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I'm considering a change in careers and have a general interest in pursuing research in a humanities field (probably history or philosophy) as a future career. As a result I've been researching degree programs, as well as possible future academic careers. However, I'm struggling with figuring out exactly which degree path and career path would match up with my specific interests.

College websites don't give very thorough descriptions of what is involved in their respective degree programs and so I'm not sure where to go to figure out what degree and career path lines up with my research interests.

I'm also still trying to define exactly what I want to research which doesn't make this any easier, but I was wondering if there is a resource I'm not aware of (other than college degree descriptions) that could help me clarify which field of study and possible future career would line up with my current research interests?

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  • Are you currently a student (if so, at what level)? Are you in the workforce? I'd guess the latter from the phrase "change in careers", but I think the answer depends a bit on where you are and what academic resources you have easily available to you.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 3:48
  • @Andrew Answering for my non-logged-in self above: I am currently in the workforce in a different industry (non-humanities). I have thought about talking to an academic advisor but I'm not sure if they would be able to help with this question or if I would be able to utilize their services without being enrolled in a university. Commented Oct 28, 2021 at 2:34
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    Makes sense -- indeed I think your best bet is to talk to someone in person. It's a bit easier to do that if you have an affiliation with an academic institution. I am not sure the best strategy in your situation, but maybe one option is to go to college open house days for some local colleges and try to connect with some of the faculty, or at least see if you can get information or contact information for faculty in your field from the college admissions staff.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 28, 2021 at 2:39

2 Answers 2

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In my opinion, you are asking two questions here: how can I become more certain of what research topic I wish to pursue, and are there any general tips for choosing an institution where I can pursue my interests?

Right off the bat, it must be mentioned that in Western universities, the number of attending students is generally in decline, and so we are seeing an over-concentration of students in higher-ranked institutions. This means that most lower-ranked institutions are having a hard time attracting students, and are shrinking their departments. Even some higher-ranked institutions are shrinking/closing departments that are lacking in student enrolment numbers. As for a career, it's already hard enough to get a stable career in STEM fields, and it's even worse in history/philosophy/humanities. Even if you get a career, only 20-30% of your weekly job tasks will be related to pursuing the research you love: most of the time you will be grading papers and tests, preparing classes, doing boring administrative and service work, and attending boring meetings. Still, many would say that those 20% of research time make all the other chores worthwhile, or at least bearable (so long as you can find a positive work environment with welcoming/supporting colleagues, but that's a whole other issue).

We have to get these negative aspects clear first, because no matter how good you are at research, you will certainly find yourself in many periods of trouble, where your research hits a roadblock, or you will be struggling to find faculty positions, or dealing with rejection letters. In fact, many humanities graduates end up not getting academic positions and continue pursuing their passion as independent scholars. This is not intended to discourage you in any way; but you need to be fully aware that it's going to be a bumpy ride, and therefore you must seek to become as emotionally resilient as possible. The only thing that can help you pull through during these periods of turmoil is your deep passion for your research topic, your determination to find a solution in the face of adversity, and your ability to believe in your capabilities, regardless of what others say about you. Where there is a will, there is often a way.

Now let's address the questions. Here is a list of aspects which can help you to filter out unsuitable universities/topics of research.

  1. What is your financial situation? Choose a list of 5-10 universities where you are able to afford tuition fees and living fees without getting into crippling debt.
  2. Have these universities downsized their Humanities departments recently? Conversely, are these departments hiring new faculty during this year? It is well-reported, for example, that SOAS University of London is experiencing financial difficulties. Check newspapers, or websites such as Inside HigherED or the Chronicle of Higher Education to investigate whether any department in your list is having difficulties, and check job ads for the same departments to see if they are expanding.
  3. For each department, check the list of faculty professors, and check Google Scholar and other websites such as ResearchGate to try to read their most recent paper. Alternatively, search Google/Youtube, to see if they have done any academic presentation of their work. Is there anything about their work that grips you, excites you, fascinates you? If so, note it down immediately in your list. It is crucial that you read different papers to get a sense of what topic appeals to you or not, and to know what kind of research is taking place right now.
  4. The four main trends of growth in Humanities at the moment right now are: (A) Digital Humanities, namely using digital/computational tools to solve humanities issues in ways that were not previously possible or feasible; (B) Global History/Transnational History, that is, comparing historical/philosophical perspectives between different parts of the globe; (C) Looking at history/philosophy through the lens of identity categories such as gender, race, sexuality, etc.; (D) Analyzing historical/philosophical issues through an environmental lens, or with consideration to Earth's natural processes and their effect on humans (Environmental History, Environmental Anthropology, etc.); You might want to investigate your list of departments to see what kind of work they are doing in these areas, and whether they appeal to you in any way (NOTE: if you think there are other important trends, let me know in the comments and I will update my answer accordingly).
  5. The next layer for your triage is that of availability of primary research materials: for your research topic, is it relatively easy to access libraries and digital archives that contain manuscripts for you to analyze? Most people end up choosing historical topics from the 18th century onwards, because there are much more digitized materials available, and the barrier to entry is lower. However, this early modern/modern period is also the most crammed with competitors, and it can be hard for you to stand out among the crowd. The further back you go in history/philosophy, the more challenging (or rewarding, depending on your perspective!) it becomes: there are less materials, they have lower rates of digitization/online access, you will often need to master other languages, or depend on archaeological reports which are hard to find.
  6. Finally, does the university provide a learning environment conducive to facilitating the free exchange of ideas between students/faculty? In recent years, in some institutions there have been significant tensions between students and faculty regarding delicate/thorny political topics. It is no joke to conduct research in the midst of a toxic environment. If you are in the US, you might want to check if the academic institution supports the Chicago Principles, or if it is well-ranked in FIRE's rankings.

Make a list of 5 potential universities/research advisors, and 3 potential research topics. See if you can contact the professors in your list to inquire about your preferred topic of research (in which they are specialists, of course!). Make sure that you can find a topic or a research problem that captivates you, because you will have to work on it for years on end, facing many difficulties. There is a real risk of burnout, and only your passion for the topic can make you devote more of your free time in order to push through the obstacles. Otherwise, your situation will quickly escalate into procrastination and potential depression. Also, if you already know someone who is in academia (either student or faculty), it might help to gauge their opinions to help you find the research topic most suitable for you.

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Unless you intend to study the history of philosophy (or perhaps the philosophy of "History"), then your first task is to make a decision between those fields as their research process is quite different as is, perhaps, the likelihood of employment in the two fields.

To make the decision, you need to read a fair amount in both fields to see what sorts of questions get asked and how they get answered. And the readings can't be in the popular literature, but in the scholarly output of people in those fields.

You are making a life changing decision when you enter a doctoral program, and while it is possible to back out of a choice it is usually very painful.

If you are near a good university that has a lecture series, you might look for lectures in those fields and see if you "get the bug" to follow one or the other. Attending a conference in each, though a bit expensive, might give you a good sense of what those folks actually do and whether you want to do something like that also.

Maybe mathematicians are different, but we don't really get a choice. Math compels us to follow. If you don't have that same sense about a field then it will be hard to be both happy and successful if you follow it. First things First.

Along the way, you will likely learn more about the universities that do the sorts of things you want to follow.

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