Friday, July 3, 2009

More thoughts on academic careers

I’ve been away for the last few days at a residential graduate seminar and while I was there, I had a few more thoughts on the merits (or not) of the academic life.

The seminar itself was great, just the sort of stuff I love. It was for the standard advanced historiography course, and we all took great delight in debating various philosophical approaches to history and theories of historical change. Three different professors, each of whom seemed oddly suited to their subject matter, guided us through the various sessions over several days.

First up was a be-spectacled, soft-spoken tie-wearing gent (in all senses of the word) who dealt with the 18th and 19th century historians – men like Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay who saw history as a leisurely literary pursuit for the cultured man-of-letters. Next came our Sorbonne-educated expert on the French Annales school. Elegantly dressed and precisely spoken, with beautifully accented French, she shared her experience of studying under the renowned French Revolution specialist Michel Vovelle. Finally – and a stark contrast – our expert on the British Marxists was a bearded, wild-haired enthusiast who regaled us with his own stories of discovering social radicalism as a 19-year-old student at the height of the Thatcher years. (A discovery, which, he wryly pointed out, was the perfect platform from which to launch a rebellion against his staunchly right-wing father – Freud in history, indeed.)

Here’s the thing that gave me pause, though. These people are all very accomplished, with international reputations in their fields and a veritable bookshelf of books between them. They are excellent teachers, each with their own unique style of pedagogy, and all of them take several courses each year alongside plenty of research and writing. But if I decided to follow an academic career path, it wouldn’t be until I reached this level of seniority, after many, many years of hard work (assuming I could even get there), that I would be earning what I earn now in a challenging but not particularly difficult job in the private sector (pro rata based on my hourly rate, as I only work 15 – 20 hours a week).

Their working conditions aren’t great, either. The building which houses the History department was once the epitome of elegant Art Deco, but it doesn't appear to have been renovated since it was built in the early 1930s. Inside, it’s dim and dank with a pervasive smell of mould (and the occasional piquant whiff of dead mouse). There are years’ worth of water stains on the ceiling and, underfoot, carpet that looks like it saw the last days of World War II. A few of the best offices have nice views over the surrounding trees and parks, but it would take a heroic obliviousness to your surroundings not to get depressed in the tiny windowless inner offices. Adding insult to injury, it is quite noticeable that the business and science faculties on this campus are ensconced in much newer, nicer buildings (I know, I’ve checked them out).

The other thing that struck me during this course was the average age of our graduate group. Most of them were at least in their late thirties or early forties, and a couple were a good deal older (I’d guess late fifties – early sixties). Only two were in their early twenties, and appeared to have followed the traditional trajectory from school to undergrad to grad school. This raised a few questions for me. First, is this kind of age distribution unique to my institution? If not, are young people just starting out in their careers no longer very interested in working in the public university system (at lease in the Humanities)? And if that’s the case, where will our next generation of history professors come from?

4 comments:

tenthmedieval said...

I think you may have an extreme case there, though I would agree that more and more people are coming to graduate study as a way not to be bored once they've found a professional niche in the real world. However, the increasing frequency of jobs in medieval history garnering 100+ applicants where it used to be half that suggests that there's no shortage of future talent...

Belle said...

Non-trad here. FWIW, the satisfactions of professing are, at least for the historians I know, not monetary. Sure not for me! Yes, I could earn more IRL, but I did that, and was profoundly uncomfortable out there. The academic path I took is by no means easy, nor was it much fun during the process, but the pleasures I get now are far more valuable that mere cash, salary or benefits. Doesn't mean I like being poor or earning less than I'm worth. I was out there and discovered that academia is better for me. Not that I fit well here either, but I feel better about self and place.

Bavardess said...

Tenth, the set up at my university does make it more welcoming to 'non-traditional' students, which is bound to skew the age distribution a bit. But I'm curious to know whether you think the increasing number of applicants for jobs in medieval history is due to an overall increase in graduates or a decline in available positions, or a combination of both.

And Belle - I appreciate your point about the non-financial rewards. However, I'm also conscious of concerns being about the increasing inability of NZ universities to attract the best candidates from around the world, because the salaries are just not staying competitive enough (especially given recent government budget cuts). If you happened to look at the salary chart I linked to, remember the numbers are in $NZ so knock off about 1/3 to get an equivalent in $US, and nearly 60% for UK pounds.

tenthmedieval said...

My impression is a combination of both, but Magistra et Mater had an interesting post a while back where she reckoned that the the proportion of post-docs not getting jobs in the sector was about the same as twenty years ago, so impressions are obviously off. However, there has been a desperate shortage of jobs in the UK at least in the last couple of years because of the Research Assessment Exercise running, so there have piled up a lot of hungry applicants I think. It may ease in a year or so. Or, of course, since posts don't materialise any quicker in a recession, it may not.