Publication Date

September 1, 1997

Anthony A. Iaccarino, a graduate student, was on the right track when he pointed out the need for graduate training to take into account broader job possibilities for graduates of American history Ph.D. programs. However, he did not go far enough in pointing out the potential opportunities.1

Perspectives has, every few years since the early 19705, carried articles bemoaning the lack of jobs for aspiring professors of history and, on occasion, someone would argue the case for placing graduates in government jobs. Nobody, to my recollection, has addressed the real problem—the production of too many professor wannabes—because this profession has not demonstrated a willingness to change fundamentally its mission or teaching objectives. This is a problem that all universities have, and it cuts across all fields not just history. Of all the major industries that economists and business professionals look at, higher education has been most resistant to the kinds of changes all other major industries are experiencing. But for the purpose of my discussion, academics do not need to tinker fundamentally with their way of doing things, nor do universities have to eliminate tenure or change their reward system. What I would like to propose is that history departments think far more broadly about what to teach their graduate students and where to place them after graduation.

But first a little on me. I have a Ph.D. in history, have happily and successfully worked at IBM for 23 years, and have published a dozen books on history, many of them with publishers academics take seriously (for example, Princeton University Press and the American Philosophical Society). What I have learned (along with others who have advanced degrees in history, political science, and modern languages), is that much of the basic intellectual skills learned in graduate school are applicable in many careers. About the only thing not applicable is the vast quantity of data we were required to assimilate (for instance, dates, facts, bibliography). What we learned in graduate school makes it possible for your graduates to succeed in life, specifically the process of investigation and research, asking the right questions, and then communicating in a logical manner both in writing and verbally. Presidents of corporations today want those skills in the people they hire. In fact, they even know to hire employees with social science backgrounds, not just MBAs and engineers.

The reason for the interest in social science graduates lies in a fundamental sea change that has occurred in management over the past two decades. Increasingly business leaders have come to realize that running an organization is a holistic process, not simply one of having highly specialized individuals working side-by-side. Second, business has become more complex, requiring more intelligence and a more intellectual approach to issues. Breadth of perspective is now highly prized. History graduates have that breadth of perspective, particularly when compared to other fields that are far narrower in scope.

Increasingly, corporations are acquiring a historical perspective about their affairs their corporate culture, and the trends of their industries and markets. I find personally an enormous interest in the history of computing in the computer industry; my books on the subject are purchased by managers and my ideas are picked up as news stories.2 I would not have thought this would happen 20 years ago, but it is increasingly true today.

Can a history graduate make it in business? And if so, how? Historians should turn to their own history for the answers to these questions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the AHA and the Modern Language Association partnered to find jobs for their graduates in business. Ernest May, professor of history at the time at Harvard University and now at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, headed up the task force to do that. He enlisted Ph.D.'s in history and modern languages working in business; I was one of those. We found many others doing well in business, across multiple industries, and in various ranks up to corporate vice presidents, and all were happy. Some were also doing research and writing on history too, but more important, all had jobs in the core parts of their businesses, not as researchers or corporate historians. They were in human resources, marketing, sales, strategy development, and divisional line management.

As part of the project, several universities set up transition programs where Ph.D.'s in history and languages could spend six to eight weeks being introduced to business topics before being aided in finding jobs. The net result was a large percentage (over 90 percent) were placed in corporations.3 The point is, the AHA demonstrated that historians did not just have to go to work for archives and government agencies.

I propose that history departments consciously plan on training historians to work in business and to create placement programs to accomplish that task. The benefits are obvious:

  • History departments get to keep their budgets and faculty because they continue to produce the number of graduates required by their universities.
  • Professors continue to teach more or less the same way as before, although they might have to broaden their view of topics for dissertations and seminar to include issues that are more relevant to corporations.
  • Students could still learn how to be historians with the full expectation that they could continue to perform as such providing they have the drive and energy to do so.

There is a price, however, that history departments must pay.

First, professors and students must recognize that there are many career paths for a Ph.D., not just teaching. Setting this new expectation will help inspire professors and students to determine what they must teach and learn.

Second, history departments will have to emphasize the value of research, writing, communication, working in teams, and more rigorous data-gathering techniques than is normally the case.

Third, these departments should form alliances with their local business departments to develop cross-training, such as minors in business management or accounting, to better prepare students.

Fourth, history departments will have to develop relationships with corporations just as they do today with other history departments.

If history departments do not take the initiative, we will continue to read articles in Perspectives about not enough jobs or too many graduate students. And, if I am to believe what legislators in several states tell me, smaller history departments will come about because the American public thinks universities are not supplying the nation with the type of skilled workers that they themselves have had to become in their jobs.

For those who worry that they may be selling their souls to the devil, I would offer three observations. First, working in business and the values of a historian are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they complement each other. Second, business professionals make more money than historians and thus can afford to support their interests in history. And, in case one is asleep at the switch, you should also understand that history is being co-opted by business school professors and consultants in business who, to paraphrase Georges Clemenceau, believe that "history is too important to leave to the historians."


1. Anthony Iaccarino, “Rethinking the Role of History Graduate Programs,” Perspectives May/June 1997, 38-40.

2. See as recent examples, Information Week, December 15, 1996 and Mail and Globe Business Magazine, May 1997. Both ran articles on my work in the history of computing and the interest the topic has in business. Each went to reading audiences of several thousand business people.

3. On the whole AHA initiative, see Ernest R. May and Dorothy G. Blaney, Careers for Humanists (New York: Academic Press, 1981), 83-112; Dorothy Harrison, Non-Academic Careers for Historians (Albany: State Education Department, 1975) for an earlier statement of the problem.

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