Intellectual migrations: how and when to switch fields?

From the mailbag at Historiann HQ, a question about working outside the historical field in which one originally trained:

Dear Historiann,

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?”


Roving Renata

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!

0 thoughts on “Intellectual migrations: how and when to switch fields?

  1. This is hard when you’re on the job market, but I think Historiann is right that it does depend on the institution. And the concern is going to be about teaching. What needs to be taught? What are you qualified/willing/able to to teach? So if you’re applying for European history jobs, as long as people think, right, we’ve got early modern Europe covered, that’s fine. The key for Roving Renata is to write a cover letter that creates a narrative which serves the institution. How she tells the story will be key.

    As someone whose interests shifted significantly for my second book, I can say that I never felt quite as comfortable in my new field as in the ones I’d studied in grad school — I didn’t have the same grasp. I learned what I needed to do to write the book, but that’s not the same as studying a field.


  2. Once you have tenure you can do anything. With regard to first jobs, committees and departments can be very spookish about ANYthing that looks out of the expected course. Probably for some good reasons, but who doubts that there’s a lot of turf guarding and division of labor issues afoot too? As Historiann notes, it may well vary with the size and character of the department and institution, and with its teaching profile(s). Since questions about “next projects” are fairly inevitable, if that’s your second, a well thought-out account of the trajectory and connections is advisable.

    I don’t know. As I’ve said here before, I never took a course–graduate or undergraduate–more than nominally in any of the subject areas that I subsequently taught. My diss. was set in the American Revolutionary era, and I have two subsequent projects in the early eighteenth century and the early national periods. Nothing I did in graduate school was pre-Civil War. I was taught by and mentored by omnivores and relative field-switchers. Now, I’m working up a course back in the neighborhood of my graduate coursework and early dissertation flailing.

    The related question about getting published or embraced at conferences in migratory fields I haven’t thought too much about, but I don’t think it’s all that formidable. Especially if the peer-reviewing really IS blind. Who knows?


  3. p.s. I agree with Susan, that you’ll never quite *feel* as much on solid ground if you read yourself into a new area as you somehow do after being “stamped” with the credibility by formal graduate credentialing. But I’m not sure that corresponds to any underlying realities. You have to move slowly on unfamiliar terrain, but a hundred books is a hundred books, whether you read them from syllabi, on comprehensive exam lists, or on your own.


  4. I would suggest that some of the pressure is political, both in the departmental sense and more of a real-world sense. I work in a 40+ person department where people are hired in somewhat narrow “slots.” So when someone does a switch similar to what Renata is talking about, it raises questions: Is Dr. X going to continue to teach medieval history, though hir new book is on something else? We hired Dr. Y to teach 20thc European history–does this mean that we have to do another hire in that area because s/he wants to work on something else (at the cost of a hire in African, Indian, Asian history, etc)? So this matters, in terms of the ways that our dept–and I imagine other depts–run.

    There’s also a broader political issue. As an early Americanist, I am technically a “US” historian. And in my experience, there’s a tremendous suspicion on the part of scholars from other countries and American scholars of non-US regions when it comes to “Americanists” switching to non-US fields–where it’s as if US scholars, having “discovered” other parts of the world, feel entirely ok waltzing in and presenting themselves as experts without having done the work and showing their scholarly and cultural bona fides. (American historians well-deserved reputation for monolingualism, a recent topic here, only heightens this suspicion, regardless of whether or not the scholar in question actually knows Spanish, French, what have you.) I’m terribly sympathetic to this fear, even as I’ve come close to crossing this line myself. I don’t know if this is the case for scholars moving from European to Latin American history, as Renata is suggesting.

    Tenure may or may not make this easier. In the case of departmental politics, they can’t fire you, but life can be pretty tense if your colleagues feel you’re not doing the job you were hired to do. And in terms of the cultural politics of academia, that’s always tough to navigate.


  5. I think John highlights an important point: when someone shift research to a new field, it raises a question about whether s/he will continue to teach in the field in which s/he was hired. I have seen this happen at OPU: an FTE is funded and filled for field X, the person hired teaches those classes for a year or two, then suddenly refuses and starts developing a suite of classes in the new field. The department then can end up with scant coverage in one field, and unplanned-for duplication in another.

    At OPU, the administration really makes us beg for new positions, and we think *very* carefully about which fields we want to hire in, and how they intersect with the rest of our faculty. While I certainly am sympathetic to anyone’s right and desire to pursue his or her passions, I also completely understand why someone might look askance at Renate’s background. If she really does not want to work in the French Revolution area at all any more, then I think the most forthright course of action is to focus her job search on Argentine history.


  6. One additional thought: in situations such as the one I mentioned above, where one field is slighted and another duplicated, there is another complicating factor. To wit: the administration is unlikely to be sympathetic to a renewed request for an FTE in the abandoned field, since that position will be regarded ass “recently filled.” Hence, that field now cannot be covered at all.


  7. Good comments here about the importance of teaching fields versus research fields. Moving fields in the latter is less problematic than switching teaching fields, for all of the reasons John and Squadrato suggest. But, since most of us develop new courses as our research interests change, I would think that it might be frustrating NOT to feel free to do this.

    John’s comment regarding the (usually justified) resentment of “Americanists discover the rest of the world” is right on. (I’d extend that to anyone writing on the English-speaking world.)


  8. I can see this as an issue at first recruitment, but after that I think it’s jumping to a lot of conclusions for a group of colleagues to assume that doing a second project on a different subject matter indicates that someone is going to “abandon” a field, even for research much less for teaching. In this specific case it might be merely following a group of emigres to Argentina, or the famous “wind from America” sweeping back west across the South Atlantic. I kind of doubt in most institutions whether someone *could* just abandon a teaching field. There was one legendary case at my grad. institution–long before Historiann or John S. got there–where a bigfoot scholar supposedly decided to stop teaching the Civil War but refused to “let” hir colleagues hire anyone else to do it, because “that [was] MY field.” But the apocrypha about this person were so rampant when I got there I’m not even sure if that actually happened. And the Civil War scholar who eventually broke the spell didn’t do half bad either.


  9. I think in the right place (small deparments mainly), multiple specialities is only a good thing. In the UK at least, we wouldn’t worry about this at all, because few depts are very large. However, if you are employed to teach French History, there would be an expectation you continue to teach French history, even though you work on Argentinian history. I even know a British gender historian who was asked to teach on Japanese industrialisation in a small department, and who went out and did the reading so she could offer this option, despite never researching in this area.

    In terms of applying for jobs, I would just make sure you emphasise how you fit what they want, and perhaps emphasise you will teach in this area, despite your research having moved on. In my own research, where I have changed directions slightly (well, more viscerally than in reality), I emphasise how the methodological underpinnings of my two projects are the same. I am hoping my geographical and chronological diversity just makes me look more flexible and able to provide a wider range of teaching options.

    In terms of people who have done well in jumping topics- Joanna Bourke started off in 19th C women’s farming in Ireland, then went onto men’s bodies in WW1, then onto killing in general, then on a history of fear and into a history of rape. I think a lot of women’s historians actually jump around quite broadly, under the rubric of ‘women’s history’- whereas if they were seen in terms of region and period, they would be seen as quite diverse.


  10. Feminist Avatar: great point about how one sub-field (women’s and/or gender history, for example) can be used as a bridge to other fields, and how they can unite what otherwise would look like a rather eclectic intellectual agenda.

    Indyanna–good points on abandoning teaching fields. There are a few elite programs in which faculty can teach whatever they want–but most of us have to slog away whether we want to or not, in our original fields (or in fields close to us, anyway.) The story that FA tells about the person learning Japanese history just to teach it sounds like something out of the 1960s or 1970s, when people did that because they worked in smallish departments, somebody had to do it, and the requirements for publication re: tenure and promotions were much lower. I think someone with Renata’s interests would have been seen as less freakish 30 or 40 years ago. The increasing standards for professional survival mean that we’ve slotted ourselves in for our own self-preservation.


  11. Yeah, the person whose story that is, is now a well-known Professor (in the British sense), so this was probably about 20 years ago- although she told me that it is still officially on the department books as a ‘course than may be offered’ [ie it is still accredited by the university so can be rejuvenated if she or the department wishes], although she hasn’t taught it for about ten years.


  12. I think here of John Wansbrough, who said that scholars should completely change their research interests every 10 years to keep perspectives fresh.

    On the “migrating Americanists” theme John S. mentioned, I do think it’s an issue if the Americanists in question don’t have the requisite language skills for their new field. But mostly, I’d say some of this depends on the people in the field any scholar is starting to move into, and whether they’re open and excited about all comers or interested in being gatekeepers.


  13. When I was interviewing for for my first faculty position, there was one tenured douchebag interviewer who was *outraged* that I was a member of a particular scientific society. He kept challenging me to justify why I “deserved” to be a member of that society, based on my existing scientific accomplishments. Sounds like you’ve got plenty of officious intermeddlers like that in history, too.

    My research program is extremely interdisciplinary, and it has been somewhat of a challenge to “break in” to insider status in the various disciplines my work relates to. One of the important things for credibility has been to obtain secondary faculty appointments in other departments/programs at my institution that are perceived as closer to some of those disciplines than my home department.


  14. Historiann, I’m reminded of your advisor, who only took the job that allowed hir to become your advisor “on condition” that ze could continue teaching a sub-field that was different from the one ze was being recruited to teach (in addition to the latter, of course). And whose subsequent books and editorial projects covered what, about seventeen different regions and several half-centuries without getting out into the borderlands you posted on the other day–and might still get there yet! And went on to have maybe five post-retirement careers.

    Or, for that matter, my own advisor, who I learned indirectly at a tipsy AHA-dinner years later had been first hired into a slot that I thought I went there to study, but didn’t because nobody was really teaching it. So we separately and more or less incidentally drifted into a new one. Ah for the days when you could get a phone call and lay down terms and conditions. But as you say, don’t try this in your suite, those days are gone.


  15. Some of this, I think, depends on new fields that emerge in the course of one’s career. One of my colleagues who is in the midst of something of this kind of switch works on disability history, a field that no one had really dreamed off when s/he was hired. And I am sure that there are still plenty of older professors teaching/researching on the history of sexuality who might have started out in that field had they been of a younger scholarly generation. (Now, of course, it’s something you can specialize in coming out of grad school and there are job listings in it.) This might be a situation similar to what Historiann mentioned, where female scholars working on “traditional” topics switched to women’s history in mid-career, a field that wasn’t well established will they were in graduate school.


  16. With our mid-sized department (dozen plus faculty members teaching in two language streams), we all still have to multi-task and teach outside our specialty or specialties. What you’re talking about would be an asset in our neck of the woods, as long as you’re willing to teach in both areas.

    That’s the rub. If you’re up for a teaching intensive position, you’ve got to show how your new research direction complements and augments the doctoral field. If you’re up for a research-intensive position, you’d better sell yourself on your new direction if that’s where your heart is or find something of your old direction you can continue to pursue and promote in your application and interviews.

    I have heard, time and again, that with larger department, you have a serious problem with faculty members contending for curriculum rights and a low enough teaching load that it’s not realistic for one person to teach X and Y. So there, it’s a matter of plausibly putting the old behind you in a clear enough way that shows you’re committed to the new topic and can deliver the results they’ll expect as a public scholar and teacher.

    But with multiple research and teaching facilities, you’d be a great candidate to sell yourself to smaller regionals and SLACs!


  17. Historiann, I’d be interested in hearing more (either in the comments or another post, however you see fit) about the related issue you mentioned, writing a book that isn’t a revision of the dissertation. It’s an idea floating around in my mind that I’m not seriously considering yet (it’s too soon) but I’d like to hear why you made that decision, when you made it (i.e. how soon after finishing the diss), and any pros and cons with that path, since it is the road much less taken.


  18. thefrogprincess–it’s really not that interesting a story. I didn’t think my diss. was broad enough either in its temporal or geographic scope, and as I was writing my diss., I kept wanting to go broader, but kept getting pulled narrower (for a variety of reasons.) So, I finished my diss., got a few articles out of it, and then wrote a grant application to the Newberry Library to write a totally different book. I won it and lucked out–that fellowship convinced me that there would be enough information out there with which to write the book I had in mind.

    But, most people end up almost completely re-writing their dissertation, and doing a lot of extra research to boot. So I don’t think that what I did was all that different than what most people do anyway. But, it did lead to some weird job search issues, like when the search chair for a job in X field I had been invited to apply to asked me to send a copy of my dissertation, when I had already explained that my dissertation didn’t have much to say about X field. I thought, “whatever,” and sent a copy, and then 6 months later learned that the guy had tossed it in the garbage because “we didn’t understand why you applied for this job because your dissertation wasn’t in X field.” Well, duh–that’s why I didn’t send you my dissertation in the first place, and my application laid that all out for you, pal. Thanks for reading! (His Departmental chair bought me a new copy of my dissertation, which I thought was pretty damn classy.)

    (This is why I don’t think we should ever think that anyone reads anything in job searches. Assume they know nothing.)

    The one advantage to having written an entirely new book the first time out is that the concept of conceiving of and executing a new project is totally unintimidating. A friend of mine was just telling me that ze is apprehensive about moving on to another project, since ze’s been living with the diss/book for 13 years or so. That wasn’t my problem.


  19. I’m not a historian, but I can tell you that in my (English)department at a regional state school we’ve had problematic issues with hiring people who do NOT teach what we hired in an area to teach. The result is not cool as, just as one example, I was teaching more composition at one point than the person who was hired as a comp specialist. (This is no longer the case, though now it means adjuncts teach those courses as opposed to the supposed comp person). And yes, I resent that person for not doing hir job. We’ve had issues with this in other fields as well.

    What I think about switching fields is that it’s a lot easier to switch into adjacent and similar fields to one’s diss field (so, if one does Early American to move into the 19th century, for example, or if one does very mainstream research in hir diss to then move to doing disability studies, or gender studies, or whatever) but that this happens after the first book and tenure with the most success. If one moves further afield, one does need a compelling and articulate narrative for why (whether this is in the job search or in applications for tenure/promotion.) My mentors told me in graduate school that I shouldn’t see the diss as the end of my scholarly career. That was good advice. But my life has been a lot easier because I’ve not strayed into another century or national tradition, if that makes sense.


  20. That warn’t no “luck,” Historiann, you cleaned-clock on that app. The part about the diss. going in the garbage can was a riot, though, I thought. What, did they have the job description “field” narrowed down to a specific zip code or gps coordinate–like some specific colonial New England farmer’s back forty?!? Your two projects weren’t so far apart as, say, Oslo and Pyongyang, were they, (to invoke an amusing geo-trope I saw in a NYT book review today)? I would hope, in this new age of “Digital Dissertations,” we can have done with the whole concept of “send diss.” Just give them the URL and bye-bye to the good folks up on North Zeeb Road!


  21. Pingback: Readings of the Day: 9 March 2010 Edition | Tea Bird

  22. Thanks for the post and the exchange. It really helps me to ‘see’ how others might perceive my shift in subject area, though my work is in the same time period and region/country.


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