Publication Date

November 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

Career Paths

AHA Topic

Graduate Education, Professional Life



The AHA began the first year of its Career Diversity for Historians initiative with a key insight. Our preliminary work of data gathering, focus groups, and innumerable conversations had coalesced into one broad principle: the cultivation of the skills needed for careers beyond the academy was also essential to careers within the professoriate.

No matter their chosen professions, we realized, all historians should emerge from their graduate training with five key skills, initially identified in conversations with history PhDs beyond the professoriate:

◆ Communication, in a variety of media and to a variety of audiences

◆ Collaboration, especially with others who don’t share the same worldview

◆ Quantitative literacy: a basic understanding of the ways numbers convey information

◆ Intellectual self-confidence: the ability to step beyond the comfort zone of expertise and experience

◆ Digital literacy or engagement, which is not so much a separate skill set as a thread that runs through the previous four

The central corollary to this insight was that if this is what preparing graduate students for a variety of careers looks like, it is not a distraction from graduate school. The opportunities to gain experience in these five areas also prepare graduate students to be more effective scholars, teachers, and colleagues.

With this in mind, one of the goals of the various projects undertaken in this initiative was to find ways to both integrate these skills into existing structures and seek out new opportunities for doctoral students to enhance their graduate school experience. At the national level, this manifested itself first in a series of sessions and workshops at successive annual meetings, and then in the launch of AHA Career Contacts, which connects graduate students and early-career historians with history PhDs employed beyond the professoriate for low-stakes, one-time informational interviews.

The initiative’s four pilot sites, the University of New Mexico, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University, have also sought to apply this insight into the programs they are developing. They began with a few goals: to draw on resources from the whole university, to integrate opportunities to gain experience in a broad skill set into existing programs and curricula, and to pilot ideas for new applications of historical skills and knowledge. The intersection of these three goals and a desire to emphasize graduate student programming led many of the sites to prioritize internships and independent projects. Together, the pilot sites have funded nearly 20 graduate student projects, many of them profiled on AHA Today and in the pages of Perspectives on History. In addition, all the pilot sites have worked to create relationships with other campus units aimed at enhancing graduate student preparation, from career centers and centers for teaching and learning to graduate student resource centers and sustainability centers. In short, from practicing elevator pitches to writing blogs to creating apps and video games, all four pilot programs have sought to integrate the five skills into programs for graduate students.

Embedded in discussions of careers for historians, however, there is often an implied worry: that Career Diversity for Historians seeks to transform the history PhD into a “mere” professional degree. This could not be farther from the case. With this initiative, the AHA seeks to champion the importance of deep intellectual engagement with history and to articulate those skills and habits of mind in ways legible to those inside and beyond the academy. The history PhD currently has a singular focus on preparing students for careers in research universities. Career Diversity is an initiative to multiply the pathways and broaden the influence of historical thinking and historical work. From the beginning, this initiative was driven in part by the premise that rigorously trained historians can contribute to public culture, policy, and the economy in a wide variety of ways. We have only begun to appreciate the broad value of graduate training in history, which encompasses deep intellectual engagement, sustained intellectual inquiry, and the dissertation’s requirement to organize a massive quantity of material into a coherent narrative and compelling argument. Rather than diminishing the social good of a PhD in history, Career Diversity for Historians aims to maximize the impact of historical thinking and historical work, and of the humanities more generally.

So, what’s coming up in year two of the initiative? By the time this article goes to press, selections will have been made in the first round of Career Diversity Departmental Grants, which seek to extend the initiative beyond the pilot programs and the AHA’s activities by seeding projects at doctoral institutions to expand the career horizons of history PhDs. Opportunities for career development have been enhanced at the annual meeting, and we are working to expand and refine AHA Career Contacts.

The Career Diversity for Historians pilot sites will also host two regional conferences in 2016. On January 21–22, Columbia University will host its third annual “History in Action” conference, and UCLA will host “The Futures of History,” scheduled for February 25–26. In addition, all the pilot sites will continue to expand their internship opportunities, refine clinic courses and professionalization seminars, and explore the broadest definition of what it means to be a historian.

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Emily Swafford
Emily Swafford

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor