Is Leaving Academia Rekindling My Love of History?

Honestly, I think it is.

I never stopped loving history when I was pursuing an academic career. My love of history really did get me through some of the rougher patches of grad school. But upon accepting that academia won’t be my career, some hindsight has shown me that in some ways, academia actually constrained my love of history. 

Sure, it was my “job” to learn more about a subject I liked, and that was great. But this comes with a catch. As professional historians we feel obligated to be up on everything going on in our subfields. We read all the classics, all the revisions, all the journals. And I’m sure others feel the same as I do when I say this gets tedious. Not all the work in our particular subfields is the most exciting or engaging, and this can make studying history feel more like a task than something we should enjoy. Perhaps more so, I felt like this pressure was leading me away from what made me love history to begin with. I’m sure all of us had that “I like everything!!” phase when someone asked what our favorite topics in history were. That was me too. I could go from reading ancient to modern history in a snap. My capstone seminar paper in college was about the business aspects of gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome. I would probably cringe extremely hard if I read that now, but it shows how I didn’t really feel I had any limitations in my interests. Then of course with grad school, you have to whittle down your interests. I don’t think this is a bad thing – you have to get more specific if you want to become an expert in a topic. But still, it can lead some of us away from the “I like everything” spark we had when we were younger. 

One of the main reasons I liked history was because it struck me as a “little bit of everything” kind of field. Do you like politics? History has it. Do you like race and immigration? History has it. Do you like economics? History has it. So many diverse topics can come together in a really great history book. I felt like studying history made me an overall well-rounded person. That made me enjoy learning simply for the sake of learning, because I truly felt personal fulfillment out of what I was studying. 

Making history my job put more pressure on that process. It was much less carefree when I felt the need to pump a certain amount of peer-reviewed articles out before graduating or risk having no career. I missed those days when I would curl up with a book for fun or read random internet articles about obscure topics because I liked to. 

So what have I been doing over these last few months? Reading whatever I want! I feel like I’m on a nerd’s version of rumspringa as I pick a random part of the library and see what’s there. I finally got around to reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel twenty years too late. I read books on the Russian Revolution and grand strategy in the Hapsburg Empire, because why the hell not? I’m gradually getting back into documentaries, which I haven’t watched in a while. A solid documentary is great because sometimes I’m just too tired in the evening and start nodding off when I read, so a well-made documentary makes me feel like I’m using my brain without needing to concentrate on reading. I watched a good one on YouTube about the Ottoman Empire – again, because why not? But I’m only dipping my toes in. I want to set a book-a-week goal in all random topics that I haven’t thought about in years, if at all. I can now do this at my leisure because I’m not constrained by the pressure of getting the next peer-reviewed article out or finishing the latest book in my subfield. It’s liberating.

Now does all this mean I no longer enjoy my subfield? Of course it doesn’t. Studying economics in the Progressive Era has been a huge influence on the way I think and I wouldn’t be anywhere near as sharp as I am now without the work I did in that field. But there are only so many old economics textbooks I can read. Now that I’ve nearly completed a project that technically makes me an “expert” in that field – though of course imposter syndrome never really stops, so I don’t feel like one – I want to get back to my “I like everything” roots. And I can do that with my new career choices. 

So by taking a step back and no longer pursuing history as my profession, I feel I’m more closely connected to what got me into history in the first place. If you’re considering a career change and are afraid if you’ll be able to keep up with your love of history, I’d say don’t worry. If I’m any indication, good things happen when you branch out and no longer feel the pressure that comes along with being a historian professionally. 

Does this mean you have to withdraw from the profession to feel that old fire you used to? I don’t think that’s necessary. But I think a break from your subfield would be helpful. Spend a few weeks reading outside of your field and see what happens. In the past, that tactic refreshed me and helped me hit my dissertation with renewed vigor. 

What do you all think? Please comment and let me know how you feel!

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