Publication Date

April 8, 2020

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Career Paths

In 2018, I became the director of graduate studies (DGS) in my department, charged with providing academic and career-related guidance to graduate students in history at Western Michigan University (WMU). My job runs in tandem with our department’s Graduate Studies Committee and with the supervising professors of individual graduate students—we all advise students at different stages of graduate education. In fairly short order, I realized that while I knew basic kinds of advice to give graduates entering the academic job market, I was less prepared to assist students seeking other career options. What did I know about career diversity? I’ve not held a full-time job outside of the academy since the 1990s, short-term consulting gigs aside. Realizing that my situation is not unlike that of most professors at colleges and universities across the United States prompted this question: How can we offer informed guidance about job markets with which we ourselves have little experience?

Black and white photo of a large, complex highway interchange.

Preparing graduate students for diverse career paths requires a team effort from faculty, university services, alumni, and others who can help students create a roadmap for the future. Brian Grogan/Historic American Engineering Record/Library of Congress. Image cropped.

Having now served the graduate students at WMU for more than a year, I have assembled a few provisional answers to this increasingly pressing question. There are a number of ways for DGSs to learn about diverse career options for those they advise: doing research, leveraging the experiences of colleagues and alumni, calling upon an institution’s full range of services, using the AHA website, and attending sessions at the AHA’s annual meeting.

I turned first to the library and the internet for information. Leonard Cassuto has written numerous columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education that make the case for career-diverse training in graduate schools at every stage. Joseph Fruscione and Kelly Baker’s book, Succeeding Outside the Academy, includes first-person accounts of how young scholars launched non-academy-focused careers. Susan Basalla, Jennifer Brown Urban, and Miriam Linvir have each written books on making the leap to consulting, publishing, and other jobs. Finding the careers that align best with an individual graduate student’s interests led me to Beth Seltzer’s column on the Modern Language Association’s skills and preferences assessment tool, which pinpoints the specific tasks graduate students enjoy and the skills they’ve acquired, making it easier to identify suitable nonacademic jobs. A similar assessment tool, ImaginePhD, helps graduate students align their skills with potential careers (more on that later). Back issues of Perspectives reminded me that the AHA has an ongoing column detailing “Career Paths” of people with history graduate degrees and that career diversity has recently been a major topic of conversation in the magazine.

Next, I turned to department colleagues and alumni to learn about their experiences outside of academia, drawing on CVs and personal information to find the people best equipped to offer job-seeking advice. Not surprisingly, our public historians had a wide range of nonacademic experiences: writing cultural resource management reports for the government or private clients, working for humanities councils, producing history documentaries, leading environmental heritage groups or museums, and holding leadership posts in state history organizations. My mental Rolodex was filling up with exciting job possibilities and people who could tell graduate students about them. But our public historians were hardly alone. My colleagues have been educational tour leaders, university administrators with experience in assessment or online education, foreign language school instructors, and developers for educational testing firms. The deeper I dove, the more I uncovered. And our network of alumni offered further links to a wide range of history-related jobs.

How can we offer informed guidance about job markets with which we ourselves have little experience?

Preparing soon-to-be-graduates for jobs beyond the academy is a task well-suited to other university units as well. Résumé and interview workshops, tutorials on LinkedIn, preparing for informational interviews—these are the bread and butter of our Career Services center. To hone their abilities with software, graduate students may take seminars at the Faculty Development Center on Microsoft Sway, Microsoft Flow, Cisco’s Webex Meetings, and other business-ready applications. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion runs learning communities focused on race, gender, and more, while teaching participants to communicate effectively about difficult subjects—a competency that many employers find desirable. In addition, our Graduate College subscribes to Versatile PhD, a service that helps ABDs and PhDs translate academic chops into job-ready skills.

The AHA’s website contains an entire section devoted to Career Diversity for Historians, with useful guides for graduate students considering their career options. The Career Contacts program facilitates informational interviews, the What I Do video series includes historians discussing their work beyond the academy, and vast data sets describe the jobs recent PhDs have taken in a host of industries.

These resources can increase the effectiveness of a DGS who needs more information for career-diverse advising, but I also suggest attending the AHA’s annual meeting to become even more knowledgeable. The resources vary year by year, but the offerings on career options and advising present a rich smorgasbord for the DGS seeking new material.

At the 2019 AHA annual meeting in Chicago, for instance, I heard from colleagues at the DGS luncheon about the advice they offer job-hunting students. At the Career Fair, I spoke with representatives of the independent (private secondary) school market, foundations and nonprofits that hire historians, copy editors and acquisition editors at for-profit and nonprofit publishing houses, and companies specializing in data analytics and test design.

Just this past January, at the 2020 AHA annual meeting in New York City, I attended sessions on historical consulting, careers in publishing, alumni relations, and a particularly informative lightning-round session, Implementing Career Diversity in Your Department. Each speaker at this session had much to share, but I’d like to highlight a few specifics. Melissa Bingmann discussed the West Virginia University alumni-in-residence program, modeled on a similar pilot project at the University of New Mexico. These programs bring in MA and PhD alumni for multi-day campus visits. The alumni speak to classes, host workshops, give presentations, and offer one-on-one meetings with current graduate students about the work they do outside the academy. In return, alumni enjoy the use of offices, library and parking privileges, and time to advance projects that their current work schedules might not allow.

The offerings on career options and advising at the AHA annual meeting present a rich smorgasbord for the DGS seeking new material.

At the same session, Pat Mooney-Melvin (Loyola Univ. Chicago) focused on integrating diverse career pathways into everything from recruitment literature to new student orientation, making clear that waiting until the end of graduate school to mention career diversity is a mistake. Mooney-Melvin shared her department’s “stepping stones” documents, which describe the course requirements and professional-development steps that graduate students take at each stage in their education. Among these steps, graduate students create individual development plans, comparable to those in STEM fields, which help students to identify goals, improve skills, and develop action plans to advance toward their career after graduate school, inside or outside the academy. In a similar vein, Lorena Oropeza (Univ. of California, Davis) discussed “career mapping,” a sort of roadmap through student coursework, crossed with suggestions for when to develop new skills and take actions to enhance career diversity (e.g., “this could be a good year for an internship” or “contact Versatile PhD and take a skills assessment”).

Helpful advice at the annual meeting was provided not only by panelists. During the same Career Diversity session, Derek Attig (Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) spoke from the audience about the Graduate Career Consortium, whose members write “Carpe Careers” columns on job seeking for Inside Higher Ed. The GCC hosts an annual conference on best practices in graduate career development and diversity advising, as well as supporting ImaginePhD, a free online tool that allows graduate students in the humanities and social sciences to create individual development plans while exploring a range of nonacademic careers. ImaginePhD has had nearly 15,000 users since it first launched in October 2017.

Speakers repeatedly noted two key limitations during these career diversity panels: the need to enhance student buy-in for activities that may expand their career options, and the problem of sustainability to support career diversity, especially in an era of faculty downsizing. Students entering graduate school do not always want careers beyond the academy, even if they know that nearly one-third of recent history PhDs are not standing in university classrooms. Developing skills useful beyond the academy can be seen as “wasting time” or “not for me.” Changing that attitude is critical. Meanwhile, faculty who support career diversity as well as the DGSs who mentor students on careers outside the academy through workshops, counseling, and other initiatives increase their own workload. The majority of the Implementing Career Diversity panelists were women faculty, all of whom acknowledged that this service work falls disproportionately upon women, minorities, and junior faculty. The task must fall more equitably upon every faculty member. Keeping these cautions in mind, the forward-thinking DGS can find many methods to prepare history graduate students for careers in a rapidly changing landscape.

Sally Hadden is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the department of history at Western Michigan University.

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