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What Is the Purpose of Studying History?

In thinking about my own work as an historian, I cannot help but think of the profession as a whole. Traditionally, a “successful” practitioner of history with a Ph.D. was supposed to find a tenure-track job at a university, where he or she would teach undergraduate students and complete research. While this myth of “success” was never the case for every Ph.D., only in the past few years have professional historians really thought about the state of the profession and what it means to be an historian.

This past October, the then-President and the Executive Editor of the American Historical Association, Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman, wrote an article called “No More Plan B.” This article caused a bit of a stir in the historical profession, as it suggested that Ph.D. programs in history can and should prepare students for jobs outside of academia. Much of what the article detailed was not new to most graduate students, and other historians had been saying similar things for years. But the article struck a chord with many, and it has made me think about how I define success in the historical profession.

Why study history in graduate school? This question has many answers, and I do not think that one reason is more valid than any other. Some people go to graduate school because they want a tenure-track job; others dream of working for a museum or in the non-profit sector. There are as many reasons for attending graduate school programs in history as there are graduate students. I do not think there is a “one size fits all” definition of success for historians.

I can only think of what I would like to accomplish by the time I get my Ph.D. I came to graduate school because I had questions I wanted to investigate. I wondered about nineteenth century American antislavery movements, and I thought about the tensions within these movements. I hoped that grad school would help me refine and rethink my questions, which absolutely has been the case. Success, for me, is the ability to develop my research project and produce a body of work that explores my questions.

One of the other reasons I wanted to go to graduate school was to hone the craft of storytelling. Of course, for historians, the sources are the guides to our “stories.” My success will come when I am able to tell the story that I have found in my sources on nineteenth century antislavery colonies in Sierra Leone and Liberia. I want to be able to tell a compelling story that has not been told before. Ultimately, that will be the test of my success.