Alexandra M. Lord: Our Secret Nonacademic Histories

Roundup: Talking About History

Alexandra M. Lord left academe in 2000 for a position with the federal government. Since 2004, she has run Beyond Academe, a free Web site that helps historians find work outside of the academy.

When my seatmate on a delayed flight turned and casually asked what I did, I braced myself. Over the past 15 years, I have discovered that "historian" ranks high on most people's list of fantasy jobs; their enthusiasm can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.

My seatmate was, as are so many lawyers, a former history major. "And your area of expertise?" he excitedly asked.

"I'm a medical historian. My recent book was on the history of sex education," I replied.

"Wow," he said, "That must be incredibly controversial. You must encounter a lot of taboos and deep, dark secrets."

Well, I have heard countless stories about other people's sex education at birthday parties and Passover Seders, in the gym, and even in the grocery store. But taboos? Deep, dark secrets? Very few. I have, however, stumbled up against the ultimate taboo in writing about a different topic: nonacademic career paths for historians and other Ph.D.'s in the humanities.

When I decided six years ago to create a Web site for historians looking for work outside of academe, I did so because of my own tortured career path....

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