AHA Activities

Career Diversity for Historians: Phase II Kickoff in DC

Emily Swafford, November 2014

The AHA launched the second phase of the Career Diversity for Historians initiative with a weeklong kickoff event in September. At the AHA office and nearby venues in Capitol Hill, the event brought together AHA staff and representatives from the initiative’s four pilot programs to explore options for expanding career horizons for historians, and to share data-gathering and program strategies. Over the course of the week we also had the opportunity to meet with stakeholders in the future of PhD education, and, crucially, to hear from more than 20 Washington-based history PhDs who are employed beyond the academy. What we heard was that careers beyond the professoriate are not only possible but fulfilling for history PhDs, and that there are real opportunities for graduate programs to make the variety of careers open to history PhDs known and accessible to graduate students. Representatives of the pilot programs left with fresh ideas and a renewed sense of purpose.

In the report “The Many Careers of History PhDs,” L. Maren Wood and Robert B. Townsend found that among the 24 percent of PhDs who are employed beyond the professoriate, the top three employers are government (federal, state, and local), higher education (nonteaching positions), and nonprofit organizations. Throughout the week, we had conversations with historians who now work in all three sectors, and what we heard supported our initial findings. In focus groups held during the first phase of the initiative, the AHA identified four key skills that could enhance graduate education in history and connect it to diverse careers: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, and intellectual confidence. (“Career Diversity’s Time Has Come,” Perspectives, May 2014) Time and again, our panels of experts confirmed this quartet. They emphasized the flexibility inherent in good communication and collaboration: the ability to communicate to a variety of audiences and in a variety of media (spoken, written, online, one-page memos) and to collaborate with those who hold different opinions or values. During the kickoff week, we pushed our panelists, especially those employed at think tanks, on the issue of quantitative literacy. What we found is that the quantitative skills most employers require are more in line with historical thinking skills than many might guess. What’s needed is an understanding that data and numbers tell a story, which involves, for example, an ability to interpret representations of data and to ask intelligent questions about how categories are selected and which variables are important. Finally, our panelists spoke about the value of intellectual confidence—the ability to quickly and confidently master a previously unknown subject area and to pivot among many tasks. All of these skills can be taught and learned, and most of the historians we talked to found they enriched and invigorated their work.

The biggest insight of the week was that the skills and habits of mind that make historians successful and well-prepared for jobs outside the academy are also skills and habits of mind that help students transition to faculty positions. In teaching and departmental service, for example, all four of these skills come into play. Faculty often use quantitative reasoning when committee work requires them to write or read a budget, or in teaching, when they turn qualitative work (i.e., student essays) into quantitative data to fulfill assessment requirements. In assembling program curriculum requirements and presenting them to administrators or accreditors, faculty have to communicate to an audience outside their discipline, and they have to collaborate, possibly with others who don’t agree with them. And in tackling any issue related to assessment, faculty often have to display intellectual confidence—the ability to become experts on policies and procedures they may have only just encountered.

Finally, for those who fear that moving beyond the professoriate means leaving behind the values and love of ideas that may have spawned an initial interest in graduate school and sustained years of historical research, our evidence suggests that those fears, while legitimate, are exaggerated. Even though our panelists may not spend their days teaching or researching in an archive, intellectual pursuits are not something they shed when they move beyond the academy. At one panel of PhDs working outside the professoriate, a panelist stopped the conversation to spontaneously query the others. “How many of you,” he asked, “have published something research-related since beginning work outside the academy?” Every single panelist raised a hand.

A primary goal of this initiative is to expand the presence and influence of historians (and other humanists) beyond the academy. We are familiar with the idea of a historian of virtually any regulatory agency, for example, but what would it mean to have a historian for such an organization? Someone with the skill and ability to ask, “Has this happened before? What was different then and now?” Someone with, as one historian currently engaged in policy work put it, “an innate sense that there is nothing new under the sun.”

What can graduate programs do? Among the historians employed beyond academia who attended the AHA’s kickoff event, the common denominator was experience working outside the academy. Some had worked before enrolling in graduate school. Others had stumbled into internships or mentoring relationships. Few had actually come to graduate school with the intention of working outside the academy. All of them agreed their graduate programs could have provided more opportunities to gain outside experience. Departments that are committed to providing their students with a fuller set of career options should work with existing career services offices at their universities to facilitate more internship and externship programs. They can track the varied careers of alumni and work to create mentoring relationships. They can work with other parts of the university—the administration, the library, professional schools—to help students learn more about the landscape of higher education and offer an opportunity to gain some experience with it.

Representatives of the career diversity pilot programs will meet again in New York at the annual meeting to assess the progress made in the first half of the academic year. If the kickoff week is any indication, there will be much to discuss and much to look forward to. Regular updates on Career Diversity for Historians will appear in future issues of Perspectives.

Emily Swafford is the AHA’s programs manager.


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