Annual Meeting

Career Diversity for Historians at the Annual Meeting

Emily Swafford | Feb 1, 2015

The AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative continues to increase its presence at the Association’s annual meeting; this year it was complemented by an unprecedented number of sessions organized by members interested in broadening the career horizons and opportunities of history PhDs. Coupled with the second annual Career Fair, these sessions offered attendees looking for careers in history exposure to a wide variety of career pathways. Representatives from a variety of careers for historians staffed over 35 Career Fair tables. More than a hundred individuals at various stages of their career search passed through the fair.

Historians also gave career advice at ­Interviewing in the Job Market in the Twenty-First Century, a workshop the AHA’s Professional Division has organized every year for over a decade. ­Volunteers shared their experiences working for nonprofit organizations, publishing ­companies, university administrations, museums, and in K–12 teaching, as well as at the wide variety of colleges and universities where historians teach. Professional Division Vice President Philippa Levine described the participation as “tremendous,” and from “a wide variety of people whose backgrounds in history have helped shape ­productive and satisfying careers both outside and within the academy.” The workshop’s continued success indicates that “growing numbers of PhD candidates are recognizing the tremendous range of opportunities that an advanced degree in history might bring with it.”

Participants in sessions devoted to careers beyond the professoriate ranged from college and university administrators to historians working in the federal government, nonprofit organizations, and cultural institutions. Other panels featured less well-known paths, including two on historians writing fiction. Some of the lively conversations were captured in special posts on AHA Today; overviews of several are featured on the Career Diversity for Historians resources web page.

Representatives from the initiative’s pilot programs found the sessions helpful as they continue to learn from one another and the broad community of historians whose experiences have been central to the evolution of the project. Karen Wilson, the Mellon-­funded graduate career officer at the ­University of California, Los Angeles, observed: “One idea that emerged was powerful in its simplicity—that professional development should be stressed from day one of graduate school by faculty, departments, and graduate divisions.”

The wealth of sessions highlighted the continuing interest of the many historians employed beyond the professoriate who want to share their experiences and the number of new historians who are eager to hear about career paths beyond the professoriate. AHA staff members have noticed over the past few annual meetings an increasing demand for this kind of information, a demand that does not disappear at the end of the meeting.

To help meet this need, the AHA is starting Career Contacts, an online service that matches historians working beyond the professoriate with graduate students or early-career scholars who would like to learn more about a variety of career paths. The service, generally featuring one-time informational interviews, was ­officially launched during the Career Fair at the annual meeting and is part of ongoing efforts to extend the benefits of Career ­Diversity for Historians to the broad membership of the AHA.

The annual meeting also presented a rare opportunity for representatives of the pilot projects, funded by a grant to the AHA from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to meet and exchange ideas. The four pilot programs all have projects that are underway and many more that they are hoping to unveil in the coming year. As Karen Wilson put it, pilot programs are working toward two general goals: “One, helping history graduate students become better informed about career options and more capable of taking charge of their career plans; and two, working within the department and university culture to ensure we are preparing PhDs for career success in their chosen professions.” The programs have begun to integrate careers beyond the academy into existing professionalization workshops or seminars, and are exploring internship opportunities, whether within the university or in the surrounding community. They also are initiating projects that harness local resources for career explorations for history graduate students. Those interested in Career Diversity for Historians are invited to two regional events, “What Use is History?” at the University of New Mexico (February 26–27, 2015) and “History in Action II” at Columbia University (March 6–7, 2015). Further updates and activities will appear on the Career Diversity for History website ( and in future issues of Perspectives on History.

Emily Swafford is the AHA’s programs manager.

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