By Katie Streit
The challenging academic job market facing historians is one topic that is frequently discussed in graduate courses, academic journals, and job reports. While students are aware of the steep competition for limited positions, there are few resources available for identifying careers outside of academia and successfully marketing oneself for those positions. Fortunately, the AHA is trying to help with its Career Contacts program. The service connects graduate students and recent PhDs with historians working in various careers, including those employed in the government and nonprofit organizations. A year ago, I decided to give the program a chance as it seemed to offer me a unique opportunity to speak directly with senior historians about how I could translate my skills into a successful career beyond academia. Through the process, I learned four valuable lessons about how to effectively utilize the program and take advantage of the opportunities that it presents:
- Take the initiative to apply to the program
It is free and simple to sign up with Career Contacts, and takes about five to ten minutes online. Within a few weeks, someone from the AHA contacted me to schedule a preliminary phone call. Our discussion was informal and offered me the opportunity to discuss my research, which careers I was interested in learning about, and what I hoped to get out of the program. A few days later, the AHA staff member e-mailed me with the contact information of a senior historian working at the Department of State.
- Follow up with your senior contact
Junior contacts are responsible for e-mailing and scheduling a phone call with the senior contact. Many individuals fail to take this vital step. Perhaps they become overwhelmed with other responsibilities and forget, or they feel intimidated to talk to a senior scholar. Admittedly, I was nervous to reach out to my contact at the State Department. It is important to keep in mind, however, that these individuals voluntarily signed up for the program and are interested in helping. As history PhDs themselves, they have valuable perspectives to offer and can provide practical advice and insights. Ultimately, I found my conversation with my contact to be extremely informative. I learned about what a historian does in the State Department and what I could do to improve my chances of being selected for a government position. My contact answered all of my questions, and offered help, if needed, for the future.
If you are anxious about getting in touch with the Career Contact assigned to you, one way to calm your nerves is to be prepared. Make sure to have a list of questions ready in advance. If you are struggling to think of questions, contact your academic advisor or your contact person at the AHA. Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make is not following up with your senior contact. In addition to missing out on helpful information, you run the risk of creating a bad reputation with that individual, their professional network, and the AHA.
- Be professional
It is important to recognize that everyone you speak with during the process—from the AHA staff member to the senior contact—is a professional and should be treated as such. By acting respectful, you build a positive reputation with those individuals and their network of associates. Due in large part to the good impression I made upon the AHA staff member I spoke with, she contacted me when an internship opportunity became available at the State Department. Such benefits of professionalism may not be immediately apparent, but they can lead to new opportunities.
- Put yourself out there
It is not simply enough to learn about various careers; you also need to seize opportunities when they become available. When I heard about the internship opportunity at the State Department, I applied despite being in the process of completing my dissertation. I was selected and am now conducting research on the history of US relations in sub-Saharan Africa. I also decided to take advantage of my proximity to Washington, DC, and began volunteering at the National History Center. As a result, I have been involved in several major projects, such as organizing workshops for the upcoming AHA annual meeting. Through these opportunities, I am not only building new skills, but I am also developing a broader network of historians. As I enter the job market this year with a new PhD, I do so with a greater confidence that I have the knowledge and skills to pursue job opportunities within and beyond academia.
In the end, I found that Career Contacts offers a platform for graduate students to learn about the exciting career opportunities available to historians and to gain the confidence to seize opportunities when they present themselves. If you’re interested in signing up for Career Contacts, please visit historians.org/careercontacts.
Katie Valliere Streit received her PhD from the University of Houston in December 2016. Her dissertation examines the socioeconomic impacts of motorized road transportation in southern Tanzania during the 20th century. Katie currently has an internship with the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian.