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.