Bye bye academia

cap-and-gownI’m having a break. At least for the next six months or so I will be working in the real world at the foreign languages desk of an international news agency in Berlin. It seems like a crazy thing for a historian to do, and most of my friends and colleagues in academia have seemed somewhat shocked on hearing the news. How could I possibly think of leaving behind such a much-coveted thing as a full-time, permanent academic job?

The thing is, I’m not sure I will. But I wanted to give journalism another go. For the past couple of years, working in the parallel universe that is academia, I’ve been wondering many times what would have happened if I had stayed in journalism, got myself a job with a newspaper or even gone freelance. So I’m trying to find out now whether I’m ‘done’ with journalism or whether there are still avenues I need to explore.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being a historian. I enjoy my research and writing, and there are so many things I still want to write about. I also enjoy my teaching, and I can get really excited when one of my dissertation students comes up with a new idea. Supervising PhD students can be great fun too, especially seeing them make good progress, going to conferences, getting their first publications out. You end up feeling like a proud mum.

Alas, research, writing and teaching has come to be an ever smaller part of my job, so small even that I sometimes barely remember I am a historian and not an administrator. While I should be in the archive trailing through manuscripts and crumbly letters, I’m actually stuck at my desk in the office filling in forms and compiling statistics, rewriting programme specifications and thinking up marketing strategies. So I’ve been feeling more and more that this is not the job I once eagerly applied for, and it’s time to reassess my priorities and weigh up my options.

My university was really good about it. They’ve allowed me to go on an unpaid ‘career secondment’, where I can take six months off from my academic duties and follow different interests as long as they would benefit the University in the long run. If I return I’m sure they will. It certainly won’t do the University any harm if their academics learn how to write intelligibly and concisely for a wider audience, nor will it be a disadvantage to have some media connections. Even our students might benefit as I would be able to report back to them on what working in the real world is like and how best to get a placement in journalism. I could teach them about employability and transferable skills – something all history graduates should be aware of.

In fact, I like to joke with my colleagues that being a historian and being a journalist are two things not that far apart – except that in one field most people I write about are dead, while in the other they are still alive. While I can’t interview my historical subjects I can still read their letters and documents, speeches they made, diaries they kept, and I can find out what their contemporaries said about them. Both jobs require a lot of research, language skills and the occasional trip to a library or archive, though journalists tend to cover a wider range of subjects in less depth, while at the same time reaching much wider audiences. Both historians and journalists ideally provide a public service, helping us to understand our culture and our society, and who we are.

But I shouldn’t romanticise my job too much. It’s all really hard work whether I’m researching and writing academic monographs, book chapters and articles or news items and features to considerably tighter deadlines, whether I’m sitting through subject board meetings or the morning conference, whether I’m trying to squeeze information out of my students or out of a press officer or monosyllabic official.

In any case, I’m really excited about the opportunity I’ve been given, and I’m determined to make the most out of it whether I’m returning to academia or not. In fact, knowing myself, I might end up doing something somewhere in between. If you want to see how it goes, stay tuned!



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. I think it is good that you’re exploring other options – from experience, I think academia can be a closeted world and (certainly at graduate level) there is only limited awareness of non-academic careers and the world of work. So it would be of huge benefit to your students, if you do decide to go back. In fact, you can be an example to your students that historians do not only (nor should they necessarily strive to) only work in education – whether in schools, colleges or at universities. The lack of real world experience of academics is sometimes obvious but also potentially damaging to students as they do not have the insight into what other avenues there are, how to get there and stressing the importance of skills etc. You’ve already been good at moving outside the academy – with blogging and Twitter etc – and it would not be too much of an extension to go back to journalism. In fact, it might improve academic work if more academics did this, and make them write more ‘popular history’ rather than monographs which few people read. Plus there is no peer review for journal articles, which is a big plus! Best of luck to you. I hope your students recognise how useful it will be to them for you to do this – and I hope that you feel fulfilled and find what you are looking for in this role. It is really great you are doing it.

  2. I’m in a related but very different situation. After 17 years of academia, which I passionately love, I’m being forced out by the constrictiom of the job market. There isn’t even any adjuncting work available in my city, thanks to years of political assault on higher education in my state. Declining enrollments and reduced funding have dried up all my usual sources of work. So I’m having to find something else to do completely against my will. It makes me profoundly sad.

    1. Yes, it is sad how little governments all over the world value higher education and how they are destroying it by looking for value for money only. The humanities are probably suffering most because we don’t produce cancer cures or innovative solutions to the energy crisis. But there are things money can’t buy.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: