Expanding Definitions of Being a Historian: The UC Berkeley Department of History’s Career Diversity Program

Are you considering a non-professorial career, but feel that this would be a failure of your Ph.D., or a loss of your identity as an academic? You’re not alone in that feeling. Read on to see how one department at UC Berkeley is working to redefine success and empower students positively to pursue nonacademic careers.

According to the 2020 American Historical Association Jobs Report, tenure track positions and contingent faculty positions in history continue to decline, a situation familiar to many humanities departments across the country.

It’s clear that the traditional job market for historians has changed. What’s also clear is that the tenure track is only one realm among many where historians can find fulfilling careers. “The practice of history is as important as ever,” says Professor Caitlin Rosenthal, Assistant Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of History and Faculty Career Development and Diversity Officer for 2019 – 2020. But most professors have little firsthand experience with nonacademic careers, and often departments aren’t structured to offer support to students looking beyond the tenure track.

In order to better prepare history Ph.D.s for a variety of careers, in 2018, the UC Berkeley Department of History applied for and received a Career Diversity Implementation Grant from the American Historical Association (AHA), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The goals of the resulting Career Development & Diversity program are broad, but the department has found success in efforts focused on alumni outreach, professionalization workshops, and department culture.

The program has created an Alumni Advisory Board and a series of interviews with alumni published on the Career Development Blog. By hearing stories from graduates, and having alumni they can reach out to, students build their networks and become empowered to explore the many ways of being a historian.

The Career Development team uses the idea of becoming a historian to frame all their professionalization workshops. Events focus on small, actionable goals like workshopping a cover letter, creating an effective online profile, or discussing how to put together a web of mentors.

In the course of the first year of the Career Diversity initiative, the team also found that it is impossible to address career diversity and preparation without acknowledging the major effects of depression and anxiety.

Derek Kane O’Leary, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Career Diversity Fellow for 2019-2020, confirms that their ongoing efforts are aimed at a broad mission that includes mental health: “We call it career development, but in reality it intersects with so many things, like departmental culture and wellness.”

Changing and broadening ideas of what counts as a success is vital. As Rosenthal says, “The goal is to have faculty want students to get a job that they’re excited about, rather than just an academic job. The key is to help students find new places where they can pursue their professional goals while also embracing the values that brought them to the PhD.”

The Department of History as a whole is expressing broad enthusiasm about career development work, showing the benefit of the last two years of work by the Career Development & Diversity team. The new masters/Ph.D. alumni happy hour at the yearly department event for Homecoming was also a success, and they plan to make this a recurring event.

So, what does the future look like, especially with the original grant funding running out this year?

“We are planning on taking the baton from the AHA grant and continuing responsive and forward-looking career development programming,” O’Leary says. Rosenthal will be teaching a graduate professional development course this fall, embedding this work firmly in the departmental curriculum.

(Make sure to check out the excellent article from the 2018-2019 Career Development & Diversity team, Sarah Stoller, James Vernon, and Erin Leigh Inama: “The Elephant in the Room: Career Diversity and the Crisis of Grad Student Mental Health.”)

Alicia Roy is a Ph.D. candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of German, and a Professional Development Liaison with the Graduate Division.