Turning 'Plan B' Into a 'Plan A' Life

Brian Taylor

July 23, 2012

"Susan Ferber is executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press USA. Her list includes academic and trade titles on topics ranging from ancient history to contemporary history, many first books as well as works by senior scholars. Books she has edited have won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize, and five have become national best sellers. She also teaches at the book workshop of the Columbia Publishing Course."

That brief bio is the public record of my life. But it's a polished narrative, like my CV, and it strikes me that the true value in the continuing discussion about alternate career paths for historians lies in talking about what usually gets erased from such documents: the detours, wrong turns, time spent stuck in traffic, even the metaphorical car crashes.

To have that conversation involves telling the stories of our professional careers. So here's an excerpt from mine since it feels as though this is a fitting time for a confession: My entire career—to borrow from Jim Grossman and Tony Grafton's much-discussed article (published in Perspectives and in The Chronicle)—is a Plan B. Or, if I am really honest, it's a letter much further down the alphabet.

Perhaps no one who knows of me as an Oxford editor would think that is the case, but virtually everything in my life since my high-school graduation has been the result of not getting what I really wanted. To think about autobiography or personal history in a historical way, my life's course has been set by moments of contingency—when societal, economic, or familial forces collided with internal forces, usually despair, self-doubt, or personal rejection.

Without detailing what I really wanted, I will just say that I've come to appreciate that being No. 2 or lower on the hierarchy has made me who I am. That person is surely more resilient as a result, and there is extra sweetness in achieving what I have had to work hard to get. If one believes that larger forces are at work, my experiences could be a sign that someone or something knew me better than I knew myself, and that my Plan B should have been my Plan A all along, if only I had been perceptive enough to recognize it.

But all of that is very theoretical, and I was trained mainly as a social-cultural historian. So let me simply narrate how I got into academic publishing from a Ph.D. program in history. For the three years after my college graduation, I followed all the career-services advice: I did my share of information interviewing, shadowing, interning, more schooling, and standardized career testing. My test said my perfect career was as a nun, which wasn't all that helpful for someone who is Jewish.

I was sitting in the Rutgers University history department, the third Ph.D. program in history I had started. It had the No. 1 program in women's/gender history, one of my main fields. And I was miserable. In my alternate narrative, I would have been doing British history at Stanford University, where the sun always shines. Instead I was sitting in gray central New Jersey, in seminars where we constantly beat up on the books, as if they had no value, as if years had not gone into their making, with all the attendant sacrifices made by the authors and their families.

I felt as if I had no future. In British history, there was perhaps one position open a year at that point. I overprepared for teaching, and even then public speaking and the performative aspects of being in a classroom sent me into cold sweats. I had already tried multiple types of work—museum curatorial jobs, archival jobs, academic administration. All were and are valuable experiences, and satisfied some aspect of my personality, but for the most part they were low-paying, if they paid at all. Lacking a trust fund, I couldn't imagine supporting myself in those jobs or having much contemplative, reading time.

At the same time, my paternal grandmother fell ill and needed to be moved into assisted living. Not for the last time in my life, it seemed more important to do something to help my family than anything else. Six months later, my maternal grandmother needed to be moved from Florida and required round-the-clock care.

I became one of those boomerang kids who moved back to my childhood bedroom. I resigned my fellowship, didn't even take a leave of absence, as the director of graduate studies had suggested, and started applying for editorial assistant jobs in book publishing, figuring that I could get a job and, in the short term, help take care of my grandmothers. I had been a writing fellow in college but did not win one of the very competitive summer publishing internships. Still, I had gotten into multiple top graduate programs, I'd held jobs before, and I thought it wouldn't be too hard.

For 10 months I interviewed with human-resource departments at various New York publishing houses. I wanted to work in literary fiction, far from history, since I was so burnt out on the field by that point. As the months went on, I would have done anything, especially after being repeatedly told that I had come in second for entry-level positions that went to people who had held those summer internships.

I knew that my future couldn't be caring for octogenarian relatives, baking, embroidering, reading novels, and watching movies. And I was so ashamed that my friends were all successfully pursuing their careers when I didn't even want to get out of bed in the morning.

Even though I wanted to work at a commercial house, I began applying to university presses. Having studied Latin and literature for years, I wrote a bang-up cover letter for an editorial assistant's job in literature and classical studies at Oxford University Press but never even got an interview.

Two months later, another position as an editorial assistant opened up at Oxford, this one in history, law, and politics. I got called for an interview. The editor appeared to be about 21, but the interview went well, and I got the offer. Figuring it was better not to appear desperate, I asked for 24 hours to decide. I tried to negotiate a salary increase because I thought years of graduate school should count for something. My starting salary went from $20,000 to $20,500. That's what the sum total of my graduate education in history counted for: $500.

It turned out to be the best job in the world for me, because editorial work is an apprenticeship, and I had a wonderful mentor, Thomas LeBien. At the time, he told the other editors he had hired me because of my very neat handwriting and because I had cataloged hundreds of hats for a museum without pay. Now he tells me that I was so hungry to get into publishing, he knew I'd make his life easier.

The hours were long, and many Fridays I was still in the office at 9 p.m. Still, I loved being an editorial assistant. The work had meaning. I was reading broadly across subfields, getting a rare bird's-eye view of history rather than focusing on a single topic deeply and alone in the archives. I was thinking about how to shape prose more effectively, how to model different narrative structures to best present content. I was learning about markets and audiences, budgets and production, as well as how to communicate with authors and the media, how decisions are made about which books to pursue and which to reject, and how an editor puts pencil to paper to improve a manuscript. (Yes, I still put pencil to paper.)

I had erroneously assumed that editors spend most of their time editing manuscripts. Given all the mystery and glamour swirling around the publishing industry in New York, being an editorial assistant gave me the opportunity to learn what the industry was fully about, and to do so alongside interesting and intellectually challenging co-workers, especially my fellow editorial assistants.

Temperamentally, it turns out, I am better suited to helping other people improve their writing, and to quietly adding value to a broad variety of works written by brilliant historians, than to being an academic historian myself.

In retrospect, I am glad I listened to an inner voice that was telling me that, however ideal my graduate-school situation, I didn't have to be miserable finishing a degree just because I'd started it and everyone expected me to finish. For an overachiever who had graduated from high school at 15, quit very few things, and always tended to just bear down and work harder, it was a relief to walk away from my doctoral program and not know exactly what would happen next.

Looking back, it was by no means a given that my gamble would pay off. When I became an editor, less than two years after getting into publishing, the promotion was triggered by a set of circumstances that most people would chalk up to luck or being in the right place at the right time.

Thinking back on the ups and downs of my career and life in my 20s and 30s, I often think about a quote from Michael Cunningham's The Hours: "We throw our parties; ... we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it's as simple and ordinary as that. ... There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more."

I hope that the graduate students reading this find something to do in life that allows them to make the most of those hours. For me, that turned out to be a life in publishing. Becoming an editor enabled me to match my introverted bookworm self with a career in which I am always learning and meeting professional researchers and storytellers. The work is challenging and many days overwhelming, but I am never bored. Making books is about far more than words on a page; it's about engaging readers through the printed word and working one-on-one with authors to realize their personal and professional dreams. It is about, as E.M. Forster urges, achieving the goal of getting writer and reader to "only connect."

For some, those hours are best achieved in a tenure-track job in academe. But if that is not the case for you, know that, even for academics who have spent their entire lives in school, life is full of options across the spectrum of the alphabet and of unknown futures filled with immense possibility. No more Plan B, indeed.

Susan Ferber is executive editor for American and world history at Oxford University Press USA. This column is adapted from a talk she gave in March at Temple University.