Friday, May 17, 2013

Staying Positive

Craig Gallagher*

It's likely that if you have already applied and been accepted to graduate school to study history, you’ve heard it at least once. You’ll hear it plenty more times before you get that masters or Ph.D. in history you’re putting aside a lot of time and/or money to acquire.

In fact, if your decision to continue your education isn’t just about putting off the working world for a few years and is driven by a desire to change direction and start a new career, you’ll hear it so often that it will feel as though everyone thinks you’re running away to join the circus instead of pursuing another professional qualification.

I’m talking, of course, about that constant refrain that hangs over graduate school like a surly cloud at the moment: “There are no jobs!” Now, I don’t wish to debunk this statement with a much rosier picture of the job market than has hitherto been offered, because I can’t do that.

Not when respected publications like the Atlantic and the Chronicle of Higher Education have lined up to inform us that even seeking a degree in the sciences offers little economic advantage anymore in these straitened times, adding as an afterthought that the outlook for those who hold humanities degrees is downright bleak.

What I suggest, however, is that staying positive in the face of such bleak prospects is essential.

The fact remains that universities and colleges are still admitting graduate students to study history and are still training them to read, research, and write to a very high standard. Graduate students still get teaching experience, we still learn how to organize our time effectively, how to argue cogently and coherently and to condense vast amounts of information into digestible bites fit for any palate. We also learn to speak foreign languages.

It needs to be kept in mind that these are transferable skills applicable to a variety of jobs. Sure, we can’t change overnight the fact that some potential employers will see “M.A. in History” and immediately move on to the next CV. But we can embrace the abilities we develop in such a way as to help ourselves, first and foremost, compete in a fallow economy.

And, let’s not forget, these are just the classic skills any apprentice historian will develop. As the discipline broadens and deepens to accommodate technological changes, new opportunities arise in the burgeoning subfield known as the Digital Humanities.

My point is, when you hear “There are no jobs!” don’t translate this as “I am hopelessly unemployable.” Hear instead, “What can I do, say, and work on to make sure I get one of those ‘no jobs’?"

*Craig Gallagher is a PhD Candidate in History at Boston College. His dissertation project focuses on transnational Scottish Presbyterian merchants, ministers, settlers and soldiers in the late-17th century Atlantic World. In spring 2013 he received a research grant from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.


  1. Craig: Thanks for your post.

    I certainly agree with you about the constant barrage of bad news about the market. (The latest confession from a jaded academic, who spent much time fretting and going on the market, is here:

    I would like to see a conference or a series of articles on what to do with PhD geared to historians and history grad students. I think it would be a big hit.

  2. Thanks for this Craig. And Randall, that is a brilliant idea. Let's go for it!

  3. Such a conference or series would also be encouraging, I think, to undergraduates in history, to help them see what's out there.

    This is a nice articulation of the benefits of a graduate degree beyond a job in academia!

  4. Thanks for the kind words all! Happy to contribute and help generate a discussion.

    I think the conference/series of articles you propose Randall is long overdue. I would add an additional element that I think the conversation should consciously avoid terms like "beyond the ivory tower" or any other language that situates non-tenure-track employment as an "alternative". The discipline needs to get to grips with the fact that tenure-track isn't just the only route their PhDs can take, it isn't even the one they're most likely to take.

    If the Society gets something like that going, I'm definitely available to help!

  5. I'd be happy to share my experiences and hear about others, if a virtual or physical conference emerges along these lines. I'm increasingly sure that I'm going to be working outside the academy, and also that I'm happy to have the academic skillset and perspective I've gained in the PhD program.

    One thing I think ought to be admitted, though, when we talk about all these departments continuing to produce PhDs, is the similarity to commercial real estate developers. They don't care if the three-year old shopping center across town is empty -- or is emptied by the new one they're putting up. It's all about eating the other guy's lunch. And sometimes, it's about institutional pride, and a possibly unrealistic perspective on the position of one's own institution in the academic food chain. For example, I remain unconvinced whether the university I'm ABD at really ought to be granting PhDs at all, given their placement record.

  6. Craig and Dan,

    Did you see this?

    I think you're both absolutely right. I guess it seems so obvious to me I've never really articulated it effectively where it matters. It has never occurred to me that taking a PhD-- or any degree-- outside the academy is a step downward. To the contrary, it seems to me we desperately need to salt the world outside the academy with the skills of professional historians-- critical thinking, research, careful reading.

    Let's keep brainstorming on how to press this angle. It's exactly what I hope THS can do.

  7. This is a great topic and one near and dear to my heart, so I also hope it leads to further discussion. I'm one of those Ph.D.s working outside the academy, and I've honestly not ever really considered trying to move into it. I work in public history for a federal agency and got my Ph.D. while working full time. Having a doctorate makes me much more marketable for career opportunities inside my own agency, which I love and don't intend to leave. Of course, we have our own unique challenges. (Sequestration, anyone? Perhaps with a side of "I pay taxes, so I pay your salary"? Uh, I pay taxes, too. Does that mean I'm self-employed?) For my academic fix, I teach as an adjunct, but I'm really happy with my career and don't feel I'm misusing or wasting my Ph.D. by working outside the academy.