What Can You Do With a PhD

Getting to the Malleable PhD

AHA2014In January 2014, I participated on the “Getting to the Malleable PhD” panel at the annual meeting of the American Association Historical Association. Jacqueline Jones organized the panel, which consisted of myself, Walter M. Licht (University of Pennsylvania), Ramona Houston (Scholar and Consultant), and R. Darrell Meadows (Kentucky Historical Society).

Each panelist offered a personal narrative.

Some offered policy proposals and critiques about graduate eduction.

I tried to keep my presentation practical.


Recap of My Presentation

I began my talk by offering a couple of confessions:

First, I am still in the process of making my PhD malleable. I do not have any concrete answers for how to make a living as an independent historian, yet.

Second, I have the luxury of being able to take my time and figure out what career path will work best for me because I have spousal support.

My partner Tim has a great job; he works for Google. He is incredibly supportive and has the patience of a saint. Tim helped me through graduate school and now he is content to let me explore how I can create a career as an independent historian. I do not know how I got so lucky in life, but I am grateful for it.

Next, I discussed how I work as an historian and writer and dabble in entrepreneurship.

Finally, I talked about what I wish I had known at the beginning of my transition out of academia.


 lightbulb with graduation hat3 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started to Leave Academia

1. Nearly every person who leaves academia experiences a similar period of transition

Step 1. Depression and Mourning

Even if you don't want a traditional tenure-track job, most people who leave the academy experience a feeling of loss over their unrealized dream of living the “academic life.”

Step 2: Acceptance and Hope

You emerge from your gloomy phase into one of acceptance.

You recognize the fact that you were not meant to be a "traditional academic" and you have hope that you will be able to follow your passion in a fulfilling way.

Step 3: Exploration

Most of the time you know deep-down what it is you want to do, but few of us will admit it right away, which means many of us will explore different career options.

I explored a lot last year and I am still exploring. Last year, I interned with 2 public history groups and found that I did not want to run a non-profit.

Step 4: Action

You admit what you want to do and take steps to pursue your calling.

Deep-down I knew that I wanted to make a career as a public historian, someone who makes history accessible for everyone through my writing and speaking.

This year, I am experimenting with how I can earn a living from my writing and speaking.


2. Twitter is a great resource for people who want to transition out of the academy

I am still in awe of the generosity of the #postacs, #altacs, and #twitterstorians on Twitter.

Nearly everyone in these communities has a helpful story or advice that they are willing to share with you.

All you need to do is ask.


3. You HAVE transferrable skills

Graduate school was a valuable experience that taught us skills that “real-world” companies and organizations value.

A list of just a few of our marketable skills • Analytical Thinking • Ability to Write • Ability to Synthesize LARGE amounts of information into digestible nuggets • Computer Skills • Research • Project Management • Entrepreneurialism



The above outline represents the information you will find during my segment of the panel, which begins at about 23 minutes 20 seconds.

You will find a lot of value in this video if you are thinking about, or in the process of, leaving academia or if you are a professor thinking about ways you can improve your graduate education program.

You will find that some of the most valuable insights come during the Question & Answer session at the end of the panel.

Please feel free to tweet me, send me an e-mail, or leave a comment if you have questions about how you can embrace your post-academic or alternative-academic life.