For the Love of it?: Alt-Ac Reflections on finishing the PhD

When I was a bright-eyed and enthusiastic undergrad, I applied to PhD programs in history.

I have a very strong memory of sitting in my future advisor’s office and asking him the  most important question I could think of:  “What, in your opinion, makes a good dissertation?”

He responded immediately: “Passion.  Passion is what separates so-so research from the real stuff.  Being passionate about your work is what will make you a great scholar and will drive you to produce a truly great dissertation.”

11 years later, I have finally finished my dissertation.  Go ahead and read it if you like.  It’s called Republicans of Letters: the Early American Foreign Service as Information Network, 1775 – 1825.  It’s freely available.  I don’t believe in embargoes.  And, in the final analysis, I’m pleased with what I wrote.

But where was I?  Ah yes.  Passion.

I have no doubt that my adviser completely believed (and clearly lived by) his words.  They just didn’t work for me.  I would offer a different list:

Dedication. Persistence. Scheduling. Selfishness. Ambition.

These are what finally drove me to finish my PhD.  Ok.  That’s a little overwrought.  The real reason I finished was that Bethany Nowviskie told me: “Jean, everything you want to do will be easier if you finish your degree.”

Whether we like it or not, the academy is a very hierarchical place.  And getting a PhD puts you much closer to the top of that pyramid than almost any combination of skill-set, personality, and experience probably ever will.

Getting a PhD doesn’t mean that you are smarter, more insightful, or even more disciplined than other people.  And it certainly doesn’t mean you are more qualified to teach.  But it does mean you have done something most sane individuals do not attempt.  It’s like running a marathon.  You don’t have to do it.  But if you do, you want to tell people about it and get credit for all those long hours of running when no one was chasing you.  And other marathoners welcome you into their club, because, to paraphrase Captain Mal Reynolds, “Lady, you are my kind of crazy.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone looking to have an alt-ac career needs a PhD.  Or that everyone who has started a PhD program has to finish it.  Leaving grad school can be the best choice for your life and your career.  If I hadn’t been so close to finishing, I would never have bothered.  But I was, and my personality is what it is, so I finished.

And there are lots of good reasons to go to grad school.  Ironically, all the training I received to pursue my alt-ac career came *because* I was a graduate student, accepted into a program whose sole stated goal was to train me to become a tenure-track professor.  I could get hired on The Dolley Madison Digital Edition because I was a graduate student. My cherished fellowships at Scholars’ Lab and NINES were reserved for graduate students.

And I learned a great deal about early American history along the way.  I cannot speak to other graduate programs, but the great benefit of a PhD in American history is that it makes you put your events in context.  There is some fantastic popular history out there, and some of my favorite scholarly treatments of early America were written by people without PhDs.  But so often the journalist or professional non-fiction writer will miss a crucial part of the larger stage their actors stand on.  As someone who works on the oft-misused “Founding Era” of American history, I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to pull a talented writer of popular history aside and make him read for comps before publishing another word.

So what is the “value” of a PhD?  IMHO: it doesn’t matter if in the end you go alt-ac, trad-ac, or non-ac.  The value of the PhD is what you make of it.  If getting a PhD gets you closer to your goals, then go for it.  If sticking out a program that is making you miserable has no discernible benefit, than take the gems you have wrested from the earth and build a better life for yourself.  And don’t let anyone look down on you for doing what is best for you.

And if you lose the passion, well, then you lose it.  Somedays it just goes away.  Other days it comes back. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed and it doesn’t mean you can’t finish, and finish strong.  It just means that you are running an intellectual marathon, and your second, or third, or fourth wind is coming a little late.

Back in those days of brighter eyes and naive (but not entirely misplaced) enthusiasm, I attended a seminar on Applying to Graduate School in History, held by the History Department of my alma mater, the University of Chicago.  During the panel, one of the faculty members said something that, at the time, made no sense to me:

And for pity’s sake, don’t write in your personal statement that you “love history.”  We [faculty] don’t “love” history.  We love our wives, our girlfriends.  We love fishing.  History is our job.  Take history seriously as your job and you will do well.  But don’t love it.  Love something better.

Now that I am finished with my dissertation I am embarking on a “personality reclamation project,” which consists of going back to all the hobbies I abandoned in graduate school: hiking, jazz piano, Spanish literature.

I do love history.  But I need to see other disciplines, and I think she respects that.  I also need to spend time with my husband, and with mountains, and playing Oscar Peterson, and reading Odas Elementales, and oh yeah, being the Associate Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton.

As I start to advise graduate students, particularly those intrigued by alt-ac careers, I hope I can give them a sense of safety and stability.  That their worth as human beings is completely distinct from anything their advisers can say about them (be it good or bad).  I would never talk someone into leaving their program, but I want them to know that staying the course is their choice.  And if they choose to leave (for whatever reason), it does not reflect poorly on them nor will they lose the skills they have gained.

And as I advise undergraduates, I will ask them all the hard questions that angered me so much when I stubbornly told everyone I met that “I was going to be a historian.”  Because even if they can’t answer the questions, they need to hear them.  Because the job market has changed and tenure-track has be to your Plan B.  And because there are so many ways to be a historian.

So, at the end of the day — What’s love got to do with it?

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