Monday, November 28, 2011

No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions

My recent post, Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor, was far more widely read than anything I have posted before (27,000 page views and counting). It provoked considerable discussion--not only in the comments section of this blog but also on Twitter, Facebook, and other blogs. Some excellent points were made and I thought I should address them in one place. Reactions fell into a few broad categories:

What, this again?

Yeah I heard that one before
Brian Sarnacki tweeted "Not sure the world needs another "don't go to grad school" article, but if it does here's one from @larrycebula..." Others pointed out that all of my points had been made before, with the best known examples being Thomas Benton's essay Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go. I pretty much agree with this criticism. In fact I keep a few copies of Benton's essays in my desk to share with students contemplating a PhD. So why another "don't go to grad school" article? I guess because I feel like the situation is even worse than Benton and other have presented, and because my students need the reminder.

"stark but truthful picture of the higher education job market"

The bulk of the reactions were similar to the above comment from Ted Schwab. An old friend from grad school emailed to say that her program had added the post to the assigned readings for incoming MA students. Digital history guru Dan Cohen called it "depressing but sage advice." Thanks, guys.

The Opportunity Costs Debate

I was properly called out for my offhand remark that the opportunity costs of a humanities PhD are "over a million dollars." I should admit this was a wild guesstimate on my part--but I am not sure I was wrong. In a thoughtful reply to my post, Sean Takats calculated his own opportunity cost. Takats gave up a well-paid job at IBM to pursue a history Ph.D. and in six years sacrificed by his calculation $450,000 in earnings.  But his calculation is incomplete, not taking into account the investments he might have made it that time (IRAs, home equity, etc.) and how those investments might have appreciated from that time until his retirement. He also does not calculate the differential between what he makes now as a professor and the larger amount he would be making had he stayed in the IT field. If you add those up, surely we are well over a million dollars.

"Charlie Brown, aren't you going
to the AHA this year?"
But wait, you say, very few humanities PhD students are walking away from a job at IBM. A better starting point is average starting salary of someone with a fresh B.A. in history--provided they can find a job at all in this economy. Zachary Schrag does the math and comes up with $120,000 in opportunity costs for a six-year doctoral program--but again, he is calculating only the lost wages for those years.

Of course, many college graduates are not finding work at all right now. For them, a fully-funded grad school gig is far better than moving back home with the parents. One person commenting about my post on another discussion board (unfortunately I cannot find the link) said that I did not understand the realities of the economy right now. He said he was a new college grad and was back at the crappy job he had right after high school and for the same money. A fair point. But even for those students, surely the economy will recover in the better part of a decade they would spend in grad school.

My Students Can Too Be Professors! They are Special.

Source of poor career advice
(Alternate version: I am special.) Part of the reason the job market is so overcrowded is the many professors who continue to urge impressionable young people to "follow your dreams!" without offering any realistic advice about this career path. Every department has a couple such professors, usually very popular with students. I was recently trying to warn a student about the odds in pursuing an academic career. She listened for a bit and then shut down. "I rely on Professor Sparkle Pony for career advice," she said. Good luck with that.

Holger Syme takes on my post point-by-point to argue Yes, You Can be a Professor--but his only argument is that since he overcame great odds and became a professor, his students can too. Sean Takats properly calls this response "a textbook example of survivorship bias." Takats quotes Wikipedia: "Sur­vivor­ship bias can lead to overly opti­mistic beliefs because fail­ures are ignored […] It can also lead to the false belief that the suc­cesses in a group have some spe­cial prop­erty, rather than being just lucky." This is a better explanation of the point I made in my post, that asking professors if you should go to grad school in history is "like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket." Nate Kreuter expanded on this point with a column over at Inside Higher Ed titled You Aren't the Exception.

We Need to Reform Humanities Ph.D. Programs

I like it that a lot of commenters thought that the job market was in part a symptom of the wretchedness of current history PhD programs--which in this country take an average of nine freakin' years to complete, have terrible drop-out rates, and with few exceptions are focused exclusively on preparing one for a career as an academic historian at a research-focused university. There is a lot to say on this topic and I will reserve my ideas for a later post.

"You are a world class ass"
A substantial subset of readers think I am a jerk. "I'm not a professor, but your condescending know-it-all tone further confirms how lucky I am to have chosen a career path outside of academia," one anonymous commenter wrote. "It's nice to not have to deal with pompous a$$hats all the time." I didn't even realize that my mother read my blog! Others described the post as "snotty," "tinged with condescension," "shortsighted" etc. etc.

They may have a point. Yet I do not like giving the advice in "No, You Cannot be a Professor." I have any number of students who would make great history professors, given the chance. But realistically they will never have that chance, and I have a responsibility to tell them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

For New Readers: Northwest History's Greatest Hits

Adolph Wolgast (LOC)
 Ever have a blog post go viral? Me neither--until this week, when Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor received 11,000 visits in 48 hours. Modest traffic by internet standards, but a major event here at Northwest History, where I usually get 50-200 visits per day. The post generated a lot of discussion and I will post some follow-up thoughts soon. For new readers in the meantime, here are some recent posts that might be of interest:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor

[Note: In response to the interest generated by this post I have also posted No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions and For New Readers: Northwest History's Greatest Hits.]

[2014 Update: So what can you do with your history degree? My friend and former student Lee Nilsson offers some great tips in No, You Cannot be a Professor Part III: Survivor Stories.]

In a way it is the greatest compliment a student can give. I ask them what they want to do with their history degree. They get all passionate and earnest and vulnerable as they answer, "I want your job. I am going to be a college professor!" Then they turn their smiling faces towards me, expectantly awaiting my validation and encouragement of their dreams. And I swallow hard, and I tell them....

No, my esteemed student, you are not going to be a history professor. It isn't going to happen. The sooner you accept this the better.

This is not because you are not bright enough. You are plenty bright. In any case, finishing a Ph.D. program is more a matter of persistence than intelligence. The reason you are not going to be a professor is because that job is going away, and yet doctoral programs continue to produce as many new Ph.D.s as ever. It is a simple calculation of odds--you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.

First, let's look at the odds. Tenure track jobs are declining. The AHA recently reported that "The number of job openings in history plummeted last year, even as the number of new history PhDs soared. As a result, it appears the discipline is entering one of the most difficult academic job markets for historians in more than 15 years." And the job market was terrible 15 years ago. Very few of the people in history PhD programs right now are going to get teaching jobs--the Economist recently concluded that "doing a PhD is often a waste of time."

Not you.
Ah, but you say, I am special. I am a 4.0 student (except in your class where you gave me that 3.8 and ruined my life). Every teacher since kindergarten has told me how delightfully clever I am. I have interesting ideas and I really really love history. I know how hard it is to become a professor, but I am willing to work hard, so those odds do not apply to me.

Yes they do. The thing about grad school is that everyone else is at least as special as you, and most of them are more so. They all had 4.0 GPAs, they all have gone through life in the same insulating cocoon of praise, they all really, really love history. Hell, some of them shoot rainbows out of their butts and smell like a pine forest after a spring rain--and they mostly aren't going to get jobs either.

I know that some of your other professors are encouraging your dreams of an academic career. It is natural to turn to your professors for advice on becoming a professor, and it natural for them to want to see you succeed. Remember though that we 1) mostly have not been on the job market lately and 2) in any case are atypical Ph.D.s in that we did land tenure track positions. To return to the lottery analogy, it is like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket. For our part, there is a lot of professional satisfaction in mentoring some bright young person, encouraging their dreams, writing them letters of recommendation and bragging of their subsequent acceptance into a good doctoral program. Job market? What job market?

Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promises to provide education with far fewer teachers--and whether you buy into this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won't be that lucky.
Also not you.

For a more accurate gauge of the job market speak with some of the people you find adjuncting at your university.  Ask them about the pay and benefits they get for the hours worked--most are earning little more than minimum wage with no benefits. Or head over to the well of bitterness and despair that is Adjunct Nation, and peruse the articles on topics such as Avoiding Freeway Flyer Burnout or Kent State Faculty Senate Opposes Collective Bargaining For Part-time Faculty. This a far more likely vision of your future than is the happy mid-career faculty member who biked to work yesterday and met you in her sunny office with the pictures of her European vacation on the wall.

Finally, I want to look at one factor that is too-little addressed in these discussions: the opportunity costs spending 6-10 years preparing for a career that, even in the event of your actually landing a tenure-track job somewhere (and again, that is not going to happen) will leave you hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole compared to your friends who started professional careers right out of their undergrad program. In six years you could have entered a career, risen to mid-rank, bought a house, and had your IRA off to a healthy beginning. If you go on for a PhD, instead you will find yourself with student loan payments equivalent of a home mortgage but no home (and no equity), no retirement savings, and banking on the thin chance of landing a job in some part of the country usually only seen on American Pickers. The opportunity costs are at least a million dollars. You don't care now, because you are young, but you will.

So no, my bright-eyed young scholar, you are not going to be a history professor. That is not to say that you cannot work with history. There are some great jobs in public history--working for local government, or federal agencies, or museums, or as an independent contractor, or a hundred other things. These jobs are also competitive and hard to break into, but there are more of them and you only need an MA. Or you could get certified and teach history in the public schools--again, quite competitive but not nearly so much as college teaching. Good luck!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tacky Events at Public History Sites?

Here is a slick little video from the Public History program at Temple University about Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the annual haunted prison event there:

Eastern State Penitentiary is the most important prison museum in the United States, respected for its programs and the quality of its interpretation as well as the historic significance of the building. It is also home to the annual Terror Behind the Walls event where this nationally-significant historic site is turned into a fun house entertainment.

This Philadelphia Weekly article goes deeper into the controversy over the exhibit, which even Program Director XX admits "compromises the mission" of the museum. According to the article the event used to be much worse than it is now:

In the mid-’90s, “Terror”—which brought in new consultants to conceptualize the haunt—started transforming from the creepy candlelight tours of the first few years to something far more outrageous and sensationalized, with its actors recreating scenes specific to the prison’s history: Women crying because they’d been raped. Prisoners going crazy and climbing the walls due to the unyielding solitary confinement that the prison’s Quaker founders believed would cause inmates to reflect and repent their misdeeds. And a man standing on the roof stabbing himself, fake blood spurting all over the place.

The article also notes that Terror Behind the Walls is "a crucial cash cow" that "generated 65 percent" of the museums $4 million budget last year. I am shocked that a haunted house event could produce that much revenue--good for them!

I am interested in similar events--are there other historic sites that make compromises to host popular events in return for revenue and public support?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Advice for Academic Bloggers

I recently received an email from a professor who want to start a professional blog. "What advice would you give about having a blog?" she asked. "Is there anything you wished you knew at the start? Anything you did and wished you hadn't? What are the best ways to get out the word about the blog?"

My usual answer to would-be blogger: "Try standing in the garage and talking to yourself for twenty minutes a day. If you find it satisfying, you might also enjoy writing a history blog."

That answer is too flippant--and wrong. I began this blog with no particular expectations of readership or impact.  And Northwest History remains a small fish in the blogging world--even in the history blogging world. I am sure that I do not receive a fraction of the readers that Kevin Levin enjoys over at Civil War Memory or that read AHA Today. But this blog has brought me a modest professional reputation in my field, some interesting collaborations with people whom I have met through the blog, and serves as a resource for my students. At history conferences someone usually comes up to me and introduces themselves as a reader--perhaps the only one at the conference, but still. And when I went up for tenure this year I presented this blog as a work of public history scholarship and my Cliopatria award as peer review. I received tenure. Not bad for something I began on a whim in 2007.

Four years is a long time for a blog to remain active--it is like a century in dog years or something. A lot of what I considered my peer history blogs when I began aren't around anymore (others are still going strong). What have I learned in four years? My mission statement covers some of this ground. Here is my advice:
  1. Decide what your blog is about, and stick to it. This blog covers the history of the Pacific Northwest, digital history and resources, and sometimes teaching. You topic does not have to be a straight jacket (perhaps 10% of my posts are outside of my usual topics), but keeping a tight focus helps you build an audience and reputation. 
  2. Don't make it about you. Blogging about your academic work is fine, but if you find yourself posting pictures of your cats, it is time to retire from academic blogging.
  3. Don't make it about politics. It is so tempting to become political--what the hell is wrong Eric Cantor anyway?! And political posts will get you an audience more quickly that anything else you could do. But the political quickly drives out the historical, and soon you are running a miniature version of the Daily Kos
  4. When you have an idea for a post, go ahead and start it. Save it as a draft and come back later. The 'Blog This' browser button helps you get a fast start to a new post. 
  5. Not every post needs to be an essay in miniature. Sometimes sharing a video or a new online resource requires only a few words of introduction. Blog posts should be pithy.
  6. Share what you are working on. The other day I posted a brief letter from William F. Cody that I had just transcribed, along with a video clip I found online.
  7. Don't expect comments. According to Google Analytics I have a readership. 35,000 people visited Northwest History last year (either that or 1 person 35,000 times--same thing right?). Most of these people came here on purpose-my leading referrals are from Facebook and Twitter and other history blogs. But I don't get 100 comments a year. 
  8. Try to keep a semi-regular posting schedule. My Google calendar nudges me to post something twice a week. 
  9. It is OK to stop. A blog is not a lifelong obligation. With a blog as in life, when you run out of things to say you should stop talking.
  10. I don't have any insights into promoting your blog beyond the usual advice--comment on related blogs, put the URL in your email signature, and sign up with a service that automatically published your new posts to Facebook and Twitter (I use Networked Blogs).
  11. Have fun! When blogging begins to feel like a chore, your days are numbered. (See #9.)
Do you have an academic blog? Tell me about it in the comments.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How History Gets Rewritten

This is very funny but there is also an actual historical point to be made. (Warning--vulgar language):

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Event: Historic Cemeteries of Spokane County

The Spokane Valley Heritage Museum is sponsoring a talk/fundraiser, “Historic Cemeteries of Spokane County” presented by John Caskey on Saturday, November 12th. The talk will take place at the Opportunity Presbyterian Church at North 202 Pines in Spokane Valley. The event is from 11:30am-1:00pm and the cost is $20 ($15 for seniors). The museum asks that your RSVP at (509) 922-4570.

This is an interesting event for a good cause. John Caskey is the historian on staff at the Fairmont Memorial Association,  which maintains some of the most historic burial sites in Spokane. Caskey recently spoke to one of my history classes at EWU and it was a treat.