“Careers in History in the 21st Century: The Job Market and the State of the Field,” UNL History Department Workshop Notes

Below are my notes from a workshop I attended yesterday afternoon. In addition to gaining some valuable insight into the current job market and the application process, I was very pleased to hear our department express its enthusiastic support for both academic and non-academic career paths for history graduate students. This is something the UNL History Graduate Students’ Association, of which I am currently serving as president, has recently been working to encourage greater faculty discussion of. Our department chair, Professor Will Thomas, offered an overview of recent research into the production and job placement of history PhDs over time and discussed the many ways individual history graduate students can work to maximize their job opportunities. I have included links to some items on the handout Dr. Thomas provided.

Department Workshop, “Careers in History in the 21st Century: The Job Market and the State of the Field”


Upcoming department workshops:

  • January 20th – “Using the New Blackboard to Teach”
  • March 30th – research forum with Dr. Jessica Coope
  • April 27th – “Teaching Online”

Dr. Tom Smith, “Numbers and All That”

  • finished at UNL in 2006, on the job market for 5 years while working in the field in a host of different positions, now has a tenure-track job at Chadron State College
  • 165 and then 80 applicants for a single position at Chadron State College on two occasions
    • need ways to distinguish oneself from other applicants
  • asks what the students think of the UNL HIST 990 course on pedagogy, Special Problems of Teaching History
    • can point to this in applications → say something specific about your pedagogy to show you have studied it, are aware of the literature, and are making use of it in your teaching – useful even when applying for research one universities
  • “Your Field and Change” – stay aware of where your field is and where it’s going
    • keep your eye on job ads and descriptions throughout your academic career (H-NET)
    • so many applicants do not write to the job ad
    • even after your professional training is finished, you will need to keep up on the latest trends and adapt to them (e.g. Atlantic history → transnational history → transnational history with attention to the Pacific in particular)
    • invest yourself in secondary fields → e.g. Digital History, Public History
    • Dr. Smith emphasizes that he believes transnationalism is “here to stay” BUT warns applicants not to appear “too trendy” → be certain to emphasize that you are well-rooted in traditional history training and methodology
  • “Cutting Edge” or “Get ‘Er Done” – get your research done → need to have cutting-edge research to get published but might also have something “more manageable” that you can get into print before finishing your dissertation – 2 or 3 items at a time
    • cutting-edge project to be emphasized in in-depth conversations with interviewers
  • “The Good Fit” – a code phrase for whether or not you are a personality match for the department you are applying to
    • a judgment not just based on research and teaching but how much people believe they can get along with you → so be pleasant and know something about the department you are applying to – try to get a feel for the culture ahead of time
  • Dr. Smith thanks his advisors – Dr. Timothy Mahoney and Dr. James Le Sueur – for supporting him throughout his entire application process – writing many, many letters of support and also states that he is very proud of his graduate education here at UNL

Dr. Will Thomas

  • has handouts for us with articles to read
  • segue to job market “largely construed” – says we need to start talking and thinking about a variety of job options for academics
    • discusses Anthony Grafton’s piece “No More Plan B” – breadth of what graduate training provides and what jobs grad students can get outside the Academy
      • plan = successful careers, not about “plan A” and/or “plan b” → asks how we can get to helping you get a successful career (your advisor central to this)
  • Dr. Thomas states that, when he was in grad school, he did not immediately think he would go into the Academy → had been teaching and planned to go back to teaching
    • in his program, non-academic careers not discussed (thinks this needs to change) BUT he had a very supportive advisor
    • we need to train broadly and be a department that is willing to think about the non-academic (ALT-AC) department more broadly – “hybrid careers”
  • centrality of advising
  • thinks History is well-positioned and perhaps better-positioned in terms of other humanities departments in enabling students to gain skills that can translate into many different areas (AND that this is an extraordinarily positive thing)
  • gives us the handout
  • starts with Robert Townsend’s piece, “NRC Report Provides Data on History Doctoral Programs” and Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History”
    • serious decline in jobs advertised (see figure 1 of Townsend’s piece) – about have as many jobs advertised within the past several years
    • BUT over last 20 years, the number of full-time faculty has risen in the 604 registered academic institutions → Townsend believes this is because “history is popular, history is something that institutions value, across a wide range of institutions”
    • need to pay attention to these trends AND discuss how to distinguish ourselves in the broader job market
  • NRC (National Research Council) reports on PhD production within the U.S.
    • NRC rankings have a lot to do with internal funding arrangements, impact departments
    • in the field of history, about 126 PhD granting institutions → these are ranked by the NRC – most recent report published 6 months ago: UNL “not really that high” but “at the very top of the fourth quartile” which is “not a bad place to be” when looking for jobs → 4th quartile producing best job placement figures for their PhDs
      • UNL wants to move up but our institution in particular works hard at placement of its PhDs – though points out that this NRC report only counts academic jobs
    • started the conversation, especially at the AHA, about what certain institutions are doing for their PhDs
    • (1) prepare for hybrid careers, different career trajectories, (2) advisor-advisee relationship needs to be “intentional” on both sides and long-lasting, (3) internships – need to demonstrate your “self-sufficiency” as an applicant (motivated to work to improve your c.v.), (4) more proactive about researching the current job market
    • anticipates a lot of discussion on this topic at the AHA in Chicago

Q & A session:

  • Robert Jordan asks about criteria in application that helps make one person make it from “one pile [of applications] to another”
    • Dr. Thomas answers that there are different “cut off points” and different stages at which one is eliminated; one of the first stages is whether your letter and c.v. fits with the job ad; second stage has a lot to do with how you express yourself and your research in your writing and how your advisors support you (in their writing and representative of your field)
    • Dr. Tim Mahoney agrees very much with Dr. Thomas on the point of one’s research and ability and method of articulating one’s research that is the focus; states that grades/transcripts are not really the focus at this level AND the teaching statement; if your advisor writes at length about your research – is invested in your research – this is impressive to those evaluating your application (urge your professor to take the time to print out a separate letter to the chair of the evaluating committee)
    • Dr. Jim Le Sueur notes that truly need to pay attention to the job description – crucial to determining which individual will fit the best; also something to be said for investigating the institution one is applying for (be as specific and tailored as possible in your application); states that he worked with Dr. Smith to tailor the discussion of Dr. Smith’s research in the reference letters); MUST have an advisor you trust to do what you need to do – MUST be on the same page (or switch advisors or think about a non-academic job)
    • Dr. Jeannette Jones states that, to her, the cover letter is particularly important in an application – don’t try to make your work fit if it clearly doesn’t → this is pretty obvious; spend time on the ones where you know your work fits
  • Megan Benson asks for a discussion of community college jobs
    • Dr. Thomas cites Dr. Kurt Kinbacher as a great example of a recent grad to obtain a job at a community college → community colleges as “vibrant,” great places; (1) Kinbacher’s dissertation stood out – did not “play it safe” on his dissertation, has one of the single highest downloaded dissertations on Digital Commons → received a lot of attention for this; (2) non-tenure track teaching “less damaging” to one’s application than adjunct teaching, when one is seeking a tenure-track position; Kinbacher was employed on Dr. Thomas’ Railroads and the Making of Modern America digital project and other unique positions that made him stand out
  • Chris Rasmussen asks about the “damage done” by working as an adjunct
    • Dr. Thomas states that he hesitates to use this phrase, though will speak to it since Grafton does in his piece; Mellon Foundation promoting research fellowships – cites this as an example of something that can be useful for your application in the “intersticial period”
      • not advancing a research agenda if teach an adjunct course here and there and your research is central to the strength of your application
    • Dr. Mahoney recalls UNL having three-year adjunct positions and his own experience working while seeking a tenure-track job BUT was also working to establish connections, a network that could generate a group of individuals who could speak on his behalf about his contributions to their institutions; advises people to always attend workshops when one has the opportunity and keep pushing ahead with the research, even if you are only able to do it by burning the midnight oil after a full day of teaching
    • Dr. Le Sueur also emphasizes the importance of continuing to publish
  • Megan Benson asks what to do about having an advisor who supports your research but not necessarily your personal decisions about job applications
    • Dr. Smith defers on the topic, as he states that he has no personal experience with this
    • Dr. Thomas notes the importance of having other advocates on your side; role of advisor absolutely crucial – returns to the point of needing to have that trust in one’s advisor and if the trust is not there, may want to rethink that connection → it’s your career, you are not being “acted upon,” you have choices here
    • Dr. Le Sueur states that when he was job-hunting, one of his advisors did not have the expertise he thought they needed to represent him on the job market so Dr. Le Sueur sent his dissertation out to a leader in the field, making a connection that was very valuable to him in his applications
      • Andrea Nichols asks about how a letter from outside your institution of study would look when your application is being evaluated
        • Dr. Jeannette Jones says it depends on where one is within their career → directly out of school, of course you need to have letters from your institution; different when 2 or more years outside of your program of study – someone you met at a conference and is familiar with your work, sees this as perfectly okay
        • Dr. Thomas concurs with Dr. Jones on this point
  • I ask about various ways to demonstrate one’s “self-sufficiency” as an applicant
    • Dr. Thomas notes that this varies a lot from one institution to another and one field to another; cites example of Digital Humanities – looking for experience and contribution to the field as a graduate student; more and more places engaging with portfolio representation of work – example of demonstrating self-sufficiency with regard to DH: listing one’s technical sufficiency and expertise on one’s c.v. (Jason Heppler’s c.v. As an example); skills acquired over time, where those skills are certified, showing that you are doing some work on your own outside your graduate training
    • Dr. James Garza highlights the importance of networking – need to take your job as a graduate student seriously, be proactiv, look for opportunities your advisor may not know about
    • Dr. Thomas picks up on Dr. Garza’s point about networking – check out and talk with others at archives when you are researching, find out what they are working on
    • Dr. Garza: if going to a conference that your advisor will be at, ask for introductions to people within your field; notes that his advisor and he are very close to this day – continues to work with his advisor on things; also be aware of what other schools you are competing against → What other institutions are producing scholars in your field?
    • Dr. Thomas returns to Grafton’s point about the breadth within the market and ivy league institutions contributing barely 15% of teaching positions (not quite the “stranglehold” that it once was, though ivy league institutions remain quite hierarchical in their hiring – hire mostly other ivy leaguers)
  • Dr. Jones asks about students pursuing pre-doctoral fellowships in terms of applicants
    • Dr. Mahoney states that anyone who shows initiative and interest in being where scholars are is “a plus” – Dr. Thomas agrees (e.g. ACLS fellowships very significant) – think about positioning oneself for things such as this as they are very valuable and distinguish one
    • Dr. Jones says start applying for these when your dissertation proposal has been approved and is underway → helps you hone your work in a way writing alone cannot
    • Dr. Thomas notes that in the search the department is currently conducting, the top 25 applicants all have had at least one full year fellowship → prestigious mark as a scholar
    • Dr. Le Sueur adds that every one of the final candidates for the German position last year was in a fellowship when being interviewed for the position

Links to handout items:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s