Alexandra M. Lord: Became a public historian because she couldn't get an academic job? No way.





[Alexandra M. Lord is the acting historian for the U.S. Public Health Service and the cocreator of a Web site, Beyond Academe, designed to help historians find nonacademic careers.]

"How long did you adjunct," whispered the professor, "before you became a public historian?" He glanced over his shoulder, as though concerned that we might be overheard discussing that great taboo for Ph.D.'s, a nonacademic career path.

Surely the only reason I had left academe was because I couldn't get a job, right?

Even as I searched for a polite answer -- I was never an adjunct and I happily left a tenure-track position to become a public historian -- I knew that whatever I said would do little to eradicate the prejudices he and many others have about nonacademic careers.

I have attended many scholarly conferences since I left academic work six years ago. At each meeting, I have encountered people who find it hard to believe that anyone would choose to leave voluntarily or that anyone who is not a professor can be a scholar.

An academic conference, as everyone knows, is as much about spotting the university on your name tag as it is about learning new ideas. Stories abound of graduate students and professors casting covert looks at name tags only to discover that they have been wasting their time talking to a "nobody."

After leaving academe, I worried that I would become a nobody. True, I had never felt like a somebody as a graduate student, a postdoctoral fellow, or even a professor at a small land-grant university, but my reputation would, I was sure, worsen as a nonacademic.

Just before my first conference as a public historian, I looked at several academic blog sites. One blogger, musing about the many independent scholars and public historians she saw at conferences, described us as "failed scholars."

I was stunned by the casual dismissal of scholars whom this blogger candidly admitted she did not know. ...



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