Wednesday, January 6, 2010

We're Number Five and How to Stay There

The Wall Street Journal has just published a ranked list of the 200 best and worst jobs. And guess what? Historian ranks close to the top. We're number 5. I'm not sure that I'd rather be an actuary (the top-ranked job) but it sure beats out number 200, roustabout.

Alas, it's harder and harder to become a historian these days. (For a reality check, read this.)

Tenure line faculty positions are disappearing. Secure jobs as public historians are even scarcer as the feds and state governments take the budgetary axe to museums and libraries. Where's the stimulus package for historians?

The reality is that a lot of us will be moving down the list. (Not very many will be moving up, given the techno-illiteracy that prevails in our corner of the humanities). In the short run, you may find work as 125 (waiter/waitress) or 138 (bartender), but over the long run, shoot higher.

For those of you frozen out of the interviewing suites or the cattle call tables at the AHA, resist the temptation to become an attorney. At number 80, you will certainly not be happier and it will be a few years (after you've paid off your $120,000 in student loans) before you are richer. And before you think about law school, pay heed to the growing number of disaffected, bored, burned out, or laid off JDs who are applying to PhD programs. Surely you had at least one washed-up lawyer in your graduate school cohort.

Another counterintuitive piece of advice: Unless you love standing for six hours a day teaching some bland version of world history to a bunch of sullen adolescents, avoid number 116 (teacher).

Instead, look for jobs where you can use your skills as a writer and researcher. Number 7 (paralegal assistant) isn't too shabby, if you can stand working for someone else (a skill that you'll have to cultivate after years of solitary research in the archives). Or check out number 13 (technical writer), one of the few jobs that will reward the literary talent that you tried to pick up in grad school (history writing may not be as good as it used to be in the golden age of narrative, but compared to the run-of-the-mill author of computer manuals and corporate reports, you are C. Vann Woodward). Anyhow, that work isn't much drier than writing the average dissertation--and you won't have to figure out how to cite that obscure manuscript collection in proper Chicago style.

If you can't give up the graduate student lifestyle, try out number 74 (author, books). You can get up when you want, you'll avoid excruciating faculty meetings, and even if your life is insecure, you'll set your own schedule.

Here's CVW's best advice. While you're toiling away at number 125 or 138 or even 200, find yourself a good matchmaker or spend more time applying your research skills to perusing OKCupid. The best way, short of tenure, to remain happily ensconced in job number 5 is to find yourself a spouse or partner who can support your vocation.


  1. C. Vann-your last piece of advice is so right on. I'm signing up right now. Ladies, beware.

  2. Not sure why "roustabout" is so low. I'm possibly the only working historian who has also worked with a traveling carnival. Roustabouts get to live on curly fries and beer, see new and interesting smallish towns (anyplace with a county fairground), spend winters in Florida, and, if they're skilled at manipulating the lever on the Hammerhead ride, can supplement their income by the change that they shake out of people's pockets. Okay, so you live in a trailer. But you never have to put on high heels or a tie, and can openly -- OPENLY! -- sneer at anyone who uses the word "assessment." Not too shabby.

  3. Crushing College DebtJanuary 7, 2010 at 8:05 PM

    Where does drug dealer fall on the list?
    Growing and dealing pot isn't a bad way to earn a living.
    Especially in a university town. psilocybin laced chocolate bars are also fun to make and quite popular.

  4. I'm with Ginzburg Carlo: C. Vann's final bit of advice is clearly the most useful and least likely to become obsolete. It haunts me every day that my father -- when I was already grown -- told me one day, "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl as it is with a poor girl."

    Given the state of the academic industry, I haven't ruled anything out. Hey wingman, does my breath smell fresh?

  5. Growing and dealing pot isn't a bad way to earn a living.
    Especially in a university town. psilocybin laced chocolate bars are also fun to make and quite popular.