Where Historians Work: Q&A with Emily Swafford of the AHA

Denver_Swafford_square200x200Welcome to the first installment of our “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America” series. Today, The Junto features a Q&A between Katy Lasdow and Dr. Emily Swafford, Manager of Academic Affairs for the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C.[1] Emily shares her experiences seeking out varied career options after graduate school. She also provides AHA resources for readers who wish to become more involved in the conversation about career diversity, whether as part of their own job searches, or within their graduate history departments.

JUNTO: Emily, let’s start with a question that we will pose to all participants in the Career Diversity Series. Tell us about the work that you do. How does it relate—or not relateto the research you undertook in your doctoral studies?

EMILY SWAFFORD: I wear two big hats at the AHA. I direct our Mellon-funded Career Diversity for Historians initiative and I staff our Teaching Division, which largely means that I keep track of trends in K-12, undergraduate, and graduate education in history and funnel news and information to appropriate parties. In addition, I serve on the editorial board of Perspectives on History, our newsmagazine, help to plan sessions and events at our annual meetings, and like staff at many non-profits, pitch in as needed in a variety of tasks and projects.

In graduate school, I studied the origins of U.S. military family policy as a response to an increasingly global, newly-standing military force in the early Cold War. Hardly anything I do at the AHA is directly related topically, but I find myself drawing on my graduate education all the time.

JUNTO: What skills as a historian did you bring to your position with the American Historical Association? What skills did you learn while on the job? How do these skills complement each other in your daily work?

SWAFFORD: As I’ve written about before, the ability to quickly synthesize vast amounts of information and to quickly become fluent in ongoing conversations are both hugely important to my day job. These skills draw directly on the experience of doing research in an archive or familiarizing myself with a new field of historiography. Similarly, when I was presenting my dissertation research I would find myself translating across different fields of history, from military historians to gender historians, from Americanists to Europeanists. I find that ability extremely helpful in navigating the many conversation communities that exist within higher ed. Finally, a facility with written communications—the sheer volume of written information (from emails to articles to reports)—makes me grateful for the many hours I spent honing my ability to “gut” a book and reading draft chapters for workshops.

AHA_CD_clrJUNTO:  For our readers who may not be familiar with the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative, can you explain its origins and tell us a bit more about how it’s developed over the years?

SWAFFORD: Career Diversity for Historians started with a humble article in Perspectives: “No More Plan B,” by James Grossman, AHA executive director, and Anthony Grafton, then-president of the AHA.  Published in October 2011, the article argued that the discipline was doing a disservice to doctoral students by ignoring the possibility of work beyond the professoriate. This sparked a lot of interest and inspired us to explore a more focused, longer term investigation into the issue.

From there, we embarked on an exploratory phase, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, conducting both qualitative and quantitative research. Quantitatively, we produced “The Many Careers of History PhDs,” a study of a statistical sample of career outcomes for a cohort of history PhD graduates. It is still the most accessed resource on the Career Diversity page, and was truly groundbreaking in what it revealed.  Perhaps the most important revelation was that nearly 25% of history PhDs find careers outside the professoriate, in a dizzying array of fields from academic administration to business consulting.  Our qualitative research revealed five skills essential for success beyond the professoriate that were underemphasized in graduate school. We later realized that these same skills are also needed to succeed within the professoriate—and we created a handy guide to them.

Armed with this knowledge, we worked with four partners—Columbia University, University of California-Los Angeles, University of Chicago, and University of New Mexico—to pilot activities and programming, from reaching out to career centers, to developing clinic courses and seminars, to building internship programs. We also gave smaller grants to ten additional departments to engage in more short-term experimentation, developed a suite of online resources aimed at both faculty and graduate students, and developed programming at our annual meeting. Along the way, we chronicled what we were learning in Perspectives and AHA Today.

Our next phase will substantially expand the scope and impact of Career Diversity for Historians by bringing the lessons of the pilot phase to up to twenty PhD-granting departments.  The most significant shift is a greater emphasis on learning to teach as part of doctoral education. Learn more online.

JUNTO: What have you been surprised to learn when exploring the “many careers of the History PhD?” What initiatives are you most proud of? 

SWAFFORD: I think the biggest surprise was how much teaching, specifically how doctoral students learn to teach, emerged as a central issue in our next phase. If it is true that most doctoral programs assume they are preparing students for careers as professors at research institutions, the data from “Many Careers” show that this is true for only 1 in 6 PhD graduates. The data show that fifty percent of history PhDs find careers as tenure track faculty, but two-thirds of those careers are at so-called “teaching institutions.” That’s a huge misalignment, and a worrisome one, given that teaching is often underemphasized in doctoral curriculum. (See this November 2015 column in Perspectives.)

My favorite part of working on the initiative is when I get to speak with fellow historians, from graduate students to faculty to those, like me, who are employed beyond the professoriate. They are the primary sources that most shape this story; they are the touchstone I return to as I think about how this initiative can better serve the future of the discipline.

I’m most proud of the space that seems to be opening up around this issue among both graduate students and faculty—you can see it in the demand for AHA Career Contacts (see below!), at the different regional conference hosted by participating departments, in changing conversations at our annual meeting.

JUNTO: What resources are available to graduate students wishing to explore broader career options, or to get more involved in career diversity initiatives with the AHA?

SWAFFORD: We have a whole page of resources! But here are some more details to help navigate them.

Many graduate students are interested in the personal stories of history PhDs. We collect and publish these in several forms, including an ongoing series on Perspectives, Career Paths; a series of short video interviews, “What I Do”; as well as an occasional series in AHA Today, “Historians in Training,” about the experiences of graduate students with internships. These are all great resources for learning about the wide variety of jobs historians find.

In terms of data, “The Many Careers of History PhDs” is still a widely-used resource.  We have recently introduced a more interactive version of career outcomes data with “Where Historians Work.”

In terms of taking action, we encourage historians to sign up for AHA Career Contacts, a service facilitating informational interviews between graduate students and PhDs in history who work beyond the professoriate. Graduate students can explore the “five skills” resources page to map when and where they might expand their experiences, and faculty can look at our faculty resource page for ideas on how to integrate the five skills into their teaching and advising.

JUNTO: Are there any upcoming career diversity initiatives that you’d like to share with our readers?

SWAFFORD: In December 2016, the AHA received a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to continue our work on Career Diversity. We’ll be reporting on the first stage of this expansion, a series of Faculty Institutes and the eventual selection of departments to host Career Diversity Fellows, over the next year. The first step will be to publish an audio recording of presentations from the first Faculty Institute, sometime this summer.

In addition, we’ll be updating “Where Historians Work” to represent every graduate from all 165 PhD-granting departments in the U.S. between 2004 and 2013. In addition to a more complete data set, we will also add new graphs (including a breakdown of career outcomes for PhDs earned before and after the 2008 market crash) as well as improve the interactive feature of the graphs. We hope to launch it in early 2018, if not sooner.

Finally, we’re hoping to streamline the two resource pages into a “guidebook” or “quick introduction” to Career Diversity for interested history departments.  Stay tuned!

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Emily! Junto readers, check back Thursday, June 1, for the next installment of “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America.”


[1] Though this series is inspired by ongoing efforts at the American Historical Association, it is produced independently by The Junto.

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