Securing an academic career: Past and present

This post is from Dr Cath Feely, a Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, after short early-career stints at Durham, Sheffield and Manchester. She was Co-Chair of History Lab Plus from 2014 to 2016.

Recently, a senior colleague told me that he thought History was perhaps the most argumentative (or ‘bitchy’) of academic disciplines. I started to protest but then remembered how I had felt in wake of some of the bad-tempered Twitter ‘debate’ prompted by Matthew Lyons’ History Today column on ‘the betrayal of early-career historians’ by established academic historians a year ago in late August 2015. Many historians, understandably including those facing unemployment and underemployment, retweeted Lyons’ piece approvingly. Others, myself included, were offended by the implication that simply by having an academic post they were complicit in harming the people that they cared about: their students; their colleagues; their friends. Emotions ran high. As then the co-chair of History Lab Plus, a national network for early career historians, for me the debate was confirmation that people felt the need for support in the post-PhD period but, at the same time, I was uncertain as to what such support should look like and whether it would ever be enough.

As William Whyte argued, in an excellent blog that he wrote for us at History Lab Plus, Lyons’ piece was ‘fundamentally presentist’ in his demonstration of the problems facing early-career historians. These problems, and the emotional and practical impact they have on historians attempting to enter the profession are not at all new. This was starkly brought home to me when I was researching the history of the History Department of the University of Manchester, when I was myself between temporary contracts, in the summer of 2013. Manchester was a pioneer of postgraduate education in History and was among the very first institutions in the country to award PhDs in the subject. As I read though the correspondence of lecturers with their recently-graduated students in the 1920s and 1930s (all available in the John Rylands Library), it was hard not to relate their trials and tribulations on the job market to my own.

Indeed, sometimes their words seemed dangerously close to the kind of half-hopeful, half-resigned, sometimes desperate emails that I must have sent to my supervisor (luckily for my dignity, having switched institutions several times, I don’t think evidence of these survive for future historians to ponder). For instance, after several disastrous interviews, one couldn’t help sympathising with Dr Sophia Weitzman, who wrote to Manchester’s Professor T.F. Tout in May 1925:

Mr Barker said I should hear about the King’s College appointment by Tuesday next. I’m beginning to despair of ever getting anything on an interview. These jobs go to the tall, capable-looking women and I’m neither: College lecturers are a type and “insignificant me” doesn’t look the part. However, as I can’t alter that there’s no sense in being depressed about it.

However, one problem Weitzman had which was undoubtedly less of a problem for me was that she was a woman. That’s not, of course, to say that gender bias does not still affect academic careers in History. It undoubtedly does, as the 2015 Royal Historical Society Gender report made very clear. But it does seem to be more an issue of progression within the job rather than the explicit discrimination that the early Manchester women PhDs faced in entering the profession. However, it is incredibly important that the more invisible structural barriers and pressures that can exclude both men and women from a variety of backgrounds from pursuing an academic career are kept very firmly at the top of the early career agenda.

What is also clear from these letters is that very few of the students, and indeed their mentors, expected that they would end up in traditional academic careers (although, at that point the ‘academic career’ in History was actually still very new), even as they hoped that they might. They were a remarkably pragmatic bunch, taking up a range of what we would probably call ‘alt-ac’ jobs: as librarians, archivists, editors, university administrators, hall tutors, etc. As such, however, they were not seen as ‘giving up’ on History but rather contributing to it differently, and were very highly respected in the discipline. Indeed, early academic historians such as Alice Cooke, the first woman to graduate with a Masters’ degree at Manchester (before the advent of the PhD), had periods of lecturing punctuated by cataloguing some of the most important library collections in the country throughout her career. It was not out of the ordinary to swap back and forth in this manner and it remained so into well into the mid-twentieth century.

The introduction of the PhD was part of the professionalization of History as an academic subject, but as these letters and our own experiences suggest, that for most of its history there has been an underlying tension between the ‘apprentice’ model of the degree and the fact that a minority of its graduates have got academic jobs. The booms in the expansion of HE in the 1950s/60s and again in the 1990s/2000s masked this. So, is the PhD itself the problem? Has it always been the problem? Should less people be doing PhDs? Is the PhD simply setting people up for jobs that do not exist?

I am very torn on this, as I imagine many academics are, which is why many of us were so hurt by the shouts of betrayal in 2015. The fact is that I loved my PhD, even though it was damn hard and I did it part-time never expecting to get a job. I think the research I produced was valuable and important in and of itself, as I think the PhD research I now supervise is valuable and important in and of itself. And the fact is that I did (like most supervisors) get a job against the odds and, for all of the pressures of that job, it is an immense privilege to walk into a lecture theatre and debate and discuss the subject that I love with intelligent and passionate students. So while I feel very strongly that it is our duty as academics to be very, very clear to potential PhD students both about the realities of an academic career and the immense competition that there is in even getting entry-level positions, I also don’t think we should presume that this is the only value of doing a PhD. At the same time, neither do I want to lead people up the garden path and do think that, despite the million doom and gloom blog posts about the academic job market, a remarkably large number of PhDs seem unaware about the state of academia and who inevitably feel betrayed.

When I tie myself up in knots about this, I am reminded of the exasperated words of Professor George Unwin, also of Manchester, to his student Mabel Pythian (later Mabel Tylecote, who went on to play an important role in civic life and politics in Manchester) c. 1920. He was referring to women students, but I think it applies to all now:

‘I have given my best efforts to women students most of whom have not achieved what they set out to do. I don’t blame them & I go on hoping.’

I think that’s the real problem. We’re not really as bitchy as discipline as it first appears. Actually, often the problem is that we care too much: we care about the discipline and don’t want to discourage those who we think might be the future of it; we care about our students and we believe in them, so hope against hope that it will turn out alright; and we care about scholarship, and rigour and think that the production of a substantial piece of historical research should not be reduced to job training or ‘graduate attributes’.

Occasionally when I was Chair of History Lab Plus, I would see criticism that we were part of the problem. We were training people into how to enter ‘the system’ rather than questioning or overturning it. I understand that and, frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. My instinct is to be kind at in individual level: to pass on practical advice, to share ideas, encourage and, like Unwin, to ‘go on hoping’. But on a larger scale, maybe commitment to individual kindness is allowing harm.

These tensions have been around as long as the PhD. Maybe it can only take genuine reflection and debate about what the PhD is for, including discussion of its history and development, to take us any further.

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