Thinking about Where Historians Work before Graduate School

Working at the American Historical Association for the past two years has made it impossible to shield myself from the uglier truths about pursuing a graduate degree in history—from the imbalance between the number of graduate degrees conferred and jobs available in the professoriate to the increasingly precarious nature of employment in higher education. Taken alone, these challenges might have convinced me (or any rational person) to run in the other direction. Instead, two years after getting my bachelor’s degree, I’m starting a history PhD program in the fall. 

Making the decision to attend a history graduate program can be complicated. Where Historians Work can help prospective graduate students figure out what questions they should be asking. Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

My decision to pursue graduate education was neither naïve nor grounded in a belief that I could somehow beat the odds. Instead, I’m convinced (and perhaps you will be too!) that it is possible to meet the challenge of finding employment by changing your perspective on what you could do with a history PhD. The AHA is committed to changing the narrative that the only successful outcome of a history PhD is a tenure-track job. It’s doing this by encouraging and building pathways to a diverse range of careers for historians. These efforts are rightly targeted to those already in PhD programs who are facing uncertainty as they finish up their degrees, but I’d argue that all potential graduate students have something to gain from coming up with more than one answer to the “so what are you going to do with a PhD in history?” question well before they’ve applied to even a single program.

Because the truth is that there is more than one answer—in fact, it is possible to carry your PhD training into other arenas; many historians have already done it. And we have proof: Where Historians Work is a database of career outcomes for PhDs presented in a series of interactive visualizations. The current beta version of the tool (which will be updated as more data is collected and incorporated) provides a snapshot of where about 3,000 history PhDs from more than 30 departments across the country work (see the AHA’s website for more details on data and methodology). Clicking through the data makes it clear that there is no single career path for someone with a PhD in history. Although most are predictably employed as university or college faculty, more than a quarter are employed elsewhere as business executives, lawyers, curators, librarians, and teachers (to name just a few).

While this is helpful data, if you’re considering history graduate school and the possibility of a career in academia, Where Historians Work is best approached as a tool to help frame the critical questions you’ll want to ask as you apply for programs and throughout your first years as a graduate student. Scrolling through the second slide in the series, which shows the range of employers for specific PhD programs, you’ll quickly notice that the percentage of graduates in four-year tenure-track positions has a strong correlation with the prestige of an institution. This is, of course, not an earth-shattering revelation. While it’s certainly something to keep in mind, it’s also true that attending a prestigious institution is no guarantee of a tenure-track job. As the 2013 AHA report, “The Many Careers of History PhDs,” which Where Historians Work is based upon, reported, “Earning a PhD from a particular institution . . . neither guarantees success nor proves an insurmountable barrier to securing a tenured faculty position.”

The breakdown by department also suggests that certain programs have graduated students into a more diverse range of careers. As you consider different programs, consider what about the programs sets their graduates up for work in, say, government or business? Do you want to be in a program where there’s a precedent for that kind of career path? Are there specific resources and tools available to help you? Ask to be put in touch with some of the graduates in the different occupational areas, and talk to them about how their time in the program helped (or didn’t help) them get there.

Where Historians Work is interactive, and toggling back and forth between genders, for instance, confirms previous findings that gender does not factor into the broad employment patterns of history PhDs. However, gender is not available as a filter on all visualizations, making analysis across the database difficult. The AHA is working to improve the interactive features of the visualizations, but in the meantime the limitations of the interactive features open up questions you may not have thought to ask. For instance, how would the picture of historians beyond the professoriate change if you were able to view it by graduating year? Would the largest bubble, “Historians,” which includes postdoctoral positions, decrease substantially? What would increase in its place? In other words, what could it tell you about the professional life cycle of history PhDs?

A section of the “Employment Outcomes by Research Field” visualization on Where Historians Work.

For prospective graduate students, the “Employment Outcomes by Research Field” is quite illuminating. I had always thought of my interest in the history of science and medicine as a plus—I had a narrow set of research interests that made it very clear which doctoral programs would be a good fit for me. But coming out on the other side, that narrowness will likely be met by very few field-specific academic job openings. In other words, the Where Historians Work visualizations are reflective of trends in the academic job market. In 2015–16, for example, there were 51 academic positions advertised with the AHA for Asian history, but just two in military history. But the troubles of the academic job market notwithstanding, there’s value in thinking broadly about the applications of graduate school training. Even for those who cannot dream of anything but the life of a professor, it’s worth remembering that the job of a professor is defined by much more than one’s research interests.

Unanswered questions abound (and I happen to know that the AHA is hard at work figuring out how to find and share answers to them). For now, you can begin to fill in the cracks yourself. Even though individual experiences cannot be generalized, if you find people with occupations that are interesting or surprising, reach out to them and find out how they got there. The AHA already has great resources to this end—the Perspectives series on Career Paths, the “What I Do” series on YouTube, and the Career Contacts program, which facilitates informational interviews between PhD students and historians working beyond the professoriate. Collectively, these resources can help you discover a range of employment options at the beginning of your PhD program and integrate career-opening opportunities into your experience in graduate school.

Where Historians Work prompts more questions than it answers. But for someone still considering a PhD in history, or just beginning one, the questions it raises can help you consider your priorities and expectations for graduate education. Let it help you ask the right questions to directors of graduate studies, lead you to contacts with alumni in a range of fields, and decide whether a PhD in history makes sense for you. If it does, use it to arm yourself with as much clarity about the options available. That’s what I’m doing.

Sadie Bergen was assistant editor at the AHA until May 2017. She begins a PhD program in the history and ethics of public health at Columbia University in the fall.

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  1. Barbara Krasner

    What an informative and candid post. I have Facebooked it and forwarded it to several colleagues. AHA is fortunate to have had the foresight to develop its database that could help so many find a satisfying future.