The Way I See It: Two Lessons from the AHA’s History PhD Study

In case you don’t follow everything the American Historical Association  does (for my pals over in English Literature, the AHA is history’s MLA), the organization released a study of history PhDs who received their degrees between 1998 and 2009. First, let me say that I was pleasantly surprised overall. I don’t think the study warrants the one-liner offered by the authors–that no PhDs “occupied the positions that often serve as punch lines for jokes . . . as baristas or short-order cooks”–cause that’s a pretty damn low bar you’re setting. For me, there are two overriding take-aways: one for history (and humanities) faculty and the other for employers at large.

Visualization of the jobs held by folks who got their PhD between 1998 and 2009

Visualization of the jobs held by folks who got their PhD between 1998 and 2009

The first: as prospective PhD myself (it’ll happen one day!), one who aspires to join that noble dream, I implore history faculty–and faculty across the humanities–to stop supporting the hiring of adjuncts. Hiring temporary instructors on little pay and less (or non-existent) benefits is not OK. Not saying anything to stop it is the same as supporting it.

The second lesson is for the larger group of general employers: history PhDs (and PhDs from across the humanities should be included in this) are very hireable and useful employees. They’re smart; they’re engaged; they’re hard-workers; and they work well with others (usually). So, for the random employer: hire yourself a person with a post-grad humanities degree. It’ll be worth it.

There’s a lot of confusion about what exactly a PhD student does or did–what a dissertation is, how one completes it, what a GA appointment is. This leads to employers undervaluing the humanities PhD.

So here’s the scoop: essentially, if you hire someone with a post-graduate degree from the humanities, then (it’s more likely than not) you’re getting a person who can research, write, speak, and organize incredibly well. And, they’ll learn new skills like that.

PhDs often pick up a hugely diverse array of skills through their program: they speak often and on-the-spot in public; they have to explain really, really complex stuff to folks who are either only peripherally interested in the subject or barely prepared to grasp the concepts or to others who know just as much about the stuff as they do; they have to write . . . a lot; they have to organize meetings and research projects big and small; they have to navigate confusing bureaucracies whether because of teaching, service, or research. And this only scratches the surface. Many pick up tech skills in all sorts of areas, from analyzing big data to recording and editing podcasts to coding.

The future for the humanities PhD can be bright. But we need to make it that way.


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