People often ask me what I plan to do after I finish studying history. “What, you know, JOB, will you get?” they say. That’s not just people who don’t know me well or polite strangers making conversation; even one of my uncles asked me back when I started my undergraduate degree, “You’re going to be, what, a history teacher then?” As if history is a discipline whose only function is to perpetuate itself, a self-referential circle that exists only in academic institutions; ivory towers cut off from the real world.
There are all sorts of reasons why this view of history is false, which I won’t go into here, but it can sometimes be hard to get away from it in the midst of writing a doctoral thesis. For a long time a PhD has been seen as the route into a career in academia. A few decades ago one could, technically, do without one, and there are some excellent older historians around the UK that ‘only’ have an MA, but nowadays that won’t wash. If you want to be an academic you need a PhD; your thesis is a kind of 100,000 word cover letter.
This all makes a lot of sense and, like me, most of my peers are at the very least entertaining the possibility of going into academia after we finish. Equally, one has to be realistic and be aware that you might need an alternative. Everybody knows that more people complete PhDs in history every year than there are university jobs, and it follows that some of us will be disappointed. Others of us will find that although we have always loved history, and always will, three years studying one narrow question, spending most of that time alone, has put us off a career doing essentially the same thing. There’s no shame in discovering this, of course, but it can sometimes leave final year PhDs approaching completion in a state of panic. What, you know, JOB will I get?
It’s really important to bridge this gap, which is why I was grateful to the department for organising an event earlier this week for postgraduate students on ‘History careers outside academia’. We were joined by the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen, the writer and broadcaster Juliet Gardiner, and David Owen, a teacher at Fortismere School in North London. All three are history graduates; indeed Jeremy and Juliet are graduates of our department. They spoke about their academic studies and their working lives, showing us how they found – and continue to find – links between them. There is a world, it transpires, outside academia – and the skills we develop doing our PhDs are valued there too.
Jeremy Bowen explained that in his almost thirty years working at the BBC, much of it in the Middle East, his background in history had always stood in him good stead. Historians are used to thinking about causes, contexts, patterns, continuities and changes; we absorb lots of information and try to find the bigger issues that lie beneath. What’s really important here, where’s the argument? Reporters need to think like this too, Jeremy argued, and it was his training as a historian at UCL that helped him to do that. Here’s a rhetorical question for fans of The Wire: Scott Templeton and Gus Haynes – which one was more like a good historian?
Juliet Gardiner has had, she said, a ‘portfolio career’. Her experience flies in the face of the notion – still very popular when she was starting out, though perhaps less so now – that one goes through life pursuing one career. She started out in publishing as an editor, moved on to run her own non-fiction imprint, wrote a couple of books and eventually went her own way and became a ‘freelance historian’ so to speak, regularly appearing on TV history programmes like ‘1900 House’ and writing more books as well. History isn’t just something that lives in universities or in academic monographs, and Juliet has found a way to make her knowledge of, and passion for, the subject translate into a working life that has been varied, interesting and rewarding.
Of course it’s obvious that as a teacher David Owen would find himself drawing on his academic work, but I was also interested to hear him talk about the ways in which he is continually challenged by teaching. History is incredibly popular at the moment in trade publishing and on television – as Juliet also pointed out – but for most people their main experience of the subject is still at school. If we want the public understanding of history to be shaped by historians and not just by politicians (see the latest national curriculum for an illustration of the risks of this) we need to be engaged with history at the school level. It was therefore very motivating to hear David Owen speak about the joy he finds in interesting his students in the subject; it also rounded off a very good evening.