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Growing into Teaching Career Diversity for Historians

Amanda Seligman | Jan 29, 2020

In January 2019, I sat in session after session at the AHA annual meeting growing increasingly confident about my teaching plans for the upcoming semester. A colleague had launched Professional and Pedagogical Issues in History as a graduate-level methods class at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) a decade earlier. As I reconceptualized the course after her retirement, I decided to build it around the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative.

Teaching Career Diversity in graduate courses can help students to identify the skills they need for successful careers both outside and inside the academy.

Teaching Career Diversity in graduate courses can help students to identify the skills they need for successful careers both outside and inside the academy. Wikimedia Commons/Jonas Bergsten/Public Domain

Incorporating Career Diversity into our history curriculum seemed the right thing to do—it would equip both master’s and doctoral students with the substantive, ethical, methodological, and personal frameworks they need to build their niches as historians. As a lifelong inhabitant of the academy, I was no expert on professional development. But I was determined to figure out what my students needed in order to launch successful careers as historians.

I revisited Susan Basalla and Maggie DeBelius’s classic So What Are You Going to Do with That? And Joseph Fruscione and Kelly J. Baker’s Succeeding Outside the Academy fell into my hands at a critical moment in planning. I stepped up my Twitter reading to allow serendipity to enhance my knowledge. And, crucially, at recent AHA annual meetings, I attended sessions about careers for historians outside the academy. Conversations in and around those presentations shaped the class. As I informally workshopped my plans at the 2019 annual meeting, I felt like I had synthesized the fundamental insights my students would need to prepare for an array of career options.

Instructors at the AHA Career Diversity pilot sites around the United States were structuring syllabi for their professionalization courses similarly. Almost everyone used the AHA Career Diversity Five Skills—communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy—as a scaffold for organizing guest speakers and readings. They all investigated a broad range of career paths for historians and validated the attractiveness of nonacademic careers. After a Five Skills introductory unit, I scheduled modules on teaching, publication, grants, CVs and résumés, and ethics. Students read memoirs and career-pathway essays by historians working in a variety of professions. As I finalized my syllabus, I built the following major assumptions into my pedagogy.

My central goal was to help students learn how to find what I call #BestFitCareers. In contrast to #alt-ac, “postacademic,” and “nonacademic” jobs, #BestFitCareers affirms that students should actively consider and prepare for the work they are personally most suited to, whether within or beyond the academy. Career Diversity is a solid framework for describing the spectrum of work that humanists actually do and is an appropriate initiative for organizations like the AHA and graduate departments. But students need individual pathways, not an institutional framework; they are responsible for their own careers, not for the whole profession. My goal was for the students to realistically understand themselves and their options, and to deliberately prepare for new or continuing careers that made sense for their lives.

#BestFitCareers affirms that students should actively consider and prepare for the work they are personally most suited to, whether within or beyond the academy.

At a minimum, faculty should encourage graduate students to cultivate interests and opportunities beyond their coursework. Hobbies, volunteer positions, internships, community service, and jobs can all lead to careers. Such activities support students’ mental health, nourish valuable skills and habits, and build important networks outside the closed circuit of the academy.

I took a deliberately broad view of who counts as a historian. Leaving the academy doesn’t mean forsaking your training. One assignment asked students to write about a working historian whose career path they aspired to. We considered people with PhDs who work as professors as historians. But we also recognized people with advanced coursework in history who don’t have history anywhere in their job description, and people who do historical work without formal academic credentials.

The course also helped students practice communicating history to audiences who don’t read traditional academic prose. Students in a previous graduate course embraced the chance to “remix” their research papers in public-facing formats such as Twitter threads, memes, and videos. The new course culminated in a “professionalizing project” that charged students to execute a project that would help their anticipated career. Students opted to write syllabi, a grant application, and a National Historic Register nomination. One future librarian planned a summer reading project for youth at a public library. Everyone wrote a process paper and presented their work to the class.

It is crucial to recognize that historians who work beyond the university are ambassadors for our field and the academy. What they will say about their graduate experiences depends on whether they felt personally valued. A tactful, thoughtful professor can support graduate students, whatever their professional aspirations, while maintaining high intellectual standards. Building relationships premised on student dignity is especially important at public universities. Many of our students are also voters—and sometimes our representatives in government. Their memories of their own educations shape funding and leadership decisions that determine university working and learning conditions.

As the spring semester unfolded, in-class conversations pushed me to new understandings about Career Diversity. My original insights weren’t overturned, but my students brought additional ideas that I will incorporate into the course’s next iteration—and my own life.

Master’s students in the course clarified how exclusively the existing conversation about Career Diversity focuses on doctoral students. Students pursuing a terminal master’s degree do not default to the assumption that they should become professors. They, too, deserve the opportunity to think deeply about potential career paths.

Students need to prepare for careers continuously throughout their formal education, so they gain a rich understanding of their own interests, skills, and options.

Students often arrive at UWM with significant work experience. In contrast to many graduate programs, UWM routinely recruits students in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Many have left previous jobs and careers for graduate study in history; others continue in those positions while enrolled. They don’t need exercises on “how to write a résumé and cover letter,” or readings that affirm their transferrable skills—they already have that knowledge. Instead, they need to learn how to move into specific arenas. At an institution like UWM, teaching our many nontraditional students to plan their options is more important than teaching the basics of job hunting, which for many is remedial work.

The course also forced me to grapple with what the PhD teaches and how it prepares a candidate for a profession. What the PhD provides is disciplinary knowledge and demonstration of research ability. But every student—both prospective professors and those headed beyond the academy—needs to wrap a program of professional development around the core of their studies. For some, working as a teaching assistant is an appropriate part of career preparation. But for students who plan to deploy their skills outside the classroom, other forms of career development may offer better training and remuneration, as well as more flexible schedules. Furthermore, students need to prepare for careers continuously throughout their formal education, so they gain as rich an understanding of their own interests, skills, and options as of their research subjects.

Over the course of the semester, it also slowly dawned on me that Career Diversity isn’t just for students; it’s for faculty too. The academy needs better on-ramps and off-ramps. Trapping faculty in one career is just as unconscionable as locking students out of the professoriate. People with advanced academic training should be able to move among professions for short or long stretches. Both individuals and institutions can be enriched by the fresh perspectives of experience cultivated elsewhere.

In fact, #BestFitCareers transformed how I think about my own career. Overall, I’ve been satisfied with my career and still turn to my research and teaching with enthusiasm. But the last decade of austerity in Wisconsin’s public higher education system combined with declining public appreciation for history and the humanities have worn on me. Teaching Career Diversity showed me that decisions I made 20 years ago do not have to govern the rest of my working life. I drafted my first résumé since college the same week my students refined theirs. The process helped me recognize how many transferrable skills I’ve accumulated through teaching, research, writing, and service. I’m taking baby steps toward networking outside the academy and paying attention to the alternatives. I can see now how I could transition to a new career, should the day come. In the meantime, thanks to embracing Career Diversity, I feel like I’m choosing to continue as a professor every day instead of being stuck because I can’t do anything else.

Teaching Career Diversity undid my ancient assumption that a PhD in the humanities should lead to a professorship. Faculty jobs traditionally combine teaching, research, and service. But the skills and interests that make this triad of duties enticing also prepare PhDs for other attractive possibilities. Historians working outside the classroom do all of these things too, in balances that PhDs might prefer to faculty obligations. The next time I teach #BestFitCareers, I will return to the classroom invigorated by the knowledge that the students and I share a common project: figuring out what’s next for all of us.


Amanda I. Seligman is professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.


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