I have this really bad habit of giving people who are doing a PhD in history unsolicited advice. Especially if they tell me they want a job in academia (which is what the rest of this post is about).
In my defence, I don’t offer my uninvited advice because I think I have all the answers, or know best, or anything like that.
In fact, I think of it as kind of anti-advice.
When I was finishing my PhD, I had a lot of advice along the lines of (for instance):
– “Don’t apply for that job, you won’t be shortlisted.”
– “There’s no need to prepare anything special for an interview.”
– “Don’t waste time with social media and blogging.”
I could go on.
What it took me a long time to realize is that the advice that other academics give to early-career researchers is not bad in itself. It just has this tendency to be very idiosyncratic. When asked for advice (or when offering it unprompted!) academics have a tendency to generalise their own experiences.
If social media is irrelevant to how their career has progressed, of course they will be dismissive. If they did a PhD in three years, went straight into a postdoc, and then into a permanent job, they will see that as somehow ‘normal’.
And of course the problem is that norms have changed really quite quickly in the job market for historians, as Brodie Waddell’s recent attempts at quantification have outlined.
A great many aspiring historians now spend a great deal longer on temporary, and even part-time contracts, forced to juggle different responsibilities at different institutions, and constantly re-applying for positions as they go.
But my point about anti-advice is a slightly broader one.
I would advise all students who want a career as an academic to take what other academics tell them with a pinch of salt.
Pretty much the only thing I have seen consistently valued by hiring committees and my colleagues are publications. Do you have a good journal article? Is it based on fairly extensive empirical research? Is it in a history journal? Even better, is it in a ‘top’ journal (and we could debate how we judge that)?
And even this is not universal. The Oxbridge JRFs (which I will freely admit are hardly the best benchmark for measuring how hiring procedures work) are notoriously fickle when it comes to publications. Some now seem to prefer candidates with a track record, while others seem to favour an old-school (sic?) model of nurturing minds of the future before they have published their first work.
More broadly, I know of a few permanent jobs that have gone to people without the sacred monograph. (Myself included).
So much for anti-advice: do I have anything positive to say?
Without getting sucked into the relentlessly optimistic language of self-determination and fulfilment, I do tend to think (based of course on my own experiences) that one of the most important things you can do if you are job hunting is focus on what makes you happy.
Jobs are important. Many of us who recently graduated from doctorates are simply struggling to make ends meet.
But don’t make the job the be all and end all.
The reasons I found academia so appealing have to do with intellectual curiosity, freedom, community, and learning. And when I was job hunting, I sometimes felt that a lot of those aspects faded to the back of my consciousness. I developed a certain amount of cynicism about how hiring works, and while I still think that cynicism was largely well-founded, this feeling has stuck with me that it was a damaging experience.
I love my research, even though it’s a topic that sometime other people sneer at.
I like social media: I think it contributes to my career, and I find it useful.
I applied for jobs people told me I would never get. And I got some of them.
My advice: do the stuff you love, and focus on getting the job you really want.
Yes, it will suck sometimes. You may well wonder if it is worth going on in academia. You may even decide it isn’t. But you know what the worst thing would be? To spend all those years struggling to get an academic job, only to realise you’ve had to sacrifice all the things that made that important to you, and ended up doing research, teaching, and other kinds of work that weren’t even what you set out to do.