May 30, 2017

SIU historians part of career diversity initiative

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. – It’s a question they hear often: What can I do with a degree in history? The answer, according to a new career diversity initiative by the American Historical Association, is “plenty.” 

Three Southern Illinois University Carbondale historians are part of the AHA initiative seeking to diversify career options for historians, especially those with advanced degrees. 

Holly Hurlburt and Jonathan Wiesen, professors, and Ras Michael Brown, associate professor, are among a select group of college and university history faculty members to attend the AHA Career Diversity Institutes, the first of which begins June 8 in Washington, D.C. The institutes will highlight the skills successful doctoral students in history programs gain that could be applicable to careers other than “history professor.” The faculty members who attend these institutes will learn how to shape a curriculum that includes a broader career scope for professional historians. 

The second institute is in October in Chicago, and the third is a workshop taking place during the AHA annual meeting in Washington, D.C., next January. In addition, the faculty members can participate in webinars and access online support during the year. Participation in the institutes includes funding from the AHA for one faculty member per institute and workshop. 

SIU’s participation in the faculty institutes comes at a fortuitous time. The department had already begun a curriculum review, which included, among other things, attention to marketability of the degree. 

“We’re all concerned about job placement for our doctoral students,” Hurlburt said. “Given the narrowing of academic positions in the humanities, many of our students have expressed interest in other options, and of course we want to help put them on the best possible footing.” 

Hurlburt was instrumental in SIU’s involvement in this new initiative. While on a sabbatical fellowship at the Newberry Library in Chicago, she met Jim Grossman, director of the AHA, who talked about the function of the doctorate in the 21st century – especially as the number of available academic jobs has been shrinking. He suggested SIU apply to attend the faculty institutes. 

According to the AHA, only one in six history doctoral degree graduates pursue careers as faculty at R1 institutions (doctorate-granting universities ranked as “highest research activity”) despite the fact that most graduate programs aim to prepare students for that career. The AHA recommends curriculum development that integrates a wider range of career goals rather than separating them out as specializations. AHA literature on the faculty institutes states that learning to be a professional historian cannot be separated from learning to teach history or engage with it in other ways. 

“History doctorate graduates can be found working in areas where we would expect to find them – higher education administration, publishing and editing, high schools, museums, government agencies and public history sites,” Wiesen said. “Also, some are researchers and consultants. Some are active-duty military officers. Many have successful careers as independent historians and scholars. Others run small businesses that specialize in everything from editing to organic food, or to pair their doctorates with additional degrees to become lawyers, politicians and librarians.” 

Ultimately, the universities participating in these institutes are eligible for the next step, Career Diversity Graduate Fellowships, open to students who have completed nearly all the requirements for their doctoral degrees except for the dissertation, which is the culminating project. The Fellows will receive an AHA subsidy for the purpose of working to develop a career diverse curriculum at their home institutions.