Historians urge PhD students to look beyond academic careers

American Historical Association emphasises transferable skills and collaborative research

January 8, 2018
Teacher in museum

Attendees at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association sought to correct the field’s historical tendency to prepare graduate students for academic jobs alone.

“The most important message that I’ve found I can give my students is to just be fearless – that when you leave this program you will have a more powerful, more well-trained, more flexible mind than 99 per cent of the labour force, literally,” said Edward Dickinson, chair of history at the University of California, Davis, during a discussion following a panel called “Collaboration for Career Diversity: Locating Expertise at the Institutional and National Levels.”

Professor Dickinson stressed the importance of career diversity as well as diverse individual careers, due in part to his own experiences working inside and outside academe. He said he tells students: “You have an incredible engine. You can hook it up to lots of jobs.”

In 2011, the American Historical Association’s executive director, James Grossman, and its then president, Anthony Grafton of Princeton University, co-authored “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” Citing the diminishing number of tenure-track history positions, the essay urged departments to remind graduate students early, often and enthusiastically of the many career paths open to them. Beyond that, Dr Grossman and Professor Grafton asked departments to make good on those assurances by rethinking aspects of graduate training.

Those ideas, still controversial in some corners, have given way to the association’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative. That initiative is based on part on the five skills AHA – with input of historians working across sectors – has determined all PhDs need to succeed in whatever paths they choose:

  • Communication, in a variety of media to a variety of audiences;
  • Collaboration, especially with those with different perspectives;
  • Quantitative literacy, or the basic ability to understand and communicate information presented in numbers;
  • Intellectual self-confidence, or the ability to work beyond one’s subject matter expertise, and be “nimble and imaginative” in projects and plans;
  • Digital literacy, or a basic familiarity with digital tools and platforms.

Those skills underpinned an unprecedented number of meeting sessions this year, such as one on bringing collaborative research into doctoral training. The round table was based on the experiences of faculty members and students at three institutions – Duke University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Delaware – that have encouraged group, interdisciplinary research through programmes funded by external grants, at least initially.

At Duke, for example, departments can apply for PhD innovation grants worth between $1,000 and $7,500 (£738 to £5,538) as part of the campus’s Versatile Humanists initiative. Among other aims, the grants can be used to embed collaborative, team-based research experiences into the curriculum.

Duke is trying to further embed a separate, existing humanities “lab” model into the curriculum. Students also may opt for a six-week summer intensive collaborative research project involving a community sponsor, a project and a deadline – the kind of audience-based project that many public historians will encounter and indeed be responsible for in their careers. A class at UCLA also offers students the ability to work with a “patron” on collaborative public engagement projects; in one case students were responsible for creating a pamphlet for a local historically Jewish country club’s 100th anniversary.

Edward Belleisen, professor of history at Duke and panel chair, said Duke emphasised collaborative research because it “leads to excellence, whether one envisages research within the academy or research outside of it, whether it’s teaching or whether it’s civic engagement, again, from the academic perch or outside of it”.

“We don’t use the word ‘alternative’,” he added. “They’re just careers and they’re all good.”

Moreover, he said, making graduate students managers and mentors on collaborative research teams can “overcome what can be infantilisation” in the graduate student experience. “These are incredibly gifted, talented people that we have the privilege of working with, our graduate student population, and we should be empowering them,” he said.

However, panellists in Chesney’s session and others said that sometimes graduate students are the biggest obstacle to reorienting graduate programs toward career diversity. Many students say they know the poor tenure-track job market odds but are determined to be the exception, panellists said, while others who start out wanting to be tenure-track professors and change their minds don’t seek out advice on their new goals.

Bernadette So, director for graduate student career development at New York University’s Wasserman Center, said her office assists students with all career goals. But if faculty members only refer students who seek non-faculty jobs, it perpetuates the idea that her office can’t help with academic career planning, she said. Perhaps worse, if professors only refer students late in their programs, they tend to assume a negative motive – namely a lack of confidence in their abilities or options.

“Students will feel, ‘I was sent here at this stage in my career and I have a feeling I know why,’” Dr So said, urging faculty members to make all students aware of available career support services early in their programmes, and to avoid using “coded” language – for example, “alt-ac” instead of “career diversity”.

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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