The Career Question in History

Edward J. Balleisen, December 2011

In "No More Plan B," their October 2011 Perspectives on History essay, Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman issued a call to reform graduate education in history, provoking a torrent of reaction in education journals, academic blogs, and university hallways.1 As the discussion generated by their essay proceeds, my suggestion is that we not initially concentrate directly on the dilemma of how to prepare graduate students to find nonacademic jobs, as important an undertaking as that is. Rather, we should begin by asking ourselves what "History" is good for—what sophisticated historical thinking and the skills of historical analysis offer to other academic disciplines, to nonacademic arenas, and to society at large.

This way of framing of our task invites discussion about the social value of historical research, historical debate, and the communication of historical knowledge. It further encourages us to identify contexts in which historical expertise might make more of a difference. Grafton and Grossman suggest some fruitful entry points for such an inquiry, including journalism, corporate management, documentary studies, cultural memory, and the digital humanities. I would like briefly to consider another one of their examples—the arena of public policy.

The last decade has brought some stunning policy failures across the globe, many of which reflect a striking lack of historical perspective. Consider two key dimensions of the ongoing global financial crisis—the assumption by regulatory officials that modern techniques of risk management could sustain a dramatic increase in the leverage undertaken by the largest banks, and the faith of so many economic policymakers that renewed prosperity depends on confidence-building strategies of fiscal austerity. These assumptions flow out of influential economic theories that ignore the deeper history of modern capitalism, especially the painful experiences of the 1930s. I am not so naïve as to assume that historians could have, on their own, redirected the powerful currents that made such ideas so attractive to officialdom, nor do I believe that a strong grasp of history invariably translates into far-sighted decision-making. But perhaps we all would be better off if the staffs of key institutions such as the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank included, alongside their scores of economists, at least some historians of financial innovation, modern business cycles, macroeconomic policy, and the dynamics of financial crises.

For me, this way of thinking underscores the importance of our discipline's nascent reengagement with the social sciences. Historians have always had a knack for appropriating useful conceptual frameworks from other disciplines, and behavioral economics, complexity theory, network analysis, and the new institutionalism all beckon in this regard. In the other direction, the quantifiers and model builders would certainly benefit from heightened attention to the specificities of historical context, the significance of culture for institutional behavior, and the dynamics of change over time. But there are other good reasons for historians to renew dialogues with social scientists, and to pay more attention to the contexts of politics, governance, and economic life.

Perhaps most importantly, the ability of historians to contribute to policy deliberations in a domain like political economy, whether from the perch of history departments, or as scholars in other academic units, or as public servants, or as employees of NGOs or unions or corporations, depends greatly on their cultivation of relevant expertise. The same goes for participation in debates about geopolitics, global health, or environmental sustainability. Historians can hardly expect to bring insights to bear on such vital questions as the apparent link between waxing inequality and financial instability, to offer just one example, if they have not closely investigated the relationship between these phenomena in some historical setting.

At the same time, historians who undertake research with clear relevance for policy debates will likely enjoy some advantages should they wish to land in a policy-related position outside history departments. One can think about this dynamic from the perspective of graduate students who are mulling over fields and dissertation topics. The individual whose dissertation compares post-1970 controversies over automobile emission standards in America and Europe would not only have something substantive to bring to considerations of clean air regulations; she would also presumably have a leg up in landing a research analyst position with the Environmental Protection Agency, or a tenure-track position in a professional school of the environment. The young historian whose thesis traces the origins and global evolution of microlending would not only potentially enrich public understandings of its varying forms and their impacts in different societies; he might also stand out as an attractive prospective employee to a development NGO or the World Bank. The point here, for graduate students and faculty mentors alike, is that decisions about what to study, and which audiences to target, have intertwined implications for career options and the capacity to engage with many pressing public issues.

A few caveats. First, my approach to these matters inevitably reflects my own intellectual preoccupations, which involve the history of law, business culture, business-state relations, and the modern regulatory state. One can imagine, I hope, companion exercises by historians who study the deeper past or explore other realms of society, politics, and culture. Second, I am not suggesting that every historian and every graduate student should rush to the frontlines of public engagement, nor I am arguing that traditional scholarly research and debate lack intrinsic merit. I am, however, strongly advocating a more expansive professional mission, a broader frame of reference for evaluating answers to the "so what" question.

How might such shifts lead us to re-imagine graduate education? Grafton and Grossman sensibly advise history graduate students to expand their analytical tool kits, pursuing coursework and outside fields that give them exposure to such clusters as visual studies and graphic design, or statistics and informatics, or organizational management and finance. They also urge history graduate programs to forge partnerships with other schools and departments to facilitate such cross-fertilization. I would propose three additions to the mix: collaborative learning experiences, experimental methods of presenting historical arguments, and opportunities for internships (the last mentioned briefly in "No More Plan B").

Truly interdisciplinary research and writing, whether in or outside of academia, increasingly requires the capacity to work in teams, since few individuals can carry out such challenging work on their own. History departments should be testing out ways of incorporating sustained collaboration into graduate training, both within and across disciplinary boundaries. The possibilities range from group seminar assignments to experimentation with collective research projects, perhaps modeled on practices in the natural sciences.

Ongoing revolutions in information technology present analogous challenges. The transformations in IT are reshaping expectations about provision of access to the evidentiary bases of one's claims, threatening inherited models of scholarly publishing, and, at the same time, creating new opportunities to attract attention beyond the confines of field, discipline, or even academia as a whole. Graduate programs should encourage students to respond to and even shape these trends, perhaps by extending the range of graduate seminar "outputs."

Some experiments, like the requirement of some papers that truly take advantage of information technology (hyperlinks, reader access to primary sources and research notes, and so on), might continue to presume largely academic readership. But others, such as the construction of content-rich websites or the penning of historically informed opinion pieces like the ones published by History News Network, might imagine far wider audiences. The objective here would be to deepen the comparative advantage that historians have enjoyed as intellectual go-betweens, as thinkers who synthesize many kinds of evidence, draw on many disciplinary modes of analysis, and translate complex ideas and arguments into accessible prose.2 Finally, graduate programs should be exploring how they might help interested students gain exposure to nonacademic workplaces. The ability to spend a summer or semester working for a museum, a documentary filmmaker, a historical society, an archive, an innovative website, an NGO, a news organization, a government agency, a consulting firm, a union, or a corporation would not only give graduate students the chance to hone new skills, test their affinity for nonacademic work, and build professional networks. It might also open up exciting new research agendas and access to new sources, while alerting graduate students to a range of potential audiences and the means to reach them. Although much of the heavy lifting associated with reorienting graduate education will have to occur within departments, the AHA can do a great deal to support the process. One contribution would be to expand its collection and analysis of data about the profession beyond the academic realm. Grafton and Grossman point to several arenas in which history PhDs have fashioned careers. But it would be helpful to have a more fine-grained occupational map to guide graduate students and faculty mentors alike. What exactly does "digital humanities" mean for the historians doing it? What does their work involve, and how do they see the field evolving? How do the history PhDs who work for NGOs or government agencies or in the business world actually use their historical skills? Where do those individuals see opportunities to improve the way that decision-makers make sense of, and use, the past?

Other initiatives might focus on assisting graduate programs and individual doctoral candidates to chart new paths. The AHA might identify promising initiatives around the country and showcase them in its publications. It might create a national (or even global) internship clearinghouse. More ambitiously, it might propose and then work to establish a fellowship program for history graduate students to undertake stints in the federal government, and create its own fellowship program that would provide stipends for internships in museums or the NGO sector.

One can readily envisage objections to making such a priority of redirecting professional culture. Doesn't such a reorientation risk a distorting presentism, either insufficiently rigorous training in historical fields or the further lengthening of time to degree, and maybe even the compromising of professional ethics? Why should we expect the current professoriate, mostly focused on academia, to be good at mentoring students for other sorts of careers? If so many history PhDs have already found their way into rewarding and socially valuable nonacademic positions, why can't we simply assume that perspicacity and pluck will be sufficient for those individuals who either prefer a nonacademic route, or do not have the good fortune to land a tenure-track job? Why not rather simply trim departmental sails, reducing the size of graduate classes and closing down marginal PhD programs, so that the profession does not have to conjure up full employment plans for historians?

These are serious questions, many already voiced publicly by critics of "No More Plan B," and they deserve careful consideration as the dialogue continues. But we should be cognizant of the dangers of defensive insularity and the potential for creative adaptation. Every generation of historians rethinks its central questions in light of emerging technologies and economic realities, fresh political and intellectual vistas, and new societal dilemmas or opportunities. We, and our students, find much of our passion in this complex interaction between between present and past. Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman have usefully challenged graduate faculty in research universities to direct some of that energy toward imagining "History" as more than just a disciplinary endeavor that requires the reproduction of professionalized scholar-teachers for academic history departments. By widening our horizons, we can at once strengthen traditional practices of scholarship and teaching, invigorate our methodological capacities, and connect more effectively, and in more consequential contexts, with other academic disciplines, nonacademic institutions, and the broader public. And it certainly would not hurt if along the way, a higher percentage of individuals with history doctorates constructed satisfying nonacademic careers that enabled them to place their knowledge and expertise in the service of society.

—Edward Balleisen is associate professor of history at Duke University and a senior fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics. The recipient of several awards, including Duke University's Howard D. Johnson Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, he is the author of Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America and more recently the co-editor, with David Moss, of Government and Markets: Toward a New Theory of Regulation.


1. The article that appeared first in Perspectives on History 49:7 (October 2011), 5–7 can be read online at A slightly revised version appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Grafton and Grossman pursue their arguments further in "Plan C," which appeared in Perspectives on History 49:8 (November 2011), 5–7 . A revised version of the article has also appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

2. At Duke University, we now require students to produce a portfolio of field-related work rather than take qualifying exams. A portfolio system may prove to be a useful conduit for such curricular innovations. Faculty willingness to undertake similar ventures, however, may be necessary to signal that such endeavors are truly sanctioned by mentors.