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The Problem with Plan B: Thoughts on the Jobs Crisis in History

Leslie Rogne Schumacher, Op-Ed Columnist

March 2012

I hope my readers will permit a deviation from the theme of Britain and the World to engage the continuing jobs crisis and the attendant discussions about graduate students taking a “Plan B” approach, a subject that is important not only to our area but to the field of history in general. It is also personally important, as I will defend my dissertation at the end of the term. Next month’s column will see a return to regular programming.


When I began my PhD studies in 2006 many assured me, just like everyone in the last generation has been, that the imminent retirement of Baby Boomer professors would open up untold numbers of jobs by the time I emerged into the academic world, diploma in hand. As I look forward beyond my graduate career, it is abundantly clear that rumors of the rise of a jobs-filled, post-Baby Boomer academy have been greatly exaggerated. Yet as if the falsity of this portrait isn’t enough, I’ve lately noticed that a troubling narrative has emerged in regard to the whole premise of choosing a career as a history professor. Namely, it has become popular to look at the field of history as bound, inexorably, to a future in which college-level history instruction will be done primarily by harried, faceless wage slaves and administered by a small, diminishing, and hateful/self-hating cadre of permanent faculty. Ergo, the critique generally goes, grad students should get out while they still have the chance to build a “normal” life.

A much-discussed blogpost by Larry Cebula, a professor at Eastern Washington University, is emblematic of the trend in dirgeful writing about the field. The thrust of Mr. Cebula’s article is summed up in the concisely provocative title, “Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot Be a Professor.” Tenure is gone, he argues, the pay is less than one gets waiting tables, and the “opportunity costs” of spending a decade pursuing a PhD sets one back in relation to the earning and investment of their age peers. “It isn’t going to happen,” he says, “the sooner you accept this the better.” One has to admire Mr. Cebula’s candor, and certainly many of those who responded to his post thought it a fair assessment of young historians’ prospects in this academic brave new world, such as one who said he no longer writes recommendations for his students if they’re intended for graduate applications in the liberal arts. This isn’t the first time in the last few years that I’ve heard of a professor making this commitment.

Mr. Cebula does at least make sure to note that this situation has nothing to do with the objective quality of students going into American graduate programs, but apparently this is too optimistic a view according to some of those in a position to hire. A panel at this year’s meeting of the AHA saw several prominent historians discuss the ongoing jobs crisis in the discipline. A PhD student who attended this session, L.D. Burnett, has written a truly riveting account of the proceedings, noting an especially uncomfortable moment when a member of the audience said that 90% of the applications he’d seen in his career came from candidates that, in his opinion, not only weren’t qualified for a particular position but didn’t have what it took to be qualified as historians. Putting aside the fact that this feeds directly into the fear nearly all young grad students have that it is only a matter of time before they will be exposed as frauds and drummed out of their programs, remarks on quality don’t really seem to be the problem. As it always has, the academy churns out a whole range of scholars, but what little chaff gets by is far outweighed by the grain.

One is left wondering whether there is any response to the crisis that is constructive and avoids punishing the very students historians hope to get a chance to teach and inspire—students of the species that all historians belong to, no matter whether they sit behind the professor’s desk or before it. The problem with an “it’s for their own good” response to the crisis is not only that it isn’t very useful for offering scholarly aspirants a direction toward some non-scholarly career, but that it doesn’t bring us any closer to changing the current state of affairs. Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman have hit closer to the mark in a recent article which argues that graduate programs need to, from the start, encourage students to think about using their PhD for careers outside of the narrow realm of traditional tertiary instruction. Still thought-provoking is Lynn Hunt’s 2002 op-ed on the growth of professionalism in academia, which has driven graduate students to motivate themselves with the goal of getting a job rather than indulge a personal zeal for history. All of us who have slogged our way through a PhD can agree with Hunt’s feeling that an obsession with the “vicissitudes of the job market” kills the spirit that drives one to learn, write, and teach.

But though Grafton, Grossman, and Hunt should be given credit for carefully and creatively approaching the issue, I’m not certain that they get to the heart of the problem with the dreaded “Plan B” conversation either. That is, if one is in a graduate program one likely loves teaching and doing research in history far too much to be nearly as fulfilled outside academia as one is within it. Moreover, the drive to continue along the route of one’s scholarly antecedents is very strong, especially given that they sit, manifest, in front of us all along this path—one which they themselves walked not so very long ago. We are who they were, and we want to follow them. And once one gets a taste of teaching history at the college level and finds that he or she likes it, the notion of doing something else obviously feels like a personal and professional failure. The idea of not being a professor of history is terrifying to those of us nearing the end of our graduate career. It is a real and valid fear and, for the health of the atmosphere of collegiality between students and professors, it would be a cruel irony to place the fault at the feet of students whose dedication to the profession precludes a happy shift to an alternative job.

In writing this column I cycled through a number of titles, one of which was “There Is No ‘Normal’ after Graduate School.” Anyone trying to protect the sanctity of Plan A while opening up room for Plan B has to consider that graduate school, by means of its wonderful and terrible trials, changes us, presenting successful candidates with the expectation that they will be welcome at the table with those who’ve already found a seat. This is the obvious result of selecting students who fit the mold of the previous generation of scholars, who can navigate the established channels of degree progress, can integrate themselves into the scholarly community, and can convey their knowledge and their passion to the next generation—all things that, in a wealthier and not too distant past, marked one out for acceptance and success. New PhDs are not lemmings, trudging blindly off the cliff of graduate school into a sea of unemployment. No, we’re prairie dogs, and we want to stay in the burrow with the rest of the colony. These are natural, even instinctive feelings: for me, as for most of my colleagues, a career in history is not a choice but a compulsion. Any solution to the employment crisis in the field cannot hope to be successful unless it takes this fact into account.

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  1. Posted April 5, 2012 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    Hi, Leslie, nice to make your acquaintance.

    If I am reading your piece right, the “problem with Plan B” is that you don’t want a Plan B, you want Plan A. Is that about right?

    No one is blaming you or other grad students for the state of the academic job market–and I sure hope that it did not seem as if I was. But the market is what it is, and I think it would be enormously irresponsible for people in my position to pretend otherwise. (It has been that way for decades, and whoever told you in 1996 that “that the imminent retirement of Baby Boomer professors would open up untold numbers of jobs” was a horse’s–make that a Professor Sparkle Pony.) The majority of current grad students in the humanities are not going to land tenure track jobs. Probably the vast majority. This is not a controversial point. Most of you are not going to be professors. You are going to develop Plan Bs.

    As to the prairie dog metaphor–did your childhood include the wonderful Bill Peet classic Farewell to Shady Glade?

  2. Posted May 4, 2012 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    Hi, Larry–nice to meet you as well, and I’m glad you happened across my column. Sorry it took me so long to respond–there was a problem with the comments section that took a while for the site admin to rectify.

    My point is not that “I want a Plan A, not a Plan B,” but rather that the whole narrative of finding Plan Bs doesn’t take into account the fact that the culture of history grad programs rewards those for whom anything other than a Plan A career is a failure. I’m saying that we can’t promote Plan Bs to students while at the same time continue to treat those who might enter a grad program actually wanting a Plan B career as “less serious.”

    By the same token, grad programs need to understand that, as the admission requirements continue to become more stringent and expectations for work produced prior to the PhD, the situation as it stands is wasting most of the field’s future talent. People become tired, disenchanted, and angry and leave the field, and no one acknowledges that if born a generation ago the same people may have gone on to be leaders in the field.

    The problem with Plan B is that we have all stuck our heads in the sand–students, professors, and administrators alike. PhD programs continue to produce too many PhDs, who, despite the acerbic comments to the contrary, are probably better prepared to do historical work than in the past, when there were far fewer time-to-degree limitations and much less of an expectation to publish (or even instruct). Yet, as you say, almost none of these people will ever secure an actual, rather than just a passing, career in academia. You focus on “opportunity costs,” I would say that these are “existential costs” whether viewed from the perspective of the student (who goes away with a PhD but no academic career, feeling like a hopeless reject) or the field (which, mostly blithely, soldiers on with abject “tighten the belt” comments, sighs of mild consternation, or, worst of all, useless “back in my day” comments as to the quality of the current crop of PhDs).

    The market is what it is, as you say, but almost no one is doing anything about it except complaining in vague political terms about anomie in the state of American intellect. Of course, the academy needs to cut down the numbers of PhDs it produces. More than this, people who have permanent positions and only hold an MA (or maintain a decades-long ABD status) should probably be let go, no matter how “good” they are. Late-career professors should probably be pushed out to make room for more professors to be hired with lower pay. The emphasis on a strong dissertation will probably have to be lessened by an even quicker time-to-degree expectation, a la the British system. We probably should also start weeding out students who don’t take part in all aspects of the career from an early point, i.e. as researchers, teachers, extra-program colleagues, program builders, and liasons with university administration. There are no more places for dreamy intellectuals, just academic professionals.

    The fact of the matter is that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t purport to uphold a legacy of wood-paneled, be-tweeded pipe smokery–or, like my mother (also an academic) part-time, blue-collared activism–while the industry has changed to such a degree so as to make such a view not only antiquated but pathetically blind to the challenges of actual students going out into the world with PhDs in hand. At no point in the history of the American academy has there ever been this level of a jobs crisis; for people to make comparisons with past events is to mince words.

    Sadly, what this means is that to slim down the PhD establishment we are going to have to take away the ability for a graduate career to serve as a maturation project–I know under the system I propose, I never would have made it. Take this column and even this response to your comment: perhaps under the new, leaner system we wouldn’t promote this kind of dialogue, but we’d adopt a culture of “keeping one’s head down” or, rather, those who made it as far as I have in a grad program would only be those who’d see such conversations as useless quibbling in light of the mechanics of getting things done. In solving the jobs crisis, we might see, therefore, the promotion of a type of academic whom most of us would have little connection with–an automaton who never made a mistake in the tiny calculations it will take to succeed in the brave new world.

    So, my column is saying: what can we do to balance the old with the new? Is there anything that can be done to maintain the positive attributes of academia (which draw students there in the first place) while at the same time promoting a different, more efficacious form of graduate instruction/preparation? I don’t have the answer, but these are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

    Again, thanks for reading and keep in touch.