The View from Outside the Ivory Tower

Alexandra Lord | Jan 1, 2005

The question was meant sincerely. "How long," asked the professor in the low-voiced tone appropriate for a funeral, "were you an adjunct before you became a public historian?" As someone who left a tenure-track job to become a public historian, I found the question amusing, but it was also troubling to realize that my academic colleagues view public history as a profession that one enters by default. Since leaving academia, I have discovered, however, that the idea that one becomes a public historian by default is the least of the misconceptions that academics have about the world outside of academia. 

Recently, a colleague who had left academia and I created a web site for history PhDs investigating employment outside of academia. In creating this web site called "Beyond Academe," (see the related article), we interviewed graduate students, faculty members, historians outside of the academy, adjuncts, and even potential employers of nonacademic historians. We surfed blog sites of graduate students, adjuncts, and faculty members, and read books and articles on jobs, the academic job market, and graduate education.

While researching about different careers and the many ways in which one can practice history, I was struck by the academic community’s failure to regard those outside academia as historians engaged in scholarly and valuable work. Time and time again, in discussions with academics, I encountered a narrow view of history and its value. And when I heard, at an open forum at a recent AHA annual meeting, a leading professor suggest in a talk on graduate education, that we "put public history programs in second-tier schools and reserve academic positions for graduates of first-tier schools," I became seriously alarmed about the future of our profession.

Because this kind of snobbery contributes to the problem of how nonacademic careers are viewed, I will state simply that many public historians attended first-tier schools and, if nothing else, this professor was ill-informed about recent graduates from her own university (one of my colleagues recently received his PhD from the Ivy League institution at which she taught). Additionally, most of the people who are profiled on our web site attended the top graduate programs in history in the country. They have won awards for teaching and their work has been published with leading academic presses and in the best journals. In leaving academia, they have neither failed at their profession nor have they made unbearable professional compromises. In fact, most of them would say the opposite.

Having embraced these foolish prejudices as a graduate student and then a professor, I have come now, as a nonacademic historian, to wonder why these prejudices are so pervasive. What does it say about our profession when we believe that historians who work with senators, reporters, policy analysts, and the general public should not be the among the best of our profession? What does it say when we dismiss the historian who uses his or her degree in a unique and innovative fashion that promotes the study of history?

Looking Beyond Academe

I do not want to advocate—nor do I believe—that any single career track is preferable for historians. Rather, I want to suggest that we embark on a candid discussion about opportunities in and outside of academia and that we cease to embrace simplistic, balkanized, and hierarchical views of our profession.

There are several reasons why we must do this. First, with the tight academic job market, many bright and accomplished scholars believe that they have no choice but to become adjunct professors. Historians in adjunct positions find their considerable skills under-utilized, to the detriment of our profession and society.

Second, we need to think more about the value of history to society if we are to promote its study successfully. On blog sites, I routinely saw PhDs in history who believed that history had no value outside of the classroom. This is troubling, even if these PhDs remain in academia. A teacher who cannot explain why history has value will be unable to convince administrators, parents, and even students to support the teaching of history.

A radical shift in thinking is necessary if our profession is to survive and thrive. Anyone can practice history—reporters, filmmakers, policy analysts, politicians, and novelists all claim to practice history or at least use history in their work. Unlike physicians or lawyers, we cannot refuse to allow those who do not possess a doctorate to practice history. But we can, by participating in the wider public debates that engulf our society, educate Americans on the value of good historical scholarship as practiced by those who have a rigorous training in the field. And we can contribute a great deal to American society if we begin to look beyond the narrow confines of the classroom.

Our failure to look beyond the classroom is summed up by the headline the Washington Post put on its review of the 2004 AHA annual meeting: "Historians talk . . . but is anyone listening?"1 This failure to speak to nonhistorians has, as the Post article indicated, serious repercussions on a policy level. Historians who tend to write in jargon and to write narrowly focused monographs that are of interest only to a handful of scholars do little to help the public understand history. Recently, a leading public health expert on maternal and child health asked me for a comprehensive work on the history of 20th-century maternal and child health policy—she felt that understanding the past was crucial in formulating policy. Unfortunately, the best I could do was to offer her several monographs, none of which covered the broad topic in which she was interested. Not surprisingly, she read none of the books I had suggested, finding the books both prohibitively dense and too narrow. This is not an isolated incident—any historian who works with policy analysts, reporters, legislators, and others who use history in their professional careers can provide dozens of similar anecdotes.

To address these problems, we must provide opportunities for graduate students to learn about the ways in which both academics and nonacademics use history. Some history departments are attempting to do this through Preparing Future Faculty programs, but much more can and should be done. All graduate schools, top-tier or not, should require their students to work both as teaching assistants and interns in museums, public history programs, and so on.2 Training graduate students to be professors who will be ignorant about the broad range of work historians do does little to advance our profession or even to produce good and multi-faceted history.

By requiring students to work in museums, public history programs, foundations, and even state legislatures, we can not only educate future historians about the value of training in history (crucial for those who will have to argue for more funding for history departments), but also help historians have a better understanding of their choices. As an added plus, we can also educate our fellow Americans about the value of history by exposing them to the best of the new scholars in our field.

We can, of course, continue to ignore our responsibility to educate our fellow citizens, but then we will have no right to criticize them for their misuse of history. If we believe that history has value for all Americans, however, we must reform the education we provide to those who will ultimately become educators.

Suggestions for Reform

Graduate schools must begin this reform by reshaping the messages that they send their students about careers. Every school, Ivy League or not, has produced PhDs who work outside of the academy. Invite these alumni back to give a career talk to graduate students and faculty. This approach will better enable faculty to educate graduate students about careers while graphically demonstrating to graduate students that their professors do not disdain nonacademic careers. Equally importantly, it will eradicate the erroneous belief that nonacademic careers are for "failed" PhDs from "inferior" programs.

We need to stop referring to nonacademic positions as "alternative" career choices. It does not take a Foucault to understand that labeling nonacademic careers "alternative" encourages the stigmatization of these careers. Instead, our conferences should host panels on the state of the profession and ask historians who work in all areas, including professors, to speak candidly about their careers and the ways in which they use history. Encourage both faculty and graduate students to attend these panels by pointing out the obvious: as historians, we must understand the myriad ways in which history is practiced if we are to promote the study of history.

The AHA should revamp Perspectives and the AHA web site. When Perspectives publishes articles on the "job market" or on how to get a job, the focus is almost exclusively on academic positions, to the detriment of those in public history. While the AHA maintains that it is an organization for all historians, the narrow focus of its published articles only promotes the erroneous belief of most nonacademics—that the AHA is an organization for professors, not historians.

Finally, rather than limiting educational opportunities across the board, as those concerned about over-enrollment in graduate schools have advocated, encourage applicants and enrolled students to spend time working in the nonacademic world. This approach should include encouraging applicants who want to enter graduate school directly from their undergraduate program to defer their acceptance for a year or two. While many people who enter graduate school directly flourish in their programs, these students are, as they themselves often admit, the least equipped to deal with the difficulties of the job market. Information from admittedly informal surveys of young faculty members and graduate students suggests that students who entered graduate school directly from their undergraduate programs were less knowledgeable about their job choices, were more reluctant to embrace nuances in their work, were less able to make the transition from academia to nonacademic careers (even when they were forced to do so), and were less content when they did obtain an academic job. Simply by asking students to work outside of academia for a year or two before entering a doctoral program, universities may produce more committed and more well-rounded scholars. Ironically, this approach may also result in a decline in admissions because students will be entering graduate school because they love history—not because they are unsure about what to do with their lives.3

These changes are extraordinarily simple and cost relatively nothing to make. Yet they can help us to broaden our profession, to reach a wider audience and to help young historians prepare not only for their own future careers but also for a better future for our profession.

—Alexandra M. Lord is the acting historian for the U.S. Public Health Service. The co-creator (along with Julie Taddeo) of the web site, Beyond Academe (, she held both a tenure-track and a visiting professorship before becoming a public historian.


1. Bob Thompson, "Lessons We May Be Doomed to Repeat: American Historians Talk about War, but is Anyone Listening?" The Washington Post, January 11, 2004, D1.

2. Although a study undertaken by the American Historical Association admits that internships "are often paths to employment," the study suggests that internships are crucial only for people in public history programs. Given the poor job market, this failure to recommend that all graduate students pursue varied type of internships, not simply internships with scholarly journals or editing projects, is shortsighted. Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, Colin Palmer, and the Committee on Graduate Education of the American Historical Association, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 101.

3. This suggestion was also made by participants in a study done by the Pew Charitable Trusts. See Chris M. Golde and Timothy M. Dore, At Cross Purposes: What the Experiences of Today’s Doctoral Students Reveal about Doctoral Education (Philadelphia: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2001). The study is available online at

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