Choices and the Dreaded ‘N’ word

Andrea has complained today that I don’t actually write anything for my blog, that instead I just link other things. I don’t think she fully grasps what the damn thing is for in the wider blogosphere sense, but her basic critique is valid. So here we are. Thinking out loud, so I can get some kinks out of my writing.

I’m listening to Orbital’s Insides album and chilling on a Saturday night as my clock just changed from 1:59am to 1:00am, and I thought I would share some thoughts on some strange but interesting opportunities this Fulbright grant is opening up for me. Because you lot are all so bloody interested in my career.

An important facet of becoming an historian is being able to research and write history. That’s a no-brainer. But achieving this skill isn’t necessarily confined only to the academic field of history. You don’t need to be a university professor pontificating from on High to the spoiled undergraduate masses to write history. In fact, you don’t even need to work in the ‘field’ of history at all. You could be a journalist (like Barbara Tuchman, who wrote some amazing histories that sold shitloads of copies and which you should all be reading) or a policy analyst in a think-tank or just Joe Schmoe who wants to write a history on his hometown. It doesn’t matter. Writing history is an intellectual act not limited by employment classifications, credentials, or education.

(Note that nowhere did I offer a qualitative judgment of said produced history. Just deciding that working at Burger King isn’t for you and tomorrow you’re an historian doesn’t mean your history will be good. But rock on anyway.)

However, if one does wish to work in the ‘field’ of history, there are other skills and, oh, let’s say, hoops you need to jump through before you can join the ranks of the Academy. I’m not going to recite a litany of qualifications and skills and whatever to you right now. Instead, I’m going to focus on just one: networking.

Networking. God, even the word makes me cringe. Yuck.

This is perhaps one of the most important skills you can develop in this field, but it is especially important and necessary if you even want to get that first job to begin with. You see, here’s something non-academics might not be aware of: many personnel decisions in the Academy often have less to do with your technical abilities in researching, writing, and producing history than in what I like to call the residual details. What is this, you say? Well, really it comes down to who and what your connections are: Where did you go to school? Who did you work under? Who do they ‘know’ in the field? Who do they know in the field that’s on that search committee for that job you applied for? Who wrote your letters of recommendation? Who do they know? Who doesn’t like them? Who do you know? How do you know them?

This is the kind of residual detail that helps search committees and academic departments sort through 50-100-200 nearly identical applications for that single, solitary job they have to offer. Think about it for a second. Most people with a Ph.D. are pretty much equal when it comes to the technical qualifications of the job (this varies when it comes to teaching competency, but research institutions don’t really give a shit about that anyway, regardless of what they claim publicly). After you sort out the posers, how do you separate a bunch of candidates who are pretty much equally competent to do the job?

This is where networking comes in. Because clearly there are some inherent biases in the Academy itself that fixate (almost myopically) on where you got your degree (Yale, Harvard, or Boise State University, for instance). Nine times out of ten that candidate from Princeton will move on in the process over that candidate from, say, Central Michigan University, regardless of whether or not that candidate from CMU might actually be better than the Princeton candidate. This is just how it works. From there, the selection is further whittled down by some of the other factors I mentioned above before the final pool is created, and the process marches on. Networking can be crucial at all stages of this process because who you know and the concentric linkages that spin out from that could make the difference between your application getting pitched sight unseen and getting more than a cursory once-over.

And there’s nothing I hate more than this networking bullshit.

Being perfectly frank, I am only adequate at networking. Networking involves pressing a lot of flesh, making the rounds, and being pretty forward, which are all tasks that grate on my nerves. I am naturally reserved in large groups, public situations, and the like, which puts me at a disadvantage in this. But I understand how crucial this is to my career prospects, so, with great reluctance, I force myself to do this anyway.

Why am I babbling about this? Well, because one of the enticing benefits of winning this Fulbright grant to Ireland was the potential opportunities for networking available. I assumed, with some justification, that the Fulbright would open all sorts of doors for me, helping me meet a whole lot of people who could help me in my research, offer professional advice, or just plain help me get a job (not necessarily an academic job, just a job).

And what should have dropped on my doorstep the other day but two very interesting opportunities. The first was an invitation to an Election Watch Party being held by the US Ambassador to Ireland next Tuesday night at the Guinness Storehouse (which is supposed to be real swank). Clearly there will be all sorts of interesting ex-pats there to talk to, as well as government officials and whoever else was invited. My initial inclination upon receiving it was not to go, simply because, having no babysitter, Andrea can’t come with me. But she basically said don’t be foolish; get out there and meet people. So I bowed to her better judgment, though I’m coming home early enough to digest election returns in front of my computer, where presumably I’ll be able to pay better attention.

The second opportunity is even better. It seems the Fulbright Commissions of the US, Belgium, and Luxembourg are putting on this seminar in March that deals with the institutions of the European Union and NATO. It’s for US Fulbrights in Europe who are interested in (i.e. studying) some aspect of European Affairs. What makes this fucking awesome is that it’s all expenses paid for a whole week and involves wandering around the Low Countries meeting EU officials, NATO leaders, and the ilk. This is right up my ally (being more structured than just a party).

But that’s not all! On Friday I received another invitation, this time to a conference on US global relations and student activism (or something like that) and being held in Berlin (again all expenses paid). I’m not going to this one though. It sounds like a student government conference, and I just don’t have time for that kind of rah rah crap anymore. Plus it isn’t really an invitation, more like an invitation to apply to attend the conference, which isn’t the same as the Belgium/Luxembourg trip.

Clearly my instincts about this Fulbright are bearing fruit.

I’m spent. Time to hit the sack. Tomorrow is a museum day for the family.

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