AHA Receives Grant to Expand Career Tracks for History PhDs

The American Historical Association has received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue, expand, and enhance its “Career Diversity and the History PhD” initiative. Our long-term goal is to establish a new norm: that doctoral graduates in history (and by extension the humanities) know how to pursue a wide spectrum of career opportunities that includes the professoriate, higher education administration, cultural institutions and other nonprofits, government, public education, and the private sector. This $1.6 million grant will fund pilot projects at four universities, anchored by a suite of national activities implemented by the Association. These pilots will take place at UCLA, Columbia,  Univ. of Chicago, and Univ. of New Mexico.branches6

Expanding the employment horizons and qualifications of history PhDs is not just a matter of finding jobs for our students. We are also interested in widening the presence and influence of humanistic thinking in business, government, and nonprofits. Implicit assumptions about historical context inform thousands of decisions made every day in nearly every institutional context, and we believe that a substantial proportion of those decisions are made without recognition of those historical assumptions, and certainly with very little actual historical knowledge.

In particular, this project will:

  • Compile data and narratives that will continue to improve our knowledge of the ways history PhDs have built rewarding careers in the world outside the academy, and then publicize what we have learned, in part to highlight the range of possibilities and in part to normalize these pathways and facilitate them through a “virtual mentorship” program.
  • Prepare history PhD students for work and other activity beyond the professoriate through curricular enhancements that provide essential skills and experience.
  • Transform a cultural environment within the academy, among faculty as well as students, that continues to define “success” exclusively as tenure-track employment at four-year institutions, even as such opportunities become less common.
  • Cultivate a broader understanding among potential employers of the skills, knowledge, and personal characteristics implied by advanced education in history and the completion of a PhD dissertation.

In the first stage of this initiative, AHA officers and colleagues have located and learned from history PhDs working across a vast spectrum of occupations. We have found historians working everywhere from investment banking and marketing to public policy, both inside and outside of government. They appear in nonprofit administration and human resources; in management consulting and journalism—and as the official historians of corporations and government agencies. Inside the university as well, our doctoral alumni turn up in every imaginable job. They work in development offices, career and placement centers, and digital humanities centers; as student counselors and as budget specialists. These scholars have one thing in common: they have found success (not to mention happiness) beyond the professoriate.

But most of these historians have had to find their own way, without substantial guidance or support; and few have remained part of a community of historians to which they could make substantial contributions. We want to capitalize on their experience, to make it easier for future generations to find their way to rewarding careers. They can help us redefine success as a historian in a way that takes account of all the possibilities. In the end, we hope, it will become clear that historians, whatever their career choices, take their training and their habits of mind with them into the workplace—and that those who leave the academy, as well as those who stay, have good reason to remain active members of the community of historians.

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  2. Jennie Goloboy

    I would love to help, if I qualify– I have a PhD in an associated field (History of American Civilization, Harvard 2003) and consider myself to be a historian. I also work as a literary agent.

    1. christel mcdonald

      we in the field of global conflict resolution certainly could benefit from more historians who help determine the root causes of the many conflicts around the world and who, if possible, add to their studies a degree in connflict analysis and resolution.

      1. David Stiles

        Christel, that’s exactly the educational background that I have – a PhD in History along with a previous MA in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. But I’m also typical of recent doctoral graduates in that I haven’t the faintest clue what the practical field of global conflict resolution looks like, who the potential employers are, etc. It’s great to hear that the AHA might be able to start helping us connect the dots.

  3. Anne Effland

    Would also love to participate. As a Ph.D. agricultural historian, have worked at the Economic Research Service, US Dept of Agriculture, for more than 20 years as both historian and social scientist. Have published several pieces on the value of historians and historical thinking in public policy analysis and on the need for historians as a profession to develop a demand for historians in this area. The history of applied social sciences documents strategies used by other disciplines to create demand for their expertise that might be of use to our own discipline. Developing multi-disciplinary research opportunities at universities could be a very valuable place to start–both for offering students experience and for showing how historical analysis can contribute directly to applied research results.

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  5. Toja Okoh

    I’d love to be involved as well. I worked for a non-profit as I carried out my PhD training, and while I am now in academia, I believe this is an important subject to address.

  6. Victoria Harden

    Very glad this is finally underway. For those of us who enjoyed a full career in public history, we can only say “it’s about time.” The AHA shouldn’t have to work very hard to identify many historians who have made careers outside the academy (a number are among those who already responded to this post!). The harder part will be accomplishing your third bullet point: transforming the culture of academic history that demeans employment outside the academy and fails to prepare graduates for situations in which they may not have full academic freedom to choose their own subjects and must take into account the needs of the institution in which they work.

  7. Lavanya Vemsani

    It is a timely and important program. I am glad it received support in the form of grant. History graduates can do well in a number of professions, but there is no focussed awareness or training. Hope it changes with this program to expand career tracks. I would be glad to serve the program in any way I can.
    Thank you,

  8. Amy Masciola

    This is welcome news and a worthwhile, if long overdue, project. I have a PhD in British history. I work for the labor movement as a consultant to a variety of unions and other progressive organizations. I am happy to help.

    1. Jim Cortada

      A good step. I am willing to help too. I spent 38 years at IBM–great career, lots of success, much happiness and satisfaction. If we did this right there is no reason we can’t place EVERY Ph.D. that is produced into alternative careers. The nation can actually use their capabilities.

    2. Candace Falk

      I’m glad to see the widening of career tracks in history–inspired now by necessity. The AHA and its predominant faculty constituents however rarely support or respect the work of those outside the formal tenure track world. There will have to be a shift in the attitude and culture not only for those entering or already working as historians outside the mold, but also by History Departments allowing and encouraging affiliation and participation in their work/with students/ and other scholars/ rather than leaving these “outsiders” on the margins, as planets of the university creating their own gravitational pull. I have been the editor of the Emma Goldman Papers for decades on the UC Berkeley campus and have never been welcomed by the Hiatory department; on the other hand, individuals, like Leon Litwack. have always extended support and interest based on content/ and scholarly excellence–as do many individual historians in the AHA and OAH, where annual meetings often serve as a locus of camaraderie, collegialtiy, and support. I wonder whether in the course of ‘opening the gates’ of possibility for those with Ph.Ds in history, there ought to be a more global reevaluation of the configuration of history departments themselves.

  9. Sally Gregory Kohlstedt

    Congratulations! The AHA has a long commitment to thinking about this issue, and we should take pride in the fact that as early as 1977 the Research Committee produced a pamphlet, Careers for Historians. A modest guide but important milestone.

    1. Christine Holden

      I appreciated Sally Kohlstedt’s invitation to write the section in “Careers in Business” for the 1977 pamphlet and learned about many fascinating options–some of which I applied for, though without success. Eventually, I worked for the state legislature for 7 years as a researcher for studies, and an analyst and drafter of proposed bills, before returning to academia. I found my “real-world experience” very valuable–and credible–when advising history majors. Best wishes for this renewed effort.

  10. Gail Evans

    I, too, would relish helping in this effort in any way I can. I have a Ph.D. in Public History from Univ. of California Santa Barbara, after receiving a a B.S. in historical geography. I have used both my geography and history knowledge in a wide array of history work–cultural resources management, historic preservation/heritage conservation, exhibit interpretation for sites, in writing dozens of reports used for federal government management of parks and forests, editing, website interpretive histories for the Alberta and British Columbia governments, Native American/First Nations research for British Columbia attorneys, organized and guided history tours in the UK, launched a personal history website, and so on. I have also taught as a tenure track historian (US history and environmental history), as well as history of cultural diversity and Pacific Northwest history at a community college. I have remained committed to the history discipline, and apply something of my education every day to solving problems and making decisions. I heartily support this AHA initiative.
    Gail Evans

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  12. Karan

    If I wanted to work in government or at nonprofit or in any of the alternative careers listed, I would not have completed a PhD in history. It is not worth your time or your money or the money of fellowships organizations or state governments to take a job that does not require the PhD. There is absolutely no reason to finish the PhD–a degree that is and should be for the sake of a specific professional training–if you want those careers. If physicians weren’t getting jobs, would we be encouraging more people to become MDs for the sake of not working as physicians? No. We wouldn’t be doing that, because we recognize physicians as professionals. Historians? Not so much.

    I sincerely wonder how much of this initiative is motivated by the AHA’s vested financial interest in encouraging more PhD students. The fewer PhDs there are, the fewer AHA members there are and the less money the AHA has at its disposal. Young PhDs and grad students are an especial cash cow for the AHA, because it financially benefits from job applicants’ having to be paid-in-full members in order to be interviewed for jobs at the annual conference. I know that I don’t renew my membership when I don’t have a job interview and I’m not alone in that. Given the state of the job market, I bet the AHA is feeling the pinch.

    The AHA needs to use its weight and authority as a *professional* organization to call public attention to why there are practically no professorships for historians. It needs to bring attention–even historical analysis–to the growing number of college staff and administrators and their ballooning salaries. It needs to publicly praise colleges that do not rely on history adjuncts, and maybe even publicly shame those that do depend on them. Create a ranking system. Parents and students love a ranking system and colleges bend over backwards to look good in a ranking systems. The AHA also needs to conduct outreach efforts with young people in hopes of encouraging them to become history majors. Someone has to counter the terrible high school experiences with history that seriously deter potential students from the major. Finally, it needs to hire a marketing team (one that’s not another sorry excuse to give PhDs work in a field for which they are not qualified…we’ve already seen the shoddy work of a certain “research group” hired by the AHA).

    When I hear that the AHA has grown a backbone, I’ll consider renewing my membership.

    1. Victor

      The impression I’ve gotten over the years from the AHA reports and website is that the AHA thinks there are too many Ph.D’s. But short of banning new students, they’re doing the best they can to make sure Ph.D’s find real work instead of shlepping burgers at a McDonald’s. I agree with you that I don’t see the point in promoting things like investment banking as an alternative, but there do seem to be history-related jobs (not that I’ve ever found one) in government, non-profits, and corporations.

  13. Brian Refford

    About time. I would like to participate as well. A big part of the current crisis is that doctoral programs are seen by many history departments and administrators as emblematic of academic achievement and elite status, even if graduates are unable to find employment thereafter. While I do not regret earning a PhD, in purely economic terms it was a waste of time. Granted my situation is complicated by a disability (which is a whole other issue)I have not found employment as TT faculty, even though I have a great deal of teaching experience and a modest number of publications.

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