Our Secret Nonacademic Histories

Brian Taylor

March 26, 2012

When my seatmate on a delayed flight turned and casually asked what I did, I braced myself. Over the past 15 years, I have discovered that "historian" ranks high on most people's list of fantasy jobs; their enthusiasm can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.

My seatmate was, as are so many lawyers, a former history major. "And your area of expertise?" he excitedly asked.

"I'm a medical historian. My recent book was on the history of sex education," I replied.

"Wow," he said, "That must be incredibly controversial. You must encounter a lot of taboos and deep, dark secrets."

Well, I have heard countless stories about other people's sex education at birthday parties and Passover Seders, in the gym, and even in the grocery store. But taboos? Deep, dark secrets? Very few. I have, however, stumbled up against the ultimate taboo in writing about a different topic: nonacademic career paths for historians and other Ph.D.'s in the humanities.

When I decided six years ago to create a Web site for historians looking for work outside of academe, I did so because of my own tortured career path.

After finishing a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1995, I took a postdoctoral job and then a tenure-track one in a place that is stunningly beautiful but thousands of miles from the region of the country that I love and where I wanted to live.

Teaching had its moments, but working with 18-to-21-year-old nonmajors—the overwhelming majority of whom were in my courses not because of a love of history but because of a university requirement—was fundamentally unsatisfying.

I spent four years in my tenure-track position, struggling much of the time with serious depression. In prioritizing an academic job over everything else, I had made a choice that led me to shortchange other important aspects of my life. Convinced that I was unqualified for any jobs outside of academe, I felt trapped. I could find no one, and nothing, to help me understand that I did indeed have options.

When I left academe, I did so blindly, jumping ship into what seemed like a deep and cold black ocean.

The shock was tremendous. I stupidly left academe without a plan and without a job. That was especially problematic because I was single. I had no health insurance, no income, no one else to support me, and no idea what I could do—or even if I could do anything. It took eight months of frantic searching before I found myself back on my feet, financially and professionally. It took an additional four months to repay the debt I had incurred during that period.

But I found a job that I came to love in a city where I had dreamed of living since I was 21. I was thrilled to find incredibly smart, well-rounded, and thoughtful people (one of whom became my husband) in diverse places outside of higher education.

Like many people who have left an unhappy job experience, I did not want to look back. But in 2004, I read David Hilfiker's book, Healing the Wounds, about his experiences as a physician. He had worried that his own depression might have twisted his perceptions of his profession. Ultimately, he had come to understand that his depression made him "inordinately sensitive to the stresses, pressures, and contradictions which are nonetheless real" in medicine.

By the time I established a new Web site for historians seeking advice on their nonacademic career options, I had been out of higher education for four years and had, by then, met a surprising number of Ph.D.'s in satisfying careers. Many of those Ph.D.'s confessed that they, too, had been deeply unhappy in academe. Our discussions clarified for me that my dissatisfaction with certain aspects of academic life was not unique.

Acquaintances began to steer unhappy graduate students and Ph.D.'s my way. Their stories varied. Some, like me, were deeply unhappy with academic work and life. Others were stymied by the abysmal market for tenure-track jobs. The vast majority of them had outstanding credentials: They had gone to top-ranked graduate programs, published and won awards, and were viewed by their advisers and peers as among the most promising scholars in their fields.

But here is what they were whispering to me: "I am unhappy," "This is not what I want to do," "This is not where I want to live," "I wake up depressed," "I hate teaching," "My spouse lives 1,500 miles away," or "I have no health insurance." They often asked, "Am I trapped?"

I thought that if I took what I had learned about the nonacademic job market and put it on a Web site, it might lessen the cold shock for others. That site, Beyond Academe, has changed over time as I have learned more from being on both sides of the hiring table.

Many Ph.D.'s are skittish about raising those issues with their advisers or department chairs. When I established Beyond Academe, I, too, thought long and hard about whether I should use my own name. I didn't want to damage my reputation with other historians.

In academe, despite the premium placed on freedom of speech, discussions about nonacademic careers, the job market, and other issues in academic culture are almost always done under a pseudonym. I understand how and why whistle-blowers prefer to be anonymous, but I also believe that there can be no change until people are willing to discuss, candidly and openly, the problems inherent for some in pursuing an academic career.

Because I love my profession and value the study of history, I would like to hope that now is the time to offer real solutions. The problems confronting graduate programs in the humanities have been decades in the making. Doing what others and I have done—providing job advice to Ph.D.'s pursuing nonacademic career tracks—is only a partial solution, if that. Calls to cut admissions to graduate programs are only a partial solution, too (and one that has been made before and ignored before, judging by the soaring numbers of both new Ph.D. programs and Ph.D.'s during the past 10 years).

On a very basic level, it is time to move away from some of the most pervasive myths perpetuated in graduate school about academe, about the people who leave academe, and about the world outside of the university. More frightening, several ugly realities about the structure of academe and the complexity of the abysmal academic job market need to be openly acknowledged: that obtaining a job is not always linked to one's abilities and skills; that even if you do find a tenure-track job and do brilliant work, you may not want an academic life; that using your history Ph.D. to pursue a nonacademic career is as productive a use of your degree as a teaching career.

Students need to understand that the university is not the only place where one can live the life of the mind. Believing that myth is what leads smart undergraduates to rush to graduate school and is what prevents doctoral students from exploring varied careers with an open mind. A good start would be to acknowledge that there are many ways to live the life of the mind, that nonacademic careers are so diverse as to defy simple characterizations, and that neither a Ph.D. nor an academic position are prerequisites to writing and publishing excellent scholarship.

After I left academe, I was embarrassed to realize how often I had overlooked the career paths of many writers and historians whose work I had admired. I think I ignored them because I needed to believe that the career choices I had made were part of being a good scholar.

But even as I told myself that, I assigned books written by nonacademics simply because they were the best available books on a particular topic. I used books written by nonacademic scholars for my own research, and I often found myself as impressed by the writing of journalists-turned-historians as I was by the work of my fellow academics, and sometimes more so. Finally, as a historian of medicine, I routinely encountered physicians whose nuanced understanding of the history and practice of medicine often rivaled and outstripped my own. That I was surprised by that revelation is part of the problem with academic culture.

Since I began my nonacademic career, I have been amused, but also dismayed, to encounter extraordinary vitriol from academics who insist that good scholarship cannot occur outside of academe, that historians working outside of higher education must be failed or mediocre scholar-teachers, and that a brilliant scholar will never decide, halfway through a graduate program or while in a tenure-track job, to leave academe. Those kinds of statements are ridiculous on their face; even cursory Internet research will reveal that Ph.D.'s from top universities can, and do, flourish outside of academe and write prize-winning books. And yet I still hear such remarks stated as fact.

It is troubling to realize that so many academics seem determined to create or, more simply, maintain an artificial wall between the academic and nonacademic worlds, even when it is against their interests to do so. Equally troubling is the passive acceptance, and even nurturing, of an academic culture that tells students that a lifetime of underemployment as an adjunct or an unhappy professor is preferable to—more honorable than—life as a nonacademic.

Forty years ago, David Lodge wryly pointed out that after investing in graduate school, American students come to believe that any career other than an academic one is "unthinkable." Lodge was writing at the tail end of one of the greatest expansions in higher education in American history. Today's graduate students are still being told, directly and indirectly, that any career other than an academic one is unthinkable. Unfortunately, the world has become much too complicated to sustain that myth, and many others, any longer.

Alexandra M. Lord left academe in 2000 for a position with the federal government. Since 2004, she has run Beyond Academe, a free Web site that helps historians find work outside of the academy.