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Searching for Jobs outside the Academy?

There’s No Straight Path to Success

Christina Copland | Jul 30, 2018

It’s December 2017. I am on the cusp of wrapping this whole graduate student thing up. I need to think about a new future—and a new job. I’m not prepared and I’m having trouble reorienting my thinking. The seasons that mark graduate life in academia are slowly fading away, and soon I’ll have no more writing deadlines or fellowship applications.

Yet for so long, just getting my degree was the goal. I couldn’t picture myself beyond graduation. I knew that I did not want to go down the professorial path, but I was at a loss when it came to thinking about what I did want to do next. Six months later, thanks to some strategic moves on my part, a little help from my friends, and some serendipitous timing, I have a job offer in hand. My advice to grad students? There’s no one, direct route to getting a nonacademic job; finding that career is going to take time and effort. Whatever stage you’re at in your degree, start thinking about what’s coming next—right now.

Family tree of Herzog Ludwig

Researching her family's past led Christina Copland to her post-PhD, nonacademic job in genealogy. The family tree of Ludwig Herzog von Württemberg, by Jakob Lederlein after Jakob Zueberlein/Landesmuseum Wuerttemberg via Wikimedia Commons

History departments vary in their approach to integrating career planning into their graduate programs. If you’re lucky enough to attend the program at the University of Washington, for instance, then this kind of planning is built in. Although my committee was personally supportive of nonacademic career choices, the structure of my PhD program functioned to point me in one direction and one direction only: getting a tenure-track job at a four-year institution.

So as I was inching closer to graduation, I took the initiative to reflect on my past eight years of history graduate study. What was I good at? What did I enjoy doing? And who might be willing to pay me for doing what I loved? The AHA has great resources on a wide variety of careers for history grad students. While taking an in-depth look, a recording of an AHA annual meeting panel on think tanks caught my eye. Interested in exploring this career pathway, I signed up for the AHA Career Contacts program. Soon, I had a conversation set up with a research manager at the Center for American Progress. While I ultimately decided that a think tank wasn’t quite the right “fit” for me, the interview helped me develop the confidence to reach out to former history PhDs in other job fields. These informational interviews were invaluable. I got honest insights into what these careers entailed—something that couldn’t be gained from generic job descriptions. There was another benefit too: it was a relief to talk to history PhDs who had successfully followed nonacademic pathways.

But as I spent hours trawling through job ad sites, I began to despair. Often, I felt simultaneously over- and underqualified for every vaguely appropriate job I came across. Partly to provide myself with a distraction from the fruitless job search, I turned to a new project entirely. With my dissertation almost wrapped up, I had—for the first time in years—time on my hands. For years I’d intended to look into a family mystery, and started delving into my family’s past. What began as a few hours dabbling swiftly became addictive.

When I started my PhD, I held the view that genealogy was a bit . . . antiquarian. Who cared what parish their great great auntie Joan was born in? No, I wanted to answer big questions, publish peer-reviewed articles, present at national conferences. But the more time I spent working on my family tree, the more I was intrigued. Thanks to my dissertation research experience, I could trawl through records swiftly and accurately. Having years of reading seminars under my belt, I already had a broad base of historical knowledge that provided the context of my family’s past.

Once I’d jettisoned my attitude about what constituted worthy history, I felt liberated. What if I did genealogy full time? The more I thought about the idea, the more it matched up with what I actually enjoyed about being a historian. I loved the puzzle-solving aspect of research. At the same time, doing family history gave me the personal connection with the past that had always been lacking as I strove to craft a dissertation that satisfied the academic requirements of the PhD. Family history felt meaningful to me; I knew I’d find performing this research for other people equally satisfying. Sure, as a genealogist working outside academia, I probably wouldn’t produce a piece of field-changing historical scholarship, but to be honest, that was probably never in the cards anyway. At the same time, I’ve since realized that my old perceptions of family history are even more off the mark; it’s a burgeoning field of study. Maybe I wouldn’t be too far from academia after all.

As it happened, Ancestry—the main player in the family history industry, at least in the United States—was hiring. As soon as I found out about the job, I started putting my newly honed networking skills to use. I updated my LinkedIn profile that had last seen action back in the George W. Bush era. A veteran of the post-PhD job hunt, my husband suggested I reach out to an alumna currently employed by Ancestry before submitting my application. This proved to be a key move. The contact was enormously friendly and helpful. Best of all, speaking to her confirmed that this was a career, and company, I wanted be a part of. Next I utilized my university career services. As an alumna of quite a few institutions, I had access to multiple sources of support. I have to admit I’m luckier than most in this regard—my sister works in the career department of one of my former academic homes, the University of York.

With the input of various family advisors, I polished my CV, tailored my cover letter to the family history industry, and got an interview. I spent little time detailing the ins and outs of my dissertation, instead highlighting the depth of my archival experience. I was careful to articulate other skills that I had developed as a history grad student, such as the ability to give and receive critique in a productive and professional manner. In short, I demonstrated to the interviewers how my history PhD would benefit their company.

A few nerve-wracking weeks later, I got the good news. This August, I’ll be moving down to Salt Lake City to start a new job with Ancestry.

For those going into academia, the expectations and requirements for job candidates might be might be set brutally high, but they are at least clear. For the rest of us choosing a different path, the route ahead tends to be more opaque. When it came to taking that leap after graduating, I listened to the advice of those who knew me best. I thought about what I really found rewarding about doing history, which was not necessarily the work considered prestigious by the academy. I dug into my own family’s past, and in the process found my future as a professional historian.

Christina Copland earned her PhD from the University of Southern California in summer 2018, where her thesis, titled “Faith, Finances and the Remaking of Southern Californian Fundamentalism, 1910–1968,” tied together Protestant fundamentalism, the urban history of Los Angeles, and the relationship between capitalism and religion. In August 2018 she will join Ancestry, developing her interest in family history as an associate genealogist.

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