Panel on the Many Careers of Historians as Writers

December 13, 2018

At our final event of this semester, on December 4th the department’s Career Development Initiative hosted a panel discussion on the many careers of historians as writers moderated by Professor James Vernon. We were joined by Professor Elena Schneider, who prior to her academic career worked in the publishing industry, and by four of our PhD alumni who work in writing careers beyond higher education: Katie Harper, a grant writer for the Sierra Club; Andrea Horbinski, a freelance writer and writer for Netflix; Karen McNeill, a family historian at US Bank; and Jacob Mikanowski, a freelance journalist and writer. I also chimed in to talk about opportunities available for part-time writing and editing gigs while in grad school.

Our discussion began with the various experiences panelists had with academic writing as graduate students and how this writing compared to their current work. While a number of the panelists spoke very positively about their experiences of dissertation writing and their ongoing academic writing, many talked about their discomfort with the individuated voice of academic writing and their enjoyment of writing in other, and more collaborative, forms - both short and long - and for different audiences - from the general public to the private and non-profit sectors - in their current work. Elena Schneider also drew attention to the many different kinds of writing required of faculty within higher ed beyond journal articles and monographs, including lectures, grant applications, and letters of recommendation, and to the different voices required to address these different audiences.

The paths our panelists took to paid writing work outside of academia were varied. For some, opportunities to do paid writing work emerged from exploring other interests and voices as a writer while in graduate school - for fun, as a way to make ends meet, or both. For two of our panelists, the experience of adjuncting and the desire for secure employment in the Bay Area were important factors. For all of our alumni, the decision to pursue a career beyond higher ed was made gradually, and at multiple different junctures after Qualifying Exams.

In the course of our discussion, all of the panelists emphasized the tremendous skill set history PhD students have already as writers and editors. They urged current students to recognize their expertise and to pursue opportunities to write for a variety of audiences while in grad school, whether by pitching an op-ed to a newspaper or magazine, or simply blogging on a subject of interest. They also recognized the difficulty of cultivating several different sets of professional experience and expertise while in grad school and urged us to see normal parts of graduate school such as seminars, dissertation writing, reading and writing groups, and in particular teaching and grading, as important aspects of our professional development for a wide range of careers.

They also spoke about the ways in which they had grown as writers in their current careers. Our panelists highlighted collaborative writing and the collaborative editing process as major features of writing outside of academia across sectors. They also spoke about the skill of writing for a general rather than specialist audience, and the importance of hustling, pitching, and taking risks - aspects of writing that we tend to un-learn as graduate students. A good deal of our discussion was about how infantilizing graduate school can be, and the necessity of claiming back our own agency.

Panelists had a number of tips for current students. They urged us to care about style and to seek out good rather than bad academic writing as readers. They suggested joining a writing group or otherwise looking for opportunities to collaborate on writing, and to get and give feedback to others. Finally they recommended taking more classes outside of the history department to gain exposure to different methods and different kinds of writing. Lastly, they encouraged grad students not to wait but to seek out paid opportunities now - whether as editors for department faculty, or through the countless organizations within and beyond higher ed that pay for writing and editing.

Jacob Mikanowski also had a number of specific tips for anyone interested in pitching editors. He described the pitching process as one of trial and error and urged persistence. He also emphasized that what works with an editor once might not work again, and noted that the process of pitching a long piece might involve a series of pitches of increasing length. To pitch a piece, you should pay attention to the flow of news and public debate and then find the contact information of an editor who tends to publish pieces similar to what you have in mind (for this Twitter is a great resource).

Thank you again to our panelists for taking the time to talk with us, and a special thanks for Maelia Dubois for her detailed minutes!