“There’s Nothing Sacred About the Academic Path”: Reflections on the American Historical Association’s 2017 Conference

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Denver’s iconic Blue Bear peers into the Colorado Convention Center at all the historians attending the AHA conference. Photo: Sara Porterfield

Erstwhile is back from our holiday break! This week Sara Porterfield reflects on her experience at the American Historical Association’s annual conference and the relationship between academic and non-academic careers and historians. 

The American Historical Association (AHA) held its annual conference in Denver over the first weekend of 2017, complete with single-digit temperatures and a foot of snow that fell on the city on the first day of the organization’s yearly meeting. This was my first time at the AHA, and I spent the weekend attending panels, volunteering for both the AHA and the Center of the American West, and having many interesting and productive conversations with other historians.

Without fully intending to, my AHA experience focused on non-academic careers. I am currently in my seventh year of my doctoral program with an expected graduation of May 2018, with an eye toward my post-graduation career. Because of my own interests and goals, and due to the bleak job market outlook, I am not pursuing a traditional academic career path and I arrived at AHA curious about the perception of non-academic historians and pleasantly surprised at the number of panels and events at the conference that addressed this subject. Fortunately, non-academic and “alt-ac” careers are receiving much attention, and even some funding, and many academic historians are working very hard to help these career paths gain the same level of respect and desirability within the profession as traditional academic jobs enjoy (major kudos to the AHA’s work on this, and next year’s Organization of American Historians meeting is both intended to connect with a broader, non-academic audience and to experiment with the forms by which we tell history). Unfortunately, there is a very long way to go; non- and alt-academic work remains a source of shame in the academy and institutions have been slow to change and ready their graduate students for a career outside of academia.

Over the course of the conference I attended two panels on career diversity and institutional change, “The Many Careers of a History PhD” and “‘Mellonizing’ the Seminar,’ advocated for “applied history” at the Center of the American West’s booth, and engaged with scholars working within and outside the academy. Three themes emerged from these activities: first, the lack of practical advice and coaching for translating academic skills to non-academic careers; second, the need to effect institutional change so that graduate school is both more accepting of and able to prepare students for alt- and non-academic careers; and third, the pervasive sense of guilt and shame that haunts History PhDs who choose non-academic careers and the urgent need to combat this.

Practical Skills

In both the panel on “Mellonizing” the graduate seminar (i.e., giving graduate students skills in demand outside of academia—see more below) and in conversations with history-PhDs-turned-career-coaches, the need for translating academic skills into skills recognized by the business world loomed large. What, for instance, is the difference between a resumé and a CV, and how does one turn the latter into the former? What are the industry buzzwords, and how can I incorporate those into my application materials? How do I write an effective cover letter that doesn’t look like a research grant application? How do I go about setting up an informational interview (and what even is an informational interview)? These are questions that may seem entirely obvious to folks outside of academia, but they remain mysterious to many graduate students, particularly if one has gone straight from kindergarten through to graduate work. Until these practical skills are accepted by the academy and taught as a part of the graduate curriculum, graduate students and History PhDs seeking employment outside the academy should look into career coaching and professional help with job applications, and resumés. While it will cost some money, it will be worth it for getting your job application noticed and finding a satisfying career.

Institutional Change

Both panels I attended, “The Many Careers of a History PhD” and “‘Mellonizing’ the Seminar,” identified the need for a sea change in what it means to be a historian. This change must be twofold: both cultural as well as mechanical.

The “Many Careers” panel focused on the cultural changes that must take place within the academy. Too often, as the chair of the panel—herself a full professor—pointed out, established historians, serving as tenured or tenure-track professors, do not accept the validity and the necessity of non-academic careers. This, as the panel discussed, will require a dismantling of the hierarchy of the historical profession: yes, a tenured position would be nice—for the folks who want that. But such a position should not be seen as the only goal for a historian, and no History PhD who doesn’t want to achieve that goal should be looked down upon. This cultural change is happening, and that fact gave the panel and those in the session a great amount of hope—but there is still a very long way to go for the academic culture to accept non-academic careers as equally valid paths.

The “Mellonizing” panel focused on the mechanical changes that need to occur within graduate programs to prepare students for careers both within and outside academia. The panel, composed of representatives from the University of New Mexico (UNM), gained its name from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant received by UNM to implement the AHA’s “Five Skills”“things [History PhDs in non-academic careers] hadn’t learned in grad school but that they found they needed in order to succeed beyond the academy”—into graduate work. The team at UNM found a remarkable lack of communication between graduate students and professors: when surveyed, 2/3 of faculty thought graduate work prepared students for a career beyond academia; 1/3 of students believed this to be true. As a result, courses at UNM have become more flexible in their course assignments, with students using film, music, and even video games to demonstrate their research and historical thinking skills. While only one step of many that are necessary, UNM found that giving students this kind of creativity with assignments moved them closer to competency with the “Five Skills,” particularly in their intellectual self-confidence. The takeaway from the UNM Career Diversity program and this panel is that students need to be designers and deciders in their training; nothing is sacrificed when students explore different ways to apply and communicate historical research, and doing so only makes everyone better historians.

The Perceived Shame of Non-Academic Careers

The most important theme that recurred over the weekend was that no one who chooses to pursue a non-academic career should feel or be made to feel ashamed of that choice. Whether you realize you want to do something other than chase the elusive tenure-track job while in graduate school, as in my case, or you’ve spent years on the academic job market with no job in sight and have decided to look elsewhere, or if you have a tenure-track job and realize this career is not for you, pursuing a non-academic job is just as valuable and worthwhile to you and to society. And no one should make you feel otherwise.

This topic came up in both panels and repeatedly in conversations I had with PhD-holding historians, both those in tenured positions and those working outside the academy. Every panelist in the sessions I attended described how difficult it can be to first admit that you don’t want or won’t have an academic, tenure-track position, and the shame and guilt that often accompany this realization—because, after all, you have spent many years of your life and probably a good chunk of change moving toward an academic career. One panelist described how he never knew there was a possibility of employment outside of academia and how this led to three years of “psychological agony” while on the market, a situation he would have happily avoided had resources existed for coaching and preparation for alternate careers.

…..

The fact that panels like these exist at the AHA and other major conferences and that they were well-attended gives me a great amount of hope for the future of both the historical profession and a greater acceptance of non-academic, PhD-holding historians. As Dr. Philippa Levine, full professor in the University of Texas at Austin History Department and chair of “The Many Careers of a History PhD” panel, said: “There’s nothing sacred about the academic path.”

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