happen, as Burnham's language ("a new trend suddenly appeared: the increasing average student load per faculty member") suggests. Universities, whose boards are increasingly dominated by corporate leaders, have stopped hiring tenure-track teachers and instead moved to a variety of adjunct instructors, including their own graduate students. Recent statistics from the U.S. Education Department show that nearly 42.5 percent of the professoriate now works part-time. Add to this statistic the thousands of full-time teachers who are not on the tenure track and it is all too easy to see how debased the historical profession has become. Universities place graduate students in a particularly perverse situation, paying them (poorly) to do the teaching that should be done by the very professors that most of us aspire to be. We're working ourselves out of a job!

Such developments do not bother Burnham, who declares, "History is not an economic activity. Doing history is an intellectual activity and enterprise." Well, yes, it is an intellectual activity, but it is done by real people who need economic resources to do things like eat, sleep indoors, and dress themselves, not to mention such extras as buying books and attending conferences. The tenure system reflects an understanding that the economic position of academics and their intellectual activities are inextricably linked. Professionals need economic security and independence in order to engage in the vigorous debates that advance historical understanding.

The tenure system also gives senior professors enormous potential power. Tenured professors such as John Burnham could use some of that power to reverse the increasing use of casual instructors and support unionization to improve the lot of academics, including graduate student teachers. Now that would be something to be cheerful about!

—Benjamin Johnson
PhD Candidate and Director of Research,
Graduate Employees and Students Organization, Yale University

 To the Editor:

Upon reading John Burnham's article I was filled with elation at the knowledge that at least one history professor was interested in an issue that has been plaguing me, as a graduate student in history, for several years—namely the possibility of history PhDs pursuing nonacademic jobs. After overcoming my initial desire for Professor Burnham to leave Ohio State University and come to teach and work as a placement officer at Berkeley, I began to wonder what I as a graduate student could do about galvanizing my own department into addressing this issue. But the nature of the problem is two-fold here. There is the problem of departments making no efforts to train graduate students for or pointing them towards nonacademic jobs. And there is also the problem of people like me, who—dare I say it—want to actively seek nonacademic jobs upon the completion of their degrees.

Burnham points out that history PhDs generally take seven years to obtain their degrees, and that the job market can change drastically during a seven-year period (both in terms of academic jobs and of nonacademic possibilities). The length of American history degree programs also raises the possibility that students may find themselves developing different interests along the way from those they started out with.

In my own case, for example, I started out pursuing a PhD in modern British history, and ended up studying two Indian languages and doing a comparative dissertation project on Australia and India. Now I would like to pursue the possibility of working in India with an NGO or NPO based there after I receive my PhD. Now my concern is how do I "come out of the closet" and admit to my advisers that I have such nonacademic interests, and how do I go about pursuing such a job hunt? The fact that I feel that I have to "come out of the closet" in revealing such interests shows at least my perception of the obstacles facing graduate students who might wish to pursue nonacademic careers.

Graduate students feel a great deal of pressure in needing to "prove" themselves all the time, in proving the depth of their intellect, their interest in history, their capacity for hard work, etc. To admit to an interest in pursuing a nonacademic career, or even admitting that you're not interested in that Harvard job if it comes your way, would strike many grads as committing departmental suicide. For we have to scramble to get attention from professors who are overburdened with work and we don't want to run the risk of them thinking that they're wasting their time on us.

As a female graduate student in my department I also find that striking a balance between being "taken seriously" as a historian and pursuing my other interests can be a challenge. In many ways history departments are, as Burnham essentially points out, rather conservative places. During my first two years of graduate school, for example, I used to dress regularly in pseudo-Victorian and Edwardian costumes, and gave a presentation on Disraeli, for example, decked out as Disraeli at his dandiest (replete with lemon yellow gloves). But when one of my professors commented with surprise on "how well" I had done on my MA oral exam because (when he was pressed to explain why), I had previously "come across as rather flighty," I promptly got rid of most of the costumes and started dressing more sedately. History, the message was clear, was not to be made too much fun if you wished to be taken seriously. I have since, however, learned to take such statements with a grain of salt, and to remain (relatively) unconcerned about how both my professors and my peers perceive me.

After obtaining two prominent outside fellowships and pursuing a rather challenging dissertation project, I've developed enough confidence to begin voicing my interests in pursuing a nonacademic career. The responses have, to say the least, been disappointing. One well-intentioned professor thought that I was expressing such an interest because I lacked confidence about my work and thought that I couldn't compete in the "big leagues" for an academic job. When I expressed my interest about working with an aid organization in India, another academic replied, "but what would they need you for—what could you do?" implying that seven years of graduate school really fitted me for nothing but to teach history in a university. I replied that I thought I had a lot to offer such an organization. For a person who is empathetic, creative, who has had a lot of teaching experience but can also work well in a nonacademic environment (I started out my academic and work life in the Air Force when I was 18, and have since worked at LucasFilm, run my own millinery business, and did a brief stint as an extra in the Bombay film industry) and who will as of next year also have a PhD in history, I can't but help believe that there must be a lot of interesting jobs that I would do well in. The problem now, of course, is how to find such jobs. It's true that I've yet to plumb Berkeley's Career Planning and Placement Center for advice on pursuing a nonacademic career, which I know they offer. But to my knowledge my department offers no such advice or guidance. Job advice, in general, seems to be very lackadaisically proffered, and if you don't ask the right questions to the right people at the right times, you might find yourself spending yet another year in the program. I tend to use other graduate students as my resources more than anything else. But everyone that I know is set on getting a position in an American university.

I'm actually interested in the possibility of remaining in academia if I can obtain a job outside of the United States (preferably in Britain, Australia, or India). But how do I go about finding such jobs? Is there a way to locate short-term jobs at different universities around the world (or even post-docs for those universities)? How do I go about locating nonacademic jobs that I have an interest in pursuing? If anyone has specific advice for me or for how to address this problem in history departments in general, I would certainly appreciate hearing from them.

—Deana Heath
University of California at Berkeley