Preparing Students for Career Diversity: What Role Should History Departments Play?

By Kristina Markman and Michael A. Ryan

Last year, we participated in a panel on “Career Diversity for the Medievalist” at the 51st annual meeting of the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS). The ICMS is a premier academic conference in the field of medieval studies that draws over 3,000 specialists in all aspects of the medieval past from around the world to bucolic Kalamazoo for four days of scholarship and conviviality. As we both come from institutions whose history departments received the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians Departmental Grants to reevaluate the training of historians for a variety of careers within and outside of academia, we intended to center this panel on the question of how medievalists can use their specific skill sets for many careers. As we quickly realized, however, the concerns of the attendees were less related to field-specific questions and more to the culture of departments. Many students expressed uneasiness about broaching the subject of career diversity with their faculty advisers and apprehension about entering the nonacademic job market without guidance or training.

At the 2017 annual meeting, the Career Fair gave graduate students to discuss a range of job opportunities beyond the professoriate.

The turnout of the panel was a faithful representation of their concerns. Although there were nearly 30 in attendance, which is rather large for ICMS, most of those who came were graduate students. Excepting Suzanne Conklin Akbari (Univ. of Toronto) and Sarah Davis-Secord (Univ. of New Mexico), our fellow panelists, few additional faculty attended. As the graduate students noted, this was not only frustrating but also raised concerns about departmental responsibility in helping their students find employment.

One take-away was that departments should not only strive to create programs that encourage career diversity but also promote language that acknowledges the value of nonacademic careers. For example, through a process termed “Mellonizing,” the University of New Mexico has been attempting to help graduate students recognize how their training as historians has also helped them develop the five skills identified by the AHA as necessary for success in academia as well as in careers beyond academia. Faculty are encouraged to design graduate seminar content that introduces career skills to graduate students with the acknowledgment that the skills crucial for success outside the academy are the same ones crucial for success within the academy. (The AHA has since received a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand this program and “to help departments become more deliberate about how their graduate curricula and programming align with their students’ career aspirations and actual outcomes.”)

The second major question addressed by the panel was the stigma associated with preparing for the nonacademic career market. There seems to be an assumption among students that putting together an academic job portfolio is a noble task, while preparing for the nonacademic market is a debasing commercial venture whereby you sell your soul to enhance “employability.” What many students do not seem to recognize is that marketing is the unavoidable reality of any profession, including academia. In many ways, modern graduate education has a built-in marketing component that prepares candidates at least for the academic job market. Generally speaking, marketing involves recognizing the needs of the target audience and responding in a language and style that meets their demands. This is precisely what candidates do on the academic job market when they tailor their CV and cover letter to meet the requirements of a job ad: put together a teaching portfolio to “provide evidence of teaching effectiveness”; prepare a writing sample, research statement, and diversity statement; carefully choose their recommenders; and dress to impress for the interview.

Reversing the stigma associated with pursuing nonacademic jobs does not however eliminate the other major problem—departments are ill-prepared to help students plan for a future outside the academy. As participants at Kalamazoo noted, it is not the lack of options that is frightening, but not knowing how to navigate the wider job market. Even once able to articulate their transferable skills, students are apprehensive about how to create a package equal in value to the dissertation on the academic job market or build a network beyond the professoriate. In other words, even students who wish to pursue career options beyond academia often only feel prepared to apply for academic jobs.

The larger question, thus, that kept being repeated at our panel was: who should be responsible for solving this crisis of confidence—the student or the department? We suggest both. Departments need to be responsible in accepting students whom they will nurture and train according to the most rigorous standards of historical scholarship. They should also be training graduate students to think holistically about their skills and desires for life after graduate school from the moment they accept the students into their MA and/or PhD programs. At the same time, it is up to individual students to be active agents in their own success. Much like it is up to students to explore career opportunities from the moment they arrive into a graduate program, it is also up to students to analyze, articulate, and appropriately present their skills and qualifications. Dismissing marketing as just another mechanism of capitalist exploitation ignores the fact that “what is takes to be employed” is not some inexplicable je ne sais quoi, but effort, preparation, self-reflection, and initiative. Moreover, objecting to the language of marketing risks denying the fact that we are all on the “job market,” including those of us on the “academic job market.”

In the end, although our panel may have raised more questions than provided answers, the student response was overwhelmingly positive. Many students expressed personal gratitude to us for providing a platform where they could safely voice their concerns about career diversity, job preparation, and departmental culture. While our panel may have not solved the larger crisis of confidence, we believe that it helped at least some students build the confidence necessary to take the conversations from ICMS back to their home departments. 

Kristina Markman received her PhD in history from UCLA in 2015. Her research focuses on cross-cultural perception in the medieval Baltic region. Presently, she is involved with the Career Diversity Initiative at UCLA, is an active member of the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship, and teaches throughout the Los Angeles area including at UCLA, Loyola Marymount University, and the Los Angeles Community College District.

Michael Ryan is associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico.

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