Studying the Civil War in Graduate School: A Question

A relatively new reader who is currently a college undergraduate recently asked for my advice regarding graduate programs in Civil War/Southern History.  I blogged about this before and in addition to my own suggestions a number of readers offered their own recommendations.  I was struck by one particular section of the email and want to share it since there may be others out there who are dealing with this important question:

I e-mailed my university’s resident 19th Century American/Southern history professor – a young guy, not fresh out of his PHD research but not a grizzled vet quite – asking about advice and recommendations of schools. The gist of the e-mail I got back was: Consider not going at all, the field is unfashionable, the jobs market is terrible, avoid American Studies like the plague specifically, good teachers are not rewarded, and to reiterate, STRONGLY consider not going.

Since I am not working at the college level there isn’t much that I can offer as a response.  There is information on the job market and recent trends that the American Historical Association tracks which may be available on their website.  I have friends and acquaintances in the field of Civil War/Southern History – many of them graduates of the University of Virginia’s program – that have done quite well in securing positions. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I have any intention of moving on to the Ph.D and a college teaching position.  The question is usually asked with an air of curiosity as to why I have not already done so as if I have not quite completed the journey.  While I would love to have the time to write a dissertation under the direction of one of the many talented scholars currently working in the field I have very little interest in teaching on the college level.  In fact, I am willing to wager that if I did go on the market I would take both a serious pay cut as well as have to teach students that are not as skilled as my current crop. 

For any of you who are considering a career in education please consider teaching high school.  We desperately need good teachers.

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23 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Mar 13, 2008 @ 7:12

    Josh, — Thanks for sharing that and best of luck.

  • Josh Mar 12, 2008 @ 21:45


    Here’s a belated thanks for a good insight/great post. I’m just not checking my Google Reader after finally having a lull in prep time for student teaching – after this, I’ll have a certificate to teach seven disciplines included in the secondary social studies realm.

    As a history minor and someone who is working with an undergraduate journal and wrote a senior thesis, I’m very glad I decided not to jump into a PhD program before entering the job market. The certification will back me up with my “bread and butter,” while I hope the research interests/abilities will make me all the more employable – without the MA/PhD attached to increase my spot on the pay scale.

    I’ll be able to look forward to a Union-covered/”recession-free” career in public/private education without the fear of having to relocate when my adjunct position loses funding. I remember seeing my professors in the history dept. here (which is admittingly dying – to the point of losing its PhD program)… many/most of whom are adjunct/NTT due to funding restrictions… and as a whole, I think they might be the most depressing/depressed people I’ve ever met.

    On the other hand, I’m thoroughly enjoying a middle school student teaching placement which might offer me a job. In addition, I’ve been trained in Educational Psychology, so I can pursue a MA/MS/MEd in more diverse areas – though I’d love to continue the historical research. While I realize people might fear a “mickey mouse” History major with the Education route, it really is what you decide to make the experience.

    Thanks again for your blog – proof that good scholarship does occur at the level of the secondary teacher… sommething I hope to continue.

  • John Hoptak Mar 4, 2008 @ 12:47

    Excellent post. Thought I’d share with you the exact words of a grad school professor of mine, words I will never forget.
    It was my first graduate class, a historical research seminar. We students went one-by-one introducing ourselves and each identifying our particular historical interest, and what we hoped to focus on. My turn came and, with much confidence, I said, “The Civil War and 19th Century America.” Even before I finished, I saw my prof, literally, roll his eyes, followed by this gem: “I knew there would be one. . .Why do you guys keep wanting to reinvent the wheel? Hasn’t every captain and corporal, mountain and molehill of the Civil War already been written about?”
    Needless to say, it was an inauspicious start, but I persevered. I was intending to continue right on for the Ph.D., but after completing the master’s program, I knew this institution was not right for me. I then entered a secondary teaching program, and earned an Instructional Certificate to teach Social Studies and Citizenship Education at the high school level. Still, before I croak, I do hope to get that Ph.D.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2008 @ 9:28

    Sherry, — Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on this issue.

  • Sherry Feb 29, 2008 @ 19:07

    Many years ago I majored in history and earned an MA, thinking that I would pursue a PhD. My professors encouraged me – an all the graduate students to think about doing something, anything – else.

    I did; I took my MA and got a government job, then I went to law school and became a lawyer (which I didn’t particularly love but which paid well and offered steady employment). A friend of mine with PhD came to town, at the time I was living in DC, for the American Historical Association convention. I took off work and attended the convention and spent quite a bit of time with my friend and her friends. They were all miserable, employed but not making much money and mostly moving from school to school. They lobbed off a lot of comments like they could have taken the “easy” way out and gone to law school. Gratitude to those who encouraged me to do something else, was the feeling I was left with.

    I still read a lot of History, and I’m not sorry for the time spent studying History. Certainly the world needs history teachers and history professors so there are jobs for at least some historians. For those people who choose to do something else, other than get a PhD, life still offers many satisfying options.

  • John Maass Feb 27, 2008 @ 22:28

    Many private/indept. high schools won’t touch a PhD under the assumption that he/she is merely exploring the route of teaching in a prep school until he/she can get a “real job” at a college or univ.

  • Matt Feb 27, 2008 @ 18:50

    Consider me properly chastised. Who knew CWM could be a forum for history and English lessons alike? A powerful thing, this internet.

  • Larry Cebula Feb 27, 2008 @ 16:40

    Matt: No offense at all! Life is good here in the Midwest, where my mortgage is low, my students are polite, and clear rivers roll along beneath the oak trees. I just wanted to reassure readers of your comment.

    Though I am mildly ruffled at your misuse of “begs the question,” which properly means to avoid or evade a question, NOT to ask or invite a question.

  • Matt Feb 27, 2008 @ 15:06

    Larry, I certainly meant no offense by my comments. I hope none was taken. I only meant to say that the potential return on investment (particularly the investment of time) is not particularly good for would-be historians these days.

    It’s one thing if that’s the type of institution that appeals to you. But taking that kind of job because it’s the only one available is another altogether. I think you’re right–even those jobs are a relative long-shot these days, which begs the question… is it worth it?

    It all comes down to the individual, I suppose, but I don’t know how many times I’ve heard professors say something akin to “I love my job, but I don’t recommend this career path to others.”

  • Larry Cebula Feb 27, 2008 @ 13:47

    Matt: “a job at a mediocre school in the middle of nowhere”

    Hey that is me you are talking about!

    I adore my job as a history professor at a small state teaching institution in the Midwest. Life is good – and I make a real difference in the lives of my first generation college students. But even a job like mine is a longshot in the current market.

  • Woodrowfan Feb 26, 2008 @ 23:01

    Well, this is depressing. As someone who is trying to get back into academia after spending some years in the “real world” (eye roll) I’d discourage any would-be history Ph.D. from studying the 19th or early 20th century. At least until I find a full time job please! Since my wife has a great career here in DC I’m not moving anywhere so my job range is really limited….

  • Matt Feb 26, 2008 @ 22:29

    I feel as though I should probably add my thoughts here, given my situation a graduate student (focusing on southern history) who is currently cruising the independent school job market.

    Although I was fairly certain that I wanted to teach at the high school level when I entered my M.A. program, I toyed with the idea of getting the Ph.D. but ultimately ruled it out because I’m terrified of the job market.

    Some of my institution’s recent hires have included folks who received their doctorates from the likes of Brown, Princeton, Notre Dame, etc. I can’t help but think: if those people are getting jobs here, where would I get a job coming out of here?

    I have no interest in going to school for 3-5 more years only to take a job at a mediocre school in the middle of nowhere because it was my only serious offer. I’m sure it depends on your performance in graduate school, the quality of your dissertation, etc., but I have to agree with Larry on that one. Not worth the risk.

    Several people in my program have recently decided to forgo history in favor of law school. Of course, there is no shortage of lawyers either, but the cost-benefit analysis looks much different.

    As for me, independent schools are attractive for several of the reasons Kevin already mentioned: autonomy in the classroom, the opportunity to teach elective courses, etc. I guess I see it as in some ways it’s similar to teaching at a small college, except with younger (and generally less detached) students.

  • Paul Taylor Feb 26, 2008 @ 20:23


    Here’s my two-cents on this discussion.

    Several years ago I was feeling extremely burned out in my career. Nevertheless, from that career I had discovered that I genuinely enjoyed teaching and mentoring the newcomers. Coupled with my love for American history, I decided to explore the possibility of going back to school to get both my Masters and Ph.d., with the dream of one day teaching at the college level. A hope was that my published work on the Civil War would give me some type of credit towards the Masters.

    As part of my exploration, I was able to speak with the dean of history at a well-known university here in SE Mich. The man was extremely tactful and diplomatic but essentially told me to forget it. To paraphrase his points: One, as a man in his mid-40’s, by the time I actually had a Ph.d, I would be the victim of age-discrimination though, in his words, “no one would ever admit it.” Two, other than English professors, history professors were, on average, the oldest professors on campus. They never retire, thus a glut existed. Three, plain ol’ American history had become extremely unfashionable and declasse. Better to pursue womens or Islamist studies for they were the “hot” trends.


  • Larry Cebula Feb 26, 2008 @ 18:42

    The job market for history is terrible, and is never getting better. Sorry, but there you have it. Don’t go to graduate school unless 1) you can get full funding, 2) you are willing afterwards to live in any part of the country whatsoever, and 3) you are willing to pursue career paths other than college teaching.

    I would agree that an interest in the Civil War (and particularly in military history) will work against you in some quarters. But a social or other non-military history topic in the Civil War era will be greeted with open arms.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2008 @ 16:15

    Thanks Brooks. I was hoping that you would chime in on this one.

  • Brooks Simpson Feb 26, 2008 @ 13:57

    Kevin’s post addresses two different questions: which teaching career path to follow and the interrelated issues of where should one go to graduate school/what’s the job market like.

    As for the teaching career path, that really depends on what you want to accomplish, how much you like teaching, what sort of teaching you like, and so on. Frankly, although I do just fine lecturing to dozens and dozens of students, I really like teaching in a smaller setting with undergraduates. I do work one-on-one with undergrads, but that’s a different experience. I understand Kevin’s interest in teaching at a particular secondary school environment, and, while that experience need not be limited to private schools (see my posts at Civil Warriors about the diorama controversy), most public school secondary school teachers have a quite different experience than that enjoyed by Kevin. There was a time when I wouldn’t have minded teaching at Exeter, for example.

    Those of you who like the notion of teaching at a research university should be aware that if such a job involves a graduate program, you are obligated not only to teach those folks, but also to place them. You also have to figure out issues of responsibility (can I place these people? are there jobs out there? is this the sort of institution where institutional reputation (or lack thereof) helps or hurts my students?).

    Looking at things from the perspective of the student/applicant … which institutions have people who do the sort of work I’d like to do? What’s the record of my prospective adviser in placing students? Does the institution have the sort of faculty that would help form a good committee? Just because a faculty member has a big name does not mean that the person can train or place students. On the other hand, my challenge here is that while I have a reputation for training graduate students and placing them, my institution does not come to mind as a logical first choice. So the primary pull here is individual reputation, not institutional reputation.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2008 @ 13:36

    Erik, — Thanks for the reference to PhD in History, which is an excellent blog.

    Chris, — I enjoy a great deal of freedom both in terms of the electives I teach as well as the material covered. I’ve taught a number of different courses related to Civil War history and will even be offering a class on Civil War remembrance next year.

    Tim, — I have not heard of too many private schools asking for certification. My school goes through a certification process with the Virginia Association of Independent Schools, but we have very little to do with state certification programs. Most of my colleagues do not possess any kind of certification. It would be interesting to have some numbers on all of this.

  • Tim Lacy Feb 26, 2008 @ 13:27

    I would consider teaching at the high school level except for one thing: I’m extra annoyed that, after spending 14 years in higher education (some part-time, obviously), that I’d have to spend at least another two (not to mention the money spent/lost) earning the certificate I need to teach h.s. And this is ~aside~ from the 4-6 months of required classroom observation time. Finally, even many private schools, including Catholic ones, require the certificate. – TL

  • Robert Moore Feb 26, 2008 @ 10:45

    I do know that, in some cases, when filling out applications for PhD programs, it is not recommended (under the table, of course) that one mentions an interest in Civil War studies. Again, I place emphasis on “in some cases,” as it depends greatly on the school to which one applies.

  • Chris Levesque Feb 26, 2008 @ 10:02

    The graduate director here at UA actually advised one of my fellow PhD students to take two U.S. fields rather than our Southern History field in order to be more marketable for both two and four-year programs. That said, we have many students pursuing both Southern and Civil War history for their PhD’s. There are relatively few of us working in European and Asian contexts, even among the military historians.

    I personally would prefer to teach at the collegiate level due to the greater flexibility in the types of classes you can teach. While just about everyone here teaches a large survey course, they also get to teach in their field. My impression of high school teaching, even at private schools, is that you don’t have the opportunity to branch out from the state-mandated U.S./World/State history track. I’m not ruling out the possibility of teaching at a private school, but I’m not sure I have the temperament/patience for public high schools.

  • Erik Feb 26, 2008 @ 9:56

    The excellent blog compiles statistics showing that the myth of the terrible job market is indeed that. As to the field of the civil war, I can’t speak to that. But there are lots of jobs out there. Maybe not tons at bigtime research institutions. But they are there. Your friends who have done very well are probably more indicative of reality than person you e-mailed.

    The reality is that if you go to graduate school, work hard, publish a thing or two, get along with people, and do work that is interesting to people both outside and inside of your subfield, you can do pretty well for yourself. And that includes at less than elite institutions, such as where I am from.

    I do agree with avoiding American Studies however. There are 5 million PhDs in American Studies and like 20 jobs. In history though, not so bad.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2008 @ 9:45

    Thanks for the comment, but please keep in mind that I teach in a private school. As for salary, my younger brother will earn more than what I am currently making in his first year as a public school teacher in New Jersey. Location is an important factor in terms of salary. I am very aware of the challenges that public school teachers face; my father taught for 35 years. The only question I have for you is whether working as an adjunct satisfies your career ambitions beyond salary considerations. I’ve found a career teaching in a private school to be very rewarding both in terms of the quality of students, freedom to offer interesting electives, and the intellectual environment that is fostered by a highly qualified teaching staff. My school encourages me to research and even helps out with expenses from time to time to present papers at conferences.

    Just a thought.

  • John Biles Feb 26, 2008 @ 9:27

    I agree we need good high school teachers, but there simply isn’t much incentive to teach in high school, at least here in Texas. Pay is terrible, your students treat you like human garbage, and you’re basically expected to act as a state curriculum-executing robot. I make more money as an adjunct in search of a full time position than my Mother made after 25 years of teaching in Texas. I pretty much spent much of my life watching her job gradually drag her down and break her.

    You must live somewhere that pays exceptionally well if you’re actually making more money than a starting college professor; my mom made about 10,000 less a year with 25 years of experience than a starting college professor makes here.

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