Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Not academic now, but academic later?
April 5, 2014 6:57 AM   Subscribe

What should I do now to increase my chances to getting into academia later?

30 year old mature student, History major. On track for a 'first' in 1st year. I really want to get into academia in the future and also make a great candidate for a funded masters program, too. I'm also the first person in my family to go to college and my family are NOT supportive of my studying a degree at all (think death by 1000 cuts, little 'jabbing' remarks all the time). So I have nobody to advise me on getting from here to there. My uni's career advisory is being very hand-wavy and don't seem to get that time/age is against me.

Prior to and outside of college, I've solid work history in administration, supervising two regional offices for 5 years. I'm also a published fiction writer.

The summer is coming and I'm freaking out a little over building experience *now* that will stand to me down the line. I have some options:

- Run courses in a craft skill I can teach
- Write over the summer with a view to publishing more
- Contact museums/heritage places about volunteering
- Work retail for as many hours as I can and sock away money
- All the above? Or would that make me look TOO diversified?

I know this is only my 1st year summer, but I've nearly 4 months free to do something that'll help my career later. I'm the sort who lives in the library during term time, loves history and truly adores essay writing. I think running craft courses would add 'teaching skills' to a CV, but volunteering would give valuable subject-related experience. But publishing written work over the summer might show I'm publishable at all?

Any advice to an over-eager, anxious first year would really be appreciated!
posted by Chorus to Education (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Graduate admissions in the humanities are not like college admissions to the, say, Ivy League. That is, they don't care too much about whether you're a super-well-rounded potential Rhodes Scholar who can play Olympic Handball and also has a ton of extra-curricular Boy Scout badges. They care whether you have strong recommendations from well respected professors, strong grades, especially nearly all As in your major, strong GREs, and most of all, a strong writing sample. As to the last, and most important part of the application: the academy is about research, research, research. And History is all about archives, archives archives. So, if you wanted to add to your grad school application, ask a History professor at your college about structuring a history research project around an archive you have access to, and turn the outcome of that project into your writing sample.
posted by dis_integration at 7:13 AM on April 5 [16 favorites]


Are you applying for admission to programs outside the US? That will make some difference to the advice people give.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:16 AM on April 5 [2 favorites]


It's great that you're back in school. Congrats!

It is very difficult to get into funded history programs at this point, especially at the masters level. There really aren't many schools that offer a funded masters. For that matter, there aren't many that offer a masters at all - most graduate programs in history are at the doctoral level.

So, that being said, I think that your best bet for summer is this: spend your time researching graduate programs in order to identify an area of interest that matches multiple schools that you might attend. First, find out where the programs that fully fund master's students are located. This post on GradCafe might be a good start. Next, investigate the funding opportunities available. What area or areas of history look to be in the most demand? Choose your research focus based on what schools you might be able to attend. Then, next summer, you can work on finding a faculty member at your current institution that does work in that area and see if you can work as their research assistant - even if it is unpaid.

Academia is incredibly difficult to break into, especially in fields like History. I had a good friend with an amazing résumé who applied to 16 PhD programs in the field - and he only got into 2 schools. Why? Those two schools had faculty who did work in his area who wanted him there. So finding your area of interest is very important.

While you're doing this, I think the "work retail" or perhaps the "volunteer at a museum" options are best. Teaching a craft class is not something you'll put on your cv; neither is the retail job. Focus on making yourself a desirable candidate by carefully choosing your area of study - that's all that really matters when applying for graduate programs, in my experience.

Good luck, and congrats again!
posted by sockermom at 7:16 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry to have to say this, but planning on getting into academia in the humanities is extremely unadvisable, especially as a mature student - and I say this as a fellow historian currently towards the end of a doctoral program. Even if you have gone to all the top universities and gotten top grades, you are extremely unlikely to land a permanent tenure-track job (or the British equivalent - I take it from you describing your grade as a First that you're in Britain). This is something that will not be emphasized or even said to you before you start the PhD, but it's something you need to know. If you want to improve your odds at graduate admission/funding and a career in the academic humanities, publishing early and often in average to top journals is in my opinion by far the best way to do so. I don't think that extracurriculars, even those somewhat related to your work (like museum stuff) will really help you. I'm not sure how much publishing popular pieces or in poor journals will help - not much, I'd guess. Certain types of teaching experience *may* help (especially teaching formal university courses in your particular area to undergrads), although more for academic jobs than graduate admissions. I'd focus on working at a job and saving money, and also publishing in solid journals in your area. But really - you'd be far better to find something else to do. I totally understand about feeling that history academia is your dream job, but the most likely scenario is that you will spend a decade pursuing this and and up broke and unemployed. People finishing their PhDs are seeing the writing on the wall and getting out. I was recently at a conference and this was practically all that the postgrads were discussing. Please feel free to MeMail me if you'd like to discuss further.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:53 AM on April 5 [11 favorites]


You are pushing the late end of the age curve already. A masters degree is useless, and a phd will take you 5-8 years from no sooner than a year from now. You'd be hitting the job market at near 40. That is when both overt and structural forms of age discrimination set in as you compete against 28 year olds who can move anywhere and do nothing but work for 18 hours a day.

Don't bother. You missed the boat. But consider yourself lucky.
posted by spitbull at 8:10 AM on April 5 [3 favorites]


However, you could still work "in academia" in many capacities. Have you considered pursuing library and information science or administration?
posted by spitbull at 8:45 AM on April 5 [2 favorites]


the most likely scenario is that you will spend a decade pursuing this and and up broke and unemployed

Quoted for truth.

It seems like you don't have a good understanding of what is required for success as an academic, and what kind of success you can reasonably expect. This wouldn't be a big deal for a lot of careers, but academics are supposed to be self-directed and able to learn things without a lot of specific guidance. One of the things that is expected of aspiring academics is to be able to figure this stuff out through observation and knowing where to ask questions.

The career office is probably being hand-wavey because serious aspirants to academia don't ask for assistance from the career office, they ask their professors. They know from observation that the relevant degree is a PhD, not a masters. They understand that "published" means in academic works in an academic journal. The fact that you're already 30 AND haven't picked up on any of these things makes you a poor candidate. This doesn't mean you're a bad person, or dumb - just that this probably isn't the right path for you.

It is easy to fall for the romantic ideal of being an academic - particularly if you come from a more working-class background, academia can seem very high-status and appealing. But the reality is pretty bleak, especially in the humanities.

On Preview: spitbull has some good suggestions about alternate careers in academia. Hew more toward the information/data science end of library and information science if that appeals to you. The
posted by jeoc at 9:00 AM on April 5 [5 favorites]


As a mature history student graduating this year I know what this is like, so great work and keep going!

From a UK perspective I think it will be a struggle to get onto the academia track, but if you're as good as you say you are who knows! ;)

A friend of mine was a similarly gifted student, studied transport planning / railway engineering, graduated with a first then got accepted right away to do a phd at at another institution and got an MA on the way, and now works in the department, so it is possible, though far more likely in more practical subjects I feel!

On a personal level I'd keep an open mind and look into pursuing this but maybe consider your options outside too, you can write, have management experience and also have excellent work habits so the list of other things you could do might surprise you.

As far as making the most of your time rather than polishing the skills I already had I'd maybe look at developing new ones and widening my horizons; working in a summer camp with kids, taking an unusual sort of summer job, that sort of thing, the sort of thing that might spark other ideas and give you experiences outside the library!
posted by Middlemarch at 9:02 AM on April 5


Because this is such a downer thread, I want to say that you can be a historian outside of academia. It's more difficult to do real history this way, but it's not impossible. I have a friend, for instance, who has a Real Serious Academic Book Based On Archival Research And Everything getting published soon - and he doesn't even have a PhD.

You might want to look at the work of Allen Berube, who wrote Coming Out Under Fire (which is HUGE) and produced a lot of other really important work. I really like his book My Desire For History - it's been a huge inspiration to me because I pretty much missed the boat on a PhD myself.

Pat Barker is also someone I admire - perhaps you're familiar with her work? She has a PhD, but her novels about working class life in historical context are, obviously, written outside the academy.

I am afraid it is going to be very, very hard to get into a decent academic position at ~40. If you're doing a masters, do it with a view to a specific type of job - someone I used to go to school with, for instance, is a map archivist now. Ditto for a PhD - if you want to do one, do one with a non-teaching goal.

Do you like to teach? You can teach outside academia, even at a fairly high level.

(I do a little bit of teaching and a little bit of research on my own, outside the academy. )

My feeling is that it is absolutely fucking vital for people from non-traditional backgrounds to be able to write and speak about history. Real working class/immigrant/etc history written by actual working class people or actual immigrants is incredibly rare; academic work about other topics written from a working class/immigrant/etc standpoint is even rarer. (And I bet you can see from your own experience with needing to do this later in life and without family support just why that can be the case.) I think that even if you can't get into the old-school kind of academic career, you should still try to find a way to pursue what you're doing.
posted by Frowner at 9:04 AM on April 5 [7 favorites]


Firstly, I can very much relate to your statement about lack of support from your family. It's very admirable that you've taken control of your life, tough as it is sometimes to be the "black sheep" in a nonacademic family. Don't let them get you down!

If you're very keen on writing, would it be possible to consider a career in investigative journalism? Knowledge of history, archives, etc would likely be very valuable for this sort of career. Several journalists eventually transition more into book-length writing and teaching at the university level, hence becoming more "academic" while still publishing things that are read by the public.

Also, talk to your professors about your options, especially those that may have entered academia via non-traditional routes. They're in a better position to advise you rather than the career counselors at your uni.
posted by phoenix_rising at 9:17 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


Hey all, thanks for the tough love :)

It's not that I'm OMFG IN LOVE with the idea of being an academic to the extent of poverty, it just seems to be the thing that fits in with what I actually, genuinely, really like doing:

- Writing
- Long, lonely hours in the library/books
- Patience for long-term intricate and demanding work
- Genuine curiosity and love of learning (yes, this sounds twee and naff, but whatever. It's the truth)

Now, of course, there are tons of other careers out there that incorporate the above. At least I hope there are! Areas I particularly love are archival work and material culture. So, I probably need to work on exploring those areas as time passes.

Now. Of course I'm too old and of course I sound terribly naive and of course the ship has sailed and of course it's too late. And I'm going to graduate ANYWAY with this degree, so I need to be employable and would prefer to be so in an area I actually like (more naivety?)
posted by Chorus at 9:48 AM on April 5


Also, as another note of caution as you seek advice on this question: I would advise against taking too seriously the opinions of any professors or postdocs who haven't been on the market in the last five or so years. As far as I can tell, the academic job market seriously declined around 2008: it hasn't been great for decades, but it went from quite competitive to impossible several years ago. I was encouraged to pursue a PhD and academia through some extremely rosy advice about PhD/academia from a professor/mentor whom I trusted too heavily: he meant very well and is a delightful fellow and inspiring scholar, but he probably hasn't looked for an academic job since 1975. The situation has changed immeasurably since the 1970s and 1980s, and especially rapidly since the mid-2000s. As a historian on the market today, you're getting hired into effectively a completely different industry than those who were hired pre-recession, and especially in the 1980s and earlier. Any advice you get should be filtered through this matrix as you interpret it.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:49 AM on April 5 [5 favorites]


Ho would you feel about being a high school history teacher? It isn't the same thing as being an academic, but you would be teaching a subject you love, and maybe you would still have time to write and do some research that could inform your teaching--which is a big part of what academics do.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:55 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


Chorus, I just saw your update, so I thought I'd chime in again, at the risk of threadjacking. I wanted to say that I am definitely not accusing you of being naive. I totally empathize with what you're saying and most of what you're saying I could also say word for word. Not only am I very skilled at intricate and demanding analysis, but I genuinely love learning and the intellectual thrill of the chase and I love archival research too. There's nothing naive or shameful in admitting this. In many ways, being a historian would be the perfect career fit for me as well, and were I born few decades ago it's likely that I would have successfully become one. Unfortunately, structural changes in humanities academia that have recently sped up mean that the profession as it is currently constituted is being dismantled. There may well *be* no more tenure-track professors in a decade (at least, new hires): certainly, most of those jobs are being sliced up into poorly-paid and totally unstable adjuncting gigs. I believe it's over 75% of humanities academics now that are adjuncts rather than tenure-track (lots of articles and data about this online, e.g. here). This is all turning academia into even more of an elitist game biased against the working-class, as only the independently wealthy (either through parents, trust funds, or marriage) can afford to work for so little pay (it's like the fashion industry, where many competitive internships not only will they not pay you for, but you actually have to pay for). All of these developments in academia are things I have thought a lot about, and something I am deeply sad and angry about. I too wish it weren't the case. But ultimately, when considering a career in history academia, them's the breaks.

As people upthread have said, you should look at careers that involve similar skills and work, although most of them are extremely competitive too. If you love archives, a natural fit might be becoming an archivist, which I think you need an MLS (?) for? My understanding though is that there is a glut of people for few jobs there too. Perhaps academic administration might be another possibility to pursue: certain there is generally more job stability and higher salaries there than in academia proper. However my sense is that if you like long lonely days in the archive, academic admin may well involve way too much people-work and way too little academic work. History teacher might be good, especially at a snazzy private school that has short academic terms and might be willing to encourage/fund your summer/vacation research. From what you're saying about the working conditions you like, I wonder whether law/paralegal might be a good fit too, although obviously law has its own problems now. Don't feel bad about putting aside the academic dream and finding a job that you enjoy but is not a soulmate job: you may decide that a job that is stable and pays the bills and you like is really good enough, and that you can still keep your fingers in historical research in your free time. You don't need to take the academy's line that this means you failed and sold out. Anyway, I just wanted to repeat that I am not saying all of this to get you down. I think your love for historical research is very admirable. My comments are as they are because I think it's important for you to be able make these decisions in a clear-headed way with as much information as possible. You might still choose to go towards academia, but at least you'll go in knowing what you're up against and hopefully making yourself as competitive as possible from the beginning.
posted by ClaireBear at 10:14 AM on April 5 [2 favorites]


I don't know if they have programs like this where you are (UK?), but Maryland has a dual History/Library Science Masters program. Working in a historical archive is not an easy or lucrative job to get, but it's more feasible that becoming a professor in history.

I have a friend who teaches history at a very good SLAC, and as a rule, she will not write letters of recommendation for any of her students wanting to go into a history graduate program, unless they call several of her fellow Princeton PhDs and talk with them about their unsuccessful, decade-long job searches. So far, she has written no letters.
posted by bibliowench at 11:30 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


ClaireBear hits it on the head. The traditional academic tenure-track job is rapidly dying and competition is fierce. If you don't graduate from one of the top 2 or 3 schools in your field and have a published book, you're not even going to get an interview.

Why do you want to go into academia? To teach a course or two a semester to a small group of grad students and spend a lot of time doing research at a big university? Forget it. Want to spend all of your working time in the classroom teaching 5 sections of US History I to undergraduates? There may be a slim sliver of hope. Two-year colleges require only a master's degree, and if you're willing to relocate, you might find an opening. However, 2-year schools don't generally pay travel expenses to interview, and many of them do rely heavily on part-time instructors, so you might get trapped in a career of stringing together multiple part-time gigs with no promises of work next semester and very low pay (we pay ~$2k/course, no benefits; haven't hired a FT history instructor in a decade). Here's one current history opening; how willing are you to relocate to some place like a small town in rural Alabama?
posted by fogovonslack at 11:38 AM on April 5 [2 favorites]


This thread is indeed pretty harsh and I'm conflicted about the advice I want to give.

I decided to respond to your thread after you described why you think a career in academia is right for you. Hopefully, this will help guide your decision making process.

Careers in academia are very social. I don't have any colleagues who squirrel long, lonely hours away in the library. We're more likely to be teaching (social), advising students (social), mentoring research assistants (social), answering emails (social), attending meetings (social), working on task forces (social), attending conferences (social), giving expert interviews to journalists (social). Sure, writing talks, preparing lectures and working on publications we do alone - but even those are arguably social as we consistently have to imagine our publics. Then, on some lucky days, we get to work on our own research. For something like an hour.

I'm pointing this out to give you a better picture of what academics do. Ph D. candidates might get to spend long focused time working on a specific research project. But academics are public figures. And as such, the work involves a lot of time spent talking with others as well as constant demands on your time.
posted by Milau at 12:23 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]


So, just to answer the question you asked properly - the step-by-step account of what I would do if I were in your situation and determined to pursue history academia is as follows:

1. Get top grades at undergrad - a First or As or your country's equivalent. You really need a 3.9+ or a First in your history BA order to make academia happen.

2. Cultivate relationships with two or three of your professors - ideally at least one in the area you will be pursuing for graduate study. Go to office hours, do extra archival research and see if you can get them to critique it, do your best to take as many classes with these people as possible. You want to put them in a position to be able to write a very positive and very specific and detailed recommendation.

3. Do new and exciting archival research on your own, either in the summers and/or during the school year. Have the professors above critique it, do as many drafts as necessary, and submit it to journals in your field. Start with the top journal that might reasonably publish you (get your professors' suggestions), and move down in journal quality from there in terms of submitting it, until you have an acceptance. If you don't get it accepted, hang onto it: it will be useful as a writing sample.

4. Regarding work during the summer: unless you're doing publishable research, I don't think much of what you do in the summer will give all that much of a boost to a PhD/academic job application. Teaching generally (e.g. a craft) won't help, in my opinion - only if you're teaching university-level courses to undergraduates, ideally through the auspices of a university. If I were you, I'd instead try to make as much money as possible in the summers. You'll likely need it as a cushion later. Maybe look into a management consultancy or banking internship - I think they're well-paid and may lead to connections later if you exit academia. The one exception I'd say to this is if you can get a job doing genuine archival work, this may be helpful. But I certainly wouldn't go into debt to do something unpaid in the summer.

5. Polish up a few writing samples to submit to PhD programs (see step 3). If the writing can be exciting and original, all the better.

6. (If relevant for your country) Ace the GRE or any other exam necessary to go to graduate school.

7. Look into what the most graduate prestigious programs grad programs are that would be a good fit for you (based on your GRE scores, your professors' advice, and especially based on how the faculty members' interests compare to yours). Apply to these.

7. Pick the most prestigious program that is a good fit. Decide based on a combination of who your PhD advisor would be (rapport plus reputation) and how prestigious the school is. I can't overstate the importance of prestige in academia - it's the currency with which it runs. Harvard PhDs aren't finding humanities academia jobs right now, and it only gets worse as you move down the rankings. If you're in the UK and cannot find a funded master's place, you might want to consider a US PhD program, as they often take people straight out of undergrad and the program includes a master's. This may extend the time you spend, though, although perhaps not. If you do the UK master's and PhD and can finish in 5 years (1 Master's; 4 PhD - people rarely finish in 3, despite the university propaganda), that would probably be roughly equivalent to a US PhD program that includes a Master's (6 years ish).

8. DO NOT GO TO ANY UNIVERSITY/PROGRAM THAT IS NOT IN THE TOP 5 IN TERMS OF PRESTIGE/REPUTATION; AND UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU ENTER A GRADUATE PROGRAM, ESPECIALLY A PHD PROGRAM, THAT YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR!!!! I know self-funded master's degrees are somewhat the norm, but really, don't do this. You should be able to find something funded either in the UK or US, and if not, take that as a sign and stop there. Don't take out any debt to gamble on academia. You'll thank me later.

9. Enter your prestigious top-5 PhD program and repeat steps 1-4 (get top grades, cultivate close relationships with 3 professors, do new and exciting archival research, and use your summers [if you have them off] to get only very relevant teaching or research experience or use it to make money and/or build connections in a more employable field).

10. Present your research at conferences and network furiously. Academia is essentially like being an entrepreneur, only an intellectual entrepreneur. You're the only one who really cares about your ideas, and you need to sell them to others in a way that gets them excited about them and makes them think you're doing big things and are about to become a huge deal. Choose conferences that will have big people in your field and find a way to get them to think you're awesome (and potentially either write you a reference once they agree to read your work, or possibly hire you in the future). Ignore all the grad students talking about how broke and unemployed they are.

11. Make sure to publish in good journals in your field. Ideally 2-3 substantial article publications by the time you're done your PhD.

12. Try to get some good teaching in during your PhD. In the US this will likely be required; in the UK it will likely be optional. Try to angle to teach courses that fit with your PhD in such a way that you can sell yourself to a hiring committee as a coherent package. Ideally, try to teach some broad/intro courses, some method courses (e.g. historiography), and some courses more specific to your knowledge and interests.

13. Apply to every job in the entire world that you are remotely competitive for. I'm not joking here: often there will only be two jobs in the whole US whose job description somewhat matches your specialty. Apply for postdocs and professorships anywhere you find them - UK, US, Ireland, rest of Europe, Australia, Asia, etc. Be willing to go *wherever* you get a job. You'll likely have a few one- or two-year postdocs before you get hired permanently, so you'll probably have to move every year or two for a few years. Keep chugging along with publications, teaching, etc. Try not to go in debt.

14. Possibly get an academic job (once you have a book contract and/or ideally your first book published, and a few articles)? There are about 150-200+ applicants for every postdoc or tenure-track job opening. This ultimately comes down less to some sort of objective meritocracy (although you do have to be awesome to be in the running), and more down to exact fit (maybe the committee wants someone to teach the "gender in Roman Britain" course as the current position's incumbent is retiring, or whatever). You need to hope that your research topic exactly matches what a hiring committee is looking for within a few years of getting your PhD. (Connections and departmental politics may also play some role; I don't know because I am not this far in the academia process.) You don't have too much time because you start to look like you've been sitting on the shelf if you can't find a permanent job within 4-5+ years of getting your PhD. The clock is ticking.

15. As you can see from the above: be lucky. Very lucky. To get a job in history academia nowadays, you need to be incredibly good, have an impeccable academic pedigree, and you also need to get a massive lucky break. It's not unlike making it in Hollywood.
posted by ClaireBear at 12:32 PM on April 5 [13 favorites]


I think that, regardless of the career you end up with, the two things that would most help you at this point are more money and more history study. A first in an arts/humanities degree is very impressive - if you want one do more history, which may include museum or heritage volunteering. And finishing your studies will only be helped by money.

Maybe talk to PhD students in your department about what they are doing and how they got there. Find out about other careers that might suit - law, teaching, civil service policy, think tanks, charities and non-profits...
posted by plonkee at 3:03 PM on April 5


I have to basically agree with a lot of what's been said in this thread so far, and ClaireBear gave a great rundown of what's involved between now and making it in academia. But in answer to your question as posed, I would argue that the only thing you can do with this summer that is really going to make a serious difference in terms of getting into grad school and succeeding in academia is to get research experience. Your holy grail here is to have something that you can put on your cv as "Research experience" -- being a research assistant to a professor is probably the best and easiest way to get this. Getting a paid RAship in the humanities is, I assume, not an easy task. Can you afford to work for free this summer? If not, I'd say stick to making money, as things like teaching a craft course are just not going to be seen as relevant.
posted by ootandaboot at 4:43 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]


I wanted to chime in after your update and say I too am *not* accusing you of being naive. Nor am I nearly as pessimistic about the possibilities for success in the academic humanities as many here, although my field has not been hit nearly as hard as history and some others. I've been advising PhD students for 20 years. So far a very substantial majority of them have wound up as professional scholars, most as tenured or tenure track professors. It can be done, and it's not as utterly capricious as a career in the arts or sports might be, but it is as competitive and it is getting worse. The options are narrowing, but outcomes can at least be somewhat predictable in relation to inputs.

But when you wrote this:
- Writing
- Long, lonely hours in the library/books
- Patience for long-term intricate and demanding work
- Genuine curiosity and love of learning (yes, this sounds twee and naff, but whatever. It's the truth


it was moving. If only that's what being "an academic" entailed. Yes you have to be good at writing and you do put in some long, lonely hours patiently assembling stories out of facts, but the job is actually incredibly social as a "career." You need to be extroverted, charismatic, entrepreneurial, willing to take risks, self-promoting, able to change your interests and methods on short notice, good at office politics, good at pitching ideas to rich people, and good at dealing with being part of a sausage-making factory par excellence. The only time of your career that will feel lonely and introspective and patient is late grad school, and maybe the occasional sabbatical you take many years later (even then, email finds you everywhere; I go to the freaking Arctic to escape and it follows me there). The success factors in academia now favor extroverts and very self-confident entrepreneurial types, massively. You had best be good with budgets and spreadsheets, compliance bureaucracy, grantsmanship, and employment and immigration law. As a teacher, you will need to be a counselor, disciplinarian, motivator, and pitchman. As a scholar you will have to be a public-facing intellectual. Humanists need to deliver constituencies of interest to universities. It's the only reason they pay for us. And those constituencies are changing and have new needs and expectations from academic representatives and allies.

Oh and you will have to publish. And publish constantly. Contrary to popular belief, publishing is a very, very social process involving giving talks frequently, circulating drafts, assimilating peer reviews, pleasing editors, and being able to make your topic sexy enough to interest publishers who need to sell books.

And did I mention raising money? Look around you, if you're in the UK. It is a zero sum game, no grants, no jobs.

There is nothing peaceful about being a professor in 2014 or for the foreseeable future. If you want that, be a computer programmer or a forest ranger or something. Academia is like every other profession dealing with people and not code or machines in the 21st century. And if you have the skillset for it, you are going to be able to make a living in any number of ways, making academia a choice and not a closing off of options.

If you are driven, ambitious, smart, and willing to prioritize your career over many things other people consider unacceptable domains of compromise (where you live, when you have a family, if you ever have a family, the hours you will work, the indignities of the tenure process, etc.) you can still make it. But if you actually aspire to solitude, peace, life amidst dusty stacks, and long periods of thinking, I don't know what the right career is (I would say "archivist" except that in reality most of us in the archiving business within the academy are very busily being public-facing activists now) but it is not in fact the professoriate, which despite its literary and cinematic representation as a solitary domain of peaceful irrelevance, is a blood sport where victory goes to the connected, and connections go to the self-confident.

The trick is to maintain your last category (genuine love of learning) as an ideal when all around you will be evidence that there is no genuine love of anything but survival and power motivating many aspects of the institutions in which you work. There are plenty of people who manage to maintain their ideals and build enough power to be able to implement them to some extent in effective ways. But you will never join their ranks unless you let the illusion go that academia is any different from any other professional context and not a very good place to be alone with your thoughts.
posted by spitbull at 4:47 PM on April 5 [6 favorites]


One thing that I think most responders have missed is that you are only in the first year of your undergraduate degree, right?

At this point there isn't much you can do to improve your chances of getting into a top graduate school. (Honestly, people are right about what they say about academic careers, but in my past four years on the academic market I have missed out on job after job to candidates with PhDs or postdocs from Oxford, Cambridge, and MIT. If you can get into one of those for your PhD, you will have a chance.)

The time for improving your chance of getting into one of those is in your third year or honours year (do UK universities have honours?). Anyway, the year before you are going to apply to do a PhD, focus on getting some publications in academic journals. Maybe some tutoring experience. Present a research project at an international conference.

Right now, you are way too early for that. I think the best thing you can do, especially from a non-traditional working class background, is to earn and save as much money as you can.

What drives a lot of people to give up on the academic career is that they can't afford to put in the unpaid hours it takes, first to get into a good university. If you can't spend your summer doing an internship, a research project, or publishing, because you have to work for good money, then your CV looks worse. If during the PhD you have to work part time (or god forbid full time) you won't finish. Or you'll be totally miserable doing so. If after the PhD you can't afford to teach part time for a few years while applying to postdocs, jobs and fellowships (i.e. earning less than minimum wage), you will have to leave before your career even gets started. It is classist and stupid and rewards people from family money or with spouses who earn a bunch in a "normal" job, but it's something that can maybe be overcome if you can work a ton during your holidays now and save as much as possible.

Build up a nest egg now so that you can use that to fund research when the time is right.
posted by lollusc at 4:50 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


Get some tech skills. If you do decide to go this route, you'll need them to be competitive, at least in North America. If makes you attractive as a candidate and it not only increases your chance of getting one of the few tenure track jobs out there, but means you have employable skills outside the academy.

Also: do not go to a progam that does not fund you. There tend to be far more funded PhD positions than MAs, but depending on where you are, you may be able to find a funded MA position (they don't seem to be a UK thing in the humanities, for example). Use that time to do your research and also pick up more tech skills.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:27 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]


Do you have a spouse/partner/family? Are they willing to relocate perhaps five to seven times in the next ten years? (First for the MA, then PhD, then postdoc, then every year or two for visiting positions until you move again for a long term job.) Are you willing to move that often, to literally anywhere in the world there is an opening?

Over and above the difficulty of getting a tenured job, being itinerant is the academic reality. At least in the US, most jobs are not in urban centers and will often lack the cultural amenities academics tend to like. If your financial or family situation won't allow that, you need to look at other options.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:12 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]


I've been thinking about this question a bit more, and there are a few things that I think should be said/emphasized, from my perspective as a History PhD student. You mentioned in your initial question and follow-up that you think academia may fall through because of your age, and at least one commenter agreed with you. I would disagree. I don't really think you've missed the boat based on age. I am not a mature student, so I do not have first-hand experience with this, but my sense is that you would not be discriminated against based on your age per se. Any implicit discrimination would come in that you would not be willing/able to take the (totally unreasonable) working conditions that the early stages of academia impose on you - conditions that a 30-year-old gunner just finishing his/her PhD probably would be willing to tolerate. I'm talking about things that have been mentioned above - in particular, relocating multiple times over the course of a few years to places not of your choosing, crushing workloads (largely teaching undesirable courses), very low pay and little job security (contract work), forking out money from your own (low!) salary to attend conferences and network, etc. The decision to subject yourself to this for several years can, I imagine, look very different at 30 than at 40. However I have a friend who is a mature student in a History PhD at a top university, and I never have had the sense that she feels actively discriminated against in academia due to her age, and she seems as successful as anyone. My hunch would be that if you are willing to tolerate academia's work conditions and other assorted indignities, you have just as much of a shot as anyone.

The catch, of course, is that this is not much of a shot. This can't be stressed enough. By the end of my PhD, I will have multiple graduate degrees at what are generally considered to be the most prestigious universities in the world. I say this to stress how, even at the most tippy top of prestigious places, there is widespread panic among PhD students in the humanities about procuring an academic job. My friends at both of these universities that I mention (and additionally other incredibly accomplished doctoral students I know from conferences) are all anxious and stressed about finding work in academia, and many of them even there have been unsuccessful even at finding a postdoc, let alone a permanent position. Whenever I have gotten together with historian PhD students, the conversation has often turned to people's anxieties about this, and many of them have already actively made parachute plans to get out either mid- or post-PhD. Many of my friends are taking the LSAT, or enrolling in a med post-bacc program, or trying to parlay their transferable skills (hah) into non-profit stuff, academic admin, management consultancy, or anything else with better than a lottery ticket's chance at vocational success. Pace spitbull, I am not at all rosy about my own prospects in academia, or those of my friends, even graduating top institutions. Perhaps history has been harder than other disciplines in recent years: I don't know. However I would never recommend anyone do a PhD in history with an eye towards an academic job - even a 22 year old Harvard grad with a 4.0, a publication, and fierce networking skills. It's not really about age. It's more about the fact that it's far too risky a gamble for any sensible person to take at this point, in my opinion. It costs a *decade* of your life to pull a chair up to the table and roll the dice; and honestly, if you can't afford to lose what you're wagering, you can't afford to play.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:17 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


First, in a just world (or even better, the Star Trek universe, where virtually everyone loves their work, and does it for free, and even Jean-Luc Picard has to decide between underwater archeology and starship captaining), you would pursue this passion. It's not a crazy dream. Unfortunately, it exists in our not-so-just world, though, and gosh, so much of what has been said - Debbie Downer style or not - is very true. Clairebear, especially, has said everything so beautifully!

Anyway, I almost feel ridiculous adding my .02. But here it is...

Read more about working class students in academia - and not just in the history field, but the psychological and sociological issues they experience in general. You are at a real disadvantage as a working class student in understanding some of the "hidden culture", and in getting the preparation you need for any kind of white collar job after graduation. On the bright side, you'll gain perspectives on two worlds, similar to the child of immigrants, and that's a special thing.

Read all the articles by Thomas Pannapacker on the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read this blog, listing reasons why you should not go to graduate school.

I have, quite against my plans, spent most of my career as a staff member in academia. Clairebear mentioned succeeding in Hollywood. I've worked a little there, too, and I'd say that Hollywood is easier in many respects, because of the flexibility offered. Maybe you can't act, and you won't be a movie star, but you can become a casting associate or a production accountant and work in that world professionally. And you can leave California (as I did) and people will be happy to hire you to do industrial work elsewhere. Whereas with academia, you are expected to study something very specific, and then go out on the market, even if the only decent job is in Podunk, USA, which has four stoplights and a Starbucks for culture. (A friend of mine ended up in a town famous for its Mardi Gras celebrations, finding people urinating in her backyard. But hey, she was living the dream...)

Don't get something right away? Do get something, but as an adjunct? Your future flexibility will be determined by that. And, after ten years working on a history PhD (one of the fields where it often takes longest), what other career experience do you have? Read through the Chronicle of Higher Education or Phinished.com threads and you'll learn how unstable it is to pursue these dreams. People who lose their funding, or their dissertation chair loses their mind, and suddenly - pfffttt! There's a saying in film and theatre circles, that if you can do anything other than acting, you should. That it's the job of everyone in film and theatre to discourage actors. I think the one group that needs more discouragement is future academics, because at least actors know they're screwed. Many academics working now, and mentoring younger students, do not really understand how bad the job market is. It was bad when my father was graduating in the late 1960s, and even then people were claiming, "wait a few years when everyone retires." Nope.

I don't necessarily share Marc Bousquet's political proclivities, but he has made some fantastic points about the structure of academia. Most aspiring students never really understand how the academic economy works until it's too late. More classes are taught by graduate students and adjuncts who cost less. Bear in mind, those classes could be taught by full-time professors. That is not "the way it is"; it's a choice that has been made. The money's going to pay for administrator salaries and special projects. It's a lot easier to get a job with a degree in higher education administration, than in an academic topic. If you would love working as an administrator as much as you would love teaching a class in history - then consider it! That's where the job growth is, and you get to be around people passionate about learning.

Instead of studying film or history (two of my greatest passions) at the graduate level, I am about to finish a practitioner-oriented master's degree which I paid for out of pocket, around $20k USD, and which will open up additional lucrative jobs for me. I did this while working full-time, and, although it's almost killed me at times, I've been able to continue getting my work published and working on independent projects. It's taken me longer, but I think it was the only sane path considering my "advanced" age (over 30). More importantly, I could make a living, and wasn't dependent on my faculty advisors for my direction in life - which is good, considering how long my master's thesis has taken me.

So I say, do pursue your degree, but balance it with a field you like that you can get a job in, right out of college. Then, if you want to go back and get a master's degree in history, part-time, great. You might look specifically at public history. If you want to fund yourself and go back for a doctorate, and are OK with no further career prospects than teaching at the high school level - fine. Just make sure you have plans B, C, and D lined up.
posted by mitschlag at 9:32 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


« Older I have someone in my life who ...   |  I am renting an apartment and ... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments