Having just said I'd be speaking about antebellum era, this post may seem a bit out of turn. But I was lucky enough to be involved for the past several years with the American Historical Association's Graduate and Early Career Committee (GECC), including a term as chairperson. My term ended after the most recent meeting of the organization, so I thought I would share a few concluding thoughts. It was a fascinating experience, and I was honored to be able to serve the organization both as chair and under the dedicated leadership of several other chairs. Professional organizations such as the AHA have an important role to play, particularly in setting best practices and drawing attention to critical issues.
One of the GECC's duties at the annual meeting is to host an open forum where its constituencies can come and talk. In these fora, we heard directly from graduate students what their concerns were, and then we tried to attack those concerns during the course of the year. This was not an easy task; everyone is aware of the problems facing the profession, and meeting the people most affected by these problems threw them into stark relief.
At the beginning of these fora, I often stressed that the AHA cannot prevent advisors from giving bad advice, but we can at least put people in the position of asking the right questions. Over the past few years, the GECC has dedicated itself to getting information into the hands of graduate students and early career professionals. This was hardly my invention, but I certainly strove to continue it as best I could.
What lessons have I taken away from my service? A few for people starting out in the profession:
- Graduate students must keep themselves abreast of what is going on in the profession. One of the AHA's greatest gifts to the world is Rob Townsend's relentless statistical analysis. Read his columns in Perspectives religiously.
- Don't go to school because of inertia. This is probably the single best piece of advice I got as an undergraduate, and paying close attention to the profession in the interim has certainly reinforced the lesson for me. There are many wonderful reasons to go to graduate school, but "it's fall, so I should be buying textbooks" is not one of them.
- Only you can know where your particular breaking points are. The realities of the job market will force you to answer all kinds of questions: what part of the country do you want to live in? What kind of school do you want to teach at? What climate can you tolerate? Will you live apart from a spouse/partner for X years before throwing in the towel? I once had a job interview where the first question was: "If you teach here it will be a 4-4 load and we don't have sabbaticals. Do you still want the job?" Refreshingly direct, and I needed right away to assess what my priorities were as a scholar. Your advisor, friends, and the AHA can't answer these questions for you; only you can. So be thinking about them.
- Be alert to opportunities. If are going to spend 7-9 years in graduate school, perhaps not every single year has to be spent teaching. Why not a semester's assistantship at a local museum or documentary editing project? For me, a non-teaching assistantship happened to give me exactly the right skills I needed for my current job. Obviously I can't guarantee that will happen for everyone, but we are fortunate to be in a diverse profession that has broad applications. Students should dip their toes in some of these different areas at least once during their schooling.
I don't think I would ever tell anyone not to go to graduate school -- I found it to be a unique and exciting intellectual challenge -- but I would say that anyone going should go with eyes wide open. Moreover, students should constantly interrogate their reasons for being there and what the end goal is. Far more information is available now for graduate students and early career professionals than when I was in graduate school. While the information alone won't eradicate the problems the profession faces, it should at least help people make more intelligent choices before their embark on lengthy schooling.