[I have written before about my efforts to help My Old Graduate School (MOGS) show its graduate students that they could do more with a History PhD. than they might think. I tried to convince my depressingly eager audience that their post-PhD. refuge could be to teach History in a “prep school.” (See here and here.) This past spring I was invited to speak again, along with four other PhDs from MOGS who had wound up “beyond the professoriate,” but the format—and, thus, the presentation—was to be different this time. As the History professor who organized the event remarked:
I’m hoping you might each prepare a 5-10 minute reflection on how you moved into your current career . . . and how you learned about and navigated the non-professional job market. This is the biggest challenge, I think, for our current students: their advisors all followed [recognized] pathways into the professoriate, and so many don’t have the expertise you do in locating jobs beyond the professoriate. . . .
How could I turn this invitation down? Dinner and a brief presentation, followed by a Q & A with our eager (desperate?) audience. Of course, there were certain difficulties: I found my first (and, as it turned out, only) position “beyond the professoriate” more than four decades ago, when computers, the Internet, even the term “networking” for all I know, were unknown. Yet, perhaps my testimony could serve as a light-hearted return to “those thrilling days of yesteryear,” a few minutes of “comic relief” that might be good for a laugh but would not apply to my audience in any practical way. Perhaps the advice of the younger panelists would be more relevant to a job search in 2016.
What follows is based on the outline I prepared for my presentation, although, with a maximum of ten minutes available, I obviously did a lot of editing and–ad-libbing–in order to get my main points across.]
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The 1972-1973 academic year would be my final one at MOGS, no matter how my job search turned out. The first four years I had been supported by an NDEA fellowship (even though I was studying history, not science or math), including classroom experience as a T.A.; the fifth year, during which I was determined to finish my dissertation, would include teaching American History, and, during the spring term, one section of American survey at Georgia Tech as a night course, to students who had been working during the day at “real jobs” (i.e., “co-op” students).
I also was trying to break into publishing, as my MOGS professors constantly urged, and was beginning to find some success—two articles had appeared in 1972; a third would be accepted in 1973; and between 1970 and 1973, I had published a half dozen book reviews.
During the spring term of 1973, I was typing my dissertation (on an Underwood portable electric typewriter purchased specifically for that task, for those who haven’t visited the Smithsonian lately), at the rate of 20 pages a day for a solid month. Moreover, our first child had been born in February 1972.
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I had already begun searching for a teaching position during the previous academic year. My long-suffering spouse typed perhaps one hundred letters to various colleges and universities, but to no avail. I got a single interview that year, but our department sent both me and my best friend to seek the same post, which pretty much guaranteed that neither of us would get it.
By late 1972, the handwriting was on the wall: there would be no early entry into the professoriate for me. Yet, I still very much wanted to teach History, so I decided that, if I were without college teaching prospects by January 1973, I would begin searching the ranks of junior colleges and private secondary schools (i.e., prep schools). And that’s what happened.
The reason I did not look into teaching in public high schools was that I had begun my undergraduate career as a “History Education” major but had quickly become disillusioned by the large number of “Education” courses I would have to take and the paucity of actual History courses above the survey level that I would be able to squeeze in. So I changed to a plain old History major in the School of Arts and Sciences (or, as we liked to call it, “Air and Sunshine”).
A decade later, I was still so leery of having to take the “Education” courses I’d avoided as an undergraduate that I eliminated public high schools from consideration, figuring that I wouldn’t need “Education” courses as a prep school teacher. Big mistake! A story for another time.
In the MOGS library, I found a wonderful book, the name of which I’ve since forgotten, though I do remember that it was bound in red. This reference enabled me to search for all sorts of information about every prep school in the country. Using criteria I’ve since forgotten, I made a list of “day schools” (i.e., no on-campus resident students), and the Willowy Bride began sending out letters again. (My dissertation director at MOGS was not happy with my decision to scour the secondary-school market for a teaching position, though he certainly understood my reasons for doing so.)
I wound up with three potential job offers, one in New Jersey, another in Alexandria, Virginia, and a third at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), just down the road from the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, in toney Buckhead. When AFPS came in with a salary offer that was $2000 higher than the girls’ school in Alexandria, my decision was a no-brainer: I agreed to join the high school History faculty at AFPS in the Fall of 1973.
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Keep in mind that I somehow wound up landing a prep school teaching position without the sort of support you folks have at MOGS today. It was an exercise in what a friend refers to as “shakin’ and bakin’,” doing the best I could with my own resources, though without either a real plan or much help, except of course for my indispensable Willowy Bride.
My greatest concern was that no prep school would be interested in hiring a PhD: rather, they would assume, or so I believed, that I would only stay for a short time, until “something better (i.e., a college job) came along,” the exact thing I ended up telling my unenthusiastic MOGS dissertation director. But, here’s the thing: it turned out that I—and of course other newly-minted PhDs who went in the same direction I did—were, for once, ahead of the curve, though none of us understood that at the time.
Heads of prep schools were aware by the early 1970s that new PhDs being interviewed usually came to private secondary schools as “Plan B.” Remember the name “prep school”? Well, what were those institutions “prepping” their students for? College, right? And what sorts of folks taught college students? All together now, TAs and PhDs! So, every PhD hired then—and since, for that matter—became another piece of evidence that a prep school could wave in front of prospective students, and parents, to show the school’s dedication to “college preparatory education.” Prep schools still eagerly consider teaching applicants with doctorates, so having a PhD on the secondary level today can be an advantage to an applicant.
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From my experience back in the “stone age,” but, more especially, from my subsequent career of almost forty years on a prep school faculty, including a decade or so as head of the History Department and numerous years mentoring new faculty, let me offer a few suggestions for those thinking you might be interested in teaching History in a prep school.
First, set up visits to a local prep school or two. Talk to the department head and/or the person in charge of hiring and get some idea of what they expect new teachers to bring to their school.
If you like what you see during your school visit(s), fill out an application, then hope for the best. While you’re waiting, get in the habit of calling the school(s) to which you’ve applied, indicating your continuing interest in a teaching position, and see if something has come up. Don’t be discouraged if you still have no job offer by May or June; it’s not all that unusual for prep schools to have vacancies in the middle of the summer, or even—and this was true at AFPS—as late as the opening of the new school year!
Also remember that, while prep schools want teachers who know their academic “stuff,” they also have other needs that must be filled—and from within the ranks of their teaching faculty, for the most part. So, tell the school what other skills you have besides a deep knowledge of your dissertation topic.
Can you help coach a sport? Rest assured that most prep schools offer lots of sports options to their students, some of which you might already have had experience with earlier in your high school or college career. Moreover, “coaching assignments” are not limited to sports teams: there are also activities like debate, the school newspaper, yearbook, student government, music program, all of which need “advisors/sponsors.”
Moreover, depending on the school, there also will be myriad additional clubs and activities that need “sponsors.” Take some initiative here: I know from personal experience that, if you don’t tell your school what you’d like to help sponsor or advise, then the school will tell what you’re going to do, whether you think you’re good at it or not!
You might also try to get on a substitute teaching list, perhaps at more than one school—the money’s not great, but you’ll get your foot in a door or two by doing so, all the while working like the proverbial beaver on your dissertation. (And, at AFPS, we did hire a couple of full-time History teachers off the substitute list.)
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My point is that there is life–and a potentially rewarding career–“beyond the professoriate.” As you’ve learned today, the PhD is not simply an entrée to the professoriate (though, of course, many of you hope it will be, as I did all those years ago). Rather, the degree in hand, and the skills you mastered in order to earn it, combined with your own extracurricular interests, have, whether you are aware of it or not, prepared you for lots of positions besides that of college professor.
Sure, winding up elsewhere might be disappointing at first, and it will surely require more work on your part than you’d expected, but, in the end, you might just find yourself both “beyond the professoriate” and not in a hurry to return to what you had once thought of as Nirvana. I know I did!
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: