Over the past few years as I started my climb up the academic ladder, a few students have approached me with questions about how, exactly, one goes about teaching at the college level. I received another query from a former student today, and after an exchange of lengthy emails between us, I decided to convert the conversation into a blog post on the topic, one that likely will find itself replicated in web directories across the Internet.
Part of the reason that students ask professors for career advice is is because of the unpleasant fact that much of the information about the world of academia is almost hidden away, sort of like there is a secret society of academics conspiring to keep locked away this precious knowledge. For people just starting their college careers, there are few "how to" books on becoming a professor, and in fact many of the traditions are almost medieval in nature (master-apprentice relationships, Latin terminology, the hooding ceremony, to name but a few). I think that globalization and the Internet are beginning to tear down some of the artificial barriers that create the co-called "ivory towers" of academia, but this is slooooow change.
Here, then, is my advice on becoming a history professor.
Avoid being a timid student: Raise your hand every time you are stumped, and be one of the students who get their money's worth out of their education. If a professor is vague, ask for clarification, and if a professor tries to slide by with a flippant response, press further. Never let yourself get intimidated by academic titles or pompous windbags who are full of themselves because they have an advanced degree. As someone who grew up in a blue-collar Detroit neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, I was quite overawed at the whole world of the university, and it took me decades to figure this out. Of course, this was an era when even women and minorities were rare sights in many tenure-track universities (let alone blue-collar urchins like me), though there are still vestiges of the exclusive "old-boy" networks in some universities. When you run into the occasional stuffed shirt who tries to buffalo you, be respectful but persistent and demand your money's worth.
Vary your educational experiences: Many people in the field recommend getting at least one of your degrees at a different university, as there is a perception in the discipline that getting all three degrees at one university breeds a sort of provincialism or narrow-mindedness. However, for me geography played the determinant role in where I obtained my degrees, as I had children to raise. I say this because it is always useful to learn how other colleges and universities operate, and in my short time at BGSU I have realized that I would have benefited from greater exposure to a wider range of scholars. Still, this can also be obtained by working at a wide variety of places, as I have, and I have taught at six different schools in my short teaching career.
Work hard every day: I am fairly bright, but I have known quite a few students at both the undergraduate and graduate level whose brains performed at levels far beyond mine. However, I do pride myself on being one hardworking S.O.B. who makes up for any intellectual deficiencies with extraordinary effort. I attended every possible class, studied late into the night and beyond, and kept plugging away at even the most difficult books until I mastered them. I also went to school full-time, enrolled in more classes than I needed to graduate, and signed up for at least six hours of classes every summer between 2001 and 2009. At the risk of sounding boastful, my successes owe much more to hard work than brain capacity.
Choose useful areas of specialization: At the BA level, students do not usually declare a specialty, though most history majors have some idea of fields that interest them by the time they finish their undergraduate education. At the MA level, students often do not have an official specialization, though people usually take courses that have some bearing on their research (i.e., U.S. history courses for someone who has research interests in American topics, though a broad selection of some other field is always a good idea). At the doctoral level there is much greater specialization, and PhD students typically declare a major field, a minor field, and an area of special concentration. I strongly encourage people entering the field to choose at least one of these specializations in a field that is expanding. Unfortunately the world has far too many U.S. and European historians, and students who gain experience in fields such as Latin American, African, Middle Eastern, or Asian histories have greater opportunities when they hit the job market. Also, with the growth of online learning environments, be sure to develop some distance learning course design skills along the way.
Work with a variety of professors: I encourage students to work with a wide variety of professors along the way as opposed to finding two or three "favorites" and sticking with them. I learned from every history professor under whom I studied - even the not-so-great ones - and each professor has valuable perspectives that will contribute to the development of your own unique view of history. Even if a particular professor is a complete jackass, find ways to make yourself be seen as an excellent scholar and someone who will contribute to the department and the university. Sometimes those jackasses turn out to be much better over time, and they often surprise you with the most heartfelt and persuasive letters of recommendation. Also, if you go out of your way to speak well of even the most difficult professors and classmates, you gain a reputation as someone who gets along well with others, a quality that is highly prized in academia (remeber the connection between "college" and "collegial"? It matters). Avoid being the typical student who gripes about the impossibly tough professor, and instead be the hardworking geek who tries to get that rare A in Professor Pompous A. OldSchool's class.
Seek assistantships and fellowships: Assistantships are awarded by universities with graduate programs to promising grad students, and typically they pay a small annual stipend (typically around $10,000-$15,000) plus offer free tuition in exchange for that student working in the department. Teaching assistants (TAs) assist professors with large classes, and later get opportunities to teach their own unsupervised courses. Research assistants (RAs) work with a professor on a heavier research assignment, sometimes in archives and sometimes with databases or editing. This is an excellent way to keep costs down on obtaining a Master's degree and especially a PhD. I paid almost no tuition to UT for my two degrees, though they still make you pay for institutional fees and course textbooks. However, my 5-1/2 years of graduate school represented about $60,000 in tuition absorbed by the university. Fellowships are the next step up; in my case, I won a three-year UT fellowship that paid a higher stipend, all tuition and fees, and I had no teaching responsibilities. Essentially this was being paid $14,000 or more a year plus the $15,000 in tuition and fee waivers to read, write, and research.
Develop an academic network: Your hard work and accomplishments mean very little unless others know about your talents, and the best way to make this happen is to know people in the field. This is not case of sucking up to professors or bragging about your awards, but rather becoming part of a larger academic community. The professors under whom you study can write valuable letters of recommendation, and they can also help you in unexpected ways, like mentioning your name when an opportunity for a scholarship, fellowship, or job opening occurs. Also: I cannot underestimate the importance of humility and helping promote other students. There is a perception that academia is a cutthroat business (and at times it is indeed malignantly political), but the best way to get noticed is by praising the work of other students and the professors who teach your classes: not in a sycophantic way, but by finding legitimate examples of excellence. Over time others will return your goodwill tenfold: trust me on this one.
Say "yes" to every opportunity to teach: Once you get to graduate school, there will be many opportunities to develop your teaching skills. Be sure to maximize these chances, even if they are as simple as delivering a single lecture in someone else's class. Several times as an undergraduate I delivered short lectures in classes, and most professors enjoy some form of student presentations as a way to critique important skills (as well as being a break from lecture prep). After you earn a Master's degree, opportunities will arise to work as a part-time adjunct, and I learned to never turn these down. One semester I strung together six adjunct courses at five different colleges and universities, which was crazy-busy, but the upside of all this experience is that by the time I finished my PhD I had taught over 30 courses, including a number of upper-level undergraduate courses. I have taught history related to every continent except Antarctica, and if someone wanted me to teach HIST 4000: History of Antarctica, I would design a course in two weeks. Also: never let your prior lack of experience stand in the way of teaching a new course. You will learn along the way, your portfolio will be stronger for this, and you will develop a reputation for being a can-do instructor who is invaluable to the department.
Help others along the way: For me the most important aspect of teaching history has been the students I have helped find their way, much like I am doing in this letter. This sounds clichéd, but those of us who teach for teaching's sake derive great benefits from helping students succeed, and every semester there are at least one or two students in every class who emerge as true scholars with just a little guidance. Of course, many students are just attending for other reasons, like meeting a college requirement, but there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the metaphorical light bulbs above someone's head. Yet you do not have to wait until attaining a degree to help other students - join or create study groups in classes, work as a university tutor, or offer your notes to a struggling student. I have found that the help I passed out seemed to be dwarfed by that which I received over the years.
Involve yourself in the field: Follow your instincts on what seems to work best for you along the way. Read as many books as you can stand, get as much feedback as you can on your research and writing, network with other students and professors, attend colloquia and conferences, read history journals, visit H-Net, be familiar with (and someday join) the American Historical Association (AHA)and other disciplinary organizations, become a Wikipedian and make Wikipedia a better place for history articles. Most importantly - have fun! Along the way you will undoubtedly find areas of history never previously explored in any significant way (trust me - there is an unlimited amount of unwritten history), and if you stick around long enough, you will make lasting contributions to human knowledge.