I’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!