Sunday, June 22, 2014

No, You Cannot be a Professor Part III: Survivor Stories

[This is a guest post from friend and former student Lee Nilsson, building from my 2011 post Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. Lee blogs at The Digital Archeologist.]


Pictured: Larry Cebula
So you've finished up your fine liberal arts education and have a fresh BA with your name on it from a respectable school.  Congrats!  You did it.  Your capstone paper, History of the Salt Trade in Western Sahara from 1870-1922, was called "riveting" by your favorite professor.  You've moved back in with your parents.  No big deal.  That is common these days, and you'll be out of there soon.  Because you have your sights on something grander.  You are going to graduate school.  You are going to be a college professor.  

And why not?  The local craigslist job openings category is a depressing list of technical work you are in no way qualified for and high-level executive stuff which requires eight years of experience and an MBA.  You don't want to work in medical administration.  You don't want to work in a toll booth.  Sure, your favorite professor gave you a pained expression and mentioned something about the "tough market" when you told him/her about your dream.  But s/he wrote the letter of recommendation anyway.  So s/he is probably not that concerned...Right?  
Your future? 

Naturally, you're first move is obvious, you Googled "how to become a history professor."  That is how you came across a depressing, cynical screed by a mean-spirited and sarcastic history professor named Larry Cebula called "Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor."  You read it a few times. You read the follow up "No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions."  At first you were skeptical.

But the reaction pieces are dripping with wishful thinking, and the article confirmed all the doubts in the back of your mind.  Maybe it's all hopeless.  Maybe the toll booth wouldn't be so bad.  I mean, at least you won't have Larry Cebula as a graduate advisor.  What kind of deflated, depressed, and broken students must he be graduating every year?


Hope is good!
Well dear reader, look no further.  I am one such.  And I've been tasked with giving you hope.  Not that you will become a history professor (no, that still ain't happening), but that it is possible to have an interesting and fulfilling career in the humanities.  You don't even have to have a Ph.D. either!  You can do it with a simple MA.  The key is making yourself as well-rounded as possible in this new economy.  Here are a few lessons I've learned which may be helpful to you.


Lesson 1:  Take advantage of every opportunity during grad school, and don't be afraid to take risks.

Grad school is about resume building.  A good academic department will have trips, internship opportunities and job openings you should take advantage of.  While in grad school I went on an archaeological dig to Cyprus, worked in the Washington State Archives as a researcher/writer, served as associate editor of the local history website and mobile app spokanehistorical.org, and went to Portland, Oregon to present a paper with the Phi Alpha Theta history society.  All of this is great resume fodder.  It also gives you experiences and contacts you would not otherwise have if you had spent all your time in the library staring at black and white photos of early-period Saxon pot shards. 

NDSR second cohort starts January 2015. 
In this economy it is often going to be more important to have some real work experience than it will be to have a paper published in a journal read by literally tens of academics (though being published does not hurt).  It may take some risk or sacrifice in the short term to make yourself more employable down the road.  I had to give up a graduate teaching assistantship (and quite a lot of money) to work at the state archives, but it paid off.  My work at  spokanehistorical.org and the Washington State Archives led directly to me being chosen as the first ever National Digital Stewardship Resident for the Library of Congress (an amazing program, by the way, check it out).  

You will want to accumulate a large set of skills that do not fall into the traditional "liberal arts academic" framework.  You want a huge advantage right now?  Learn to code.  The future is in the digital humanities.  People with those skills are already in high demand.  Most of all learn how to teach yourself new skills.  If you take anything away from grad school.  Let it be that. 


Lesson 2: If you want to be successful after grad school, you must be mobile and flexible.

Its a big country...
This is increasingly true in nearly all fields these days.  Being able to pack up and move to Bozeman, Montana at a few weeks' notice can be a real strength when looking for work in the humanities.  Cast a very wide net.  You may not be able to get that amazing job in New York City right out of grad school.  Look for parts of the country where your skill set-may be in more demand.  Don't limit your search to the "dream job" you've been pining for for years.  Having trouble getting a curatorial job in a city museum?  Try administration and communications.  Failing to get a federal writing job in the black hole of USAjobs.gov?  Try contractors and vendors.  Can't get that archivist position with your local state archives?  Try the private sector.  Be flexible.  You may find you'll like where you end up better than if you'd gotten your "dream job."

Lesson 3: Be creative.

"I am a hard worker with lots of experience in content management.  I've managed content on a weekly basis for one year at Content Management LLC. and for two years at Content Dynamics Industries, Inc.  I have been instrumental in increasing productivity over five percent in..."

Asleep yet?  Yeah, don't be like that.  Hopefully, you got into the humanities to be creative.  Sometimes its valuable to take a risk to stand out.  Don't go off the deep end and be unprofessional.  But the people who do the hiring at cultural institutions are looking through stacks of identical cover-letters and resumes.  All of them have the same two to five years experience in "whatever" that you do.  Hiring managers hate reading those letters just as much as you hate writing them.  Sometimes it's okay to make a high risk, high reward move.  Take for example this:


The job was for the Civil War Trust, a group of people almost certainly familiar with the mammoth Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War."  One hour of late-night video editing later I had a short and ridiculous parody of Burns' style which served as a fun addendum to my traditional cover letter.  I submitted it at midnight and by eight-o'clock the next morning I had the interview.  High risk, high reward.

Lesson 4: Be personable. 

Not you...Right?
Jokes aside, you could not ask for a better advisor than Larry Cebula.  He works like hell to get his students employed in their fields and is tireless in the networking that requires.  Indeed your graduate advisor and other professors can be an incredible support system when looking for work.  But all of that is dependent on you not being a jerk.  

Some common jerk moves:  Acting childish and raising your voice.  Getting mad about little issues and burning bridges.  Showing absolutely no interest in them as human beings and demanding all attention be on yourself.  Treating professors like they are your servants.  The list goes on.  Always remember that these people can be your colleagues and friends after school ends.  Act like it.

Another pro-tip:  Dress for the job you want.  Not the job you have.  It pays off in spades to show some appreciation for the fact that other people are forced to look at you.

Lesson 5: Have some ambition, but be smart about it.

The future is bright!
The "millennial" generation is positively drowning in cynicism.  While our parents and grandparents imagined a glorious future in outer space and flying skateboards, our generation is focused on predicting how civilization will collapse, whether it be zombies, super-volcanoes or something else.  It's important to stay positive.  Government institutions, historical societies, archives, libraries, museums, journalism, think-tanks, publishing etc. etc.  All of these and more are open to you with a simple MA or less.

My humanities story has taken me from a small suburb of Detroit to the Library of Congress and eventually the  U.S. State Department.  There are literally thousands of great opportunities for people with our weird interests.  Very few of them will involve teaching students at research universities.  But that should not stop you from doing something you'll love.   You might even like where you end up better than you would have liked being a college professor.  Because again, you aren't going to be that. 



Some Resources for the Humanities Job Seeker:

  • USAjobs - Yes, it may be a black hole where resumes go to die, but its essentially the only way to get direct federal employment.  And it is possible to get responses.  Write a very good resume with their resumebuilder app.  If you can find any way to justify making yourself an "expert" in every question a position asks, do it.  Do not lie.  But really think hard about it.  Every Library of Congress, Smithsonian, or NARA job might get 400+ applications.  At least 50 will have veterans preference.  You have to really stand out to get passed the folks at the Office of Personnel Management.   Make use of the Saved Searches feature: "National Archives," "Library of Congress," "Historian," "Archives," "writer," etc.  Check daily.  These change fast.   Dont put off applying.  They  will sometimes end an open period early.  
  • Code4lib - For those with library science and archival experience as well as some tech savvy.  
  • American Library Association Job List - All of these will say "MLS required."  Ignore that.  If you have the skills, demonstrate them with your application.  I've met librarians in the federal government with backgrounds in archaeology, medieval studies, computer science etc. etc.    Can't win if you don't play.  
  • H-Net - For general discouragement.  Try looking up your area of expertise in the location you want to work in.  Cry.  But dont worry.  You are going to be fine.  Especially if you take my sage advice.  If you see that list and think, "Gee, there are so many professor jobs!"  Remember that every job posting will have hundreds of applicants, many are not tenure track, and that site is literally global.  
  • AdjunctNation - For those who have taken the dark path of the adjunct.  Some people just have to teach.  If you are one of those, the best approach may be the old fashioned style.  Every community college gets a stack of adjunct applications.  Go there personally, meet the head of the department during his/her office hours.  Hand them your packet (syllabi, CV, etc.) personally.  If he/she likes you, it may get you to the top of the pile when they need someone to teach a course.  Also, professors in your department will often know professors in other schools.  Don't be afraid to ask for an introduction.  Remember, this path lacks security and basic benefits.  You spouse or partner better have a great job and be cool with you making less than a fry-cook at McDonald's.            
  • Idealist.org - Idealist has many of the sorts of jobs you will get a call-back for.  Its all non-profits and most of them are east coast.  But these are the sorts of writing/editing/administrative jobs that a humanities MA can get.  Beware of low non-profit wages.
  • Historical Consulting Firms such as History Associates or The History Factory do for-profit research on behalf of government and corporations.  I've known some people who have gone this route.  Many of these jobs are on a project basis and will be temporary.  
  • A lot of organizations don't post to these sorts of lists.  So check the job listings pages of organizations you might want to work for.  If the Gates Foundation or Coca-Cola is hiring a historian or archivist, they may not be as familiar with these sorts of lists and just throw it up on their website.  Look for yourself.  
One last thing:  Apply.  Don't be discouraged by the fact you only have 7/10 of the requirements.  If you think you can do the job, apply.  Many people hamper their own success by undervaluing themselves.  This is especially true for womenwho tend to have less bravado and stupid confidence when applying for jobs. Be stupid.  Be bold.  Apply.  You deserve it.  Now go be successful.  

Lee Nilsson earned his Masters in History at Eastern Washington University in 2013. He was a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the Library of Congress from 2013-14. In August Nilsson begins work as a Junior Analyst for the U.S. State Department.

9 comments:

Michelle Szetela said...

There are some sweeping statements that might detract from one's ability to redefine success.

It's great if you CAN cast a wide net and move to Bozeman or anywhere else, but that's not a realistic possibility for those with other obligations.

I do, of course, agree that limiting or restricting "success" to one definition ("teaching at that big research university") could be professional detrimental; I would argue that being flexible is more important to success than one's ability to pick up and move on a moment's notice. If your dream of being a college professor involves "teaching students at research universities," then, yes, one might have a limited amount of luck. Yet what about those of us who dream about teaching at community colleges?

(And by the way, the assertion that the "'millennial' generation is positively drowning in cynicism" is just as cynical and harmful in terms of stereotyping. If one actually believes that, then perhaps one should not be a teacher at any level.)

Historiann said...

Lee, this is terrific. I agree with everything you say. Your initiative is similar to the success stories I've seen among our M.A. grads at Colorado State (another department with an M.A.-only program & a concentration in public history). Our grads are employed by the NPS, the NFS, private house museums, public archives, and in secondary schools, etc.

Contra what Michelle says, I'd like to echo and amplify your point about mobility and being willing to relocate. You simply will have more opportunities if you cast your net wider and have the liberty to go somewhere else at the drop of a hat. Michelle may not like to hear it, but it's the truth.

The problem I see lately is that too few young grads are willing to leave Colorado's front range, for example--and they don't have any other responsibilities or obligations. Intentionally shutting yourself off from job opportunities outside of a 50-mile radius of where you are now is just not a full job search. I don't live anywhere near my family or most of my friends, but guess what: those of us with the privilege of college & grad educations all have choices to make.

Michelle Szetela said...

I am not disagreeing that there may be more and different opportunities for those who are able to move to widen their net, as you say - I'm saying that for many people, it's unrealistic to do so. (I'm sure many of us could find many more jobs had we not other obligations keeping us wherever it is we are, geographically speaking.) Not everyone is able to be as mobile as they'd like, and arguing that not only should people move, but that they must move ignores many of the larger issues.

Historiann said...

In what profession in the world is it not true that you will have more potential opportunities if you can relocate? This is as true for attorneys, petroleum geologists, and physicians as it is for historians. We're not special. Most of us have to hustle to find work, whether in the academy, secondary ed., or public history.

I don't understand how this "ignores many of the larger issues." What is Lee ignoring here? I am asking honestly, not snarking.

Michelle Szetela said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle Szetela said...

I wish these comment fields had an edit button!

I can't speak to history professions, since this is not my field, but finding a full-time job teaching English or writing can be challenging as well (whether more or less so, I can't say).

I agree that hustle is imperative, but not everyone has the liberty (as had been mentioned before) to move. The ability to move requires a certain amount of financial freedom that not everyone has; others might have family obligations - taking care of a parent or other family member; a spouse whose career also should be considered, etc. - that they choose over a job. Hustle does not necessarily mean moving; it sometimes means taking a job, any job, that one can get, and taking a job that one might not have otherwise considered, as had been stated in the blog post.

Now, hustle can take different forms for different people, and in the case of (perhaps) history (since, again, this isn't my field) and English/writing (my field), sometimes the job seeker has to get creative in searching for a position. I'm differentiating between "hustle" and "relocating," since the latter is only a part of the former.

While it's fantastic you found a job, even if it's far away from your family and friends, my material point had been that "moving to where the job is" isn't an option for everyone. Sometimes it's a choice one makes for oneself; sometimes it's made for you. Sometimes one gets a degree, and despite the amount of very hard work that's put into it, the degree isn't used.

And sometimes people wind up teaching at a different level that what had been envisioned - the assumption that would-be higher ed instructor wants to teach at a R1 institution is misplaced. Even hustling in one's current area can lead to alternate interesting work that turns out to be better than what one had originally envisioned.

And that's my biggest disagreement with this post. I do believe that one has to be creative and realistic, and look at alternatives that might not have otherwise been considered - including community colleges, teaching at the secondary level, or not teaching at all.

Michelle Szetela said...

The very last thing I'll say on this (because at some point one has to move on from the discussion) is to point out some irony here:

I went to college a bit later in life (which is to say, I was a non-traditional student). I wanted to teach, either middle school or high school, went through my large university's teacher preparation program, took all the certification tests, got certified as a teacher...and the economy went belly-up. What I wanted to do more than anything was teach in NYC - which implemented a hiring freeze right about the time I graduated, and continued that freeze for several years.

I then moved to another state, where - without a graduate degree but with some credits - I got a job adjuncting at a local community college. I then got engaged to my now-husband, who lived 2,000 miles away, so I moved to the Intermountain West, where - again, with no graduate degree (which I am now close to finishing) I got two jobs teaching at the college level, one of which being a position I've held for a few years now.

I went into teaching wanting to be a middle school teacher, but in the end, it remains tremendously easier having gotten a job at the college level. So I, like so many others, moved thousands of miles away from where I grew up (fortunately, with friends and family dispersed, there was no leaving anyone behind) and got a job teaching at a different level than what I'd initially trained for and hoped to get.

Even more ironically, I love teaching at this level more than I might have had I gotten a secondary teaching position.

Mark said...

I am a professional historian with a graduate degree, and I live in Bozeman, Montana. Seriously.

And I can tell you that, at least out here, the glut of public historians is almost as severe as the glut of wannabe academics. Encouraging people to pursue a career in public history these days is just as irresponsible as telling them they have a chance at a tenured faculty job.

At the very least, though -- don't send any more of them out here! :)

Bill Youngs said...

Lee, this is a great post, full of information and encouragement. I admire your example and I value the suggestions you offer for further reading. I'll be assigning it to my students in future classes.