Publication Date

December 1, 2016

Career Diversity for Historians began in 2012 with twin aims regarding issues of PhD employment: first, to identify and address immediate needs of history departments and their students; and second, to shape conversation about the future of career preparation for history PhDs. Informed by data from “The Many Careers of History PhDs,” a 2013 report we commissioned, the AHA developed programming on a national level complemented by experimentation in individual departments, where most decisions are made and where academic culture is reproduced. In language we know from advocacy for history and historical thinking, we found ourselves arguing that our discipline and its habits of mind are so valuable that we limit ourselves if we remain content with a narrow definition of success for history PhDs.

Halfway through the initiative’s third year, Career Diversity for Historians has sponsored four conferences, collectively attended by hundreds of graduate students, and AHA staff have engaged in conversation about Career Diversity at more than 40 departmental events and conferences, including internationally. The initiative has awarded 10 small departmental grants to allow smaller-­scale experimentation at a wider swath of departments. And we continue to gather data and create resources. Our work has inspired crucial lessons, and we are committed to serving our members in this important way in the future.

In 2014, four departmental pilot sites began independent experimentation, with the AHA directly organizing complementary efforts. United by their commitment to a discipline-based approach while grounded in the specificity of their institutions, Columbia University; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Chicago; and the University of New Mexico have collectively explored the ways graduate student seminars can change to allow for a fuller expression of learning, how access to existing resources within the university can widen the diversity of doctoral students’ learning experiences, and the ways department and university cultures shape definitions of graduate student success. Their work has generated what might be the project’s most important insight to date: that the skills and habits of mind that enable success beyond the professoriate are also crucial to the work of 21st-century faculty.

The implications of this argument made us realize that the scope of the initiative had to be broadened. It had to address directly how graduate students are prepared to teach. Faculty would have to engage on a greater level than anticipated to ensure the initiative’s long-term success. And work life had to be demystified: it’s not only having a PhD beyond the professoriate that can be unimaginable to many graduate students, it’s also the work of professors. What began as an initiative to broaden the career horizons of history PhDs has evolved into an effort to reconsider the culture and curriculum of graduate education. Readers can trace the evolution of this initiative in two executive director columns in Perspectives on History, November 2015 and April 2016.

In addition to the work of the pilot sites, the AHA has also developed a series of freely available resources especially for graduate students and faculty. The most striking success has been AHA Career Contacts, which connects graduate students and early career historians with history PhDs beyond the professoriate for one-time informational interviews. Launched in January 2015, Career Contacts has matched more than 200 “junior contacts” (graduate students and early career historians) with more than 100 volunteer “senior contacts” (history PhDs beyond the professoriate). With so many requests from history PhDs, we have had to turn away graduate students in other disciplines who have asked to participate.

The AHA is also introducing two web pages that showcase what we’ve come to call the Five Skills: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy. The first page, launched in April 2016, presents resources about the centrality of the Five Skills to careers inside and beyond the professoriate, as well as about practicing these skills in graduate school and translating them into various employment environments. The second page, launched in November 2016, provides guides and models to graduate faculty who have not participated in Career Diversity activities, but who want to incorporate this work into their advising and teaching. Participants in the four pilot programs and 10 recipients of departmental grants are the primary authors of these resources, generously sharing concrete lessons from their experience, for the benefit of other departments.

We’re continually building on resources created during earlier stages of this project. “The Many Careers of History PhDs,” our path-breaking aggregation of data on the career outcomes of history PhDs, is still the most visited resource on the Career Diver­sity page, making it imperative to expand and update these data. After two years of work, we are eagerly anticipating the launch of an online, interactive data set of PhD graduates from more than 30 departments, representing the full spectrum of Carnegie classification, program size, and geographic location, with data articulated by gender, field, and date of graduation, and aligned with Bureau of Labor Statistics categories. This data aggregation will constitute a unique resource, and our ultimate goal is a complete, longitudinal representation of PhD employment data from all 165 departments in the United States that grant a PhD in history. We hope to have the initial data online by early 2017.

The themes and lessons of this work can be traced throughout other AHA activities. The initiative produces regular publications across AHA platforms: a series on AHA Today with updates on Career Diversity activities (and a new series highlighting graduate internships, “Historians in Training”), the Career Paths series in Perspectives, and “What I Do,” a series of short video interviews with history PhDs about their work beyond the academy. We’ve extended the presence of Career Diversity at our annual meeting, helping to shift the event’s culture from an anxiety-filled “meat market” to a positive experience where the world of work open to history PhDs—and the pathways to that world—are more visible and transparent. A key example has been our Career Fair. To be offered for the fourth time in Denver, the Career Fair has enjoyed a steadily growing attendance over the past three years. It provides an informal opportunity for graduate students and job candidates to speak with a variety of PhDs and employers of PhDs. The most recent innovation is the Ask an Assistant Professor booth, staffed by a rotating cadre of faculty and intended to increase opportunities for informal communication about academic work.

Looking back, it is gratifying to see change happening across the landscape of our discipline and to know that our work of the past several years has helped to broaden conversation around careers for history PhDs. “No More Plan B” seemed to suddenly shine a light on a subject discussed only furtively in the back corridors of conferences or by a precious few in online communities. Nearly five years later, the National Endowment for the Humanities has announced the first round of its Next Generation PhD grants, highlighting both the seriousness of the challenges that remain and the possibility that solutions will preserve the basic value of higher education: that knowledge and its producers are a common good. We’re excited that history departments are playing central roles in many of the NEH-funded projects.

From the earliest stages of our work, it was clear that what seemed like a narrow focus on careers for history PhDs was nevertheless central to a broader set of issues often termed a crisis in history and the humanities. Continuing that work, therefore, will advance a higher purpose.

Emily Swafford is academic affairs manager at the AHA.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.