Graduate Students

$1.6-Million Grant Will Better Prepare History Ph.D.’s for Range of Careers

March 20, 2014

The American Historical Association and four universities will split a $1.6-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation aimed at broadening the career paths of history Ph.D.’s, officials announced on Thursday.

The grant comes as graduate students in history and across the humanities face a bleak job market and as graduate programs are under pressure to improve their students’ employment prospects. The association wrote in its 2012 jobs report that less than 43 percent of new recipients of history Ph.D.’s in 2011 reported definite employment at the time they graduated, the lowest level in at least four decades. The 2013 report showed a slight increase, to 44 percent, in the proportion of new graduates reporting definite employment.

The long-term goal of the effort, said James R. Grossman, executive director of the history association, is to establish a "new norm" in which doctoral graduates in history know how to pursue career opportunities both inside and outside academe, and are encouraged to do so. Success can no longer be defined only by landing a tenure-track job, he said.

"I don’t think history Ph.D.’s are being overproduced," Mr. Grossman said. "I think they’re being underutilized."

Real-World Skills

The university recipients of the grant—Columbia University and the Universities of California at Los Angeles, of Chicago, and of New Mexico—will each receive about $300,000, Mr. Grossman said. The history association will receive the rest. The institutions will begin different pilot projects, including creating mentor databases, increasing internship opportunities, and crafting curricula designed to give students better real-world skills, such as how nonprofit organizations work.

"I’m a historian, so I know that change takes a long time," Mr. Grossman said. "But the fact that four leading and very different universities are ready to take this on tells us that there is broad and deep support for this."

The University of Chicago plans to provide more internship opportunities at nonprofit groups, ramp up seminars to educate doctoral students about career possibilities, and hire a "career fellow" for three years to kick-start some of the programs from the grant and to help institutionalize them, said Kenneth Pomeranz, a history professor at Chicago.

"We’re going to be figuring out as we go along which programs work best," he said. "Some things will come from it that people will want to duplicate on their campuses."

David K. Rosner, a history professor at Columbia, said his university would use part of the grant to develop courses to enable history Ph.D.’s to connect their training to a wide range of societal problems. He has designed a course, for example, in which students use data-mining tools to take a new look at the history of labor, management, and business.

"Our goal here is not just to provide another set of hoops for people to jump through," Mr. Rosner said. "We’re really trying to integrate history and academics and the rigors of academics with real everyday problems."