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Life After PhD: Making Sense of the Data on Where Historians Work

Dylan Ruediger, October 2017

As part of its Career Diversity initiative, a multi-year project to help PhD programs better prepare their graduate students for a range of career options, the AHA is gathering data to understand where historians actually work. With an improved statistical sense of the employment outcomes of history PhDs, we’re seeing a crucial, and durable, pattern emerge: since the mid-1990s, most historians have found employment within higher education, but a significant minority have built careers beyond it. This pattern is challenging us to rethink our notions of who historians are and driving our evolving understanding of how PhD programs can better prepare students for professional lives.

The numbers are clear. Seventy-five percent of the 4,200 PhDs we have tracked to date are employed as teachers, staff, or administrators at postsecondary institutions—a number that confirms the importance of colleges and universities as the core habitat of historians. Nevertheless, a full quarter of history PhDs work outside the academy, where they find employment in a staggering variety of fields with no apparent center of gravity. Our current data—available as part of an interactive database called Where Historians Work, at historians.org/careerdiversity, includes PhDs from 2004 to 2013, but earlier datasets suggest that this split has been roughly stable since the mid-1990s, despite well-publicized changes in the nature of academic employment.1

That so many historians work inside the academy highlights the continuing importance of the academic job market as a barometer of the health of the profession. But even the academic job market is considerably more diverse than it sometimes appears. Of the approximately 50 percent of history PhDs who eventually accept tenure-track appointments, only a fraction do so at the largest research universities. Most end up in teaching-centered positions at liberal arts colleges, regional public universities, and community colleges. This is the true bedrock of our profession, and while progress is being made, relatively few PhD programs are preparing their students to excel as educators across the full spectrum of American higher education.

The next wave of the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative, launched this January with the generous support of a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, builds on the recognition that preparing historians to teach in the 21st-century university is an essential part of career preparation. The initiative encourages departments to provide more structured pedagogical experiences and meaningful exposure to the scholarship on teaching and learning. This emphasis on pedagogy reflects our ongoing support of historians in all careers and recognizes that teaching is central to historical thinking.

Nothing in the data suggests the secret existence of an employment field that could readily absorb hundreds of history PhDs.

Yet we must also attend to the quarter of history PhDs who work beyond, sometimes well beyond, the academy. Their careers vary tremendously and resist grouping into broad categories, a difficulty that reflects the challenges and opportunities involved in encouraging history PhDs to think expansively about their career horizons. The range of options makes clear a significant challenge to career diversity initiatives. Nothing in the data suggests the secret existence of an employment field that could readily absorb hundreds of history PhDs. Certainly, the types of nonacademic jobs that are most closely related to professional work as a historian, including those in museums, archives, libraries, and others that might be classified as public history, employ only very modest numbers of history PhDs, perhaps 2 percent or so. There is little reason to expect a substantial increase in the number of PhDs working in these kinds of jobs, which often require additional credentials from graduate programs, and face supply and demand issues similar to those of the tenure­track market.

The good news, though, is the same as the bad news. Historians are everywhere. If that fact is in some ways a sobering reminder that there is no simple solution to the state of the academic job market, it is also a clear sign for hope. Just as biological diversity is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, the diverse careers of historians should be taken as a sign of the health of the discipline and the value of a history PhD. The many careers of historians substantiate one common argument for the value of a humanities degree—that it is a gateway into many careers rather than a ticket to a single occupation. The data bear this out.

Historians work beyond the academy as financial analysts, curators, directors of nonprofits, program managers, marketing managers, and secondary school teachers. They also work as farmers, clergy, soldiers, and software developers. In any given occupation their numbers are small, but historians working in jobs represented by fewer than 20 historians comprise almost 10 percent of history PhDs and over 130 categories of jobs.

One of the fruits of our effort to quantify the careers of historians is that it makes these people visible and in the process challenges us to stretch our definition of the community of historians in ways that will include them. While some of these people may no longer consider themselves historians, our anecdotal experiences talking with PhDs working beyond the professoriate suggest that a great many of them use the skills and perspectives they learned in graduate school on a daily basis and identify, personally if not professionally, with the discipline. The AHA has long advocated for an expansive conception of the historical community. Nevertheless, in a time when the humanities are embattled, our growing recognition of the diversity of historians’ careers suggests that we can do even more to define the community of historians based on what we share rather than how we differ.

The data also serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of varied approaches to Career Diversity. We have learned that historians succeed beyond the professoriate most readily when they have cultivated five essential skills generally not included in PhD education. But we also know that there is no blueprint for departments to better prepare PhD candidates for the many job markets in which historians compete. Here again, we should look at this as an opportunity for faculty from individual departments to make conscious, and deliberately idiosyncratic, decisions about how to integrate purpose and design into their programs.

It is broadly fair to say that, until now, the vast majority of PhD programs in the discipline had the same, often unarticulated goal: to produce faculty at research universities. Programs measured their success or failure on this scale. Research is, and should be, at the core of the PhD: it is an essential skill of professors and—as the American Council of Learned Societies has learned through its Public Fellows program—of many PhDs working outside academia. Yet the newly visible community of historians suggests an opportunity for departments to rethink the purpose of their programs in more expansive ways by asking critical questions about who they are, where they are, and what they are trying to do. What might emerge from doing so are new metrics of success and more distinctive graduate programs in history, better—or at least more explicitly—calibrated to the regional economy, to a department’s strengths and expertise, to the careers of its typical and extraordinary alumni, and, perhaps, to specific segments of the many careers of historians. Done right, this will enrich the value of the degree, providing new ways for programs to build reputations and options for incoming graduate students.

Dylan Ruediger is coordinator, Career Diversity for Historians, at the AHA. He tweets @dylan_ruediger.

Note

1. L. Maren Wood and Robert B. Townsend, “The Many Careers of Historians: A Study of Job Outcomes,” A Report to the American Historical Association, and Linda Ingram and Prudence Brown, “Humanities Doctorates in the United States, 1995 Profile,” National Research Council.


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