Getting off the tenure track: lessons from history

 March 21, 2014

The plans

The Chronicle of Higher Education shared some encouraging news yesterday in what has lately been a contentious national dialogue about the futures of graduate education in the humanities, announcing a new Mellon Foundation grant to support non-academic career & professional development for Ph.D. students in history.

From William Pannapacker’s ubiquitous advice (“Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”) to Rebecca Schuman’s searing grad school retrospective (“Thesis Hatement”), there are a plethora of good-intentioned colleagues warning humanities Ph.D. students that nothing but a steep professional cliff awaits us at the top of the arduous graduate school climb.

So it’s no surprise that when the Council of Graduate Schools reported last year that enrollment in humanities Ph.D. programs grew by almost 8% from 2011 to 2012, it left a lot of heads shaking in confusion. Jordan Weissmann asked in The Atlantic, “Why Haven’t Humanities Ph.D. Programs Collapsed?” But should we really be ready to concede that graduate study in literature, art, philosophy, history – fields once synonymous with the very idea of education – is no longer relevant, useful, or desirable?

Not so fast. Maybe the problem isn’t that students still want to enroll in humanities Ph.D. programs. Maybe, like James R. Grossman of the American Historical Association (AHA) has suggested about Ph.D.s in history, they aren’t “being overproduced… they’re being underutilized.”  This was the impetus for the AHA’s “Career Diversity and the History PhD” initiative, and the association recently received a $1.6-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand this initiative in pilot programs at four universities: Columbia, UCLA, the University of Chicago, and the University of New Mexico.

According to coverage in The Chronicle, the university recipients of the grant

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.”

Here at Duke, the History Graduate Student Association’s Professional Development Committee has organized a panel discussion next month on “Humanities Careers Beyond the Tenure Track,” with support from the Graduate School. Dr. L. Maren Wood, founder of the Lilli Research Group, will serve as the chair. Other panelists will include Lisa Hazirjian, Executive Director of North Carolina AIDS Action Network; Rachel Seidman, the Associate Director of the Southern Oral History Program at UNC; Courtney Berger, Acquisitions Editor for Duke University Press; and Charlotte Cahill, Senior Project Manager for Jobs for the Future. The event is scheduled for Tuesday, April 8th, from 4-6pm in room 115 of the Friedl Building, with a reception to follow.

It can do nothing but good for graduate students across the humanities for non-academic career plans to be brought into the light and acknowledged as serious, viable, meaningful options. And as for your “secret” plans, well, they’re safe with me, too.


Abbie Langston is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Program in Literature and an intern in the Office of Graduate Student Affairs.