Publication Date

August 7, 2020

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

The AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative is leading a national conversation to better align the purpose of doctoral education with the varying skills, values, and interests of graduate students and the changing professional opportunities for historians within and beyond the academy. In the spring of 2018, 20 PhD-granting history departments were awarded Career Diversity implementation grants to support a team of faculty and a graduate student fellow to collaboratively build sustainable cultural and structural change in their doctoral programs. After two years of work at our partner institutions, we asked the fellows to discuss what they’ve learned and share some of the innovative ways they are creating student-centered doctoral programs that prepare history PhDs for a range of careers.

AHA Career Diversity fellows at the 2018 orientation.

AHA Career Diversity fellows at the 2018 orientation. Elizabeth Poorman.

In this post, the fifth of a six-part series, Career Diversity fellows Leah Burnham (Georgia State Univ.), Tyler Krahe (West Virginia Univ.), Ramya Swayamprakash (Michigan State Univ.), and Matthew Villeneuve (Univ. of Michigan) discuss how they have built closer ties to department alumni.

How has your department worked with your program alumni?

MV: In 2018, our team worked to track down nearly 500 PhDs who graduated since 1990. In partnership with the Rackham Graduate School, we invited our alums to join a new digital network for past and present history PhDs as part of the University Career Alumni Network. This effort culminated in a 2019 conference on “A Vision for the Humanities PhD in the 21st Century,” when nearly 20 alumni returned to our department for two days of conversations on career diversity, professionalization, and new directions for PhD training to empower graduate students to better pursue their career goals. 

LB: Much like UM, the Career Diversity team at Georgia State began compiling an alumni database in 2018. My predecessor in the fellowship, Megan Piorko, created the Atlanta Humanities Network to connect our alumni with current students and other humanists in the Atlanta area and facilitate the exchange of information on career opportunities. The Atlanta Humanities Network holds monthly gatherings and we encourage members to post jobs, postdocs, internships, and other opportunities on the Facebook page. We have invited alumni to participate in Career Diversity programming and are planning an alumni gathering next year. 

RS: I spent a bulk of the first semester as a fellow tracking down alumni since 2003. This was primarily in service of a survey the MSU Graduate School wanted to administer about career outcomes. However, this helped us get a more complete sense of what our alumni were doing, thus informing some of our programming. For instance, based on my alumni search we figured out that one of our alums now works for a not-for-profit. We reached out to him to serve as a lunch speaker for our brown bag series on career development and diversity. He agreed and both his talks have been some of the most well received and appreciated.

The Atlanta Humanities Network holds monthly gatherings and we encourage members to post jobs, postdocs, internships, and other opportunities on the Facebook page.

TK: At West Virginia University, we have started an Alumni-in-Residence Program, inspired by something developed by the University of New Mexico during an earlier phase of the Career Diversity for Historians initiative. This program brings a WVU history PhD back to campus to engage current students over the course of several days. The alum leads a workshop, presents at the graduate colloquium, holds office hours, and attends working lunches with students who are at different stages of their academic careers. This program allows students to explore diverse career opportunities and discuss how their time in graduate school could be more effectively directed toward those aims. We are also in the early stages of a collaboration with the English department and the WVU Humanities Center to establish an alumni database that will connect current and former students. 

How have the alumni you reached out to reacted?

LB: Our alumni have been incredibly helpful, participating in Career Diversity workshops and panels, attending ATL Humanities Network gatherings, and sharing opportunities with current grad students.

RS: Our alumni also have been very receptive and helpful. They have participated in the lunch brown bag series, in addition to serving as mentors for any graduate students who might be interested in careers outside the professoriate. 

TK: We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from the alumni who have participated in the program. Within their own alumni cohorts, word has gotten around about the benefits for both alumni and current students. Some alumni are actually reaching out to see how they can be involved. 

What do you think is the role of alumni in a department community? What are the challenges to including them and how do they benefit from ongoing relationships with the department?

Our alumni responsiveness is evidence of the very real appetite for a historical community that goes beyond the typical circuits (and concerns) of the academy.

MV: Our alumni responsiveness is evidence of the very real appetite for a historical community that goes beyond the typical circuits (and concerns) of the academy. Departments may be excellent hubs but perhaps not the only game in town for the formation of such a community. 

LB: Alumni are such a valuable resource and should be included in the department community. Our team would like to show our appreciation through our alumni gathering next year, which will give alumni the opportunity to connect with their former professors and with current students. One challenge we face is finding ways to include alumni who don’t live in the area, though we’d like to find a way to include them in the gathering.

RS: Our graduate students have a great hunger for knowing what alumni have done with their degrees, especially those working in academic publishing or at think-tanks. The latter resonated particularly in our department which houses a large number of international students as well as being known for its African history program. 

TK: We have found that alumni are incredibly effective as advisers and mentors. They have successfully navigated WVU’s graduate program and built careers in a diverse range of sectors. This makes them an invaluable source of experience and skills. However, we hope that this can be a reciprocal relationship. Through our Alumni-in-Residence Program, they get access to the WVU archives and libraries to further their own research and the chance to workshop any current research or projects they may have. If our aims are successful, current students will be able to easily connect with alumni who have pursued careers in which they are interested. The real challenge to this, as is so often the case, is financial support and ability to make sure such programs are sustainable.

Leah Burnham is a PhD candidate at Georgia State University and AHA Career Diversity Fellow from 2019–20.

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