About Career Diversity

Since its origins in 2011, the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative has evolved from an inquiry concerning career outcomes into a broad-based exploration of the culture, practice, process, and purpose of history PhD programs. Over the course of three grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the AHA has collaborated with 40 PhD-granting departments – a quarter of country’s history PhD programs – to better align doctoral education with changing professional opportunities within and beyond the academy and to better articulate the value of history and historical thinking.

The Origins of Career Diversity (2011)

In the fall of 2011, AHA President Anthony Grafton and Executive Director Jim Grossman published “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History” in Perspectives on History and in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Grafton and Grossman challenged history PhD programs to reconsider their response to the longstanding pressures on the academic job market: it was time to change our definition of success, time to reconsider the career horizons of our PhD recipients. Rather than focusing exclusively on reproducing the professoriate, departments might encourage students to think expansively about career options and develop curricular and cultural programming to support that broader exploration of careers.

“No More Plan B” sketched a path forward for doctoral education that started by calling for a broader definition of “success” in PhD careers. In particular this message struck a nerve with history PhDs working outside the professoriate, who contacted the AHA and asked how they could help. A small grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided the funding necessary to transform Grossman and Grafton’s rhetorical call to action into a blueprint for the future of doctoral education in the discipline.

The Research Phase (2012-2013)

The AHA’s work started with a series of research questions. Gaining a firm sense of where historians were employed, why they chose their line of work, and how they drew upon historical skills and perspectives in their work was a necessary prelude to any large-scale initiative.

To answer these questions, the AHA gathered quantitative and qualitative evidence about the careers of history PhDs. The “Many Careers of History PhDs” established a basic statistical portrait of career outcomes in the discipline, including the crucial fact that about a quarter of history PhDs worked outside the professoriate in nearly every conceivable sector of the economy. This large number suggested that the PhD opened many professional doors, even as it reinforced the potential efficacy of broadening the curriculum to facilitate transitions into a range of careers. 

Focus groups of employers, history PhDs working outside the academy, and ACLS Public Fellows articulated how their graduate education prepared them for their work. But they also identified what they had not learned, but wished they had: skills that are not often taught in graduate programs but that are crucial to thriving beyond the professoriate. We synthesized those deficits into five skills imperative to a Career Diversity effort. These are not intended to replace traditional components of doctoral education; they represent new categories of knowledge and experience that help history PhD recipients navigate career transitions and better prepare themselves for jobs inside and outside the professoriate.

Two key insights emerged from the initial research phase of Career Diversity. First, the quantitative research demonstrated that large numbers of history PhDs work outside the professoriate in a dizzying array of careers. How could the AHA and history departments better support this diversity of outcomes? Second, in examining how history department could use the “five skills” to enhance doctoral education, we soon realized that these skills would also help doctoral students become better teachers and faculty members. This “both/and” insight addressed a major source of skepticism: that preparation for a broader range of careers would “distract” graduate student from progress to degree and from work more essential to preparation for the academic job market. It also would prove essential in planning and executing the next two phases of the initiative.

The Pilot Phase (2013-2016)

In 2013, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the AHA a second grant to examine how the insights of the exploratory phase could be integrated into the culture and practice of doctoral education. Four pilot programs received funding from the AHA to create spaces for conversations about careers beyond the professoriate and identify structural opportunities to broaden career preparation. Over a three-year period, the Career Diversity pilot sites worked with the AHA to experiment with doctoral internship programs, revise professionalization seminars, create new models for courses and coursework, open new community spaces, sponsor regional conferences, create connections with other units on campus, and offer innovative grant funding to graduate students. Smaller Career Diversity grants awarded by the AHA to an additional ten history departments brought an even greater number of programming activities, and a wider range of institutions into the mix.

The most important lessons to emerge from the pilot phase were:

  • Preparation for careers outside the academy fundamentally overlaps with preparation for 21st century careers inside the academy.
  • Learning to be a professional historian cannot be separated from learning to teach history, including engaging with scholarly literature on history education.
  • The first step towards reconsidering a PhD program should be articulating its purpose. A department might choose to align purpose with actual outcomes, aspirations, both, or neither. But the choice should be intentional and publicly articulated.
  • The experiences and learning opportunities that best prepare students for careers inside and outside the academy should be integrated into the curriculum rather than be defined as external or supplemental.
  • Faculty leadership is essential. Faculty create the curriculum and set the tone for department culture. As such, they are uniquely positioned to create long-term change.
  • Student participation is crucial. Unless students exercise agency over their career preparation, Career Diversity will have little sustained effect.

The Career Diversity pilot programs made it clear that while conversations about career outcomes for humanities PhDs are national and transdisciplinary in scope, solutions need to be departmental and disciplinary. Discipline matters because history PhDs identify intensely as historians: many of the most vexing cultural problems associated with Career Diversity revolve around questions of identity. What does it mean to be a historian? Departments matter because PhDs are earned within specific institutional circumstances. Varying resources, cultures, and requirements on individual campuses create unique challenges and opportunities for rethinking doctoral programs.

The pilot sites also affirmed a growing sense that Career Diversity’s needs to focus as much on what happens during graduate school as it does on what happens after graduate school.

Career Diversity, we increasingly understood, was not just an initiative for helping students find jobs, it was also a framework for thinking about the purpose and value of advanced study in the discipline in the rapidly changing landscape of higher education in the 21st century.

The Implementation Phase (2016-2020)

In December 2016, the Mellon Foundation awarded the AHA a third grant to continue its work on Career Diversity for Historians. This implementation phase dramatically expanded the reach of the initiative by providing funding for departments from across the country to create sustainable cultural and structural change in their doctoral programs.

The implementation phase began with a year-long series of Faculty Institutes designed to prepare prospective participants to organize applications. The Institutes brought together faculty from 36 history departments around the country, who worked together to develop ideas about how faculty from programs of different sizes, institutional cultures, and geographic locations could lead efforts to implement Career Diversity into their hearts of their doctoral programs. The Faculty Institutes were based on the lesson from the pilot phase that in order to accomplish change or even to achieve meaningful discussion of structures and values, certain groundwork needed to be done in advance. Most importantly, faculty were encouraged to learn about the aspirations and experiences of the students in their department, and to locate partners across the university to aid in implementing their plans.

In the spring of 2018, 20 departments in the Faculty Institute cohort were awarded Career Diversity Implementation Grants. These grants support a Career Diversity team composed of faculty and a Career Diversity fellow, a PhD candidate who receives funding to work in an administrative capacity. The Career Diversity team combines faculty leadership with significant student input, bringing together key constituencies capable of creating cultural and structural change in history departments.

Career Diversity Implementation Grants are supporting a wide range of activities including:

  • Articulating and refining the purpose of the graduate programs
  • Developing of professionalization seminars
  • Creating exam fields in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • Establishing internships for graduate students
  • Building connections with department alumni
  • Forging ties to other units of the university, including career centers, university libraries, centers for teaching and learning, and humanities centers
  • Rethinking admissions, recruitment, and orientation to encourage expansive thinking about careers
  • Holding symposia and workshops exposing students and faculty to diverse careers and new skills

Together, our institutional partners are developing models and practices of use to history departments across the country. In the process, they’ve raised new questions – including the relationship between history PhD and MA programs, questions about how racial/ethnic diversity intersect with career diversity, and conversations about graduate student mental health.

The AHA’s Role

The AHA is a leader in what is now a national conversation about career pathways for PhDs in all disciplines. Besides supporting our institutional partners, our role in the Career Diversity initiative is to create a space for discussions about history careers and the purpose of history PhD programs, and develop resources enabling students, graduates, and faculty affiliated with PhD-granting history departments across the country to explore history careers.

These resources include:

Career Contacts, an informational interviewing service that has matched hundreds of PhD students and early career historians with senior historians working in a variety of professional settings.

“Where Historians Work” and “The Many Career of History PhDs,” two large scale data projects documenting career outcomes for history PhDs. “Where Historians Work” includes information on every individual who earned a PhD in history over a ten-year period from 2004-13 and is searchable by program, area of specialization, year of graduation, and gender.

“What I Do” and “Career Paths,” videos and articles featuring historians talking about their work and highlighting the variety of individual narratives of career exploration and discovery.

Career Diversity Faculty Resources, a series of syllabi, sample assignments, and other resources for bringing Career Diversity into graduate seminars and programs.

The AHA’s Perspectives on History has published dozens of blog posts, articles, and news features documenting the evolution of the Career Diversity for Historians initiative, describing innovative ideas and practices that history departments have developed, and providing view points about historians and their careers from graduate students, faculty, AHA staff, and historians working beyond the professoriate.

Since the launch of the Career Diversity for Historians initiative, the AHA annual meeting has added dozens of sessions and workshops related to career development aimed at helping historians become better teachers, scholars, and professionals. 

Partner Institutions:

Pilot Programs (2013-16)

  • Columbia University
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of Chicago
  • University of New Mexico

Department Grant Recipients (2015-16)

  • Georgia State University
  • Texas A&M University
  • University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of Connecticut
  • University of Missouri, Kansas City
  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • University of Washington
  • University of Texas, Austin
  • University of Texas, El Paso

Career Diversity Faculty Institutes (2017-18)

  • Brown University
  • Georgetown University
  • Georgia State University
  • Graduate Center, CUNY
  • Iowa State University
  • Loyola University, Chicago
  • Michigan State University
  • Northwestern University
  • Southern Illinois University
  • John’s University
  • Stony Brook University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas Christian University
  • University at Buffalo, State University of New York
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Davis
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Connecticut
  • University of Florida
  • University of Illinois, Chicago
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Missouri, Kansas City
  • University of New Mexico
  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of South Florida
  • University of Tennessee
  • University of Texas, Austin
  • University of Texas, El Paso
  • University of Utah
  • University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
  • Wayne State University
  • West Virginia University

Career Diversity Implementation Grants (2018-20)

  • Brown University
  • Georgetown University
  • Georgia State University
  • Iowa State University
  • Loyola University, Chicago
  • Michigan State University
  • Texas A&M University
  • University at Buffalo, State University of New York
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of California, Davis
  • University of California, Irvine
  • University of Illinois, Chicago
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Missouri, Kansas City
  • University of Texas, Austin
  • University of Texas, El Paso
  • University of Utah
  • Wayne State University
  • West Virginia University

Career Diversity Affiliate Programs (2018-20)

  • Columbia University
  • Duke University
  • Indiana University
  • Northwestern University
  • Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
  • Texas Christian University
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of Florida
  • University of Iowa
  • University of North Carolina
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of New Mexico
  • University of Washington
  • University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee