Publication Date

March 10, 2015

Perspectives Section

Career Paths, Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Graduate Education

This blog post is part of a regular series to inform the AHA Today readership and AHA membership about Career Diversity for Historians, the AHA’s initiative to broaden the career horizons of history PhDs.

I returned from the AHA annual meeting in January with new clarity about my mission as the graduate career officer for the UCLA Department of History. The idea of “professional development from Day One” crystalized much of what I heard from department chairs, directors of graduate studies, and historians reflecting on careers in archives, museums, law schools, and other arenas. Professional development has to become central to the training of the next generation of historians, they said. PhD students need the consciousness and skills that make them employable in a range of jobs, they insisted. Great mantra, focused message, I thought. Upon reflection, though, I realized that many of the conversations assumed that professional development needs to be added to graduate programs. Then I realized we were talking about two competing concepts of professional development, and that a third definition might be more useful: one less concerned with outcomes and more concerned with skills.

In one sense, PhD training is the very definition of professional development. Graduate programs in history are devoted to facilitating learning and practicing skills that lead to the improved ability to apply one’s knowledge and expertise. A credential, such as an academic degree, is likewise the standard confirmation of professionalization. History graduate programs, in this sense, are professional development programs.

The catch, of course, is that this sort of professional training assumes a very specific sort of job. Many programs organize the curriculum and cultivate a culture that equates historian with professor. This is not so much professional development as professor development. Narrowing our understanding of professional development has led to the sense of absence I heard so many people express. The slow realization that the mismatch between the number of PhDs earned and the number of academic jobs available each year is not a crisis, but a condition, has put new attention on professional development, hence the emphatic advocacy I heard at the annual meeting.

These calls for professional development are meant to assuage a real need. With little encouragement to consider the range of professions available to historians, most students seem to accept the conflation of professor and historian and pursue their graduate studies with a singular fixation on becoming tenured university faculty. Students who do have other career aspirations generally have been left to their own devices to find the training, experiences, and mentoring that will allow them to be accredited, employable professionals. Worse, those who might want to merely explore the idea of something different don’t know where to look.

But, as we go through this new dawn, too frequently professional development is being construed as preparation for non-academic jobs. Some administrators, faculty, and students think that only those students who cannot secure or do not want professorships need professional development. While it is heartening to see the discipline re-acknowledge its duty to train historians more broadly, it seems to be a tepid embrace. One reason for these bifurcated “tracks”—and the clamor at the annual meeting—may be that we have lost sight of the fact that history “is a single discipline practiced in many professions—in many places, in many ways, and through many means.”[i] We are all historians, within and beyond the professoriate.

Here at UCLA we are working to reclaim professional development for all historians and aiming to engage faculty, graduate students, and alumni in heeding the explicit call for professional development from Day One. Training historians for the many professions available to them is a complex challenge. Students understand that they are being trained to read critically, research thoroughly, think analytically, and write persuasively. They are willing to devote many years to acquiring and honing those skills. What is missing, what is too often absent from their training, is an understanding of professional development as a career-long process. It is about versatility and flexibility, about making one’s expertise more accessible and more valuable, about taking the longer, wider perspective that is the historian’s purview and applying it to one’s career development intentionally and reflectively.

Among the ways we are filling in the missing pieces at UCLA are through for-credit courses and alumni connections. The department’s vice chair for graduate student affairs has developed and facilitates a two-quarter professional development seminar. One quarter focuses on the necessary preparations for applying and interviewing for jobs in a variety of professions. The second quarter focuses on the research and communications skills required of 21st-century historians. We are planning another for-credit course, to be taught by the chair of the department, which will expose students to the history of the discipline in the US and where historians can and should be found in contemporary society. Alumni are helping mentor graduate students in navigating career options inside and outside the academy and sharing how the PhD allowed them to be novelists, higher education administrators, museum directors, and documentary filmmakers. Starting with the resources and expertise at hand, we are embracing the concept of professional development broadly and deeply with the goal of helping our students to be fully and appropriately employed upon completion of the degree.

[i] James M. Banner, Jr., Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

Karen S. Wilson, PhD, graduate career officer, UCLA Department of History, completed her degree in US history in 2011. Following an earlier career in fundraising and postdoctoral employment as a museum curator, instructor, and founding curator/manager of a digital history project, she is the UCLA coordinator for Mellon-AHA Career Diversity Project.

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