I’ve done it. I quit my job as an academic historian. It was a full-time permanent job at a decent institution. It was a job I loved. After I sent the email, I screamed – to the bemusement of my friend Fiona, who was staying with me in Berlin for a few days. Then I went to the library and stared at my computer screen for ages. I started crying. Then I felt great relief and started thinking about the new life that was about to start. No more board meetings, no more marking, no more admin.
I would be working as a journalist again. It’s not a career choice known for its security or even respectability (not after Leveson anyway), and yet it’s something I’ve never been able to let go – all those years I’ve been spending at universities, in libraries, researching, writing, completing my PhD, teaching. I’m really going back to my roots.
Back to my roots
I was writing reports for my local newspaper before I even knew what subject I would study at university. I kept writing for various newspapers and press agencies while doing my various degrees, and I would spend university holidays in editorial offices looking for stories. Yet, I always felt I had to do something more ‘serious’. Despite the serious subject matter (there’s no shortage of important and horrifying stories to cover) journalism never felt like work. It always seemed like a bit of fun, a guilty pleasure. So somehow it didn’t qualify as actual work.
History has been like that too sometimes, especially when I’ve just been able to travel to archives and libraries and sit there for hours trailing through the material, getting absorbed into other people’s stories and other people’s lives. Writing things down, getting things published, planning new projects, trialling ideas – all that has been fun too, and I’m not planning to give it up. I might just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while – until I know where my journey is going to take me next. But more on this anon. On hearing of my uncertain future, a former tutor and now old friend of mine told me to ‘remember what Cromwell said at the end of his life, “No man goes so far as he who knows not where he is going.'”
Maybe I’ve come to understand that the main thing that attracted me to history was what was similar to journalism: getting into other people’s minds, asking questions, presenting complex issues in ways accessible to others. Maybe I’ll come back to academia at some point. I’ve switched before, and I might do it again. Often, whether or not you’re happy somewhere depends on the specific environment you find yourself in rather than the profession as such.
Navigating the academic world
I’ve never quite learnt to navigate the academic world properly though, and this is probably what did it for me in the end. In a round of historians I will always be the one saying the wrong thing to the wrong people, lacking deference in dealing with senior colleagues and drifting off when the famous keynote speaker at a conference rehashes their work of the past 25 years.
One of the worst things for me is making small talk at conferences and job interviews. While everyone else is bragging about their achievements, fellowships, REF submissions etc I just feel like making an inappropriate joke or announcing to everyone that the best thing about my university is the gym.
It’s one thing to love your research, it’s quite another to fit into the environment in which this research takes place. As a woman and a foreigner in the UK who has studied at a red brick (or rather concrete) institution, more by accident than strategic design, I’ve never felt I was part of that world of British Oxbridge-educated males who start wearing Tweeds before their 30th birthday (sorry guys – I love you, really!). The history of political thought is particularly bad that way, no matter how much you love seventeenth-century ideas, radicals and ‘fanaticks’.
Square peg in a round hole
Over the last couple of months, working at the news agency has brought home to me how much of a square peg in a round hole (or rather a round peg in a square hole, if that makes sense) I’ve been in academia all along. Working in the office now, writing, translating and editing stories and joking with my colleagues, I feel like a fish in the water. I might still say the wrong things to the wrong people, but that’s ok. Admittedly, I do feel a bit like the accountant running away to join the circus, but I also think that history matters in many different areas of our lives. It has helped me to understand the politics, society and ideas of the past and will hopefully continue to help me understand the politics, society and ideas of the present and future.