How Can I Be a Historian in This Job?

After making the decision to leave the confines of the AHA and my fellow history colleagues to take a job at a federal agency, I have to admit I was a little nervous. Who is going to prod me about my research, or laugh at my Foucault jokes (I have many). After getting over my initial social anxiety, I came to a realization many historians working outside of academia reach: often the challenges that come with taking a new position can test your understanding of what it means to be a historian, and allow you to flex your skills and teach a new audience the value of a history degree.

On Sunday, January 4, the AHA annual meeting will host a panel of historians working in a variety of settings outside of academia to discuss how historians can apply their interests and valuable training outside the traditional realm of academia. The panel alludes to what I hope to be the next stage in the Career Diversity journey—where the possibility of historians working outside of academia is a lessening concern, and we can begin to explore what happens after. The panel discussion will range from the common anxieties of leaving behind the academic profession (a common misconception), how historians are applying history training in new ways, and how their work (and identity) as historians has changed in response to new landscapes.

But even if you are a historian working within academia, this panel is relevant to your work as a mentor to your undergraduate and graduate students. This is about reinforcing the message that a history major is not a dead end, but a degree that uniquely qualifies individuals to go forward into other important social, political, and educational positions. Ultimately, we need to convey to students and the public at large that while our history research may remain focused on the past, our role in the broader public is dynamic and flourishing in the unlikeliest of places.

How Can I Be a Historian in this Job?

AHA Session 216
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Sutton Center (New York Hilton, Second Floor)

Chair: Julia Akinyi Brookins, University of Chicago

Carin Berkowitz, Chemical Heritage Foundation
John A. Lawrence, former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Jennifer Reut, American Society of Landscape Architects
Steven C. Wheatley, American Council of Learned Societies

Session Abstract:

How can historians working in a variety of contexts think about the relationship between their current employment and a continuing interest in “being a historian”?

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  1. Jennifer Holik

    Excellent post. I wish I was able to attend this conference and specifically this session. I graduated with a history degree and rather than pursuing a Masters and joining the academic world, I took an alternative route. I started a business almost five years ago with the foundation of genealogy research and writing. This has blossomed into more than genealogy as I now research and write on aspects of World War II including soldier histories. I am also writing several volumes on researching and using WWII records (which no one else is doing.) I also lecture and teach on these topics to a wide variety of audiences.

    Historians have a lot to teach and share outside of academia and I hope those of us in alternative careers are more accepted. There are many people in the general non-history major population waiting for pieces of the knowledge and expertise we have to offer. And, I’m proof you can build a business and support a family on the income of an alternative career.