Publication Date

February 16, 2018

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

AHA Topic

AHA Initiatives & Projects, Professional Life

Post Type

Advocacy, Employment & Tenure


  • United States

Faculty participate in the June institute, held in Washington, DC. Elizabeth Elliott

Faculty participate in the June institute, held in Washington, DC. Elizabeth Elliott

What is the value and purpose of the history PhD—to the departments that grant it, to the graduate students who earn it, and to future employers? This was the central question faculty from three dozen PhD-granting departments explored in the AHA’s Faculty Institutes, held over the last year as part of the next phase of the Association’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative. Some attendees experienced the thrill of recognition, meeting colleagues facing similar issues and working on similar solutions. Others felt the satisfaction of finally being acknowledged for their hard work piecing together career programming and support. All, however, appreciated the time and space to contemplate doctoral education.

In December 2016, the AHA received a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand Career Diversity for Historians—an effort to rethink doctoral education in history to better prepare PhDs for 21st-century careers, both inside and outside the academy. The grant allowed the AHA to sponsor three Faculty Institutes, bringing together representatives from 36 departments. They discussed the future of doctoral education and how to integrate Career Diversity into graduate curriculum and departmental programming. The goal was to prepare 20 departments for two years of Career Diversity programming, which the AHA will support through some funding and subsidizing a half-time Career Diversity Fellow (a PhD candidate or postdoctoral scholar who will gain experience in academic administration by coordinating the department’s career diversity work).

Since so much of our past work has focused on outcomes for graduate students, it might be puzzling that the first step in expanding Career Diversity is highlighting the role of faculty. But as historians, we know that one way to see how change happens is to look for the interplay of agency, culture, and structure. Graduate student agency surfaced early as a key theme in Career Diversity work. As Leonard Cassuto says in The Graduate School Mess (2015), graduate students are the “CEOs” of their own educations. But they are frequently steered away from this mindset by definitions of success that privilege careers as research faculty. They can also be hampered by the need for faculty approval as they progress through the degree and seek employment. Faculty are therefore central to overcoming these cultural and structural barriers. They set the tone in departments and are the arbiters of graduate curriculum—as they should be.

Lessons gleaned from the four Career Diversity pilot sites— Columbia University; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Chicago; and the University of New Mexico—helped the AHA develop the institutes. From these pilot sites, we learned that while the conversation around Career Diversity needs to be national, the implementation of any solution must be departmental. And in the long view, graduate students’ tenure in departments is typically several years, while faculty are there to stay. The pilot sites taught us how to create department-specific strategies and gave us ideas for programming, including professionalization seminars, internship programs and clinic courses, and forging ties with humanities centers, centers for teaching and learning, and other university and community partners.

The first institute, held in Washington, DC, in June 2017, introduced strategies and lessons learned from the pilot programs and allied initiatives, such as the NEH’s Next Generation PhD. The institute also provided a broad overview of structural changes in higher education in the last few decades. The conversation was driven by the AHA’s recognition that Career Diversity must better support all career outcomes for history PhDs, including roles as faculty in the changing landscape of 21st-century higher education.

The most dramatic of these changes has been demographic: undergraduates come from increasingly diverse backgrounds. A growing number are first-generation students enrolled in teaching-intensive institutions. New faculty will need to understand how to teach them, but today’s graduate students typically receive pedagogical instruction only in the context of the research-intensive institutions where they earn their degrees. Moreover, many programs neglect pedagogical training entirely. These factors, coupled with public skepticism toward history and the humanities as well as a general defunding of higher education, raise the stakes of graduate education. For future faculty who will work to combat decreasing enrollments in their classes and for PhDs who will bring the intellectual rigor and depth of historical thinking to jobs outside the academy, articulating the value and purpose of a history PhD has never been more important.

What should the obligations of departments, faculty, and students be with regard to career preparation?

The second institute, held in Chicago in October 2017, featured small groups discussing strategies for changing departmental culture and curriculum. The institute format drew on the AHA’s successful Tuning initiative, in which faculty “Tuners” organized discipline-specific conversations about the history major and its curricular structure, thus advancing the value of a history BA. With ideas for programs and partnerships gathered from our pilot institutions, and a commitment to their students’ success, participants tackled such tricky questions as: What should be the obligations of departments, faculty, and students with regard to career preparation? Where does resistance to change come from, and how can faculty negotiate it? And, inspired by student focus groups they conducted: What messages about the value of the PhD and definitions of career success do your students seem to get from the department?

The third institute, held in January 2018 in conjunction with the AHA annual meeting in Washington, DC, allowed faculty to place their work in a disciplinary context. Attendees participated in three “tracks” drawn from sessions already on the annual meeting program. The first, “Career Diversity,” featured sessions about implementing Career Diversity programming in history departments. The sessions in the second track, “Teaching, Pedagogy, and Curriculum,” encouraged reflection on how, when, or even whether discussions about student learning and curriculum development occur in our doctoral programs. The third track, “Historians at Work,” included sessions highlighting the careers of history PhDs and historians beyond the professoriate. Feedback from all the sessions was positive—and not just from the Faculty Institute participants. Panelists on sessions reported high engagement and sophisticated contributions from participants, marking one success of the three institutes: an extended, coherent conversation about the issues of Career Diversity.

The AHA embarked on this next phase of Career Diversity committed to the idea that the challenges of doctoral education require discipline- and department-specific solutions. Our experience with the institutes confirmed this. The departments participating in the initiative’s pilot phase were chosen for the differences in their location, program size, and type of institution. The variation among departments participating in the Faculty Institutes was even greater: program strengths ranged from traditional history fields to interdisciplinary degrees, from programs with separate MA and PhD curricula to those with substantial overlap, from brand-new programs to long-established departments, from departments that admit a handful of graduate students a year to ones that number their total students in the hundreds. This spectrum naturally creates vastly different conditions for doctoral education, both for faculty and for students. AHA Career Diversity must be robust and flexible enough to address them all.

The year’s intense focus on faculty has better prepared the AHA, and the departments that will eventually receive the grants under the expanded initiative, to center the experience and success of graduate students in the profession. Embracing different institutions, paths, and choices has proved central to the AHA’s work on Career Diversity. Just as there is no one-size-fits-all career, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all career preparation. The next stage of Career Diversity will explore these many paths.

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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.

Emily Swafford
Emily Swafford

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor