Published Date

September 1, 2016

Resource Type

AHA Resource, For Departments, For Professional Development, Program of Study

AHA Topics

AHA Initiatives & Projects, Career Paths, Graduate Education, Professional Life, Teaching & Learning

This is part of The Career Diversity Five Skills project.

Author: Emily Swafford

Intellectual self-confidence is the ability to work outside a narrow definition of subject-matter expertise, to think flexibly and creatively about how one’s existing skills and knowledge can be applied to a problem at hand, to switch between projects as needed, and to learn about new topics and methods as needed. Essentially, it is the ability to adapt to new professional challenges-a skill necessary in any career.

On the inaugural post in the Career Diversity Five Skills AHA Today blog series, Emily Swafford described the application of intellectual self-confidence to learning her own role as manager of academic affairs at the AHA: within her first year, she needed to master new content about history education in the K-12 arena, what “assessment,” “accreditation,” and “student learning outcomes” meant, and where they came from. She noted that this process strongly resembled reading for her oral exams and identifying the questions and ongoing conversations of a field of historiography.

Which emphasizes an important point: intellectual self-confidence is a skill that is also needed to succeed within the professoriate. Assistant professors regularly encounter new concepts, and many find themselves teaching content that didn’t necessarily show up on their orals reading lists. They also need to navigate new relationships and structures, and possibly new towns, regions, or even countries. Just because that transition might look more familiar to many current graduate students doesn’t make it any easier to accomplish. Historians need intellectual self-confidence wherever they work.

Intellectual self-confidence is not something a historian ever fully masters because new challenges are always on the horizon. Develop this skill by trying challenging things in grad school, and never let narrow requirements be your only guide to the graduate school experience.

For Emily’s personal application of intellectual self-confidence, read the full post on AHA Today. For resources for graduate students, see below. Faculty interested in teaching intellectual self-confidence should see Faculty Resources for Developing Intellectual Self-Confidence.

Articles and Blog Posts

Recalling What We Do: Some Habits of Mind Historians Keep Hidden

By Kenneth Pomeranz, Perspectives on History, December 2013

Kenneth Pomeranz, former president of the American Historical Association, unpacks the skills and knowledge developed through a study of history and argues that they are far more unique, valuable, and transferrable than historians realize. A clearer understanding of this particular skillset can help advocate for the value of the discipline and how the skills obtained from studying the past can be applied in many ways within and beyond the academy.

A Historian in the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs: Reflections on Interning as a Graduate Student

By Jessica Lee, AHA Today, 15 December 2015

Jessica Lee, a PhD student at Columbia University, interns at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York and discovers how to apply a historian’s skills and knowledge to the world of public policy and outreach.

Under Construction: How a Summer Internship at the DOT Informed My Dissertation

By Renee Blackburn, AHA Today, 5 August 2015

Renee Blackburn, a PhD candidate in the History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS) Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains how a summer internship at the United States Department of Transportation allowed her to apply her skills to an entirely new setting and helped her grow as a leader and historian.

Press Start to Begin: How Historians Can Apply Their Work in a Non-Academic Setting

By Gianna May, AHA Today, 2 July 2015

Gianna May, an MA student in history at the University of New Mexico, describes how developing two history-based video games helped her to realize how her skills and knowledge as a historian can translate to many diverse contexts and career paths.

Interning at the National History Center

By Zack Toland, AHA Today, 14 April 2015

Zack Toland, a history major at George Washington University, describes his experience of learning new skills on the job while interning at the National History Center.

Video Resources

The Many Careers of the History PhD (AHA 2016, Session 57)

Four panelists, including Amy French (Delta College), Valerie Paley (New York Historical Society), Andrew Jon Rotter (Colgate University), and Jamil S. Zainaldin (Georgia Humanities Council) offer perspectives on their radically different uses of their training as historians and field questions about how historians might put their degrees to use in traditional and nontraditional fields where historical thinking is an advantage.

Series: What I Do: Historians Talk about Their Work

The “What I Do” web series interviews historians about where they work and what they do, including how they found their job and what makes it particularly interesting or challenging. Featured historians include those employed in a wide range of positions within and beyond the academy.

Series: Career Diversity at Columbia University: History in Action 2015

“History in Action 2015: Historical Thinking in Public Life” was a conference organized by Columbia University, home to one of the AHA-Mellon Career Diversity for Historians pilot programs. The conference explored the question of where and how graduate training can be productively engaged outside academia. The four videos here include the opening conversation of the conference and three panels that demonstrate how historical thinking can be applied to different disciplines and aspects of public life.

Series: Career Diversity at the University of New Mexico: What Use Is History?

“What Use is History?: Scholarship, Skills, and Careers” was a conference organized by the University of New Mexico, home to one of the AHA-Mellon Career Diversity for Historians pilot programs. Filmed sessions included here focus on a wide range of topics, including careers in publishing, government, and NGOs, and a workshop on crafting an elevator pitch. Dr. Robert Donia, research associate at the University of Michigan and retired vice president of Merrill Lynch and Company, gave the keynote address: “Clio Dons a Business Suit: Is there Life after History?”

Series: The National History Center’s Congressional Briefings

The National History Center’s Congressional Briefings feature speakers who provide historical context and perspective on current policy issues, demonstrating how a study of the past can provide knowledge crucial to making informed decisions about the present.