Career Paths

Second-Career History PhDs: Don’t Abandon Your Past

Ian J. Drake, October 2015

Head shot of Ian J. Drake. My career path has taken unexpected turns since I completed my undergraduate major in history. In 1992, I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, uncertain what career path I wanted to pursue. I took a year off from full-time schooling before entering law school. I graduated from the University of Richmond School of Law in 1996, and later that year, I returned to my home state of North Carolina and began practicing law. I started with a small insurance-defense litigation firm. Insurance-defense work mostly concerns defending against personal injury lawsuits and litigating coverage under the terms of insurance contracts.

Although I enjoyed much of my practice, finding disputes over complex insurance clauses intellectually challenging, I noticed that I spent much of my spare time reading history. History was my first intellectual love, and after six years of practicing law, I decided that I wanted to pursue a career as a professional historian and teacher.

My first step was to leave the practice entirely and begin teaching as an adjunct at DeVry University in northern Virginia and southern Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. My wife and I had moved to the capital area for her employment at the US Senate. Since I held a law degree it was a relatively easy process to begin teaching law-related courses at DeVry. I was pleased with the experience of working with students, guiding them through their introduction to law as an academic subject.

Since I found the adjunct experience rewarding, I decided not to obtain a law license in the Washington area and instead pursue a PhD in history. I entered the PhD program in history at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2005. I made an important decision in my early days at Maryland, which would have a great impact on my career path after graduation. I decided that although I greatly enjoyed history, I did not want to entirely abandon the field of law. In fact, I thought that I needed to combine my history training with my interest in, and experience with, law in order to create employment opportunities in academia. My first career would buttress my second.

Graduate school was very intellectually invigorating, not only because of the new historical knowledge I gained, but also because of my ability to bring my legal knowledge and work experience to bear on my studies. Class discussions were also better informed as a result of students like me, who had work experiences and other disciplinary knowledge that contributed new and different perspectives to the discussions of historical texts.

While in graduate school, I developed a research area consisting of legal and constitutional history. My dissertation was on the history of products liability law in America during the 20th century. When I transitioned from a student to a job candidate, I quickly realized how my decision to combine law and history would prove advantageous.

I graduated in August 2010 and began applying for positions that in some fashion combined history and law. However, I did not limit myself to seeking positions only in history departments. In light of the competitive market for tenure-track history teaching positions, I searched for a variety of positions, both within and outside academia. I reviewed federal government positions, nonprofit advocacy and research posts, and nonhistorical academic postings. I tailored my parameters for applications to positions for which my research skills (both legal and historical), educational background, or professional experience might provide a plausible and legitimate basis for submitting applications.

Within four months of graduating, I was granted two interviews for tenure-track academic positions. One was in constitutional history at a university in the South, and the other was in teaching in the jurisprudence major at Montclair State University in New Jersey. I accepted the position at Montclair State because I was able to combine my legal experience and knowledge with my academic research interests regarding contemporary legal issues and legal history. I am now happily engaged in teaching courses in law in Montclair’s jurisprudence major, and am fortunate to be able to include legal historical perspectives in my courses.

My career path demonstrates the importance of creating a graduate educational path that relies on your strengths in addition to your interests. For me, that meant an intentional combination of my prior career experience and my new academic research interests. The modern history job market is very competitive, and job candidates need to emphasize the skills, experience, and knowledge that distinguish them from the pack. History departments should encourage graduate students to pursue and build upon skills and experience beyond those acquired in the pursuit of the history PhD. The combination of historical and nonhistorical skills and experience can open doors to careers beyond the traditional tenure-track history position. Second-career history masters and doctoral students should consider the possibilities of building upon their prior career experience and knowledge as they pursue their degrees. Building upon one’s own past can make all the difference in successfully pursuing a career in history.

Ian J. Drake is an assistant professor at Montclair State University. He teaches in the jurisprudence and political science majors. His recent article publications include “The First Attempt at Federalizing Tort Law and Why It Failed,” Federal History Journal 6 (January 2014): 11–34.

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