Make It Work: Career Prospects for Professional Historians

The Department of History has received $300,000 (supplemented by local funds) out of a $1.6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the American Historical Association. The grant supports pilot programs in history departments at two private universities (Chicago and Columbia) and two state universities (New Mexico and UCLA). The aim is to help PhD students succeed as professional historians, both in the academy and in other fields that routinely hire and benefit from the expertise of historians. Kenneth Pomeranz, University Professor of History and interim department chair, leads the project, with assistance from Emily Lynn Osborn, associate professor of African history, Dain Borges, associate professor of Latin American history, and others.

Each university was given latitude to develop a career program to fit the needs of its faculty and students. Chicago plans to fill a gap in the transformation from graduate student to professional historian. The History faculty at Chicago educates students to the highest levels of scholarship and rotate through standing committees that direct the graduate program, award fellowships, and counsel students on the academic job market. But the department lacks a staff member whose sole responsibility is to develop practical programs to prepare graduate students for jobs both in and beyond the professoriate. The department has just completed a search for a recent PhD in history to act as the full-time graduate career officer for a three-year term beginning in July.

The graduate career officer, in workshops and individual counseling sessions, will help students with technical skills (digital research, data mining, software programs), communications (interviews and job application materials, public speaking, business writing, and professional web presence), administrative knowledge (nonprofit governance, policy, budgets), and leadership (directing, mentoring, managing, collaborating). The officer will also connect students at all stages of the PhD program to the myriad services provided by other university offices and with career opportunities, such as internships, within and outside the university. Before the end of the three-year term, the officer will work with the department chair and project faculty directors to institutionalize these expanded career and training opportunities.

While completing this search, the directors have also initiated discussion sessions for faculty about graduate training. Programming for students will begin in March, and the first internships funded by the program are available for this summer. A bigger program will begin in autumn, 2015.

The American Historical Association project grew out of a earlier grant from the Mellon Foundation, which accessed the value of humanistic disciplines in American society and culture. As part of that grant, the AHA studied the career outcomes of 2,500 history PhDs who earned degrees between 1998 and 2009. The overall employment rate was exceptionally high and gender played little role in employment patterns. Professional careers dominated: tenure-track professors (53 percent), non-tenured teaching (18 percent), and other professions (24 percent). In a 2011 Perspectives on History article, AHA’s president, Anthony T. Grafton, AB’71, PhD’75 (history), and executive director, James Grossman, noted that these percentages are not new, but repeated patterns from the early 1970s through the 1990s. What they did propose as new was “to examine the training we offer, and work out how to preserve its best traditional qualities while adding new options. [To] tell new students that a history PhD opens many doors.” The Mellon project at Chicago hopes to accomplish this and more.

Jovita Baber, PhD’05 (history), managing director of research, IFF (Illinois Facilities Fund); Kai Parker, doctoral student in history; and Sonja Rusnak, AM’03 (humanities), graduate affairs administrator in History, participated in the project launch, serving on the search committee for the graduate career officer.

By Joanne M. Berens, MFA'93, jberens@uchicago.edu