Dead academic walking

I started writing this post near the end of April. The fact that it’s taken me nearly a year to finish it isn’t due to writer’s block in any normal sense. It’s because what I’m writing here is the obituary of my academic career, and it’s always tempting to tell myself that it’s not really dead yet. But I might as well admit it, since the facts bear it out. In the last four years (since near the end of my PhD), I’ve applied for nearly 50 lecturing/fellowship jobs, I’ve had 3 interviews, no offers. My total income from part-time teaching (for the whole period) has been under 4000 GBP. I can see no point in carrying on trying to become an academic.

I’m sure there will be readers (particularly from the US) who have applied for more jobs and tell me to keep on soldiering on (I’m aware of how many applications are required in the US system). The problem is that it’s taken me 4 years already to accumulate this many applications. Yes, there have been jobs I haven’t applied for, but there just aren’t the same number of jobs going a year that there are in a much bigger university system. To accumulate another 50 or 100 applications, unless I apply for things for which I have no chance, would take years.

But the real reason for stopping applying is simpler: I have lost my belief that I can get an academic job. To apply for a post when you no longer have faith that you might, just possibly, get the job, is futile in itself. If you can no longer believe in yourself, if only for the hours required to fill in the application, you are not likely to be able to convince the person reading the application.

What I have found particularly damaging to my morale was how personal the procedure was. When I applied for library jobs I was almost always up against a sea of anonymous candidates. When I applied for jobs as a medieval historian I was competing with my friends and acquaintances: there were occasions when the first time I know I haven’t been shortlisted for a job is having to congratulate the friend who got it. When I saw my friends (with less or the same experience) getting interviews that I didn’t, it was hard to keep my belief in myself.

Instead, I am now applying for jobs as a professional librarian, the job I did before my PhD. I haven’t got a job yet, but I have had several interviews: sooner or later, one will work out and I will be employed again. It is trickier, because I want to get something part-time so I can still look after L and do some research, and so it may not be soon, but I am confident that I can find something.

At this point a sensible person would put the past behind them and not dwell on my lack of success. I am, however, a historian (even if no longer a professional one). How can I not look back at a past event, analyse the reasons for the outcome and try and decide if my failure was or was not inevitable?

One obvious answer to why I failed is that I was simply not good enough to make it in a competitive job market. All I can say is that my PhD supervisor (an expert in the field) thought I was good enough and I’ve had positive comments from other academics. I don’t think I’m in the very top flight of early medieval historians (as some of my friends are), but I’m not obviously unsuitable for a lecturing post. There are people with more publications than me, but there are people who have got permanent posts with less published than I have (admittedly, those are usually those with exceptional promise). I haven’t got an enormous amount of teaching experience (and I would see myself as a competent rather than inspired teacher), but in the UK decisions on jobs for medievalists aren’t normally made primarily based on teaching ability.

What other reasons are there for my lack of success? I don’t have a brilliant interview technique, but since most of the time I wasn’t even getting interviews, that can’t be the key factor. I’m fairly confident that my application forms were good: I have a lot of experience from applying for library jobs on how to read and advert and slant a reply to show that you meet their requirements. What I’m less sure about is whether my application strategy was correct. Looking back, there were probably some jobs I should have applied for that I didn’t. In particular, I’ve found it very hard to know when it’s best to apply for a job and whether a job is suitable. Because there is no proper career path for academics in the UK, you can have quite senior academics competing for posts alongside new PhDs. Similarly, I possibly applied for Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships at the wrong stage, before I had my PhD, rather than after. And yet I know people who got JRFs at that stage. Should I have tried applying to the British Academy several years running, when I’d been shortlisted the first time? Or would I just have been wasting my time (and, even more significantly the time and goodwill of my referees?)

Possibly then, there is a simple explanation for my lack of success: that I needed a superb strategy to make up for my weaknesses as an applicant, and I didn’t have that. But lurking unanswered there is always the question: was I really getting turned down partly because of my background and circumstances? Because I did my PhD as a mature student and I was a mother?

There’s no question that trying to make an academic career with a small child has often felt like working with one hand tied behind my back. I couldn’t get to as many seminars once I had to arrange childcare. I couldn’t just pack up and take a six month temporary contract in St Andrews, or even do tutorials in London without working out whether the child care costs would swallow all my fee. I’ve spent hours that could have been used for writing articles discussing My Little Ponies or walking to and from school.

When I am being interviewed for library posts or in general conversation, I often find people impressed that my first degree was in mathematics rather than history, and that I did my PhD part-time while looking after L (completing it within six years, whereas full-timers often take four years). To them it shows versatility and dedication to my research, as well as time management skills. To academics reading my application to be a lecturer, however, was this taken into consideration or was it even seen negatively? If I have not always been a historian and nothing but a historian, am I truly committed? Wouldn’t they be better off with someone who’s gone straight from first degree in history to a full-time PhD, a normal candidate?

I can’t know whether such views existed, but there are times when I’ve had my suspicions. When Christ’s College Cambridge refused me permission to apply for a JRF because I was above their age limit; when other Oxbridge colleges refer only to how much full-time experience a candidate may have or require you to prove that you have not been researching since you took your first degree, it’s hard not to wonder. The giving of JRFs does seem to be biased towards those who have done their PhDs at Oxbridge, which is not normally possible for those who need or want to do their PhD part-time. This is particularly significant because the JRFs are an important stepping stone for many people onto the academic ladder, giving them paid time to concentrate on their research and publishing at an early stage in their career.

It’s the possibility that this is going on (and I haven’t seen many medievalists get permanent jobs who haven’t had this kind of ‘conventional’ career) that gives a wider significance to my case (and what good, after all, is a case study of an individual unless it has wider significance?) If I personally don’t have an academic career, it’s not a major loss to medieval studies (especially as I may be able to continue as an independent scholar). If people like me are systematically excluded from the academy, that is a loss to the profession. The end result may well be a narrowly-defined class of medievalists with little experience of the outside world; that is not conducive to developing truly original scholarship.


23 thoughts on “Dead academic walking

  1. Magistra,

    I have no words of wisdom. I can only say that I understand how you feel, because I’m going through the same thing myself. This is my fourth year on the market over here, and while I did get a few interviews, nothing solidified. Now I’m finished and i was told that the number of interviews for someone like me would increase exponentially now that I was done. I actually have no interviews for this cycle. Meanwhile, friends and acquaintances in the field rack up the number of interviews with less published, less involvement in the field, fewer classes taught…and like you I ask about whether my failure is because I wasn’t an English major as my first degree, or is it my age, or is it that I’ve taught odd ball courses like Cowboy Poetry, did Academic Computing for awhile before getting a PhD…….but I too confess that I’m quickly losing faith. More than you wanted to know about me, and more than anyone reading the comments wants to know.

    Point is, I understand. I can only offer condolences and support. I do hope in spite of it though that you will keep posting your blog and keep publishing…..In spite of the job market, you’re good at this and please don’t rob us of good, solid scholarship.


  2. Sorry about all this. Now having been on the other side of the job search (albeit in the US), I sometimes wonder how ANYONE gets a job. The things search committees/ departments look for are oftentimes so odd and idiosyncratic that it’s a total crapshoot. Sometimes, people are looking for newbies, sometimes for more experience. You just never know…


    • Absolutely correct. Many many more applicants than positions, so even after a quick excision of the obviously unqualified, the committee still has way too many “possibles” to shortlist, too many to read through carefully. (Not like – I am told – the old days, when one simply had to ask around on the Old Boy Network for the name[s] of the rising star[s] of the next generation, who would obviously have come from OBN programs.)

      So one finds oneself looking for ways to trim the list, and any variation from the “norm” is a potential excuse. S/he’s too old, not specializing in the right century/theme, too narrow, too broad; if s/he’s so popular with students s/he’s probably marking too easy and ignoring his/her research; doesn’t speak the right languages; may have trouble adjusting to this society [I taught in Hong Kong]; what bad habits did s/he pick up in the military or the corporate world?; etc.

      Certainly age and parenthood could and probably do, apply here, if not gender directly. (And a mother’s parenthood is taken much more seriously – and thus problematically – than is a father’s. The unspoken assumption is that if a crisis, or even an “issue,” develops with the child[ren], SHE will have to take care of it.)

      The department wants young [cheap] scholars with lots of “upside” – the potential of becoming a research *S*T*A*R* and/or years and years and years of being exploited to teach courses that *S*T*A*R*S* cannot be bothered to. And no distractions.

      Thus the “shortlist” is trimmed to manageable proportions, and a somewhat more focused and serious process of decision-making begins. But if you didn’t make that first cut, for whatever reason . . . Alas!

      Matt Gabriele is also correct in calling the process “idiosyncratic,” however, which means that sometime it might work in your favor, or at least not against you. Whether it is worth your while to continue to apply, or to recommence (as someone suggested elsewhere) when you have more of your research in print remains, of course, your personal choice, and no one will (or should) fault that choice.


      • The other thing, I suspect, is that there is increasingly a tendency in appointments to go for the safe option. (The equivalent of what’s probably now an obsolete slogan ‘no-one ever got fired for buying IBM’). If you select the wrong person (as sometimes you invariably do), then you are likely to get more flak if they were the person from the University of Wyoming/who works on medieval disability/who used to be a fire-eater etc than if they were from Princeton/working on charters/always been an academic etc. You should have foreseen that the unconventional person wouldn’t have worked out; you couldn’t have foreseen that the conventional one wouldn’t.

        As for the Old Boy Network, paradoxically, it may have been easier in some ways to get a more diverse set of academics under that system. It is harder to get into the key places at the start (the right university, the right tutor), but once you’re in the inner circle, you’re accepted and your career looked after. There are some very distinguished medieval historians of an earlier generation who never got their doctorates, for example, or came from poor backgrounds (or further back, were Jewish refugees). I also have the anecdotal impression that it may have been easier for female academics with families a generation ago than it is today. Given that my PhD supervisor is someone very prominent in the field, I might actually have done better if more string-pulling was still going on.


  3. Magistra, you know I know what you mean. The only thing that keeps me hanging in at the moment is that when I finally have stuff in the print pipeline (though when it actually comes out, who knows…) it seems like a silly time to stop; in other respects, right down to the childcare (but with Star Wars for My Little Pony), I could add up my logic the same way as you do. I do agree that there is this golden path, M.Phil. to Ph.D. to JRF arranged in final year to Temp. Lecturer to permanent, and anyone who’s dropped off that has a lot of explaining to do. Which would be fine—well, no it would be acceptable with gritted teeth—if one were ever asked to account for this, rather than just having to suspect that it’s being used as a reason to weed the pool by selection committees, one might be able to do so. As it is, the golden children have the field to themselves. And if it isn’t like that, well it darn well looks and feels like it from outside. There are so few jobs that the profession can afford to take only the utterly dedicated these days.


    • Drat. What I was going to add to that before my bile overran was, you also have stuff coming into print, while I agree that right now a job of any kind is better than fruitless applications (and may even look better on a future CV) once you have stuff with your name on it on shelves your name will be known and your hat may be back in the ring if you then want to throw it there.


  4. I read your post a few days ago and as I don’t really know much about jobs in academia, I thought it best not to post anything. However, it’s been on my mind since then, so here I am. I’m not an academic, i’m an undergraduate student hoping to go on and do a PhD, and possibly go into an academic job from there. Your post made my heart sink, i’ll not lie; I knew it was a competitive job market, but I didn’t think it was as bad as all that.

    Having read your posts for a few months now, I have a good-ish idea what you’re researching and about your ideas, and what i’ve read has been really good! Okay, an undergraduate saying, “that’s grand” isn’t quite the words of wisdom from a professor emeritus; but your posts make me think about things in a new light. Inspiriation and fresh intellectual ideas are what undergraduates want.

    Please don’t give up. I’m aure your job will come along soon.



    • Dear HM,

      Thanks for your comments. I’m sorry if I’ve made your heart sink about the prospects for jobs. I didn’t realise myself that getting the funding for the PhD and doing it was in some ways the easy bit 🙂 It’s very hard to get accurate figures on this: the AHRC has a study on the outcomes for the PhD students that it’s funded, with more optimistic figures for success in getting academic posts, but that’s not just history, let alone medieval history. (I plan to post about the current whereabouts of my MPhil class soon for some more case studies of medievalists).

      On a practical level, if you want to be a medievalist, then in this country there are more jobs going teaching late medieval history than early medieval history and more teaching English history than European. I have the triple disadvantage in terms of my PhD of being a specialist in early medieval European history and a topic (gender history) that can all too easily be regarded as flaky by the more reactionary universities. But in the end you have to research what you burningly desire to research and there’s no point picking a research topic that doesn’t inspire you just because there are possible jobs at the end of it.

      The other thing is that you need both persistence and more favourable personal circumstances than I have. My sense is that if you hang in there long enough and are willing to take anything and go anywhere you can eventually get an academic post. A fellow early medievalist has just got a five year research post in Germany after three years in temporary teaching all over the UK (at one point simultaneously in London and Lancaster, I think). But you need to be able to live with that kind of uncertainty about your future and low salary and have the energy to combine teaching with publishing and a lot of people understandably bail out (as I’m doing).

      I think my personal advice to anyone thinking about doing a PhD as a medievalist is that they should have a break after the first degree (or the masters) and get a ‘real job’ for a year or two (not longer, or it might look bad on the CV). This teaches useful skills about time management and so on, and it also shows you whether you’ve really got a burning desire to do medieval history and wouldn’t be happy doing anything else or whether you’re just sliding down the academic route without thinking about it. (But then, before taking my advice remember I haven’t been very successful: maybe you should take the advice of readers of this blog who’ve actually got jobs!)


    • It is especially bad at the moment. One thing that worries me particularly is that we’ve seen people lately be following the correct path, JRF, temporary lectureship… and then there be no jobs to go to. People who were making a living doing temporary fill-in teaching at their postgrad alma mater as so many of us do have been landing their temporary posts, holding together departments in dire straits, and then been chucked back out on their ear and gone back to where they were before they got on the ladder. If that was happening four years ago (when I started applying for things) I didn’t see it; once one had one of those posts one seemed to be on the way. No longer. When this starts happening to people with books out as well, then I shall know there’s no way…


    • HM: I’ll tell you what finally decided me to take the jump: I have *NO* chance at an academic job without a PhD. I at least have a chance with one. I may not get one, but I at least have a chance.


      • Larry, you actually have something distinct in your favour in as much as anyone who is aware of The Heroic Age will also be aware of what efforts you’ve made to keep it afloat and expand its rôle in early medieval studies, though it would be easy for the outdated and chauvinistic to use that as a reason to consider you somehow trivial. However, your online profile generally indicates not only that you are a scholar capable of serious detail work but also of hard work, coordination of others and a commitment to informing the public. In some places that will count for you lots I’d guess. But yes: everyone and his dog these days has a doctorate, and more keep coming on-stream. Sooner or later we’ll all need that distinction, be it a book, a journal, a conference strand… and that sooner may already be here.


  5. As noted elsewhere, I too gave up on the academic market so I… well, “feel your pain” is probably overstrong, but empathize with your situation is probably right. Of course, my parameters were somewhat different than yours — in the US looking for math jobs with a heavy element of teaching — but the upshot was the same.

    In my case, I think there are several reasons why I didn’t get hired. I didn’t go to enough conferences, I didn’t have enough publications, I started the hiring process late and — most damning of all — I didn’t go to the General Meeting of the American Mathematical Society and therefore missed out on a (quite literally) priceless opportunity to schmooze my prospective interviewers. I was so far outside the Old Boy network it wasn’t even funny. Ironically, this actually strengthened my case at the two jobs I most wanted: teaching-oriented positions that welcomed the diversity of my experience over the laser-like focus of some of my competitors. Ironicallier, this also proved my undoing; it got my foot in the door just enough for those who wanted someone more one-dimensional to blacklist me.

    [This latter, btw, isn’t just paranoia talking. One of my best friends was proximate to the hiring committee at one of my desired locations.]

    The reason I bring all this up, though, is that while I got off ok, my girlfriend and her cohort — first and second years in grad school — are getting burned even more badly. Our department was once a relative haven in which one could explore the various disciplines in mathematics and pick one’s specialty from there. This in turn meant that we could, and did, produce excellent students (and some crappier ones like me) in fields that one could not do straight from undergrad: logic, topology and analysis. Due to budget cuts and personnel changes, however, the department has become more and more focussed on those disciplines that one can prepare for since birth, primarily number theory. The upshot is that anyone who isn’t in this new Chosen Field is out in the cold, with all the attendant meanness that this kind of poverty can bring.

    [In case you think I’m kidding, btw, one of the new first years in my department was recruited for her eventual PhD when she was 16. She was working continuously with one of our professors for six years before she came to our department. Strangely, upon entry, her funding will be assured until such time as she graduates, whereupon her postdoctorate position will be assured. Nothing against her, but you cannot imagine the resentment this breeds, especially given the budget cuts that have ravaged the rest of the department.]

    The reason I mention this is: the job market in the US right now is like that, only worse. I, who was so cavalier about applying to jobs, still applied to 50; one of my friends applied to over 170. Since everyone is applying, real interviews are harder and harder to come by and more and more determined by chance. As dr ngo said above, they have to make cuts somehow, and they become increasingly… it’s not arbitrary, exactly, because the end result is so predictable, but “locally arbitrary”. You spent a few years as a mother? That’s a great personal story but it detracts from your academic potential, black mark. I spent a few years as a bartender and several more being sick? Another great story, but there are questions there so black mark. And so forth.

    The realization I came to at the end of my PhD consisted of three major parts. First, my department had become so unspeakably poisonous by that time — especially for those of us who were old enough to remember the (genuinely) Good Ol’ Days — that I didn’t want to have anything to do with that brand of academia ever again. Second, I lacked the kind of internal drive to pursue research despite the complete and utter indifference of my peers to my research, and I only found a support network far too late to be of any use.

    [Not at all funny aside: while I think my advisor might have noticed if I were to have died, I doubt he would have noticed if I simply disappeared. That’s not a joke.]

    But thirdly, and this is what I think is relevant to your decision: because I had not been focussed on my PhD since high school, I could not compete on an increasingly paranoid job market. With too many applicants and too many budget cuts, they had to make the safe choice — and I would never be safe. Looked at another way, I was being punished for choices I had made, and for things that had happened to me, decades before… and there was nothing I could do to change anyone’s mind about it.

    Unto which I said: f*** that.

    I’m not a huge fan of industry or the private sector — particularly this whole “you have to be at work on time” BS, I mean really — but it has two major things going for it that academia, alas, does not: my experience is a positive, not a negative; and the diversity of my background and my skillset strengthens my case instead of harming it. I love teaching with all my heart and may go back to it one day but for now, ’tis a developer’s life for me.

    And that sucks, but it’s also OK, and that’s all I can ask.


  6. Wow.

    One question that occurred to me as I was reading this, and in particular the parts in which you wondered whether you should have done things differently, was: where were the professors at your doctoral program who should have given you professional advice of just this kind? I normally think of that as one of my obligations as a teacher, and (more to the point) so do most professors I know. Moreover, even when someone is not that good at it (I’m not), there’s usually someone in the department who is, to whom people refer their students for good professional advice. If you didn’t get that, it’s a real pity.

    At least in philosophy, things were absolutely even worse back in the days of the good old boys’ network. My mom got precisely no help looking for jobs: she did the whole thing herself. At the time, there was no centralized way of looking for jobs, so that was much more significant — nowadays, “doing it yourself” would just mean (in philosophy) getting the APA’s “Jobs for Philosophers”, putting your own dossier together, and sending it out. Then, it meant everything.

    Alice Koller, who I don’t know personally, went through the same PhD program as Mom and I, around a decade before my mom, and writes that at a party after commencement in June, when she got her PhD, she asked her advisor (I think) how to get a job. Of course, the time to get jobs was six or so months before. No one had mentioned that fact to her.

    I do not normally leap to conclusions about sexism, but I do not think that the fact that she and Mom were both female is a coincidence, here.

    The philosophy job market goes through the American Philosophical Association precisely so as not to make everything depend on people calling people up. They still do call people up, but the existence of a regular path through which even Golden Children must pass makes a big difference, I think.

    Btw, Koller’s book is a good one for academics bailing on the business. Especially if you’re in the sort of mood where the knowledge that things could be, and were, even worse than you’ve imagined, interests you.

    But this sucks. I’m sorry.


    • There is no centralised way of looking for jobs in the UK system, but I was not entirely on my own. I got help from my supervisor on drafting statements of proposed research, possible courses to suggest teaching, insights into particular universities etc. And there were career advisors at my university who could give more general advice on transferable skills, filling in application forms etc (though I didn’t really need much of this, with my prior experience in the workplace).

      The problem wasn’t with applying for lecturing jobs, where it’s moderately clear what they want: it was the pure research fellowships. And the problem there is that they are pretty much black boxes. Hundreds of historians researching all periods apply (and sometimes there are ones for all humanities), a handful are shortlisted, one or two are chosen. The requirements given in advance are vague and you almost certainly won’t get feedback other than the most general. All you can do is try and deduce from the meagre evidence what such fellowships might be wanting. And it’s tempting to start constantly speculating that maybe if you just did something slightly differently, you would have got further.

      My supervisor tended to work on the assumption that if you were good enough people would recognise it (which may well have been true for really outstanding candidates like she had once been, but not necessarily so for the non-brilliant among us). Maybe that meant she was less good at demonstrating to her students how they could gain an edge in applying for such posts, but I don’t know whether there actually was inside information that could have improved my chances. It’s all at the level where you can make hypotheses, but without the evidential basis to support them.

      As for things having been once been worse, let’s stick to the long term view. 150 years ago, I couldn’t have gone to university, since I was a woman; 1000 years ago I couldn’t have gone to university because they hadn’t been developed. 1500 years ago, if I was in Britain, I probably wouldn’t have been able to read or write. So yes, things are definitely on an upward trend.


  7. I’m very sorry to read this Magistra. All I know is that the job market seems to involve a tremendous amount of luck and being in the right place and the right time. I have no idea why one person gets a job and another doesn’t. Some of the things I have found dispiriting are the lack of openness, courtesy and respect in the whole process, and like you, I hate being in competition with my friends (though those same friends make medieval history a rewarding place to be). Whatever happens next, I hope you find the time to carry on with your work.


  8. “One obvious answer to why I failed is that I was simply not good enough to make it in a competitive job market.”

    Dear Magistra,

    Checking ObWi one last time before turning in on what has been a pleasant Christmas Eve — well, now Christmas — I don’t know what made me click on your name in the “Season’s Greetings” thread for the first time but I am glad I did and got the chance to read your painfully well-written piece.

    Being the furthest thing from an academic in my 46 years, I would not pretend to know where to start in giving you advice. However, I must say you seem much too hard on yourself.

    Life is so much about luck. And circumstances. And timing — you know, being at the right place at the right time. It’s often not about what is fair or determination or perseverance, of which, it is clear, you have plenty.

    Defeat can sap the life out of us when something matters so dear — the worst part, I think, is how it can wipe the passion right out of a person’s fiber.

    When I graduated from J-school in 1984, I had hopes of writing at a big newspaper someday and was lucky enough land at small daily near Allentown, Pa., just a few months after graduation; whereas my dear, dear roommate of four years — to that point the most loyal and dedicated person I had ever met — never did land a spot at a newspaper, period, other than doing some part-time work. Eventually, after a couple years, he gave up the idea of being a journalist all together and has followed in father’s footsteps as a principal near his very own high shool outside of Pittsburgh, Pa., where we went to school.

    It turned out to be best for Bob, who I always thought was much too good a guy for the rough-and-tumble, cut-throat world of the newspaper business, while he had the perfect, trusting, caring demeanor to guide our youth.

    Me? I bled newsprint from the time I got my first newspaper route and fondly recall making a mere $17,000 for covering sports right out of high school. It was never about the money. But when I moved to my second newspaper and got an occasional taste of the big-time, covering pro sports, I wanted in and advanced to covering them on a full-time basis, the big fish in a little pond as a featured columnist for a suburban daily in South Jersey, right out side of Philadelphia.

    Almost two decades passed — and I was at the same paper. I had gotten complacent and, as such, did not want to take a job outside of the Philadelphia region where I grew up. And then somewhere along the line, being the big fish in the little pond — never making more than $35,000 (it was never about the money) — grew old. Or something. I don’t know exactly, I do know I had lost my passion for covering sports, stayed in it a year or two too long until, one June afternoon in 1999 afer filing a baseball story, I told my editor, “That’s it. I’m done.” And I’ve never really looked back.

    An incident in 1997 crushed me. It looked like my big chance had arrived at a paper three or four times the size of mine. A friend worked there and recommended me for the job, and the managing editor and I hit it off. I thought it was mine, until I got a call from the M.E. who could not stop apologizing about “politics” dictating he had to hire someone else and, as he put it, the newspaper business he had grown up in and loved had reached a point where the best man for the job was not always the one he could hire.

    I never was the same after that, feeling betrayed my a business that I, too, had grown up in and loved — and I am pretty good at holding a grudge, although I am over that now, as my defense of the mainstream media over at ObWi should show.

    People often ask me if I miss covering sports for a living — being a lowly car salesman now in their eyes, I suppose — and they are usually incredulous when I say no.

    But I’ve followed my path and I can’t say I have any regrets. Sure, I could have moved to Austin, Texas, or Seattle, Wash., and got a better taste of the big time. But then I probably would have missed out on meeting my wife and, now, raising our son.

    I hope there is a nugget of something in there that can help you in some small way. Again, I haven’t a clue as to how things work in academia, but it seems like you have qualities someone, somewhere would want: the response to this post shows that.

    All I can offer you is my best.




  9. bedtimefor bonzo,

    Thanks for your gracious comments. To explain a bit: when I said that I think maybe I’m not good enough, I ‘m not denying the role of luck. But there is a sense in which it’s possible to make your own luck (the more you practice, the luckier you get). There are some historians I’ve known who are so clever that things just seem to arrange themselves around them. The rest of us may be very good, but the field is so competitive that’s not always enough if the breaks aren’t there. I think I’m good enough to be a lecturer, but I’m not sure that I’m good enough to make a university feel they have to have me and they will accept no substitute.

    I think what hearing other people’s career stories does do (and thanks for sharing yours) is remind me of what it’s easy to forget in the heat of the moment: that most people’s careers aren’t a single-minded striving for the top and that it’s no shame to make trade-offs. It’s easy to start thinking that all that matters is career success, and society’s obsession with status feeds that, but not everyone can get the prestigious jobs. And maybe, like yourself, even those who have had them can get disillusioned with them. I can’t entirely shake the urge for status, though: I somehow feel better as an unemployed historian than an unemployed librarian.

    I have to keep trying to find a way to value my own work as a historian (which will continue) without envying or denigrating the work of other, more successful historians, because that would damage myself far more severely. It’s a matter of striving for absolute quality in one’s work (doing the best one can), while trying to avoid discussions of relative quality (what the world thinks or what others do). Or as George Herbert puts it in one poem (The Elixir):

    All may of Thee partake
    Nothing can be so mean
    Which with his tincture, ‘for Thy sake,’
    Will not grow bright and clean.

    A servant with this clause
    Makes drudgery divine:
    Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws
    Makes that and th’ action fine.

    (Although I should add, as a cynical historian, that I’m not sure how many rooms George Herbert personally swept before writing this).


  10. “(Although I should add, as a cynical historian, that I’m not sure how many rooms George Herbert personally swept before writing this).”

    Or, how many diapers Th. Mommsen had to change while looking for a permanent position (as I used to wonder — answer almost certainly “zero”).


  11. I started answering this at the last post, but I guess I have more to say. I think you and Jon are right in that there seems to be a much more strictly prescribed career path in the UK. The sad thing is that some of the things that you and Jon have had to deal with are things that can sometimes be considered strengths over here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain why it took me as long as it did to finish my thesis (a scary amount of time). And there’s no question that the fits and starts of my academic career, and my lack of publications, have hurt my long-term prospects. I’ll never have a job in the UK, which was a dream for many years. Hell, it’s unlikely I’ll ever teach a postgraduate course, although perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to be an external reader for some bright young thing.

    But the thing is, over here, it’s possible. I’m so sorry that it seems not to be over there. I certainly wouldn’t ever think it’s because you aren’t good enough, though. You and Jon blow me away with how much you know, and the kinds of specialised information that you can summon into simple blog conversations. There are definitely people who aren’t as good who have jobs, and people who are even better who still can’t get them. And at the moment, I know several very good medievalists who have been employed in decent to Very Good jobs who are leaving the field entirely. Matt’s right — a lot of it is a crapshoot. I think the people who really suck don’t get hired, but otherwise, I can’t explain it. It’s just a damned shame is all.


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