Publication Date

February 20, 2019

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

Doctoral training in history is haunted by a teleology that imagines “assistant professor on the tenure track” as the final employed state of the PhD. I find this ironic—while historians are really good at thinking about contingency as a historical force, we continue to struggle with thinking about contingency as it may factor into our own professional futures. As a PhD student in history, I became interested in career diversity out of my own commitment to consistent historical thinking.

Lindsey Martin, assistant director of postdoctoral affairs at Northwestern Univ., speaks to an AHA19 attendee at the AHA Career Fair.

Lindsey Martin, assistant director of postdoctoral affairs at Northwestern Univ., speaks to an AHA19 attendee at the AHA Career Fair. Marc Monaghan

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Career diversity was an important feature of many conversations among faculty, administrators, and graduate students at the AHA annual meeting in Chicago earlier this year. These conversations included me and a score of other doctoral students working this year as Career Diversity fellows as part of the AHA’s Career Diversity Implementation Grants. These students, along with faculty partners across the country, are working toward one goal: to reinforce the history PhD so that it serves as a powerful engine to drive diverse careers. Imagining career diversity this way reveals just how far career diversity initiatives have matured beyond the “alt-ac” model of helping students find alternatives to the faculty job market. With a focus on helping students build transferable skills and apply historical methodology to new circumstances, these initiatives now seek to prepare history PhDs for success in the faculty job market as much as they do beyond it.

My cohort of Career Diversity fellows met at a Thursday pre-conference session led by Derek Attig, director of career development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Mearah Quinn-Brauner, assistant vice provost at Emory University, where we shared with each other the kinds of work we are pursuing to promote career diversity in our home departments: expanded pedagogy courses that help graduate students understand the ways teaching is a transferable skill; seminars that culminate in op-eds, documentaries, or podcasts; alumni networks and programming; and internships in museums, libraries, and archives. It quickly became clear that while we were all working on programs that encouraged graduate students to pursue diverse career paths, our initiatives did not seek to build off-ramps to funnel nonconforming PhDs outside the academy.

Instead, the Career Diversity fellows are working alongside faculty to ensure that job candidates on the faculty job market are not regarded by hiring committees as less serious, focused, or scholarly than their colleagues for pursuing internships outside the department, for working on collaborative research projects, or for using digital formats not typically associated with historical scholarship. In fact, we believe that these types of learning experiences make doctoral students better at thinking broadly about their skill sets as historians wherever they work.

Many presenters at the annual meeting imagined ways to weaken the grip of faculty and doctoral students’ loyalty to the “R1 or Bust” culture of the profession. During the Friday panel “How Do We Fix the Advising Model for Humanities PhD Students?” presenters Leonard Cassuto (Fordham Univ.), Rita Chin (Univ. of Michigan), Maria LaMonaca Wisdom (Duke Univ.), and Ricardo Ortiz (Georgetown Univ.) took aim at single faculty advising models that tend to reproduce the old master-and-apprentice model of academic training. While team advising models were offered as the leading solution for departmental reform, these presenters agreed that a department’s obligations to career diversity did not end with graduation. Many advocated for departments to show support for alumni who do not practice history in the academy by bringing them back into the fold of the department, whether through showcasing their careers on the department website, planning an alumni conference, or hosting an alum in residence.

Presenters also suggested some actions that individual faculty could take to support career diversity in their own advising: know where to send graduate students for career expertise, offer constructive criticism that encourages students, and be invested in the success of their careers, whatever form they may take. As one presenter put it, “Academic freedom comes with academic responsibilities; advising with career diversity in mind is one of them.”

Another panel viewed the problem from the students’ perspective. On Thursday, “Breaking Loyalties? Tension between the Graduate Experience and Career Diversity” focused on the process of socialization that sometimes makes doctoral students too loyal to the ideal of the faculty job. To help expand their vision, speakers including Aida Gureghian (New York Univ.), Brian DeGrazia (New York Univ.), Lindsey Martin (Northwestern Univ.), Bernadette So (Rutgers Univ. at Newark), and Cristel Jusino Diaz (New York Univ.), encouraged students to create relationships with peers beyond one’s history department, join professional communities or a graduate student union, enlist allies in administration or career centers as external sources of support, and cultivate a sense of loyalty to humanistic enterprise in any career.

These shifts in how both faculty and graduate students approach careers cannot happen if they aren’t accompanied by a change in how we talk about doctoral training in the first place. At a Saturday Panel titled “Diving into the Data: What the Numbers Say about the Careers of Humanities PhDs,” presenters Maureen McCarthy (Council of Graduate Schools), Robert Townsend (American Academy of Arts and Sciences), Dylan Ruediger (AHA), and Chris Golde (Stanford Univ.) made a bold call to change the way we talk about graduate training. We might eschew the industrial language of “producing” PhDs and instead celebrate the creativity and labor that doctoral students expend to earn their credential; discard the elitist conception of “placement” and use more meritocratic language like hired; and recognize that when we say “the job market” we really mean the faculty job market, and that historians actually find employment in many job markets.

The language we use sets limits around what is considered acceptable or even laudable work for historians. Presenters shared a few phrases they had heard doctoral students use when talking about telling advisers that they were interested in pursuing careers outside the academy: phrases like “confessing,” “coming out,” or “quitting.” As Cassuto said on the panel on graduate advising, “We ask incoming students to disguise themselves as prospective R1 faculty when they apply.” Why should we be surprised that it’s difficult for doctoral students to imagine themselves otherwise?

The bottom line is that doctoral students often experience career diversity as a risky endeavor. Dependent as we are on faculty advice, mentoring, and letters, this vocabulary underscores the difficulty that some students face with faculty reluctance to imagine careers beyond the professoriate. We have to change this dynamic. By focusing on our shared historical thinking skills at a larger scale, we could establish a strong sense of continuity between the work of historians inside the academy with those building careers beyond.

These were just a few sessions at the annual meeting during which historians discussed developing career diversity in ways that meet the needs of faculty and doctoral students alike. Though different departments have different strategies, those engaged in developing career diversity initiatives all share a common commitment to the idea that what makes a PhD in history a better candidate on the academic job market can also make them equally competitive outside academia. For my part, career diversity initiatives helped me better understand how my credential is not only a toolkit filled with all kinds of valuable transferable skills, but that it serves as a foundation to see the world as deeper, more interconnected, and more contextual.

The robust discussions in Chicago made it clear that career diversity initiatives are not alternatives to rigorous historical training, but increasingly integral to it. On the heels of this year’s excellent work on this issue, let’s resolve to continue this important conversation about the wide utility of the history PhD in New York in 2020.

Matt Villeneuve is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Michigan. His dissertation, “The Indigenous in Intelligence: John Dewey, American Indian Education, and the Progressive Campaign for Democracy through Schooling, 1880–1930,” explores the influence of American Indian schooling on the development of progressive education in the United States.

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