I have a question about working outside one’s dissertation field, and wonder to what extent the topic of one’s dissertation dictates the career. Is it permanent? I am now working on a topic largely unrelated to my doctoral work, and I have already discovered this to be less-than-an-asset on the job market. For jobs in my dissertation field, any search committee would look askance at current project; for jobs in “current project field,” they will look askance at the dissertation. (Think: dissertation on revolutionary France, current project on Argentina).
To what extent are we defined by a choice of dissertation topic, even throughout our careers? I have heard people commenting about a very senior (famous) historian who wrote a recent book, saying “how can he work on Y? He’s a specialist on X!” (X being his doctoral subject). He completed his Ph.D. 30 years ago, and has written a number of books. My view is, surely he’s had time to become a specialist in some other field/s of history since then. But this view is obviously not shared by all in the discipline. Should a junior scholar wait til after tenure to bust out their “true historical passion?”
Renata, I agree with you that people in our profession can be extremely fussy and fuddy-duddy about switching fields and gaining new competencies. (And as someone who wrote a book that wasn’t a revision of her dissertation at all but was an entirely new project–well, let’s just say that I can relate to your anxieties.) People are unusually identified with their first books, especially if their first books were well received. I once had a colleague who was absolutely haunted by this. He once said to me, “it’s just agonizing to think that people will read my first book and think that that’s who I am as a scholar!” (He’s now the editor of a tippy-top history journal–so clearly, his career hasn’t been stalled or ruined by any of his books.) We all learn and grow, and most people probably look back on their first books with a mixture of pride and acknowledgement that it’s merely the book we were capable of writing at the time. We’d all do it differently, if we had it to do over–but that would be boring, so most of us want to move on and write about something new, and that something might take us far afield from where we originally began.
I would say that the distance you’re moving away from your original field is less important than your explanation for the move in job and fellowship applications. If there’s a coherent intellectual justification for making the move, then you’ll be able to explain it cogently in your application letters–and it would be worth your while to explain it as clearly as you can, in as much detail as you think relevant. Believe it or not, there are many departments that will appreciate the breadth of your interests–these will tend to be small departments at SLACs or regional universities, or interdisciplinary departments in which you might be just one of two or three historians. But, there will be other history departments (as you note) that will not see it as a bonus (or who will be downright suspicious.) Large research universities with faculties of 40 or more will likely already have several Latin Americanists–if they’re running a search in early modern or modern European history, they’re looking for someone who will be happy to be slotted into a more defined geographical space and time, at least in hir teaching if not also hir research. You might not make the cut there–but then, you probably wouldn’t be as happy there as you would be at a place where you could swim around in more fields or subfields. As in fashion, so it is with our profession: the fit is everything.
My sense is that it’s a lot easier to do this once you’ve published a book. After you’ve brought one major research project in for a landing, you’ll get credit for having done that, and more benefit of the doubt for being able to do it again. It’s harder to do if you’re a very junior scholar, and it’s even harder I imagine if in fact you’re moving into a very different field, with its own complex historiography (as in your example of moving from eighteenth-century France to Argentine history). Whatever you’re working on now should be your “true historical passion”–if it’s not, then u r not doin’ it rite. Don’t make the mistake of switching fields when rethinking your major research project is what’s really called for. (My aforementioned book wasn’t in a different field than my dissertation–it was just a different topic and it engaged a much broader swath of time and space, although gender and power were at the center of both projects.)
The historians I admire are frequently people who have branched out far beyond their original comfort zone. (In fact, most of the first generation of women’s historians didn’t become women’s historians until their second books–Mary Beth Norton’s and Carol Berkin’s first books were on loyalists in the American Revolution, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s first book is Religion and the Rise of the American City, 1971.) Other examples of field-switchers: the eminent early modern French historian Natalie Zemon Davis most recently published Trickster Travels: a Sixteenth Century Muslim Between Worlds (2006), about Leo Africanus, a Spanish-born Muslim who fled to Morocco and traveled throughout Africa and Europe. Susan Amussen, an important scholar of gender in early modern England, recently published a second book called Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700 (2007), which took her into the English Atlantic World and of course into the extensive historiography on Caribbean slavery.
But, I am sure that even mid-career and senior scholars whose interests migrate have some frustrations with getting into conferences and publishing in journals outside of their original fields of expertise. I’ve been hearing about some of these lately from friends whose interests have either moved around in time or through space, or both. One friend has found that journals in his new field have resisted seeing his new work as “counting” in their field, and another friend is undertaking serious retraining in other historical fields, and has been schooled in public at conferences by scholars in the fields ze’s trying to move into. (That’s a kind of resistance–and even rejection–that most Associate Profs think they have left behind!) I admire their determination and ambition–and it makes me wonder how much more fun and interesting history would be if more of us were equipped with more than one or two analytical lenses or Big Questions motivating our research.
What do the rest of you think? What advice do you have for Renata about the benefits and perils of switching fields over the course of a career in academic history? I know that some of my readers have personal experience with this–so dish it up!
23 Responses to “Intellectual migrations: how and when to switch fields?”