Nationwide, nearly a quarter of history PhD recipients don’t become professors, choosing instead to build their long-term careers outside of academia. For some, this is the broader goal as they move through graduate school. For others seeking tenure-track careers in academia, the possibility of jobs in museums, media companies, policy centers, and so forth has been imagined as a plan B. 

“But what if the seeming distinctions between these so-called plans A and B no longer made much sense at all?” asked Jay Cook in his opening remarks for “U-M History in the Public Service: A Vision for the Humanities PhD in the 21st Century,” a November conference hosted by the U-M Department of History. Cook, History Department chair, called the event an opportunity “to reconsider who we are, what we do, and how we do it as a collective enterprise.”

Increasingly, he noted, we have come to realize that the very same skills—collaboration, digital literacy, the ability to communicate effectively with broader publics—that make one especially successful in non-academic settings also add tremendous value to an academic career in the humanities.

The conference is the latest step in the department’s multi-year effort to reimagine graduate training and better equip students with skills that will help them succeed in public-facing roles. It featured fourteen returning U-M History PhD alumni with experience in a variety of both academic and non-academic positions. An evening of keynote talks from Professors Earl Lewis and Jacqueline Antonovich was followed by a full day of panels designed to address public engagement, career diversity, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Guest speakers stressed the importance of project-based collaboration throughout the conference, discussing ways in which teamwork was vital to their work, and how graduate programs might change and open more pathways for students to work together on projects. 

“I walked into my office on the first day and saw a table and chairs in addition to a desk,” said PhD alum Amanda B. Moniz, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, during her presentation. “That material culture told me that this was a place where I’d be meeting with a lot of people and I would need to collaborate.”

Amanda B. Moniz presents on Panel 2: Building Transferable Skills. (photo credit: Sean Carter)

The sessions offered graduate students opportunities to hear valuable advice and develop networks, as well as reflect on their own experiences and develop their career goals. 

During the Friday lunch, students sat with panelists and chatted more informally. “The presenters were all engaged and insightful, they made me laugh (one made me cry) and more importantly, they made me feel seen,” said graduate student and conference organizer Michelle Mann. 

Some students felt reassured that, despite a continual need for systematic introspection and change, U-M History is dedicated to fostering student growth. 

“I have been encouraged to seize on opportunities within the department, such as the HistoryLab program, Michigan in the World, and the Reverb Effect podcast. The power of these public humanities projects was reflected in the concerns and placements of the recent graduates we met,” said graduate student Alexander Clayton. 

The conference agenda did not shy away from the challenges related to a reimagination of graduate education: the purpose and sustainability of the history PhD, the racial and gender inequities in both academic and non-academic fields, and the challenges of public engagement. Graduate student Amelia Burke was glad for the complex conversations. “I was grateful to hear perspectives that tied not only into individual skill-building, but also to structural analysis and critique, connecting particular training and trajectories into broader social dynamics,” she said. 

The practical takeaways from the conference were clear: collaboration, networking, and public engagement are all valuable components of a successful future as a history PhD. But the work of the conference is not done. 

“It’s much easier to name five or six core skills that strike us as potentially valuable and fungible across multiple career tracks, than it is to actually embed those skills, to bake them in to a cutting-edge PhD program like our own,” said Cook.

The department will continue its public engagement efforts, address systemic changes in the field, and fight persistent social inequities.

Graduate student Taylor Sims wondered, “If we’re invited back to the department in ten, twenty, thirty years from now, what stories will we tell?”


Browse our photo gallery below and watch conference presentations on the U-M Department of History YouTube channel.