And if You Just Don't Go?

Brian Taylor

May 18, 2010

"I was one of those liberal-arts majors," the guide says, nonchalantly swinging his walking stick, "Didn't know what to do with myself. So I cobbled together all the money I could find. Took a flight to Egypt. Met some folks and got an offer to work on gathering medicinal plants. Learned a lot. Went on to work on reforestation projects. Did some work for FEMA along the way. Some theater, of course. And then there was my experience in Biosphere 2. Quite interesting, that. And finally starting my own eco-tourism company."

Listening to the guide, I am dazzled. Why did I not opt for the interesting life?

In recent months, several articles in The Chronicle have explored how and why students decide to attend graduate school, even as the academic job market, which has been stagnating for well over 40 years, collapses further. As a Ph.D. in history who left academe, I frequently end up answering questions from students who are either considering graduate school or searching for their first job outside academe. And I am increasingly troubled by the advice many academics provide to their students.

In his recent column, "Making a Reasonable Choice," Thomas H. Benton argued that undergraduate advisers lack reliable, up-to-date information about graduate school and the odds facing prospective Ph.D.'s of finding a tenure-track job. I agree. But I would also argue that advisers and their students fail to understand the complexity of the nonacademic job market, too. That lack of understanding plays a significant role in a student's decision to pursue the "life of the mind" in academe.

Undergraduates overwhelmingly make the "choice" to attend graduate school within a vacuum. Most 21-year-olds, having spent their entire lives inside educational institutions, know little to nothing about careers. They know (or believe they know) about the careers of a schoolteacher and a professor. Television has exposed them to a few other careers—lawyers, doctors, and unscrupulous business types—but that limited exposure is highly misleading. (Hollywood also highlights the careers of terrorist and jewel thief, but few undergraduates see those as viable options.)

So when a student decides to attend graduate school, she sees limited options. She is a humanities grad, so medical school is out for her, and she doesn't want to become a lawyer. With the naïve but admirable idealism of a 21-year-old, she recoils at the idea of becoming a businesswoman. She has never managed a household budget or worried about health insurance, so money is irrelevant to her (it is so irrelevant that she does not even understand that her financial needs will change over time). And because she has succeeded at everything she has ever done in school, discussions of the poor job market in academe do not deter her. It all boils down to one belief: A life of the mind cannot exist outside academe.

Her professors, most of whom entered graduate school in their 20s, reinforce that belief. A professor who left the nonacademic work force early on generally does not understand the arc or diversity of professional careers. Living in a college town (a company town), he knows few nonacademic professionals. No surprise, then, that he often advocates graduate school.

When I decided to do the unthinkable and leave a tenure-track job for a nonacademic career, I did multiple informational interviews. Many of the bright people with whom I spoke had not gone to graduate school. Did they live the life of the mind? Had their minds atrophied since leaving college? Were they filled with regret that they had not gone to graduate school?

I spoke first with a childhood friend, John, who had only a bachelor's degree from Harvard University. While I was in graduate school, he was acquiring new skills, learning to manage a corporate division, and working on innovative projects around the world. Like me, he spent two years living in London. However, he lived there as an employee of a multinational company earning a good income while I was a dissertator eking out a precarious living with grants.

John spoke to me about the museums we both love in London. Unlike me, he had had money to travel across Europe in the mid-1990s. His work had taken him to a several former Soviet-bloc countries. He spoke knowledgeably about writers he had discovered while traveling. His comments on his reading were thought-provoking, shaped not only by his experiences working and interacting with Poles and Hungarians but also by his eagerness to read broadly and to struggle with the complex political issues of the day. (His job actually required that he read about, learn, and understand such issues.)

I uneasily compared John's experiences with my own. I had interacted only with academics while in London. Although most of them were British, their worldview, as academics, was very similar to my own. A limited budget restricted my travel. While I enjoyed many of London's delights, poverty often prevented me from indulging in things with a price tag. Although I love theater, for example, I saw only one play when I was there because I wanted to stretch my fellowship money to the utmost (I also worried that it was unethical to use the money for my personal enjoyment). I salivated over London's bookstores, surreptitiously reading books but buying few.

Compared with John's life, my own felt narrow and constricted. I loved spending time in archives, and the material I read had transported me to the 18th-century Britain that I love. But John was, and is, an equally passionate reader. And his comments on what he read, informed by the dizzying range of his experiences, meant that he had never stopped growing intellectually.

That should have been no surprise. I am the only member of my family who possesses a Ph.D. Throughout my academic career, I never met people who read as voraciously as my own family members. My older sister, a former Rhodes scholar, lives in a house overflowing with the history books she and I love. Her analyses of historical problems, shaped by her experiences as a federal prosecutor, were radically different from but just as nuanced as those of my fellow academics.

In my informational interviews, I found myself having discussions similar to those I had with my sister. Whether speaking with a researcher at a health-care foundation or with a Congressional aide, I engaged in different—and sometimes more challenging—discussions about the value of history than I had in academe.

These were people who read, and knew, history, using it to inform their work on an almost daily basis. I still remember sitting on the edge of a seat in the office of a health-care analyst, excitedly discussing the history of health-care reform. Drawing on her in-depth understanding of both the historical literature and current issues, she provided a cogent and more comprehensive analysis of health-care reform than I had ever developed as an academic historian of medicine.

For me, questions about health-care reform and its tangled history had always been theoretical and abstract. Now I was seeing complexities I had never known because I was suddenly interacting with people who thought about the history of health-care reform and understood, from practical experience, the inherent complexities in developing reforms.

Reading an essay by Alex Pang, whom I had known as a postdoctoral fellow, made me catch my breath. A historian of science, Alex discussed how leaving academe had led him to realize that nonhistorians can and do provide thought-provoking analyses of historic problems. Sometimes, Alex wryly noted, being outside academe actually made their analyses better.

I found his essay reassuring. It meant that, although I was leaving higher education, I would still grow intellectually. My experiences since leaving bear that out. Because I live in a large city, as opposed to the small college towns where I was a professor, I live in a world of museums, lectures, public seminars, extraordinary bookstores, fantastic archives, and libraries. I live in a place that has racial as well as ethnic diversity. All of those factors encourage me to think about historical problems in a rigorous albeit different fashion from how I saw them in academe.

The people I have met in the nonacademic world share my enthusiasms. I belong to a book group founded, much to my delight, by reporters who work or worked at NPR as well as many experts from other federal agencies. Our discussions are just as wide ranging and thought provoking as the ones I had in academe.

I live where a lot of archives are—which makes research easier than it was in academe. I write and publish. My new book, researched and written completely outside academe, was just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Since leaving academe, I have continued to endorse the belief that being an intellectual entails analyzing and understanding issues from multiple angles. I hope that in advising their undergraduates, academics will encourage their students to share that view. More important, I hope faculty members will encourage students to do informational interviews and extensive research on career options—before entering a Ph.D. program, which is, after all, only one path to the life of the mind.

Alexandra M. Lord is a historian in a federal agency and runs Beyond Academe, a Web site for historians seeking work outside academe. She is also the author of "Condom Nation: The U.S. Government's Sex Education Campaign From World War I to the Internet" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).