The Malleable PhD Mini-Conference

Jacqueline Jones, February 2013

A notable aspect of the annual meeting in New Orleans was the featured "mini-conference" of panels and workshops devoted to "The Malleable PhD." Offerings focused on a range of job opportunities outside the academy for historians, the role of graduate education in preparing students for those opportunities, and practical suggestions for history PhDs hoping to broaden their employment horizons. Sessions included "The Entrepreneurial Historian (view the AHA's video of this session)," "Front Lines: Early-Career Scholars Doing Digital History," "Exploring a Range of Careers outside the Academy," "Academic Administration as a Career Path for History PhDs," "Transforming History Graduate Education to Make the PhD 'Malleable,'" and "Public History in the Federal Government: Continuing Trends and New Innovations." Workshops on crafting a resume out of an academic c.v. and finding and loving a government job added specific practical advice to the broader discussion. Several panelists noted that in fact conversations on a "versatile" or "malleable" PhD have been taking place for decades; it is only now that the large professional associations are beginning to acknowledge this reality and working to counter the stigma attached to employment outside academy.

Taken together, these sessions offered an eclectic mix of personal narratives, policy proposals, and practical advice for job-seekers. Participating historians discussed their experiences in a wide range of workplaces—an educational nonprofit; various offices in college and university administration; an online site devoted to digital marketing, media, and commerce; a university press; a foreign affairs-focused private intelligence company; and the National Park Service and other agencies of the federal government. These panelists discussed their personal journeys from history graduate school to careers outside the academy. Some were responding to the poor academic job market for history PhDs; one noted, "I wanted to live the dream [of becoming a college professor], but the dream died."

However, most seemed to have made an affirmative choice to pursue a career path based on their particular skills, interests, desire to live in a particular part of the country, or, in some cases, eagerness to find a nine-to-five job free of the pressures that come with the trappings of tenure and the never-ending demand to publish. Panelists mentioned their own turning points—coping with a serious illness, falling in love, realizing that they did not enjoy teaching—that made them reevaluate their plans and priorities.

Based on their own experiences, these panelists offered advice to graduate students and newly minted PhDs. They described pursuing unpaid internships, online information related to specific jobs and the application process, and personal contacts (through, for example, "informational interviews"). They also offered candid observations on certain aspects of nonacademic employment—in some cases, rigorous on-the-job training, very few vacation days per year, the lack of adequate benefits such as health care, and rigid office structures and hierarchies. Several mentioned that they had found rewarding employment only after accepting the fact that they must start at the bottom of the institutional ladder making copies and running errands, tasks that seemed at odds with their lengthy formal education and the PhD next to their names. Serving as your own best advocate in promoting your strengths and pursuing your interests was also cited as key to finding a nonteaching job.

The panelists listed the skills that they had learned in graduate school that now served them well—teaching and speaking before an audience generally, learning to write clearly and concisely, absorbing new and large amounts of information quickly, mastering quantitative data and foreign languages, using a variety of research methodologies, evaluating and comparing different kinds of evidence, and organizing and completing a large research project (the dissertation). Above all, historians are skilled at telling stories, and telling them well—skills valued in a wide variety of jobs and sectors of the economy.

One theme that emerged in some form or another throughout the mini-conference was the need to change history department graduate-education cultures. Too many faculty, administrators, and students disparage employment outside the academy. To them, a tenure-track teaching job is the "brass ring," the "gold standard" by which all history PhDs must be measured. Often departments reveal an explicit bias toward traditional students by favoring for admission those who aim to become professors, and by rewarding those students with fellowships and other resources.

Suggestions for transforming this culture included avoiding terms such as "alternative careers" and "Plan B," which imply that nonteaching positions are inherently inferior to those in the academy. In some cases, accurate placement records yield surprising results—that a considerable percentage of graduates are currently employed in nonacademic jobs like working in finance, business, government service, publishing, and academic administration, or starting companies, schools, and nonprofits.

Programs should celebrate these graduates; sponsoring a panel of such alums is a useful way to introduce current students to various employment possibilities. Programs should maintain a flexible curriculum, allow students to explore other disciplines, fund internships for students who could not otherwise afford to pursue them, foster collaborative and team learning, devise innovative ways to produce and evaluate scholarship, and encourage students to take courses in statistics, public speaking, and the digital humanities. Directors of graduate studies should introduce the idea of the malleable PhD during orientation, and not wait until a sense of panic or crisis sets in among advanced students. Department chairs and senior faculty must make a convincing case to deans and other high administrators that graduate programs should not be evaluated on the basis of tenure-track placements exclusively. Above all, faculty should have the best interests of their students at heart, and support and affirm the choices of students who are inclined to leave graduate study and pursue other options, choices that are in fact affirmative life decisions and not evidence of personal shortcomings or academic failings.

Panelists and audience members discussed the broader ramifications of all of these topics: What about the notion that graduate education must remain a bastion of the ideal, an enemy of the material? Does graduate education need a complete overhaul, starting with the requirement that all students write a dissertation, in favor of other kinds of scholarly activity and production? Does an emphasis on the malleable PhD dilute the training of the professoriate? What is the role of the historian in the larger society? The mini-conference generated a number of lively discussions that will enable the profession to move forward with a more expansive, and realistic, view of the job market for history PhDs.

Jacqueline Jones (Univ. of Texas at Austin) is the AHA's vice president, Professional Division.