I have been seeing a number of articles and initiatives meant to foster greater career diversity among History Ph.D.s lately, including a whole postdoc devoted to it at New Mexico. I am sure that this has been going on for some time, but I have noticed it more lately because of my own predicament. I have been on the market for three years, I received my doctorate earlier this year, and I have yet to find full-time employment. With a child and a mortgage, the situation is rapidly becoming more serious. As most in my position know, the academic job market is terrible, and it seems the early modern European history market is shrinking rather than expanding. Meanwhile, there is a tremendous backlog of doctors out there who have graduated in recent years and have been unable to find employment for the above reasons and because the economic downturn upended job searches for several years. I ran across an article published by the AHA last year discussing the career tracks of people with degrees in history. In short, about half do not have tenure-track positions. Many of those are teaching in contract positions, but a substantial proportion have left academia altogether. You may also want to look at this piece at the History News Network and the study published by the MLA about the literary PhD (and for good measure, this one discussing some of the major criticisms of the MLA study).
As my job search continues to be fruitless, I have been applying to many non-academic jobs. This is not entirely because of the difficulty in finding an academic job; after so many years of part-time teaching and working on my dissertation, I am increasingly set on finding a job that actually pays me for doing work. For anyone out there, particularly outside of academia, who thinks that professors get summers off and don’t have to work that much, I want to tell you that that is not the case. It is, however, the case that professors are not paid for significant parts of their work that benefit students and their institutions. I realize how that can be confusing.
Here are some things that I have learned so far. I should have taken the opportunity to work at ABC-Clio (which resource you know if you have done much historical research on online databases) when I had the chance. It was based right next to UCSB. I also wish that I had found more ways to be engaged with some of the other digital humanities projects going on. I suppose that the key thing that I learned is that I should have used every opportunity to get experience that would have been useful for a job outside of academia.
I also learned that while historians are very skilled, there really is not much of a market for those skills. I had thought that some kind of writing job would be a good fit because history is such a writing-intensive discipline. However, most people do not recognize that. Also, most writing jobs emphasize marketing experience. I have applied to a number of writing-related jobs with no results. Oh, and build up your social media credibility; that is in a lot of job ads.
The other major part of being an historian is research, and we are excellent at that. However, most research that people want to pay you for is heavily quantitative. While my dissertation did involve some quantitative analysis, most of it is heavily qualitative and source-based. Take for example a job that I applied to (and have not heard anything back) at the IRS. It was for a social scientist. Essentially, the job is to figure out why people do not pay their taxes and to find ways to encourage them to do so. The simple answers to those problems are obvious, but the job sounds interesting to me and would seem to work well with my training. However, the position wanted someone from a social science field with lots of experience with statistical analysis. I am good at math and took a relevant course or two in college, but with my degrees I am afraid that I will not be considered at all for this position.
I am afraid that I do not have many answers to the title of this post. Yes, suggestions for revising the doctoral program and adding training that could be more widely applicable sound like a good idea. However, for those of us who have already finished our programs, what options do we have? Even if I get a one-year, full-time position for next year (an increasingly remote possibility), am I just dooming myself to another year of a frustrating job search? And, as I sometimes wonder in the middle of the night, at what point am I just participating in my own oppression?
There are a variety websites devoted to answering these kinds of questions. My favorite thus far is Versatile PhD. If you are lucky, your institution has a premium subscription. If not, you could join the AHA, which will also allow you access to premium content. When I am feeling particularly defeated or in need of inspiration, I can usually find some comfort there. One other major suggestion that I have is to take a look at federal jobs. Depending on what kind of job you get, you may be able to bargain for the US government to repay all or part of your student loans.
I think that the hardest part about leaving academia is finding a way to make the PhD worthwhile, because otherwise you feel like you have wasted years of your life. That said, don’t fall victim to the adjunct grind. Yes, it is something that you can do with your PhD, but with or without a PhD you are worth more than that. Anyone is worth more than that. So my suggestion is to think about things that you are better at than the other 99% of the population because of the process of getting your degree. If you come up with a clever answer, try it out and let me know.
PSA: The Chronicle of Education has a job/social media cite called Vitae. You have probably discovered that already. What you may not know is that it gives you the ability to automatically fill out your information in a college’s HR software, thus saving you the trouble of entering the same information for every job application.
Side note: I am not finished with Baker and Vernon yet. There has been too much going on around the house for me to devote enough time to it, but I will get a review up as soon as I can. Until then, why don’t you read that book that you have been meaning to get to?