Publication Date

September 1, 2013

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

The AHA's Mellon Foundation ­funded project to broaden the career horizons of history PhDs was active on several fronts this spring and summer. Project personnel completed a major quantitative research study on post­doctoral careers and facilitated meetings and discussions with employers and history PhDs in a range of occupations. AHA staff has begun to incorporate the preliminary findings into plans for AHA member activities, online resources, annual meeting programming, and departmental services.

The research on postdoctoral careers tracked the current employment of 2,500 of the roughly 11,000 people who received a history doctorate between 1998 and 2009. While a majority of history PhDs do pursue academic careers, at least 21 percent of those who completed a PhD continued on individualized career paths in other sectors. This percentage was relatively consistent regardless of the degree-granting institution's National Research Council ranking.

People who have trained in history doctoral programs come from a range of educational and professional backgrounds, and, from the preliminary findings, it appears that they continue to pursue a variety of career paths after graduation. The diverse occupations of the history PhDs studied are consistent with the anecdotal evidence that is becoming increasingly familiar to those within academia. History PhDs are enjoying professional success in such positions as program officer in a health-care foundation, congressional speech­writer, director of research at a community-development nonprofit, regional director for a global polling company, and analyst in real estate investment management. Look for detailed analyses from this study in upcoming issues ofPerspectives on History.

The meetings with employers and PhDs working outside academia focused on current opportunities and constraints for history doctorates who seek employment in non-professorial positions. The AHA facilitators posed a series of questions to drive the conversation: What kinds of curricula would expand students' opportunities furthest upon graduation? How might internship programs enhance the breadth of doctoral students' options? What other steps could departments or the AHA take? The conversations considered the value of the existing doctoral curriculum (classroom requirements, teaching experience, and the dissertation), as well as perspectives on the differences in organizational culture and professionalization between business and academia. The discussions generated feedback on how to enhance doctoral curricula and suggestions for how to refine the goals of the project.

There was general agreement that history doctoral programs should be hosting workshops and presentations by history alumni who work in a variety of professional fields, but beyond these steps, students need an infrastructure to take advantage of the existing opportunities that universities have for undergraduates and other graduate students. This infrastructure should build on alumni engagement, and include recruiting and internships.

Furthermore, students would ideally still be in an exploratory frame of mind when they begin doctoral study in the humanities. Program curricula should emphasize opportunities beyond the professoriate from the very beginning, and integrate—not merely offer—team-based and experiential learning to enhance traditional individual research, writing, and teaching. The participants had a number of specific suggestions on how this might be implemented.

The participants pointed out that most jobs require a working knowledge of basic office software and procedures, and one attendee suggested that doctoral programs should make sure that students do not complete the program without using these software applications. In order to bridge cultural gaps that may exist between universities and potential employers, PhDs need to learn how to communicate their skills, qualifications, and interests to non­academics with clarity and precision, and without condescension. For many, the first step is converting one's CV to a resume.

Several attendees emphasized that the best way for the AHA and others to pitch humanities graduates as potential employees is to promote them as a pool of smart, engaged talent. While the ways that PhD students professionalize during their education may actually be quite different from what happens in law school, business school, or other programs, highlighting this divergence is not the best way for the AHA or its members to promote what historians can do. Applicants for jobs outside academia should be prepared to emphasize the similarities with other forms of graduate training, not just the differences. The AHA's appreciation of career diversity is helping guide the project into its next phase, and AHA members can look forward to seeing programs related to diverse careers online, in print, and at the annual meeting. The following is a list of some of the initiatives the AHA is launching in conjunction with the graduate career diversity project:

  • What I Do: Historians Talk about Their Work. An online series of short, engaging video interviews with history PhDs who work in a variety of professional settings.
  • Career Paths. A new series in Perspectives on History has historians looking back at their career trajectories and discussing the way history has shaped their particular profession.
  • Alumni career outcomes. Starting this fall, the AHA will begin offering a service on its website for departments to gather data about the career successes of their alumni. By publishing this data on a department­by­department basis, the AHA will enable users to view direct comparisons across institutions.
  • Virtual mentors. A program for graduate students and early­career historians interested broadening their career horizons through mentoring is planned for the near future. Participants will be able to learn from the experience of others who trained as historians and followed their interests into a range of different positions.
  • New survey data. Working with the Modern Languages Association, the AHA has developed a survey instrument for humanists from a range of fields, including both those who completed PhD’s and those who began doctoral study in the humanities, but moved on before finishing a dissertation. This online survey, available soon, will help to answer many of the questions that remain now that the graduate­tracking study is completed.
  • The Malleable PhD series will continue with several sessions at the annual meeting in Washington this January.
  • Interviewing workshops. The Friday workshop at the annual meeting will include volunteers beyond higher education.
  • Career Fair. The Saturday Career Fair at the annual meeting will make government, non­profit, and for-profit employers available for conversations with meeting attendees.

Looking forward, the project staff and advisors will work to help PhD­granting departments learn from their alumni and consider the challenge of redefining what constitutes professional success for their students, with the understanding that such redefinition might require significant cultural change.

—Julia Brookins is the AHA's special projects coordinator.

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