ECH Careers: Do you really want to be an academic?

1 October 2014

The single most important piece of advice is to think hard about what you would like to do with the range of skills developed during your PhD, which include research, evaluating evidence, writing, teaching, organising and networking. Academia is not the only option. Ask yourself do you really want to be an academic?

This is an important question to consider. Many people start a History PhD wanting to become an academic historian and most of them are still keen to do so when they finish.  Others do the PhD for its own sake and don’t necessarily want to continue on to an academic career.  Either way, it is worth taking the time to think hard about the right next step for you, rather than moving on automatically to making applications for postdoctoral grants or academic posts.   Life as a university historian can be immensely rewarding:  it is endlessly varied and interesting; you will spend your time with many committed, intelligent people, both colleagues and students, who share your interests; you will never stop learning and nor will you ever lack for challenges, either intellectual or personal.  It is also likely to be highly demanding on your time, your self-belief and your adaptability.

Everyone is aware that permanent university posts in history are highly competitive; fewer seem to take into account that it is down to the luck of the draw whether a post will come up in your field in a place where you, or your family, wish to live.  Even the best-qualified candidates usually end up doing at least two or three years on a post-doctoral grant and/or short-term teaching contracts, sometimes combining part-time posts at two or more institutions, before they get a permanent job. Even when you are passionately committed, this is not an easy route to take. Remember that universities have very high expectations of their staff:  not only will you be expected to research and publish high quality work that gives you an international reputation, but also to design and teach stimulating courses for students; carry out administration and pastoral care; organise seminars, conferences, workshops and networks; and to ensure that your work has “impact” through public engagement and/or knowledge transfer. If you are only really content when you are sitting in an archive with your sources, think very hard before you decide to become an academic (unless you can find a research-only post, which are usually fixed-term, for 1-5 years, and often not renewable).

In any permanent lectureship teaching will be a large part of your job and it’s too demanding an activity to be endured for the sake of research time. So if you don’t find teaching rewarding, think about another career. PhDs are becoming increasingly desirable as a qualification in a range of other areas of work, so it may be worth exploring these possibilities, which include: civil service, media, law, think tanks, charities, local government, museums, school-teaching, university administration and publishing.