If you have yet to read Jim Grossman’s piece for the American Historical Association regarding the preparation of graduate students for non-academic jobs, then you should. For ease and convenience, I’ve linked it here so hop to it. But in the case that you’d rather stick around here first, here’s a quick rundown. Grossman basically says that the outcomes-based approach to designing undergraduate history education has not been adapted to Master’s and PhD curricula. Due to the typical history graduate program’s “definition of success,” which is, according to Grossman, a “tenure-track appointment,” programs have neglected, in most ways, to prepare graduate students for the equally likely outcome of a Master’s and PhD program, which is not a tenure track job. Grossman points out that only half of graduate students go on to hold a professorship, and let’s be honest, this data probably does not take into consideration those of us receiving our degrees from a History of Science or Medicine program or Science and Technology Studies program, or numerous other disciplines within which historians identify.
Despite our being trained to pay attention to historical change, undergraduate education and universities are changing, and our advisers, who lived through a different era of college education and graduate training, may not have the skills and insight required to help us fledgling historians leave the nest, requiring us to be innovative, adaptive, and creative. Grossman offers this insight, and we should be encouraging our advisors and mentors to read between the lines: “Preparing PhD students for careers outside the professoriate does not constitute a distraction from the professorial career path that most students apparently still expect when they enter graduate school.”
In other words, alternative academic jobs are not alternative; in fact, increasingly they may become the norm. The skills that are perhaps less central to the traditional graduate program in history or history of science should not be seen as distractions towards our end-goals. The usefulness of a PhD is no longer just to educate the undergraduate or to engage in a frenzied push to publish to attain tenure; we can and should apply our critical thinking skills, our ability to communicate with ease about complex issues, and our ability to do both quantitative and qualitative research to other realms, including industry, non-profits, “pseudo-academia” (to borrow a term from a friend), start-ups and the like.
It was with this line of thinking that I would like to introduce our summer blog series, “Outside the Academy: Reevaluating Alternatives for the History (of Science) Graduate Student” in which we will be featuring a number of Master’s and PhDs in History and History of Science. Our contributing authors will discuss their careers, the new skills they’ve acquired and the old they’ve adapted, and help us to see ways to push back against the pervasive and debilitating tendency to think of academics outside academy as having “failed.” Check out our first contributor here!