"No, You Cannot Be a History Professor"

This is what Larry Cebula of Eastern Washington University tells his students who want to pursue an academic career in history.  Here is a taste of his popular post:

I know that some of your other professors are encouraging your dreams of an academic career. It is natural to turn to your professors for advice on becoming a professor, and it natural for them to want to see you succeed. Remember though that we 1) mostly have not been on the job market lately and 2) in any case are atypical Ph.D.s in that we did land tenure track positions. To return to the lottery analogy, it is like asking lottery winners if you should buy a ticket. For our part, there is a lot of professional satisfaction in mentoring some bright young person, encouraging their dreams, writing them letters of recommendation and bragging of their subsequent acceptance into a good doctoral program. Job market? What job market?

Your professors are the last generation of tenure track faculty. Every long-term educational trend points towards the end of the professoriate. States continue to slash funding for higher education. Retiring professors are not replaced, or replaced with part-time faculty. Technology promises to provide education with far fewer teachers–and whether you buy into this vision of the future or not, state legislators and university administrators believe. The few faculty that remain will see increased service responsibilities (someone has to oversee those adjuncts!), deteriorating resources and facilities, and stagnant wages. After ten years of grad school you could make as much as the manager of a Hooters! But you won’t be that lucky.

Cebula responds to his critics here.

On one level, I think Cebula’s advice is a bit harsh.  While I can’t help but agree that the job market is declining, I think it is a bit alarmist at this point to predict the end of the tenure-track professoriate in the next twenty years.  There may be fewer such jobs, but there will still be jobs. And if an undergraduate history major, after considering the risks, feels called to pursue a career as a history professor, I will offer my encouragement.

On another level, Cebula’s post should be read as a call to reform.  We who lead and teach in undergraduate history departments continue to celebrate the students who want to be professors.  We often deem acceptance into a prestigious Ph.D program as the highest calling our students can pursue.  We pat ourselves on the back for the number of students we send to graduate school each year and we tell their stories at open houses to prospective students.

Why are we doing this?  Does it make sense?  Is it responsible?

Most of our undergraduate history majors do not end up pursuing Ph.Ds. Yet we invest most of our time and energy into these students.  What about the rest of our history majors?  What about the student with the 3.5 GPA who does not want to pursue a Ph.D but may want to use their history major in the marketplace or the non-profit sector or the high school classroom or in a public history setting?  We need to invest the time and energy in these students.  We need to celebrate them. We need to give them a vision for what they can do with a history major and help them to pursue a meaningful vocation.

One thought on “"No, You Cannot Be a History Professor"

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