Friday, January 9, 2009

The Cushy Life of the Historian?

Photo of the Staatsbibliothek (State Library) in Berlin by Flickr user NathanBushDesigns, part of his very cool Staatsbibliothek set, used under a Creative Commons license. I spent many hours there, happily engrossed in the writings of dead German feminists and gynecologists.

Who knew I was so lucky? I have the seventh-best job in America! Okay, women's studies instructors were excluded from the survey of the "best" and "worst" jobs that the Wall Street Journal reported on earlier this week. But historians showed up as #7, and that's the field where I received most of my formal training, including my Ph.D.

Topping the list were mathematicians. And man, that just gave me the giggles. What I know about our local math department is that it's full of, um, personalities. I haven't had direct contact with them, but indirectly I got to know the quirks of one of 'em a little too well. Last winter, I taught in a room in the math building with a pull-down screen. One morning, I arrived there only to find that the screen was up - and its cord was gone. I pushed a table against the wall, and one of my tallest students volunteered to leap up and grab it.

Later, I talked to one of my friends who's well acquainted with the department. From him I learned that one of the mathematicians has a vendetta against anyone who leaves the screen down. (That wouldn't have been me, but many instructors use that room.) And so he periodically snips off the cord - with wire cutters.

I'm not saying all mathematicians are looney-tunes (I know a couple of exceptions, and even I know enough to realize that my sample size is far too small). But universities in general are brimming with eccentrics. While I like eccentrics, some of them are flat-out difficult. My own colleagues are wonderful, but I recognize that lots of departments are profoundly dysfunctional, and I don't mean just the mathematicians. David Lodge's novels may be fiction. They're also deadly accurate as anthropology.

Much more importantly, most jobs in academia come with a lot of pressure. Scientists have to get the grants. Everyone has to publish. People on the tenure track face intense stress until they make tenure - and even greater stress if they don't get it. Those of us not on the tenure track are harried, too: Do we have any shot at a long-term position? Will we even be hired for the next term? How high a price will we pay to keep our careers alive? Should we think about abandoning academia altogether?

And so I'm skeptical about this survey (which you can find here). Eight of the top twenty careers are in fields where universities are the prime employers (math, biology, history, sociology, economics, philosophy, physics, astronomy). The criteria were: Stress, Work Environment, Physical Demands, Income and Outlook.

Clearly, academic positions offer a clean physical environment with few physical demands. If you make full professor, you've got a pretty decent income. But stress and a toxic collegial environment are all too common. The survey says historians work an average of 45 hours a week. I'd love to meet one who does. Possibly some practitioners of public history (working for the state, cities, etc.) might actually leave their job behind in the evenings.

Income? My husband's response: "Yeah, you're making $200,000 - over a decade!" Assuming I stay employed, that'll be just about my average from 2002 onward. If the average income for historians is about $61,000, as this survey claims, they're surely not counting all the unemployed and underemployed.

The outlook for academic jobs has never been great; this year, it's dismal. The decline in new openings is estimated at 15% compared to last year, according to Inside Higher Ed. But that surely understates the scope of the problem, because searches are being cancelled left and right, sometimes so late in the game that they wreak havoc with people's lives. A friend of mine in another field had received and accepted a firm offer. It was withdrawn just as she was about to make a campus visit to sign the contract and start the process of relocating. I'm sure this isn't specific to academia, but the latest crunch comes on top of a market where the number of applicants has always greatly exceeded the openings.

I do treasure a lot of things about my work. I have a fair amount of flexibility apart from classtime, which is completely inflexible. I get to pursue my interests, and I can get blissfully lost in libraries and archives - like the Staatsbibliothek, pictured above and below. I know that the ideas I study and teach about matter. I enjoy going to conferences, though it's almost always on my own dime. Most important for my daily routine, I love working with students, and most of them feel the same about me. Since September, I even get paid a living wage for all this.

I wouldn't suggest people flood into any of those "top-rated" academic jobs, though. Academia is fraught with stress, anxiety, and snipped-off pull-cords. It's only worth it if you really, really love the work - enough to do it as a hobby, if necessary. As I've said before, it's a little like blogging that way.

The Berlin Staatsbibliothek's windows, again from Flickr user NathanBushDesigns in his Staatsbibliothek set, used under a Creative Commons license.

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