Publication Date

April 1, 2013

Perspectives Section


The biggest problem now facing the history discipline is the job crisis. In 2011, Anthony T. Grafton, then president of the AHA, and James Grossman, executive director, published "No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History" in Perspectives on History, generating much discussion. "We're trying to say, 'Wake up. Times have changed. There are more opportunities and that's a good thing,'" Grossman said in a subsequent interview.

Grafton and Grossman realize the history business has serious problems and made an effort to be constructive: offering more sessions at the AHA annual meeting on career issues and using the AHA website to make the profession "less hierarchal." Still, they argue that solutions to the job crisis must come from history departments that produce the PhDs.

I understand their view, and it is legitimate—the AHA is an umbrella organization and can hardly order a history department to do something—but they are arguing for their limitations. I found much of the essay vague, but I was also disturbed by an important implication of their approach. The authors have written off scholars who have finished their PhDs and are now in the unemployment lines. They discussed making changes to shape the future, but said little about helping some of the most vulnerable members of the AHA in the present.

There is still a lot that the Association can do even within the existing structure. The purpose of this article is to offer some realistic ideas in that regard:

1) Sponsor a conference on what the AHA can do:Make this a weekend, nonacademic conference. Invite 30 to 40 historians (much more and it becomes counterproductive) who have taken the lead on job issues. Make the mission of this conference one of brainstorming on concrete initiatives for the AHA to undertake. Maybe there’s little the Association can do, but outside perspectives might generate new ideas that the AHA had not considered.

2) Sponsor a conference on what departments can do: This will prevent departments from having to reinvent the wheel. Make this a weekend, nonacademic conference, like the one above. Invite 20 to 30 department chairs and directors of graduate education, who can speak for their institutions and are deeply involved with graduate student education, to brainstorm and generate ideas. Possible discussions might include creating departmental alumni networks, reducing the course load, time given to write the dissertation, and so on.

The two ideas above are different from the AHA's Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded initiative to explore nontraditional careers. While this project will be extremely helpful in garnering data, my proposed conferences are about tapping into the significant creative energies of the profession, being "less hierarchal," leveraging the authority of the AHA, and pointing a diffuse discipline in certain general directions.

3) Create a new AHA division for K–12 teachers. This division can offer important advice to interested AHA members on the requirements for teaching jobs, which can vary significantly from state to state. The AHA has secondary school representatives on the Teaching Division and the Council, but these individuals cannot offer systematic programs to help AHA members find employment.

4) Discount advertising:The AHA should offer steep discounts to organizations other than history departments—archaeology departments, public history firms, state agencies that do historic preservation, etc.—for job announcements in Perspectives. By steep discount, I mean one dollar per ad, two dollars for longer ads.

Apparently this idea has been discussed and rejected. Some members of the AHA Council believe that budget-constrained departments should not pay more than a corporation. The problem with this argument is that it puts the interests of departments ahead of the larger needs of the discipline, newly minted PhDs, and the AHA itself. This suggestion would make the AHA an asset for organizations other than history departments, in order to be inclusive to all those who study the past; increase employment opportunities for AHA members; and increase the membership of the organization.

5) Add other disciplines to the AHA presidency rotation:In the past the AHA had presidents in closely related disciplines like political science, library science, and archaeology. Since the end of World War II, the AHA has been dominated by academic historians. It is time for the AHA to make efforts to bring others into the organization. Broadening the leadership of the AHA is the first step in expanding the organization’s knowledge of other careers where the history PhD can find employment and contribute to our understanding of the past.

6) Develop an AHA alternative career speaker series:Most AHA members have gone from grad school to employment as professors, and often do not have ideas about or contacts in other fields. Many historians in alternate careers have done significant trailblazing that the rest of the discipline does not appreciate. An AHA-sponsored speaker series can make these experiences better known while enhancing the reputations of archaeologists, political scientists, librarians, archivists, journalists, documentary filmmakers, historical preservationists, professional writers, museum curators, and editors who explore the past. This series will start the conversations that Grafton and Grossman want to have take place. Academic historians are not talking to these professional communities regularly and the AHA should take the lead in initiating these conversations.

7) Develop conversion programs:The AHA should invite a number of these other professions to a series of small weekend workshops on the skills needed to work in other fields. While a PhD in history is a great credential, the training does not always translate easily to other professional career paths. The AHA needs to help its members find ways to leverage the assets of the degree.

So, how does a history PhD trained to become a professor convert to another field? To provide an answer, a conversion program needs to address certain questions: Will new PhDs need another degree? Are internships important? Where do you go to find these jobs? In which organizations and conferences should one participate?

The products of these small workshops can include: a series of AHA pamphlets, such as The History PhD as Documentary Filmmaker, etc.; a series of sessions at the AHA annual meeting; templates or syllabi for similar efforts by history departments; or an AHA speaker series on alternative careers. At the last annual meeting, the AHA took a good, first step in this direction with “The Malleable PhD” mini-conference—eight sessions exploring employment opportunities in business and government. More such efforts are needed on a systematic basis.

8) Develop an incentive program for closing down PhD programs: Many of these proposals are designed to alleviate symptoms. The root of the problem is the overproduction of history PhDs. None of the symptoms will go away until that problem is resolved. Reducing the number of individuals holding the history PhD is a good thing for those who already have it; when supply goes down, demand—the form of job opportunities and salaries—goes up.

As a result, the AHA should encourage departments to shut down their PhD programs. Market forces will necessitate this type of action anyway. The number of history departments with PhD programs is not sustainable because faculty in these programs often carry light teaching loads, and PhD programs do not generate as much revenue for departments as undergraduate courses. The problem is faculty will resist because professional reputations are bolstered by advising PhD candidates. Another consideration is that the AHA has no authority over departments.

The AHA can, however, offer incentives to encourage departments and individuals to do voluntarily what administrators will force on them eventually. The AHA can offer free job ads and lower rates on departmental directory listings to departments that drop their PhD programs.

This is unlikely to be enough; departments are made up of scholars who place their careers above the interests of their institutions. The AHA, however, can appeal to their concerns. Members of departments that voluntarily shut down their PhD programs can be rewarded with guaranteed inclusions in AHA publications: five book reviews in the American Historical Review; a promise by the AHR to review their next two books; an article in the journal within five years, or a promise that their submission will only be sent to three reviewers and that only two positive reviews will be required for acceptance; or a guaranteed article in Perspectives for each member of the department. These historians can also be promised sessions at the annual meeting. The AHA can hedge its bets by limiting this program to, say, the first five or ten departments that downsize.

Okay, these are my ideas. I am offering them in an honest effort to follow up in a tangible way on the "Plan B" article. If readers of this publication have better suggestions I would love to hear them, and I suspect so would the AHA.

— is an associate professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Southern California and writes about career management issues for historians at the blog In the Service of Clio. The ideas expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not represent official opinion of the US Navy, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

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