Casting a Wider Net: History PhDs, Change Your Perspective!
Ramona Houston, April 2016
If you have earned or are currently pursuing a PhD in history and think being a college professor is the only career option for you, you have been hoodwinked!—totally misinformed, misguided, and misled. Despite the pervading ignorance about the numerous career paths for history PhDs, there is hope for the nonconformists—the intellectual explorers and the academic conquistadors. Embrace this: no matter where you are in your career, now< is the time for you to recognize, believe in, and realize your exceptional abilities, immense value, and infinite potential. Everything changes once you change your perspective.
There are myriad career paths that you can pursue empowered with a PhD in history. Just look at the prosperous careers of W.E.B. DuBois, Peter Weller, Robert Gates, Marian Frances Berry, and others who earned this degree. If they had chosen only to be college professors, where would our country and world, as well as our political, civic, and cultural institutions be? According to the 2010 US Census, only 1 percent of Americans have a PhD, and even fewer have a PhD in history. You are or will be a member of an elite group. So why limit your infinite personal potential to one narrow career path? Why see other professional opportunities as “something to fall back on”? Simply put, broaden your perspective to expand your scope of possibilities. You cannot sail the relatively uncharted historical seas and discover the New World of professional possibilities by continuing to believe the world is flat.
How are historians valuable outside the academy? Let me list the ways. (And, might I acknowledge, there are many more!) As individuals with a PhD in history, we have cultivated a range of skills during our education.
We possess exceptional reading and writing skills. (No need to expand on this point.)
Our critical thinking skills are top-notch. We know how to evaluate and analyze information. We have the keen ability to understand ideas, issues, challenges, and relationships in their complexity. We recognize that none of these has one perspective, one cause, or one solution.
We know how to conduct comprehensive research. We know how to find, collect, organize, and analyze information from a variety of sources. Furthermore, we know how to take that information and synthesize it in a way that makes sense.
We are effective in communication and persuasion. As historians, we know how to explain ideas clearly and concisely. We also know how to make a case and substantiate it with compelling evidence.
We possess intellectual curiosity, which inspires us to understand issues in their historical context. We ask critical questions that lead us to the hows and whys of a situation. We have the strong inclination to examine the reasons beneath an issue.
We are effective problem solvers. Because we evaluate the facts and perspectives on all sides of an issue, we know how to address complex challenges. We know that solutions evolve when we acknowledge and address the various components of an issue.
We are meticulous record keepers. We understand the importance of documentation and preserving records. We value the written word.
We are wordsmiths. We understand that words have power and that words matter, and we use them skillfully.
We are independent and self-disciplined workers. There is no need to micromanage us! We know how to manage a project and get the job done.
We are excellent strategists. Because we understand that a decision may have multiple impacts, we consider and evaluate all options. We are shrewd and tactical in our efforts to develop a plan of action to reach a goal.
Tell me, what sector does not need individuals with these skills?
As a historian, you have a number of marketable skills and abilities that can complement, develop, and enhance any sector or work environment. Government, corporations, nonprofits—your career options are wider than you think! In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that because of our strengths, individuals with a PhD in history need to be present in every sector of our society.
From the beginning of my educational career, I have never held the sole ambition of becoming only a college professor—I earned credentials so that I could sit at any table that I desired. I did, however, become a college professor at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, one of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Although I cherished the institution, enjoyed teaching, maintained great relationships with my colleagues, and absolutely loved my students, I was not totally fulfilled by teaching. Additionally, I did not believe that being a college professor engaged all of my interests, skills, and abilities, nor did it maximize my reach and impact. I wanted more for my professional career and life.
On a spiritual level, living a fulfilling, prosperous, and abundant life is a personal responsibility and journey. No one but you has the power to make you happy; therefore, you must embrace your power and make decisions that will create your ideal life. You must chart your own course, one designed by you and for you.
From the beginning of my educational career, I have never held the sole ambition of becoming only a college professor. I earned credentials so that I could sit at any table that I desired.
Personally, I believe that many people are unhappy and unfulfilled because they have chosen the path of least resistance—they fish where everyone else has told them to fish. The result: they end up doing work or working in environments that they do not enjoy. Oh ye historians, if you are not catching any fish, if the fish you are catching do not satisfy you, or if you are adventurous and want to catch different species of fish, cast your net in a different place!
I have several pieces of advice for historians who want to cast their professional net beyond the professoriate. First, conduct a personal assessment to determine your interests, skills, and expertise, keeping in mind that working in your gift is the key to a fulfilling, enjoyable, and prosperous career. From there, determine the career options that may be a good fit for your unique abilities. As you explore, identify places and spaces that need your expertise, always confidently knowing that you have a solution to someone else’s problem. Lastly, identify advocates and supporters who will put you in front of the right people and in the right places. Mentors and sponsors have the power to help you achieve your professional goals by advancing your career.
As for the entrepreneurs, you must do all of the above and more. Entrepreneurship requires you to develop an entirely new set of skills—those that are required of all successful businessmen and women. Although making the transition from being an academician or employee to being an entrepreneur can be challenging, it can also be gratifying. If you feel that entrepreneurship is for you, go for it!
In my professional journey, I have learned to stand with confidence among my colleagues, knowing that it is my decision to work outside of the academy and recognizing that my many years of study were a not a futile intellectual exercise. More importantly, I choose to define myself rather than be defined by others. I fully recognize that my education has shaped and enhanced who I am. I bring more to the table professionally because of the skills that I developed earning my PhD. I know that I am a valuable asset to any environment.
Historians, you must realize that creating your ideal career and life is an evolutionary process. You have to keep exploring, moving forward, and making adjustments until you discover your land of milk and honey. No one can define and determine that place and space but you.
Having worked in several sectors and capacities, including as an entrepreneur, I have finally ascertained that I enjoy working in a job and I enjoy being an entrepreneur. Currently, I am establishing a career that provides me the best of both worlds, creating a professional sphere that incorporates all of my interests, skills, and expertise as a scholar, educator, and community engagement strategist.
Historians, broaden your vision. You cannot see the vast, fascinating professional horizon before you by looking through the limited view of a spyglass. Once you change your perspective, you will discover that an immense number of unexplored lands and unchartered territories are just waiting for you.
With a new outlook, a clear understanding of your valuable skills and abilities, and a personal commitment to create a professional career and life that truly make you happy, you are hereby “permissioned” and commissioned to travel beyond the professoriate.
Historians, go forth! Explore, impact, and transform the professional frontier with your undeniable talent and ability. Our communities, our country, and our world need us!
A native of Brownwood, Texas, Ramona Houston, PhD, PMP, has a multifaceted career as a scholar, educator, and community engagement strategist who designs, manages, and executes projects, programs, and events that seek to make a social impact. She is a product of Clark Atlanta University, an HBCU in Atlanta, and The University of Texas at Austin. Currently she resides in Atlanta with her husband, Terreon Gully, and their princess, Chase, an 11-year-old Pomeranian. To contact or learn more about Ramona, visit www.ramonahouston.com.
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