Publication Date

March 20, 2014

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

The American Historical Association has received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue, expand, and enhance its “Career Diversity and the History PhD” initiative. Our long-term goal is to establish a new norm: that doctoral graduates in history (and by extension the humanities) know how to pursue a wide spectrum of career opportunities that includes the professoriate, higher education administration, cultural institutions and other nonprofits, government, public education, and the private sector. This $1.6 million grant will fund pilot projects at four universities, anchored by a suite of national activities implemented by the Association. These pilots will take place at UCLA, Columbia,  Univ. of Chicago, and Univ. of New Mexico.branches6

Expanding the employment horizons and qualifications of history PhDs is not just a matter of finding jobs for our students. We are also interested in widening the presence and influence of humanistic thinking in business, government, and nonprofits. Implicit assumptions about historical context inform thousands of decisions made every day in nearly every institutional context, and we believe that a substantial proportion of those decisions are made without recognition of those historical assumptions, and certainly with very little actual historical knowledge.

In particular, this project will:

  • Compile data and narratives that will continue to improve our knowledge of the ways history PhDs have built rewarding careers in the world outside the academy, and then publicize what we have learned, in part to highlight the range of possibilities and in part to normalize these pathways and facilitate them through a “virtual mentorship” program.
  • Prepare history PhD students for work and other activity beyond the professoriate through curricular enhancements that provide essential skills and experience.
  • Transform a cultural environment within the academy, among faculty as well as students, that continues to define “success” exclusively as tenure-track employment at four-year institutions, even as such opportunities become less common.
  • Cultivate a broader understanding among potential employers of the skills, knowledge, and personal characteristics implied by advanced education in history and the completion of a PhD dissertation.

In the first stage of this initiative, AHA officers and colleagues have located and learned from history PhDs working across a vast spectrum of occupations. We have found historians working everywhere from investment banking and marketing to public policy, both inside and outside of government. They appear in nonprofit administration and human resources; in management consulting and journalism—and as the official historians of corporations and government agencies. Inside the university as well, our doctoral alumni turn up in every imaginable job. They work in development offices, career and placement centers, and digital humanities centers; as student counselors and as budget specialists. These scholars have one thing in common: they have found success (not to mention happiness) beyond the professoriate.

But most of these historians have had to find their own way, without substantial guidance or support; and few have remained part of a community of historians to which they could make substantial contributions. We want to capitalize on their experience, to make it easier for future generations to find their way to rewarding careers. They can help us redefine success as a historian in a way that takes account of all the possibilities. In the end, we hope, it will become clear that historians, whatever their career choices, take their training and their habits of mind with them into the workplace—and that those who leave the academy, as well as those who stay, have good reason to remain active members of the community of historians.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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