In September 2020, the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) released the third edition of its guide for graduate students and early career historians: Employing History (EH). Formerly known as Becoming a Historian, the guide was first published in 1999. Adapted in 2007, it is a sort of “how-to” guide about graduate school and the ensuing job search, written by historians for their emerging counterparts.
Much like earlier iterations, EH is a product of its time. While the market may have changed, the guide has always sought to provide insight into graduate school and the post-graduate job search with a single question at its heart: What are the things that emerging scholars might be afraid to ask – or not know to ask?
Our approach to writing the EH guide was less of a “how-to” manual and more like experiential sharing. As an editorial team, the three of us – at different stages and with distinct career trajectories – share various pathways of being a historian. By amplifying our personal experiences and those of colleagues, the guide brings together the best advice available in a single tome. Our experiences haven’t been ideal, smooth or perfect. We’ve had some wins and some setbacks; we’ve learned and continue to learn lessons. As editors, we are good examples that being a historian isn’t just one thing.
We were not alone in this project. EH is the culmination of three years of consultation with CHA membership. Responses to online calls for feedback and in-person panels held at the 2018 and 2019 annual meetings of the CHA were also folded into the guide.
These conversations confirmed our starting point in updating EH: career outcomes of academically trained historians aren’t what they once were. Earlier versions of this guide assumed that historians would continue to work permanent, secure, tenure-stream jobs at universities and colleges.
But universities have fundamentally changed. More and more, historians are working outside of the academy. They are applying skills that they sharpened in graduate school in new and unexpected fields. And they are learning the limits of their PhDs, seeking out supplemental expertise in other ways.
The new version of EH revises and updates earlier editions of Becoming a Historian accordingly. Although sections on applying for graduate school, collegiality, grants, the conference circuit and publishing have been retained, we’ve updated and added content about accessibility, social media, public-facing publishing and navigating the rising cost of education and the low wages of precarious work. Other sections reflect a relatively new and expanded understanding of what historians can be and where they can work. We have thus added an extensive section on career outcomes, including vital advice from working historians in a variety of fields alongside professional profiles and sample CVs. In doing this, we hope to capture a wider diversity of experience in the field both during and beyond graduate work in history.
As we finalized the manual in 2020, we knew that history was at the forefront of public debate on several intersecting issues. Edits to the guide were driven by the belief that history degrees have value and that historians have indispensable contributions to make to conversations on anti-racism, a global pandemic, police brutality, climate change and settler colonialism. The public sphere is filled with calls for more historical understanding. History books often top non-fiction sales, even while universities, governments and students prioritize other fields of study. We can’t solve that dilemma through our career guide, but we did try to move past a hierarchical understanding of what being a historian means to navigate the training process in ways that maximize career flexibility.
EH is also one example of the role that associations like the CHA can have when it comes to working with graduate students on career development. It is part of a suite of career initiatives undertaken by the CHA, like the Career Contacts Program that matches students with working graduates or regular conferences and special events focused on the evolving nature and outcomes of graduate work in history, like a webinar series on precarity. Such work is part of the CHA’s dedication to its members. As member needs change over time, the CHA’s commitments must continually be updated to best assist them.
By provided funding for this iteration of EH, the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences helped us cover labour, translation and publication costs. Perhaps Employing History may serve as a model for other associations and disciplines facing similar questions.
Jenny Ellison is a curator of sports and leisure at the Canadian Museum of History. Andrew M. Johnston is an associate professor in the department of history at Carleton University. Carly Ciufo is a PhD candidate in the department of history at McMaster University.