Letters to the Editor
A Career in History: Why Bother?
Name and address withheld on request, September 2006
Editor’s Note: Perspectives welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should ideally be brief and should be sent to the Editor (or mailed to Letters to the Editor, Perspectives, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889) along with full contact information. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters’ contents.
To the Editor:
For a number of years now I have been reading each issue of Perspectives thoroughly. Seemingly every issue contains an article on the state of the academic job market. The articles are usually accompanied by bar graphs, line graphs, and pie charts indicating the rise and fall in the numbers of degrees conferred in each specialty area, the race, gender or age of the recipients, time to degree, tenure-track places annually available or filled, adjunct positions compared to tenure track ones, and myriad other categories. In the most recent issue, Linda K. Kerber presented a less-than-encouraging viewpoint on what she called "contingent faculty." In particular, the academy’s perceived failure to make a long term commitment to contingent faculty has, according to Kerber’s article, placed an undue burden on women job candidates, sometimes forcing them to choose between career and family. The news is, in short, seldom positive.
I have come to the conclusion, now that I am almost ready to defend my dissertation and enter the academic job market, that this may be a very poor career-path choice. The overall impression I have derived from the various articles is that unless I am a white male graduate of a top-ten school, working in a currently "hot" field, and under the age of 35, my chances of finding secure and long-term employment in a teaching position are slim to none. And should I actually be lucky enough to make it through a job-search experience that is almost universally panned, even by those who completed it successfully, I can anticipate a quite low starting salary in comparison to professions with similar or lesser credentialing requirements. I am forced to ask myself: Why bother?
I have witnessed from the sidelines, and watched carefully, about a half-dozen job searches in a several of history specialties, both "hot" and traditional, over the past five years. In every case but one, the successful candidate for the tenure-track position was a white male graduate of one of the handful of top schools (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Wisconsin, Berkeley), and each one was under age 35. The single exception was a white female hired as a spouse, but only after a "failed search" for the same position.
Regardless of one’s degree of intellectual commitment to teaching history effectively and meeting the challenges faced in the modern university classroom, one must also deal with non-intellectual realities. Some newly minted PhD holders, especially young ones, may be less reluctant to forego immediate job security and the associated access to secure healthcare benefits in hopes of better long-term prospects. Older candidates or those with chronic but non-debilitating illness usually do not have that option. Similarly, those who conceive of only a single career option (university-based teaching, for example) may be more amenable to short-term "suffering for their art." Yet the number of professions that offer easier and less stressful entry paths and that pay equal or higher salaries is quite large. One can, for example, complete a two-year associate degree in nursing and upon graduation be faced with a multitude of competing job recruiters, with starting salaries in some regions well in excess of 50K per year.
I am forced to ask whether the profession may be committing slow suicide. At the very least, it seems to be limiting its potential for future output by narrowly limiting its input. When one looks at the faculty of a large department in a public university and sees predominantly white males of a particular age range, and the majority of whom emanate from fewer than a dozen elite universities, one has to ask whether or not the academy is producing, in effect, a Stepford cohort. How diverse can opinion and scholarship truly be if those producing the opinion and scholarship are almost entirely alike in background? There seems as well to be an assumption that members of this elite group are the most or solely likely to make significant future contribution to scholarship. But is this a self-fulfilling prophecy? If only the young white male elite graduates get the tenure-track jobs, how likely is it that non-white, non-male, older, non-elite graduates will have ready access to the kinds of funding sources necessary to conduct truly substantive research? In other words, does the perception that only a narrow and select range of job candidates will likely "produce and publish" impact how and to whom funding is distributed? Does the system perpetuate, even inadvertently, its own narrow elitism?
I understand that Perspective editors and contributors are doing their best to keep the members of the AHA fully informed as to the state of the profession. It certainly is not the fault of the AHA as an organization that the state of the profession may be perceived as being in, at best, a transition, and at worst, decline. I sincerely applaud also the various members and contributors who have publicly called for re-examination of the trajectory on which the profession is currently engaged. Many voices decry the over-reliance on contingent faculty, the discrimination in hiring (real or imagined, conscious or unconscious) based on race, gender, age, or marital status ("spousal hires"). Yet over the course of my graduate training I have not myself witnessed any positive change. And if one is to judge by the majority of the content in articles published in Perspectives over the past few years, the margin for hope is rather slim.
I have not yet entered the job market. With each new issue of Perspectives I find new highly persuasive reasons not to do so. I am coming to the ever firmer conclusion that since I am not a youthful white male graduate of one of the most elite schools, my chances of ever gaining secure long-term employment (tenure-track or not) in a teaching institution are very slim indeed. I feel neither welcomed nor valued. Rather than feeling encouraged and supported, I feel as though I am being actively discouraged and forced to prove myself within a limited timeframe before I can or will be accepted. So I ask myself: Why bother?
—Name and address withheld on request