As Professor Maya Jasanoff concluded her senior year at Harvard in 1996, she faced a question dreaded by many college students: what should I do when I graduate?
Living in Adams House and finishing up her history and literature senior thesis, Jasanoff imagined what life after college would entail. “I knew that I had to support myself,” she tells the Independent. “I knew that I liked reading and writing and talking to smart people […] and I just didn’t see a path” toward becoming a writer after Harvard.
Despite the apparent inaccessibility of pursuing the humanities as a career, Jasanoff ended up doing precisely that. Today, she serves as the Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard, having authored three prize-winning books and published numerous essays in publications including The Guardian and The New York Times, among other accomplishments. How did Jasanoff achieve such success in a field that was—and still is—less clearly paved than others? And how can we prepare students today to follow similar paths?
Jasanoff suggests it wasn’t her undergraduate years at Harvard that fueled her post-college trajectory. “You’re much, much, much more likely to pursue academia, at least in humanities [or] the qualitative social sciences, if you’re getting inspiration from somewhere [other than Harvard itself],” she says.
For Jasanoff, this inspiration came from home. “I am the child of academics,” she says. “My parents were pursuing the life of the mind.” Her mother, Professor Sheila Jasanoff ’64, Ph.D. ’73, J.D. ’76 is the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her father, Professor Jay Jasanoff ’63, Ph.D. ’68 is the Diebold Professor of Indo-European Linguistics and Philology in Harvard’s Department of Linguistics.
Jasanoff felt a “subtle pressure” to follow her parents into academia. “I grew up in an environment that wasn’t privileging earning money,” she says. “I think that made me open to academia very early on.” While the lower salaries and slower growth rates associated with academic careers deter many students from wanting to become professors, this was not the case for Jasanoff: “I understood that the rewards of doing academia were intangible,” she says.