History Department PhD candidates possess an extensive range of transferable skills – trained and developed through a comprehensive program of studies in historical pasts and presents. These skillsets can be broken down into three skills areas: analytical, communication, and organizational.
Analytical skills – The historical method involves posing questions about people, events, and institutions which form our present world and using sophisticated analytical and research techniques to give historical answers. Historians develop their research questions by becoming deeply familiar with the historical context of a particular time, place, or issue, as well as how earlier historians have written about similar topics – for example, current department research focuses on migration, domestic or foreign policy, capital and industries, gender and human rights, empires and nation-states. The methodology for this skill involves extensive research using a wide variety of textual and visual sources, often in multiple languages: archival collections in libraries, museums, historical societies, digital repositories, and in personal collections; newspapers and periodicals in print, digital form, and microfilm; digital and print databases of tax records and census and other demographic data; oral histories; and others. In mobilizing their research skills, history PhD students also demonstrate creativity in determining the range of material they will need and how to piece it together in an argumentative analysis, resourcefulness in locating and retrieving archives, and perseverance in accessing the material and processing what they have read. Research involves not only gathering data, but also using problem solving skills to synthesize large amounts of information and to make a complex, multicausal and nuanced argument.
Communication skills – History PhD students communicate historical knowledge by telling convincing narratives through writing article-length research papers and a book-length dissertation, teaching undergraduates, and presenting their research in varied professional and non-academic fora. Early in their training, history graduate students are trained to write clear, logical, and persuasive prose. Many students write editorial or opinion pieces for historically themed blogs, or newspapers. Most Columbia history PhD students teach undergraduates for multiple semesters as Teaching Assistants, where they spend 15-20 hours per week leading two sections of 15-20 students each that meet weekly alongside faculty lectures. Through teaching, graduate students break down complex concepts for a non-specialist audience, use innovative teaching methods to engage undergraduates, and gain valuable leadership and classroom management experience. They develop teamwork skills by collaborating on organizing workshops, conferences, and envisioning the life of the department and the community.
Organizational skills – Completing article-length research projects, undertaking the dissertation itself, and balancing research, writing, and teaching all require superb organizational skills. During the first three years of the doctoral program, history PhD students at Columbia balance completing their coursework, learning foreign languages, researching, writing, and teaching. As such, they become skilled at multi-tasking and balancing short- and long-term deadlines, which are skills they continue to use as they research and write their dissertations. Planning and completing a dissertation, which typically takes history students three to four years, provides students with project management experience and requires a great deal of independent motivation to meet objectives and stay on track to complete such a large-scale project. In addition, because students must manage vast amounts of information for their dissertation research, many use database software and other digital tools to keep track of their sources and research findings.