Intellectual Pursuits Beyond Teaching

Jonathan Silva, September 2002

Editor's Note: The following is one of the letters received in response to AHA President Lynn Hunt's recent presidential column essays on various subjects.

Dear Professor Hunt:

I found your discussion "Has Professionalization Gone Too Far" interesting. I too had fantastic undergraduate instruction at Ohio Wesleyan. My professors there worked without the "benefits" of PowerPoint and generated in me a true adventure in learning.

I agree that no radical restructuring of the PhD program is warranted. However, I am not sure that the current generation of college and university faculty agrees that there exists a crisis for graduate students or that the current focus on jobs is, as you say, "counterproductive." While I am no longer a member of the teaching profession (strictly speaking), I am concerned with the single-minded focus of education (at all levels) on job training.

The vicissitudes of the job market, however, do mean that many who complete the PhD will not find teaching positions at a college or university. But this does not mean that their teaching career is over. My intellectual pursuits, begun at Ohio Wesleyan and completed (formally) at Ohio State, have continued even though I have not sought a teaching position.

After leaving Ohio State University with a degree in hand, I accepted a position with Honeywell International. (Most people know us because of their home thermostat. I happen to work in their aviation business unit.) While at Ohio State, my interest in seeking the magic bullet was limited at best (to the consternation of many faculty members). Some of my former teachers believe I made the wrong decision. An increasing number, however, consider my decision correct.

I avoided the adjunct faculty treadmill, and never felt the need to take a job simply because it was the one offered in a tight job market. Beyond avoiding the realities of the academic job market, I have recognized that the skills of the historian are powerful tools in the commercial world. I have found success in the two years of my employment with Honeywell using the skills acquired through my education. My job title is director, new business development, interior (aircraft) systems, but I am a historian every day. I approach my work with the rigor and curiosity that drew me to the study of history to begin with. The skills I acquired, such as research, writing, synthesis, all are valuable, and are missing at many levels within business. As important as those basic skills are, the most potent tool I use every day is when I look at our business historically. Like most historians, I take research, synthesize, and "paint a big picture." This typically does not happen in business, but it is the most valuable asset I bring to Honeywell.

Over the past two years, I often reflect back on my training, and the work I do today. I also see many of the people I went through graduate school with continue to struggle with their careers. The math is simple—too many grad students and not enough academic positions. Graduate students should understand that they don't need to change their interest from history to business school to succeed in business. Trust me, American business has enough B-school types. In fact, my success is a direct result of remaining a historian. Graduate students also need to understand that they don't have to abandon their interest in history to work in the commercial business environment.

—Jonathan Silva
Honeywell International