Your Knowledge is a
Those who pursue the PhD do so for a myriad of reasons. I was the eternal student who choose to earn a PhD in history because I have an adoration for studying Italian history. In this problematic academic job market I was fortunate to land a full-time position at an elite liberal arts university, but in that role my pursuit of history was pushed to the wayside.
Ironically, it took leaving the full-time professoriate for me to focus on the unadulterated joy of being a historian again. I also have Netflix to thank. Binge watching Medici: Masters of Florence over a gray winter weekend in Florence, when it was too cold to go and see the legacy of the real Medici, rekindled a flame. My inner historian had this overwhelming desire to shout from the rooftops that the history of the Medici family was far more fantastic than this fiction. So, I did. I wrote articles for both Paste Magazine and the Florentine about this less than seamless intersection between Italian history and popular culture. And, much to my surprise, the public was interested. Very interested. This story was one of the mostly widely read articles in 2017 at both publications.
On the coattails of that experience, I have published a dozen articles in popular journals this year. My topics have ranged from Galileo and Milton’s unlikely friendship, to Machiavelli’s tremendous impact on Tupac, to an exploration of Wonder Woman as an Amazon. I had the freedom to bounce around between adored topics because I already had deeply researched so many aspects of history. It was liberating to ride what felt like a tsunami of ideas that would not have found a home in traditional academic journals. While I used to reach dozens of students in required classes, thousands of people were now engaged with the topics I was most passionate about. I have received messages with thanks and questions from middle school students writing papers about Lorenzo di Medici and retired grandparents who never listen to Tupac until reading my article. Those notes illuminated the valuable work that could be done by a historian outside of academia most clearly.
A wide-eyed historian friend of mine lamented that he could never handle all the negative comments that I must get on social media sites. Academia trains us to expect the worst when we send proposals and articles into the world (or into the ether). Even though I have dealt with controversial topics including contemporary feminism and influences on hip hop culture, writing for popular journals has opened the door to feedback that is overwhelming positive and encouraging.
Sometimes it takes a descent from the ivory tower to bring passion back into your PhD. Experiencing this has been a pleasant, and unexpected, surprise. My fear was a common one. I was deeply afraid that leaving a full-time position might lead to the end of my identity as a historian. The ways in which aspects of identity are deeply wrapped up in the PhD are complex. Often times those who leave academia discuss a painful period of bereavement due to having to let go of that identity. In my case, I found that writing about adored historical topics for a popular audience fulfilled what I saw as my calling as a historian in far more dynamic, albeit not traditional, ways.
While identifying and marketing the transferable skills of a PhD has received a great deal of attention in recent discourse centered on the realities of leaving academia, the underlying notion is often that a PhD who exits will most likely have to leave their specialized subject content behind. I encourage you to consider an alternative narrative. If you can connect your subject interests to a contemporary (in this case newsworthy) context, then the experience of being a subject expert can take on a new, and more impactful, creativity. Unfortunately, anti-intellectualism is far too prevalent today. I would like to suggest that it is of timely importance that we proudly embrace our expert knowledge as a core transferable skill. If you have ever taught a required class to a captive audience, you are a master at weaving what may been seen as tedious — and even inane — content into something interesting. Those who are passionate about their subject do this seamlessly. When you leave academia, you do not leave your passion behind.
Christine Contrada is a freelance writer and adjunct professor. She has written articles about intersections between Italian history and popular culture for Ms. Magazine, the Florentine, Paste Magazine, and others.
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