AHA Activities

"There Be Monsters": Debunking Five Myths about Career Diversity for Historians

Emily Swafford, September 2016

Unlike early explorers' maps full of monsters, Career Diversity for Historians seeks to ease navigating the sea of uncertainty many graduate students face after the PhD. Olaus Magnus, Carta Marina (2nd ed., 1672). Wikimedia CommonsOne of the early discoveries of the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative was that a quarter of history PhDs find nonfaculty ­careers in a dizzying array of fields.1 The revelation served as an immediate and powerful corrective to the erroneous—one might say mythical—idea that job prospects for history PhDs are like early explorers’ maps: ­tenure-track, research-focused positions constitute the known world; “teaching positions” and “adjuncting” occupy a dimly understood frontier; and for the rest, well, there be monsters. But as any historian will tell you, the maps were inaccurate and the monsters imaginary. Career Diversity is not just about debunking the monsters’ existence, it’s about imagining—and creating—a new map.

What began as an initiative to broaden the career horizons and opportunities of history PhDs has evolved into an exploration of the culture and curriculum of graduate education. Despite the initiative’s wide scope, our conversations with faculty and graduate students have revealed a series of common myths that spring from a narrow understanding of the purposes of doctoral education, the breadth of skills that history PhD programs already provide, and how historians can have an impact both inside and outside the academy. These misconceptions lie scattered across a varied landscape populated by faculty and students who recognize the imperative of new visions. Preparing that landscape for change, however, requires that we slay some monsters.

Myth 1: Career Diversity is a public history initiative.

This myth is understandable yet misleading. Career Diversity is about expanding both career opportunities and the public impact of historians and rigorous historical thinking. Public historians share this mission, but it’s not the only way for historians to have an impact. “Public history” is itself an expansive, nuanced term, sometimes used interchangeably with “applied history.” It encompasses not only the curators and archivists who spring most readily to mind, but also historians in the federal government, those who advocate for history, and those who teach public history as a discipline. (The National Council on Public History explains more online at ncph.org/what-is-public-history/about-the-field.) Roughly, only one third of the 25 percent of history PhDs working beyond the professoriate can best be characterized as public historians. The AHA’s Career Diversity initiative looks beyond straightforwardly historical occupations to employment that involves other kinds of work, yet still benefits from historical thinking and ­expertise.

Myth 2: Career Diversity is only about jobs outside the academy.

Career Diversity is about exploring, documenting, and preparing students for all careers enjoyed by history PhDs. The sheer variety of nonfaculty jobs and, for many, the rewards of discovering them understandably shaped the initiative’s early emphasis. This initial focus was also a response to the generosity of colleagues beyond the academy who responded in large numbers to Tony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s article “No More Plan B” in the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History with offers of assistance, and who continue to write out of the blue and to sign up to participate in AHA Career Contacts, the AHA’s informational interview matching service. Thus, our initial emphasis on careers outside the academy was part of a conscious effort to make all historians feel welcome under the big tent of the AHA and to educate our discipline’s practitioners about the broad range of careers open to them and their students.

But a focus solely on careers outside the academy misses much of the picture. History PhDs also work in nonfaculty positions in higher education, from development offices and public relations to student affairs and various academic institutes. Further, while approximately 50 percent of history PhDs find tenure-track careers at four-year colleges or universities, only one sixth of the total find tenure-­track careers in research institutions. Exploring the culture and curriculum of graduate education also compels us to examine how—and perhaps whether—doctoral candidates are best prepared for careers as future faculty.

Myth 3: Career Diversity is an either/or proposition: useful for those who don’t want to be a professor, but otherwise a distraction from academic work.

At its heart, this myth relies on the assumption that one size fits all and that career paths unspool smoothly and predictably from the decision to go to graduate school to the acceptance of a tenure-track offer. The reality is that career paths are winding and bumpy for all sorts of personal and professional reasons, and like the very narratives historians learn to construct, their arcs and turning points are often most visible only at the end. Historians’ hunger to learn about all careers open to them has been evident in the response to services offered by the AHA under the auspices of Career Diversity. Hundreds of graduate students and early career historians have signed up for one-time informational interviews through AHA Career Contacts; regional conferences hosted by the pilot programs have likewise drawn hundreds of attendees; and the “Ask an Assistant Professor” booth hosted at the Career Fair during the annual meeting in Atlanta (and planned again for Denver) was swamped by those looking for some insight into navigating career transitions.

Moreover, our work on the initiative has led to us to recognize that the preparation for successful careers beyond the professoriate also prepares PhDs for faculty careers. Learning to communicate to diverse audiences (often under pressure), collaborate with colleagues, practice intellectual self-confidence, and cultivate quantitative and digital literacy will not only make imagining a diversity of careers easier, it will also ease the transition to full-time faculty positions at all types of colleges and universities. (For more, see historians.org/fiveskills.)

Myth 4: Career Diversity is important only to graduate students and job seekers.

Historians’ hunger to learn about all careers open to them has been evident in the response to services offered by the AHA under the auspices of Career Diversity.

Resources aimed at career preparation will probably remain of the most immediate and urgent interest to those who are looking for jobs post-PhD and to those for whom the job-search process looms on the horizon. But these individuals represent only part of what the initiative is about. Career Diversity is not a temporary fix to a temporary problem. It is an unblinking examination of how history PhDs are trained, including preparation for teaching (which is an essential part of learning to be a historian), as well as a reckoning with whether doctoral education prepares graduate students for their eventual careers. These are issues that are important to faculty, both those who supervise graduate students and those who help undergraduates choose graduate study in the first place. Moreover, the broadest aims of Career Diversity—to maximize the impact of historians and historical thinking—ought to appeal to anyone interested in the public role of the humanities and the future of higher education.

Myth 5: Career Diversity seeks to instrumentalize the PhD and make it merely a vocational degree.

A vocational program is one that pre­pares its graduates for a single career outcome. By preparing history PhDs only for careers in a sliver of the jobs available to them, the current graduate curriculum might be characterized as following a vocational model. Career Diversity seeks to do the opposite: to broaden the career horizons of graduate students in history. Many students will use their skills to write scholarly articles and give lectures; why shouldn’t some also use the same skills to write policy papers or assess the effectiveness of an organization’s last restructuring, rather than leave those jobs to people who may lack a historical understanding of how change happens?

The roots of this myth, however, deserve further scrutiny, as they are tied to reasonable concerns about the state of the academy and doctoral education. First, this critique is part of efforts to resist political pressure to tie the value of education solely to immediate post-graduation earnings. It also stems from the worthy vision—one shared by the AHA—that completing a doctorate ought to launch a secure career rather than release PhDs into a precarious labor pool. But the worry over straying too far from the true aim of a PhD also suffers from a misplaced nostalgia for an era in which the number of academic job openings kept pace with the number of PhDs earned. Rather than a norm that can be resurrected, this boom in higher education was the product of specific historical circumstances that no longer exist.

Concerns about the purpose and future of higher education are real; these critiques are important. Years of graduate study shouldn’t end with a choice between remaining true to the values that attracted someone to graduate school or earning a decent wage. Career Diversity does not seek to sidestep these issues, but rather to place them in a broader context and change the shape of the conversation. It argues that the study of history and historical thinking are so valuable that graduate students in history ought to be empowered to seek careers suited to the diversity of their desires and abilities. Further, it is the responsibility of departments and disciplinary associations to enable that pursuit. Rather than retreat to the comfort of the known world, Career Diversity seeks to empower graduate students—and the discipline as a whole—to rewrite the map.

Emily Swafford is manager of academic affairs at the AHA. She tweets @elswafford.


1. Read the results of the AHA’s pathbreaking study “The Many Careers of History PhDs” online at historians.org/manycareers.

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