Being a world expert in a niche subject can take you to some wild places – pirate historian Dr Rebecca Simon can attest to that. Her expertise on pirates and public executions means she is much in demand, from Netflix to the History Channel, and BBC documentaries to popular podcasts. Author of two excellent piracy books, including the first full-length biography of infamous female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, as well as a part-time professor, Simon's career is proving bountiful.
We caught up with Dr Simon to discover how exactly one becomes a world expert on pirates, navigating conversations with people who may not be as enthusiastic about public executions as you, and how to hustle hard to make your dream career come true. Oh, and perhaps lay off the swashbuckling jokes.
What do you do?
I’m a full-time pirate historian, author, and historical consultant. I am also a part-time professor of history at a community college where I teach Western Civilization and early American history.
What did it take to get here?
Lots of school! I did a BA in history at the University of San Francisco, an MA in early modern Atlantic history at California State University Northridge, and finally a PhD in history at King’s College London. My doctorate was about public executions of pirates in Britain and the British-Americas between 1670 and 1830. It was a journey to get where I am now and the work really started during my PhD. I was active on Twitter and I’d tweet quite a bit about pirates, researching, funny observations in libraries and archives, and just grad school mischief in general.
I presented at loads of conferences and when you’re presenting at conferences related to your specialty, you start seeing the same people over and over so I gained lots of great friends and colleagues with contacts. Because I was quite active, I got asked to write a guest blog about public executions of pirates. This was found by producers at the BBC who were filming a documentary series, Britain’s Outlaws, and I was asked to be one of the featured historians.
I was asked to write several guest blogs during my PhD because piracy was generating a lot of interest. I also started a website/blog and wrote about pirates, my experiences, etc. After I graduated, I moved back to Los Angeles and began teaching history at a private school. I continued blogging and was contacted by some podcasters to guest on their shows, including Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness and [the Blackbeard episode of] You’re Dead To Me, both of which were quite popular. Then, because I was still updating my website, I got contacted by the History Channel and I’ve since become one of the featured historians for shows like The Curse of Oak Island, Beyond Oak Island, and Unexplained. Netflix also contacted me to be interviewed for the docu-drama, The Lost Pirate Kingdom.
Eventually, some publishers contacted me. Commissioning editors asked me to write book proposals about pirates and this led to the publication of two books: Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever (Mango Publishing Group, 2020) and Pirate Queens: The Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read (2022).
Then in 2019, a community college hired me to teach part-time and with all these contracts and opportunities, I decided it was time to take the leap into my long-imagined goal: to be a full-time writer/historian and part-time professor. In 2020 I did just that and I’ve been working for myself and the community college for over two years now! It was a long journey but I achieved it through lots of hard work, self-promotion, saying yes to loads of free work, and eventually, I made a name for myself!
Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?
I am a pirate historian and part-time professor. I have written three books and so far two of them have been published. I am often commissioned to write articles about pirates for various history magazines, websites, and blogs. I sometimes get interesting research work for various organizations, such as the Netflix show Historical Roasts and others I can’t mention because of pesky NDAs.
Most of these people reach out to me because I have a good online presence. When I’m not writing, I appear on loads of different podcasts. Some are paid, some are unpaid, but that’s OK because they’re fun. My part-time job is teaching at Santa Monica College. It’s a community college so the courses are general ed and I teach Western Civ I Ancient – 1648, Western Civ II 1648 – Present, and American History to 1865. They’re so much fun!
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
A lot of times people think I just sit around or hang out at coffee shops reading at my leisure. Or I get jokes about swashbuckling, etc.
In general, I think people think that I can take time off whenever I want or that my days aren’t that busy and I can stop working at a drop of the hat. The reality is every day is different and I am always working towards various deadlines. Since so much of my work is feast or famine, I must be really careful and structure my time well and also advocate for myself by pitching my own work. My work is challenging, and I must hustle really hard and stay very organized, but I really enjoy it.
What is your proudest achievement so far?
There are two. The first is finishing my PhD. I moved to London to do it and I didn’t know a single person in the city and all my family and friends are in Los Angeles. It was terrifying but I did it and I did a great job.
My other achievement that I’m proud of is my second book, Pirate Queens. This book was really challenging because there are hardly any sources about these two female pirates, so I had to really dig deep and immerse myself in new areas of history, such as women’s history and gender studies. It was fascinating. I also wrote the book during the height of the pandemic so I couldn’t get to any research institutions, so I had to rely on a lot of my own resources. I had to be creative. But I’m proud of how the book turned out and it’s been getting positive feedback.
Funniest moment on the job?
I have been researching pirates and executions for a very long time. These are both such fascinating subjects to me and I love reading everything I can about them. As a result, I forget that violent pirates and brutal executions can be hard or even frightening for people to hear/read about. Once I was giving an interview and I was discussing an execution in detail. When I finished the interviewer asked, “How are you able to sound so cheerful about this?” She didn’t ask it in a judgmental way. We were both laughing and I explained that I am just very passionate about my subject and I forget that it’s actually quite dark because I’ve become a bit desensitized to it.
Memorable misstep/hairiest moment on the job?
The second podcast I ever did was Hound Tall with Moshe Kasher. This was a live comedy podcast with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in Los Angeles where I was on a panel with Moshe and several comedians. They tossed out jokes and were “roasting” me and pirates while asking questions at the same time. I was nervous to be doing this with an audience and I was a bit flustered with all the activity on stage.
When they asked me about the pirate, Blackbeard, I went into his history and talked about how the pirate Jack Rackham sailed with him. They thought the name was hilarious and kept shouting “Rrrrrrrrrackham!” over and over. But something in my gut told me that something was off. I listened to the podcast later and realized that I’d made a mistake. Blackbeard sailed with Stede Bonnet – NOT Rackham! I was so embarrassed! I have a PhD in pirates – how could I have made that mistake? Well, I’m human and we all make mistakes. I still cringe about it though.
What do you never leave the house without/what’s your most treasured piece of kit?
I love to read so I never leave the house without my Kindle. I prefer physical copies of books but the Kindle is so convenient. I read everywhere and if I don’t have it, I feel like I’ve left something as important as my wallet at home.
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
Be active on social media – Twitter, Tiktok, whatever you like to use. Twitter (@Beckalex) is how I got a lot of opportunities when I started out. Make sure to network. Meet other writers or historians (if that’s what you're into) through online groups and conferences. Say yes to every opportunity. Expect to work for free for a bit but once you’re established, NEVER work for free again.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. It’s scary but necessary and people are much nicer than you think. If you feel like you have imposter syndrome, pretend you’re the best at what you do and you’ll feel more confident! Finally, if you decide to do a PhD, make sure that you either get funding or can pay for as much of it yourself as you can. Don’t go into debt because the academic job market is hard.