Category: Public history

Why I’m choosing to leave academia

Today’s entry is by Tamara Cooper. You might remember her from a previous blog entry on chronic illness and research. Even before the covid-19 pandemic began, Tamara considered the nature of work within the higher education sector and decided to pursue a career elsewhere. In this entry, she explains why—and emphasises that we need to think in different and healthier ways about the employment options and career goals of higher degree research students.

T Cooper Profile Picture

Tamara Cooper.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the future of the academy and the job prospects of current PhD students and recent graduates. Blog posts like @thesiswhisperer’s glorious anger at the need to reform the PhD and the academy, and @colourful_hist’s eloquent expression of the disruptive effect of the pandemic on career plans have been making the rounds. I have also seen numerous twitter posts wondering if now is the time to jump ship to other sectors such as education. About halfway through last year I made that exact decision, to re-train as high school teacher, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the reasons why.

Firstly, and I must stress this, I made this decision pre-pandemic, COVID-19 did not exist. I made the decision because I saw the university sector becoming more and more casualised, I was hearing stories of people spending ten years plus on casual contracts before landing a permanent job. I decided I didn’t want to do that, I was sick of being poor, I was sick of having to lean on my parents for financial support (though eternally grateful that I had that option). I had done the casual thing for years in retail and I didn’t want to go back. So, I made the decision to train as a high school teacher, I liked teaching and it seemed like a good fit for my personality.

At this point it would be best to tell you that when I left high school, teaching was always the plan. I took the advice of my godfather who was also a trained teacher. He told me to do my bachelor’s degree first, really get to know my teaching areas, and then complete my Graduate Diploma of Education. So that’s what I set out to do. But than I did my honours year, then I, out of curiosity, applied for some PhD programs and, to my surprise, won a scholarship to complete my PhD. At this point it seemed that I was bound for a career in the academy.

However, after a slightly traumatic run up to the end of thesis, I still shudder thinking about it, I started to wonder if I really wanted to stay in the academy. There seemed to be something toxic about the attitude to work, the style of work didn’t suit my personality, and I wasn’t enjoying it. Now don’t get me wrong, I love research and I love writing about history, but the metrics around how to do that in the academy seemed, to me, to sap the enjoyment out of it. That, coupled with increasing precarity, meant it just didn’t seem worth the effort to break into the industry. So, I made the decision to go back to the original plan, though I think I was the only one surprised by this decision. When I told my mum she just gave me that smug all-knowing look that mums do so well, and dad just nodded his head.

While I understand that training to become a high school teacher is not everyone’s cup of tea, I think there is merit in considering industries and sectors outside of universities for potential careers post PhD. There seems to be this prevailing idea that pursuing a career outside of the academy means you failed, or you somehow couldn’t hack it. Indeed, for some time I kept my decision quiet because of that reason; while I don’t agree with the idea, I simply didn’t have the energy to argue the point. Keeping quiet seemed like the least exhausting option. However, this thinking is ludicrous. We know that universities produce way more PhDs than there are positions for, even without all the challenges facing the industry. Yet, we continue to berate and downplay the achievements of those who seek careers outside the academy, we even call their career paths ‘alt ac’, like the academy is the only ‘real’ option.

I have heard of academic historians that look down on history teachers as not real historians, they deride academically trained historians who become teachers, but then turn around and complain that high school students are not being taught history properly. That old myths of history are being perpetuated within the school system, yet, they still refuse to engage with the system. It is the same logic that sees academic historians complain about the inaccuracies of popular histories while at the same deriding the efforts of historians who try engage with popular audiences. That said, the ability of historians to engage with popular history is hampered by a metric system that privileges elite journals over popular outputs while still insisting on public outreach (a rant for another time). However, I digress; my point is that we cannot continue to maintain this snobbery over the careers of PhDs.

While I recognise that I have only been involved in the education sector as a student, I have noticed a distinct lack of the competition that seems to colour the academic industry. In the lead up to making this decision I reached out to a couple of old friends who were teachers to discuss the day-to-day realities of being a high school teacher. They could not have been more helpful: they discussed the realities of their jobs, answered my somewhat stupid questions, and were all willing to help me with resources. My fellow education students in my classes are willing to share resources and help answer questions; there seems to be a sense of collegiality, despite the fact we are all going into the job market together. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some very nice and incredibly supportive people in academia, and have been incredibly privileged to have excellent mentors, but the conversations and interactions were always tinged by the fact everyone was competing for same amount of scarce jobs with very similar CVs.

The other thing I have noticed about the education sector, is the growing awareness of the fact that teaching is a JOB. It is something you do that pays the bills. Yes, it does attract a certain type of personality giving it the feel of a vocation and you may enjoy it a lot, but it is a JOB. In one memorable podcast I listened to for an education subject, the lecturer was discussing time management as being one of the biggest challenges for beginner teachers. She emphasised the importance of scheduling time in for relaxation, the importance of having time for yourself, and that by living and breathing the job you won’t be a better teacher. In fact, you will burn out, and you and your students will suffer. I have never seen this attitude in academia. There has always been this underlying attitude that you need to be constantly working to be a success, that taking time out is detrimental to your career. This seems contradictory and weird when you consider the wellness trends currently rife in academia.

And I know the education sector isn’t perfect. I too have read the reports about overworked teachers who are underpaid and not at all appreciated. People have told me the horror stories of the marking that teachers do. I do wonder if they have seen the marking I have to do as a casual tutor at universities; I wager it’s probably the same. But to me it comes down to this, life is full of stress, that’s the twenty-first century, you have to choose the stress that suits you. I know this the stress of academia does not suit me.

There is much more I could say on this topic. Before I made the decision, I did a lot of research on the topic, including job opportunities, wages, growth of industry etc, however, this is already longer than I planned so I will end on this note. I’m not trying to say we should all jump ship and become high school teachers, it’s not for everyone. However, neither is academia. We should be making decisions based on what is best for ourselves and the lives we want. The academy is in dire need of a shake up and it is exhausting to be searching for a job and financial security during this time. If you decide that you don’t want that exhaustion in your life, then so be it. There are plenty of viable and credible careers out there for PhD graduates. If you decide to jump ship you haven’t failed. It isn’t a sign you couldn’t hack it. You simply decided that you wanted something different in life. If you do stick it out on the casual contracts for years and then finally land the permanent job, good for you! I’m ecstatic for you. However, those who stay in academia don’t have more stamina than those who leave, and those who leave aren’t smarter for getting out. The only thing happening here is that people have made different choices, there should be no hierarchy of validity.


How To… Be a Tour Guide

In our first blog post of the year, Dr Imogen Wegman provides a guide to tour guiding. Imogen, who recently completed her PhD in History at the University of Tasmania, talks about the joys and frustrations of leading tour groups, explains how it can improve your skills as a scholar and communicator, and shares some selections from her collection of memorable moments.

An older man stands in front of the cells in the Port Arthur Penitentiary, admiring the ruins of the stone walls and floors. He turns to his family, clearly proud about deducing the purpose of these small rooms. He declares them to be shower cubicles. As a tour guide, there are times to feign deafness, but some things cannot be ignored. I step forward, “Uh, sir, these were the cells, where the prisoners were kept, where they slept. Not showers.” He insists, pointing at the little stone shelf built into the wall, “Showers! For the soap!” His companions look on, uncertain who to believe. I try once more, this time showing him the illustrated information board. “See?” No. I would not be winning that battle. Another guest calls for my attention, and with some relief I move away.

Wegman 20180210_160818For the past six summers I have worked as a tour guide in Hobart, taking guests from the cruise ships that visit our harbour out to experience some of southern Tasmania’s heritage, culture and food. This was a welcome break as I researched and wrote my thesis. But it was more than a change of scene. I started tour guiding and my PhD in the same summer, and I quickly found it to be an extension of my academic work. With limited opportunities for teaching within the university, guiding is an effective place to practise communicating complicated concepts to the most general of audiences.

There are lots of different types of tour guiding – site-based, themed, multi-stop, posh, regular… I usually work on tours booked onboard, chosen by guests for the stops on the route. The compulsory part of my job is to get them all back to the ship on time and in one piece. I work alongside a coach driver (although a lot of companies use driver-guides), and any talking I do en route is up to me.

Like giving a conference paper, multiplied by fifty

Being a tour guide is not for everyone. You become a performer for a captive, but not always captivated, audience and it can be a confronting exercise. At any given moment, only half of your audience will actually be listening to you. They have come on this tour to see Australian animals or taste Tasmanian wines, not to get a history lesson. Your audience will probably have some retired academics, but it will also have young couples, eastern European oligarchs, American ranch owners, Indigenous peoples, children, and a shaky granddad sent on tour by a family who want someone else to look after him.

*murblemutter from the back of the coach*

Me: “Can everyone at the back hear me?”

Them shouting: “No!”

*Twiddles mic volume* “How about now?”

Them: “No! It’s not you mate, there’s a bloody rude woman on her phone and we can’t hear over her!”

The questions they ask won’t be theory-laden trip hazards, but they will reveal prejudices you need to decide how to address. In Tasmania I am regularly asked if this island ever had an Indigenous population. This is despite spending the first twenty minutes of the tour talking about the history of the island before 1788. Holiday brain is real, and it makes people forget everything.

You’ll need a thick skin – the grumpy uncle who thinks doing a PhD is a waste of time also goes on holiday, and doesn’t keep his views for the family table. My usual response to rudeness is to mentally catalogue that person and their behaviour as fodder for future dinner party stories, while tossing my head with an insincere laugh and walking away. I have an entire digital folder of amusing moments. Guests will also insist that they are right, which will equip you for dealing with those inevitable statement-questions at conferences.

How to get into it

My mother has been guiding for the cruise ships for years, and as the new season approached in 2013 she mentioned to her bosses that I could ‘talk under wet cement’. I accompanied a couple of tours to see how it worked, and then I was in. In my experience this is how a lot of the touring industry works – I have been offered tour guide positions based on an official application process, but have also seen a lot of emails from the bosses asking for new names to add to their lists.

Not everyone has a contact on the inside, but if you think you might like to get into tour guiding, start by looking on TripAdvisor for reviews of tour companies in your area, watching for clues about the guides they hire – reviewers often mention that their guide is studying if they think it affected the quality. Go on some tours and talk to the guides – they might tell you who to contact, and you’ll get a feel for how the companies operate.

Do I need tour guide training?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In Tasmania there are no requirements of certification, but that might vary around Australia. Even if nothing is required, it is good practice to think critically about every tour you have ever been on – what did you enjoy about the guide’s performance, what not? If I have an experienced driver I’ll often ask for their feedback at the end of the day. Often companies are looking for employees with some kind of heavy vehicle license, so they can talk and drive at the same time, but walking tours around our cities are getting more popular, and site-specific tours don’t usually require any driving.

A couple have an album of their visit to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary from a few years earlier. They are determined to recreate some of the photos.

Her: Where can I hold a koala bear?

Me: Oh, holding them stresses them out, but you can go and have a photo next to one.

Him: But we held one last time, here’s the photo. Is that somewhere else?

Me: No, that’s here, but the person holding it is an employee, and she’s holding a wombat, not a koala.

Her: So you know her? Why can she hold a koala bear?

Me: Well, it’s a wombat…

Her: No, it isn’t.

Me: Yes, it is. They’re from the same family, so they do look a little similar…

Her: But how can I hold a koala bear like she is?

Me: *exit left, with haste*

So, what do I talk about?

Some companies give their guides scripts to learn and recite, but the best companies will encourage you to do some research and find new stories to tell. I have the advantage of researching Tasmanian history, so there has been a direct conversion from my thesis into a commentary. Not everyone researches local history that can feed directly into their guiding however, but we are not bound by our research topics. As trained researchers, we have the skills to filter good research from bad, fact from fiction, and I would argue that this is what makes us valuable guides.

I focus on a narrative that runs from 40,000 years ago to the late-nineteenth century. As we drive this is broken up by discussion about local landmarks and smaller stories – non-Australians love hearing about the Bunnings Onion-Sausage debacle if we go past a prominent hardware store. I try to end each of my history bits at a key point, and then pick it back up later when there’s another stretch of road. I don’t usually tell them explicitly about my PhD unless it comes up in conversation, although I will sometimes mention that I’m a historian.

Listen to how your guests respond. The questions they ask reveal a lot. Some questions will tell you they just weren’t listening, but don’t take that personally. There are usually some engaged guests who ask for clarification or more information. Ask yourself if that meant you used too much jargon, or didn’t explain a fundamental concept? In my first tours I heard a lot of surprise that convicts would receive land grants, because I hadn’t properly explained that the earliest convicts sent to the colonies were young, fertile, healthy, and chosen to populate and build a new centre of British control. Generally I try to remain neutral, aware that every tour group includes a broad political spectrum. I am unwilling to spark off a fight in a fully-packed coach.

Find a balance between simplification and too much detail. Credit your group with some brains, and remember that often people think history is boring because of the way it’s told, rather than the content. Tell some humorous stories, a bit of mild gore, some adventure, but do what we are trained to do – use it to illustrate a larger point about the convict system, supply shortages, whatever part of the history you are up to. Practise using humour to make a serious point, but be careful and be receptive to the response. If something doesn’t work, try telling it differently next time – you will end up on the same route hundreds of times, use that to refine and hone your skills.

Be aware of what your guest is actually asking. They will ask questions that seem dumb, but consider what might be pushing that question – what basic principle might they not be familiar with? This applies also in academia, where we tend to assume understanding as we work with expert audiences, which can be frustrating for newbies to the field. View your topic as an outsider would. For Americans this might be the role of a governor within Commonwealth countries, for older Australians it might relate to mid-twentieth century school lessons about the ‘extinction’ of the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples.

A conversation I have at least once every tour

A: I’m looking for Bus 7.

Me: Yep, you’re with me, on this one here.

A: This one?

Me: Yes, this is number 7.

A: You’re sure?

Me: Yes.

A: Honey, she says this is our bus.

B: Number 7? This one here?

A: Apparently.

B: This is our bus?

Me: Yes! Number 7!

B: Oh. OK.

This job has been met by some academics with scorn – recently on hearing that I had started a few regular jobs post-PhD, someone commented that I ‘must be able to stop with all that tour guide stuff now.’ But with every tour I am becoming a better communicator of history. I am nowhere near perfect, but I do credit this job with improving my written and oral storytelling skills. So, every time someone tells me they’d learned something new, has an engaged question, or asks for a book recommendation to learn more, I do a little happy dance because what I’m doing might just work.

How To… Produce a History Podcast

In our latest post, Dr Tamson Pietsch, UTS historian and producer of the brilliant new History Lab podcast, offers advice on how to produce a history podcast.

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How To… Do a Radio Interview

As part of our series revisiting some of our most popular posts, this week we feature ABC RN’s Michael Cathcart sharing the golden rules of giving an engaging radio interview. He takes us through the process of landing a radio slot to the ways historians can enthrall their audience by having a bold narrative, being enthusiastic and above all sharing a love of history!

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Hottest Tips for ECRs from the AHA ECR Blog Archive – How To… Write a Book Proposal with Phillipa McGuinness

This week we continue revisiting some of our most popular and insightful posts from the AHA ECR blog archives with a piece from Phillipa McGuinness. Here she offers some fantastic tips on what and what not to do when writing a book proposal. Phillipa also explains what will catch the eye of a publisher, reminds us to read widely and encourages historians to be imaginative and bold.

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How To… Use Social Media To Boost Your Research Profile

If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to pimp your research profile, then this post is for you! In our first piece of 2018 we have a special guest post from the wonderful Tseen Khoo of The Research Whisperer blog (check it out if you haven’t already, it’s fantastic!). Here Tseen explains the do’s and don’t’s of social media etiquette and how to make the most out of your social media presence.

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Q&A with Douglas Wilkie

In this Q&A we talk with Dr Douglas Wilkie about his love of solving history puzzles and the difference between writing as a freelance and academic historian. He encourages all of us to do what we love, to research meticulously, and to tell a good story.

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Emerging Historians – Dr Gemmia Burden

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Dr Gemmia Burden – AHA member since 2011

My name is Gemmia Burden (most of the people in my life call me Gemma). I started a PhD at the University of Queensland in 2010 and after 7 years (finally) finished earlier this year. I’m currently working two jobs, full time as a cultural heritage consultant at Australian Heritage Specialists, and as a casual research assistant for Associate Professor Anna Johnston at UQ’s Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities. Continue reading