The American Historian

Graduate Students and the OAH

George J. Sánchez

On April 16, 2021, as President of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), I sponsored a graduate student caucus meeting as part of the 2021 Virtual OAH Conference. About forty graduate students in American history attended this planning and brainstorming session to discuss various needs of graduate students in the organization. As far as I am aware, this was the first formal meeting of graduate students at an OAH conference.

Many previous OAH presidents have sought to increase the attendance and participation of graduate students in the OAH. Several years ago, the OAH obtained outside funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to reduce the attendance fees for many graduate students at the conference, and other monies were raised that made it possible for the OAH to sponsor travel grants for a small number of graduate students (and others) to attend the annual meeting. Many OAH program committees have put together panels specifically for graduate student attendees and have worked hard to include panels involving one or more graduate student presenters.

But this meeting served as a first step in creating a formal graduate student committee within the organization that will represent the wider graduate student caucus of the membership. After the conference meeting, eight graduate students volunteered to form the first graduate student committee that will be incorporated into the OAH committee structure to represent graduate student members of the OAH. While this new structure needs to be approved by the OAH Executive Committee at its next meeting, we anticipate that the structure will be in place by the time of the 2022 Annual Meeting in Boston.

One reason this new structure is vital is to have active involvement and programming for students year-round and not just at the annual meeting. One thing that the COVID pandemic revealed is the importance of an active online presence, including regular programming and engagement with the various constituencies that make up the OAH membership. Critical to this online presence will be the renovation of the OAH website, and input from the graduate student community will be vital to this process. Although more focused activity will continue to be included at the annual meeting, the new graduate committee will also focus on how to sustain activity throughout the academic year that serves the OAH graduate student constituency.

Another important insight from this graduate student caucus meeting was to create a broad definition of who constitutes an “American history graduate student,” thereby making the organization open to a wide variety of students. Besides making the graduate student caucus open to all Ph.D. and master’s students in history departments that study U.S. history, all participants agreed that the category “American historians” should include students in other departments whose principal work falls in U.S. history. This would certainly include students in interdisciplinary programs in American Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women’s Studies, but also other disciplinary departments that focused primarily on U.S. history or related fields.

There were three areas of program development that were clearly defined by the participants in the 2021 graduate caucus meeting. The first was the desire for continued programming on the job market and related issues for graduate students in American history. Ideas included a one-day comprehensive workshop on “getting ready for the job market” for graduate students preparing to enter the quest for employment after the Ph.D. But it also included specific professional development topics such as negotiating salaries in academia, putting together an academic application, and issues of confronting gender and racial disparity in hiring.

Students were also clear that information beyond the tenure-track academic job market was necessary. Several students had questions about staying in academia through lecturer positions, contingent faculty positions, and other non-tenure-track positions, including postdoctoral fellowships. And there was great interest in exploring public history positions in museums and government jobs. Several cited that these sorts of workshops were available to those in graduate programs in the Washington, D.C., area, but are harder to come by for a more national audience of graduate students. Others wanted information about jobs at university presses and other alternative pathways for students with Ph.Ds. in American history.

The second area of desired programming was for multiple forums for mentorship in various forms. Students were appreciative of the efforts the OAH has already made in this area, particularly at the annual meeting. The program “Hey, I Know Your Work!” was praised for connecting graduate students, recent graduates, and early-career historians with more established scholars to discuss research, professional aspirations, or just get acquainted. Moreover, the specific efforts of OAH Committees (such as the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, Native American Historians and Histories, otherwise known as ALANA) and linked organizations (such as the Society for the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era) to partner with the OAH to provide mentors was seen as particularly fruitful.

Efforts to expand mentorship to more research areas, as well as beyond research areas, was desired. Mentorship possibilities with OAH members in government positions or with museum curators was raised as a possible way to develop training in these areas. In addition, faculty members at colleges that do not have Ph.D. programs may serve as important mentors for graduate students at other universities. Also, panels and webinars on other areas of mentorship were encouraged, such as combining scholarship and activism in a single career. Some students felt that they needed mentorship help in identifying funding possibilities beyond their own institutions, such as travel awards to visit archives or attend conferences, as well as for publishing research in journals and with presses.

Many individuals mentioned the need for the OAH to sponsor additional skill-building workshops that could provide training for younger scholars and graduate students. Frequently mentioned possibilities include workshops in oral history technique or in digital history methodology, as well as other new areas of emerging research methods in the future. Another exciting possibility was the creation of peer-to-peer mentorship program among graduate students, partnering more advanced students with beginning graduate students across institutions and throughout the nation.

The third area of program development specifically involves how to make the annual meeting more productive for a greater range of graduate students in American history. Everyone thought that maintaining a hybrid model for conferences in the future was important, as this would maximize the number of graduate students who could be in attendance, both in person and in online versions. Many new graduate students at the sessions suggested having an “OAH 101” workshop at the start of the conference to help new attendees navigate the conference to full advantage, sharing strategies to broaden their networks and learning.

Many students commented on the importance of “state of the field” sessions at the annual conference to help graduate students quickly understand the central issues emerging in specific areas of scholarship in American history. They also commented on the usefulness of “lightning round” panels that allow more presenters to quickly present their original scholarship with a larger than normal set of presenters. This format seemed to allow more graduate students to imagine presenting at the OAH some of their preliminary research findings, often from graduate seminar papers. Others suggested various methods to increase networking across the organization so that graduate students might be more able to put together full panels of scholars from multiple institutions working on similar subjects. This was especially important because of the need to put together panel proposals so far in advance of the annual meeting, with deadlines for submission of prospective panels due usually over one year before the conference.

Overall, this first graduate caucus meeting was a success in generating ideas for an agenda for a new OAH graduate student committee, including programming that can help to serve a diverse and ambitious graduate community. This committee will work with existing committees of the Organization of American Historians to serve the graduate student community and co-sponsor relevant panels and workshops at the annual conference and year-round in virtual sessions. An important role of the graduate committee will be to regularly survey graduate student membership as well as sponsor additional graduate student caucus meetings to continue to listen for new ideas for programming and new ways to facilitate active membership in the OAH by the wide array of graduate students studying American history.

Since current graduate students are the future of our profession, their active participation in the OAH serves to both introduce the organization to new ideas and scholarship, while also serving as an entryway to membership. It will be up to the leadership of the Organization of American Historians to keep these members active and committed to the organization so that those that enter as graduate students renew membership as they graduate and becoming professionals in the historical field.


George J. Sánchez is Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, and History at the University of Southern California, and Director of the USC Center for Diversity and Democracy. He is the author of Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945, and editor of Beyond Alliances: The Jewish Role in Reshaping the Racial Landscape of Southern California, Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina, and Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Cultures. His current book project is titled Laboratory of Democracy: Race, Immigration and Community in Boyle Heights, California.