The History Ph.D.: Beyond ‘Alt-Ac’

Historians urge departments to give their graduate students the confidence, skills and support to succeed in whatever career paths they choose. That means going out of their way to avoid implying that nonfaculty jobs are somehow “less than.”

January 8, 2018
 

WASHINGTON -- “Alt-ac” is so 2017. That was a recurring theme at last week’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association, where numerous sessions sought correct the field’s historical tendency to prepare graduate students for tenure-track 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 percent of the labor force, literally,” said Edward R. 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.”

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.”

Alt-ac, shorthand for alternative-academic careers and now derided by many as suggesting that nonfaculty jobs are somehow inferior, might even be so 2011. That’s when the American Historical Association’s executive director, James Grossman, and its then president, Anthony T. 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, Grossman and 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 Ph.D.s 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

Emphasis on Collaborative Research

Those skills underpinned an unprecedented number of meeting sessions this year, such as one on bringing collaborative research into doctoral training. The roundtable 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 programs funded by external grants, at least initially.

At Duke, for example, departments can apply for $1,000 to $7,500 Ph.D. Innovation Grants 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. Presenter Ashton Merck, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Duke, participated in a campuswide program called Bass Connections, which in her case involved work on animal waste management. The project resulted in a paper and subsequent website. (Other examples of Bass Connections projects, which all relate to one of five overarching themes, include developing a cultural history for 1930s North Carolina mountain music recorded on wax cylinders, higher education outside Rio de Janeiro, and visualizing Venice.)

Merck served as an intermediate mentor on a 10-plus-person research team that included faculty, undergraduates and attorneys and physicians on the faculty. The project took the place of two courses in her program, recalling AHA’s pleas for departments to not only rethink the parameters of the dissertation but elements of the graduate curriculum. 

“That gave me the great opportunity to communicate the value of the historical perspective on an issue that could have been strictly policy memo oriented,” she said, strengthening her identity as a historian. The project also bolstered her skills as a scholar, she said, in that drafting a research framework for Bass Connections helped her simultaneously draft a prospectus for her dissertation.

“In many cases, I’d be giving advice to undergraduates and then go home and take my own advice -- or not,” Merck said.

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.

Empowering Graduate Students

Presenter Peter Chesney, a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA, said, “Usually, we are our own clients as graduate students, but having the experience of having a client was really interesting -- in the sense that you have to adapt your research, you have to reframe your questions, you have to embrace new methodologies at times to fit their needs.” And the time frames for such projects aren’t five to 10 years, he said, as they often are in academe, but rather “as soon as possible … We had to learn skills on the fly, on the spot.”

The result of Chesney’s experiences with collaborative research at UCLA in that class and elsewhere is that he finds himself now assuming leadership roles on projects where partners lack any such group experience. “I’m in this position where I’m teaching them how to collaborate, divvy up roles -- roles that are reflective of our strengths and our weaknesses -- and thinking about timetables and communication strategies,” he said.

Collaborative research experience gives graduate students “a sense of agency,” Chesney said. It will also make them better professors, should they end up in the academy, since there’s a “humility” gained in working with others to realize something that couldn’t have been achieved on one’s own.

Merck expressed a similar sentiment, saying that in collaborative research, the “whole is bigger than the sum of the parts.”

Edward J. Balleisen, professor of history at Duke and panel chair, said Duke emphasizes 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 infantilization” 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.”

Chesney, who finished his undergraduate degree at the height of the most recent recession, also described teaching students practical skills -- such as those gained during collaborative research and articulated by AHA -- as a kind of moral and practical duty.

“I want to get something out of this,” he said of his program. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that I need a tenure-track job. What I want is the university to help me build my résumé, build my CV, which I think means gigs.”

Stressing Career Diversity, Early and Often

That said, panelists 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, panelists 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 nonfaculty 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,’” So said, urging faculty members to make all students aware of available career support services early in their programs, and to avoid using “coded” language -- for example, “alt-ac” instead of “career diversity.”

Annie Maxfield, associate director of graduate student relations and services at the UCLA, said 500 graduate students on her campus are now using Imagine Ph.D., a project of the Graduate Career Consortium. The tool was designed with input from Ph.D.s to help students self-navigate career planning. It includes a series of interest, skill and value assessments to, in Maxfield’s words, help determine “what you can do, what you enjoy doing and what matters to you.” Job recommendations are organized into families, with teaching-intensive faculty jobs being distinct from research-intensive faculty jobs, for example, or a job in one area of a museum work being distinct from another. Imagine Ph.D. also features a career planning tool that looks years ahead (preferably five to seven, Maxfield said, smiling).

Panelists and audience members at several sessions also said that embracing career diversity has implications for graduate admissions. As graduate admissions have shrunk to reflect the poor tenure-track market, they said, admissions also have gotten more selective, perhaps favoring those students with more narrow career interests, or at least those with less experience working outside academe.

Jeffrey P. Shepherd, an associate professor American Indian history at the University of Texas at El Paso and director of the history Ph.D. program there, said that line of thinking should apply to faculty hiring and promotion standards, as well. If job ads are written to attract those from the “best” universities who will write the “most” books published by the “best” presses, for example, he said, that doesn’t do much to build a departmental culture that encourages career diversity.

“There’s a big shift that needs to happen,” he said during one question-and-answer period.

On the Right Track

Is AHA on the right track with its five-skills initiative? It is, based on implicit and explicit feedback from Ph.D.s working outside academe throughout the conference. A panel of historians working in think tanks, for example, said they wished their training had better prepared in them in ways already highlighted by the association: further developing their quantitative literacy, writing for different audiences and doing (you guessed it) collaborative research.

Theodore R. Bromund, a senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations at the Heritage Foundation, said he was lucky that his graduate adviser was very open to his career goals, and that his own graduate work remains relevant to the work he does at Heritage -- mainly on Brexit. Yet in practice, he said, “my doctoral program did almost nothing except, of course, providing some research skills and some experience with structuring a fairly large research project. You could also say that it taught me some writing skills, but I’m not really sure that academic writing can easily transfer to the policy arena. In fact I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.”

He added, “You have to unlearn a lot bad habits when you start writing for a general audience.”

Stephanie Young, who works at the RAND Corporation on issues including defense budgeting, said she wished she’d had an opportunity to develop her identity as a historian working on interdisciplinary teams as a graduate student -- something she had to do on the job. And given graduate education’s bent toward pure academic questions, there was little opportunity to do the policy-relevant research she and other public historians are now so often asked to do, she said.

“I think it’s unfortunate we don’t have those conversations.”

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