Career Diversity: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis

Historiographical reference aside, career diversity for PhDs forces us to re-think some of the foundational definitions we use in discussing the historical profession. I wrote the piece below a year ago, shortly after the annual meeting. And while the landscape has shifted very positively (witness the AHA-Mellon pilot initiative, for one), implementing diverse career outcomes largely remains a side project to the main purpose: the academic jobs pipeline.

I’m in no way arguing that programs should not or need not care about those outcomes – they most certainly should. History professors are, I dare hope, not a species in danger of becoming extinct. That said, nor should career diversity be the side dish to the professorial main course. Surely, from a large scale, this initiative isn’t about shaping “historians for other outcomes.” It is – and most definitely should be – about simply shaping historians. 

That way, wherever you go, you don’t simply “take the profession with you:” you are the profession, in one of its myriad manifestations.


Taking the Profession With You: Alt-Ac Paths at the 2014 American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting.

For historians reflecting upon the profession, the program of the annual meeting offers an unexpectedly valuable source: a sharp reading of its annual theme, keynote speakers, and lengthy list of sessions reveal the discipline’s increasing professionalization, its evolving theoretical paradigms and overarching concerns and, in the background, the social and economic contexts in which historians have reflected about their craft.

The last three years offer especially rich evidence in this regard. For an insight into methodological shifts, one has only to glance at the ever-increasing number of sessions on digital tools and methods. But acute program readers might discern another trend: the gradual intrusion of discussions about the shape, value, and outcome of a history Ph.D. In 2011, the reality of a shrinking academic job market prompted AHA Executive Director James Grossmann and President Anthony Grafton to open a debate about non-academic placements for PhDs. “No more Plan B” encouraged the profession to conceive of the degree as more than a pipeline into the professoriate: “[…] there are many ways to be a historian; there are many ways to apply what you’ve learned to a career [in] […] publishing, media, business, and politics.”[1] In 2013, the inauguration of the “Malleable Ph.D.” initiative brought attendees sessions on digital and public history, entrepreneurship, and non-profit work as opportunities beyond the academy.

This year’s “Malleable Ph.D.” project extended the conversation begun at the previous annual meeting, with panels devoted to finding and loving a government job; a workshop on history museums; a panel on “alt-ac” professions; and a report on career paths for Humanities Ph.D.s. The first-ever career fair allowed attendees to garner information and advice from representatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Department of Education, Smithsonian museums, and Bedford St-Martins, among others.

Increasing Visibility and Debate

As someone actively seeking a post-academic position, I was glad to see non-faculty paths receive increased recognition and program space. The marginalization of these trajectories, most obvious in their absence from programs’ placement lists, has long reinforced the normative equation of a Ph.D. with a faculty position. That statistical gap is now being filled, but the cultural divide between academic historians and “others” will likely take longer to bridge.[2]

From a broader perspective, it is surprising that efforts to extend the reach of a humanities Ph.D. have only recently risen to prominence. As Robert Townsend’s illuminating study of the historical profession reveals, our understanding of “the professional historian” as an academic, professor, and scholar is itself historically contingent. Once encompassing “popular history-making, school-teaching,” and archiving along with the writing of scholarly monographs, the discipline fragmented, in the early 20th century, into a set of distinct practices that divided “professional historians” from “others” (archivists, public historians, museum professionals). The professionalization of history and its enclosure within the university also narrowed the sphere of “expert” knowledge, as Townsend reminds us.[3] While Renaissance Humanists conceived of their enterprise as deeply engaged in the public sphere, our own notions of doctoral education evince considerably less range.

And yet, panel-members at sessions challenged the notion of a bifurcated path between academic and “alt-ac” employment. The label of “historian” does not belong to academics alone: the liveliest panel I attended, “The Malleable Ph.D.,” issued a strong call for re-thinking definitions of the profession, and whom we include and privilege within it. “I didn’t leave the profession,” declared E. Darrell Meadows, Director of Research and Interpretation Division at the Kentucky Historical Society, “I took it with me.” Even as a History Ph.D. turned business consultant, NEH program officer, and journalist discussed careers beyond the tenure-track, the conference’s official photographer unwittingly illustrated the manifold outcomes of a Ph.D.: he turned out to be a former tenured professor (albeit of geology).

History Matters, But Not In The Way You Think It Does

Increasing the visibility of non-faculty historians is a key step. Yet despite the AHA’s 2011 call, the path to non-faculty employment remains largely self-charted. Across sessions, panelists signalled the need for structural changes to bridge the gap between suggested directions and their implementation. Whether through internships, the embrace of new media and audiences, or the inclusion of business courses, broader employment outcomes demand a more applied skill-set. Concrete measures have yet to take shape, and there is tremendous opportunity for sessions at the 2015 annual meeting to address the practical steps and skills that can help graduates searching for non-faculty trajectories.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts and resources for those charting that path:

1) Consider new approaches.

The issue isn’t just historians embracing new vocations, but those vocations embracing historians. From the workshop on digital history to a session on digital publishing and the perspectives of four prominent museum directors, speakers underscored the need for academic historians to broaden their understanding of media and audience. As Lonnie Bunch, Director of the Museum of African-American History and Culture pointedly stated, history doesn’t always matter the way scholars think it does. Beyond concerns to emphasize the impact of sometimes narrow scholarly work, historians would do well to engage in a more capacious notion of research, one that already exhibits qualities of range and reach, and whose enterprise strengthens the public practice of the humanities. The ability to tell history with objects, to employ interactive tools, and to craft engaging narratives for a general public are vital to mastering the opportunities of non-academic employment.

2) Take to twitter.

It’s undeniable: history happens in the twittersphere. The alt-ac community is vast, vibrant, and active, and has already begun shaping proposals for next year’s conference. Start by following these hashtags: #postac; #altac; #VersatilePhD. Consider, as well, networks of historians whose approaches engage new media and non-academic publics, particularly #twitterstorians and #dhist.

3) Attend the Annual Meeting (and the career fair!).

The advice may seem counter-intuitive to those considering a non-faculty position, yet for these discussions to continue (as they must), it is imperative that they take place not outside, but very much within the widest community of historians. Only by wholly (re-)integrating other vocations into the profession’s fold will we counter the notion of an “alt-ac” path that stands as the alternative to the norm of an academic job. Now’s the time to propose a session for AHA 2015 and participate in the debate.

The career fair plays a leading role in building bridges between academic historians and allied professions. It will hopefully re-appear in years to come, with expanded hours and a larger number of exhibitors. In the meantime, displaying online resources, non-faculty job postings, and discussions on the AHA’s webpage would give the “Malleable Ph.D.” initiative the momentum and visibility it deserves.

[1] James Grossmann and Anthony Grafton, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History,” Perspectives on History, October 2011,, accessed 22May 2012.
[2] Aided by a $1.6 million Mellon Foundation grant, the AHA is expanding its initiative on “Career Diversity and the History Ph.D.,” part of which will include compiling data about those History PhDs who have pursued non-academic trajectories. “AHA Receives Grant to Expand Career Tracks for History PhDs,”, 20 March 2014, accessed 20 March 2014.
[3] Robert B. Townsend, History's Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880 – 1940, U. of Chicago Press (2013), pp. 1-2, and 5.

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