The Unfortunate Passion of an Undergraduate History Major

While working on my dissertation, I’m adjuncting (more on my efforts to unionize in some other post), and a couple of “my” students have asked for my advice about graduate school.  Like many people, my knee-jerk reaction is to tell them to run the other direction.  But I also understand that for some of these students, there really doesn’t seem to be any other option.  And I’m not talking the “I’ve-never-been-out-of-school-so-what-else-am-I-gonna-do?” student, who clearly should not go to graduate school.  I’m talking about the students who are truly passionate about doing the work of history, who love to read, research, write, and teach.  I met with one such woman yesterday, and I went through the litany of problems with getting a PhD in history: the crazy faculty, the even crazier (and sometimes nasty) grad student colleagues, the meager allowance, and, of course, the horrid job prospects.  When I took a moment to breathe, the student asked, “Well, I’m not sure what to do, then.  Just abandon my passion?”

Ouch.  She didn’t mean for that to sting, but it did.  A few reasons: first, have I become so cynical, materialistic, and bourgeois that all of my decisions are based on career opportunities?  When did that happen?  And second: what kind of hypocrite am I?  I mean, I know damned well what’s going to happen in a couple of years: I’m going to get bitch-slapped by the job market.  And I’ll come back for more, because I frankly don’t know what else to do with my life.  Part of that comes from having done this for the last 10+ years of my life, and at this point, I’m all in, baby, win or lose.  But the more important part is that I can’t think of anything else worth doing–that this is important work.

So I told the student, no, don’t abandon your passion.  Go for it.  You’re going to do really well in graduate school, and don’t worry about the job market.  There’s no way of knowing what it’ll look like in five years, and there’s no point in worrying.  Do some smart things if you can–take a resume-boosting job between undergrad and graduate school; build good relationships with your family (you’ll probably need them more than you think you should in five years); marry money (just kidding.  Kind of).  And prepare yourself for the suckiness of graduate school and the job market.  But don’t give up on the only thing you know and want to do, because you’re exactly the kind of person we need doing it.

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