From Linguistic Judo to Hustle

Career development requires energy and flexibility in a fluid job market, writes Alfreda James, and graduate students now have many more sources and accessible options for advice related to it.

January 18, 2016

“You gotta hustle,” said a friend as she recapped events from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association just over a week ago. We were talking about historians, graduate students and careers. Hustle? The AHA? Was this conversation really happening?

My heart fluttered because here was the frank admission that career counselors have been seeking for the past decade. We -- graduate career counselors -- have advocated for leadership, funds and policy changes on the topic of careers from humanities societies since before our calendars switched to the aughts. Career development requires hustle: aka energy and flexibility in a fluid job market.

Now, in 2016, to observe both urgency and agency from the AHA was a relief. The AHA is the oldest and largest professional organization representing historians in the United States. Graduate directors watch, mimic and use the organization as a benchmark for what should or shouldn’t happen on a local campus. Graduate students pay attention to the career advice the AHA offers. In a self-perpetuating loop, grad students don't see options unless faculty members encourage variety, and faculty members hesitate to deviate from the agenda the national organization sets.

Sophisticated Procrastination vs. Mindful Change?

Just two and a half years ago, an AHA blogger engaged in linguistic judo over writing about jobs outside teaching and research. “Name That Career: The Difficulties of Writing About Those Jobs” considered semantics. The blog post’s central theme was whether the AHA should use terms like “alt-ac” or “#altac” or “non-ac” when discussing new career fields for graduate students.

But “Name That Career” was a bleak moment for graduate career counselors because the blog post represented an emotional culture associated with stagnation. Emotional culture consists of the “norms, values, artifacts and assumptions that govern which feelings people can and should express.” If the AHA struggled with the nomenclature of professional development, then graduate students would continue to feel out of sorts when seeking career advice. The faculty position was still the norm. Solo-produced monographs and articles remained the indicators of progress for graduate students.

It seemed as if the AHA hesitated to address a long-term problem of demographic changes in the number of FTE positions and a shifting job market for all those in the social sciences but especially for historians. At a time when STEM graduate students were associating the strengths of their knowledge with career choices in research, biotechnology, government and policy, and management, history graduate students were staring into a void bracketed by defensive phrases like “we want to get it right.” Deciding on what to call the processes of decisions related to positions beyond teaching and research was more important than promoting action.

But public soul searching is never pretty, and a reflective reading of “Name That Career” shows the AHA in transition to its current position. After wrestling over words, the AHA determined that “career diversity” would be the appropriate phrase for its efforts, and the organization identified four critical skills graduate students need to develop for any type of professional occupation: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy and intellectual self-confidence. The AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative began in 2014 with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

From Mellon funds and a competitive application process, the AHA sponsored the efforts of four campuses. In a short time, Career Diversity monies generated quick action, novel experiential learning opportunities and new norms. Internships with nonprofit groups and graduate students writing grants for community projects coexist with traditional education. And instead of perpetuating a cohort of scholars dissatisfied with a job market, Career Diversity dollars sent history grad students out of departments and into environments to use skills of investigation, summary and even critical thinking.

It’s Kosher to Talk About This Now

But let’s return to the topic of emotional culture and graduate students. The AHA isn’t the only entity promoting new definitions of professional life. For instance:

Between social media, conferences and person-to-person counseling, graduate students now have more sources and accessible options for advice related to career development. There are now different norms and artifacts within graduate history. The emotional culture surrounding history has shifted.

Change at the AHA doesn’t automatically transfer to all campuses and all students. But graduate career counselors now have more material to use when approaching faculty members and students about professional development. We can point to discussions about humanities and networking coming out of Career Diversity projects. We can encourage graduate students to join monthly Twitter chats with the career bloggers. And, of course, we can still direct students to participate in events hosted by career services.

Hustle equals Graduate Student Action

So the next time a Ph.D. or M.A. student tells me they can’t find any resources or opportunities related to applying the discipline of history to a range of professions, I’ll know that I’m being hustled. I’ll recognize the individual stagnation behind the statement that there’s no help. And then I’ll advise such a student to hustle on over to the AHA and other career-related sources for assistance.


Alfreda James is assistant director for graduate students and postdocs at the career center at Stony Brook University.


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