Okay, one of the first things worth saying is that anyone entering the history profession can have any type of career they want. If you want to be a devoted teacher, you can do that. If you want to be a serious researcher who becomes a major figure in the field, you can do that as well. It is really a function of what you want to do. In this sense, the historical profession is quite unique. You can make your own opportunities, and those people that are most successful are the ones that generally realize that fact.
With that being said, there is a qualification that I must offer. The history profession is extremely “Republican.” Now, I do not mean to say that history professors are lining up to vote for George W. Bush. Quite the opposite in that regard.
What I mean to say is the rich get richer and the poor don’t get so much. What does that mean, you might be wondering? Well, if you are the bright young grad student at Princeton or Yale or Stanford, you are far more likely to get a competitive grant than someone at say the University of Toledo or the University of Utah. If you got one grant, you are far more likely to a get a second one and a third, even if you do not really need them. Grad students coming from well-established programs like UC, Berkley are far more likely to get the premier jobs than it is for someone at the University of Texas at Arlington. It is also easier for the professor at established schools like the University of Michigan to get their books published by the big publishing houses, be they academic or commercial, with good marketing departments that will get their books reviewed in major journals and have their ideas and findings circulating among their peers. Finally, when it comes time for applying for grants it is usually the guys at the major schools that get them rather than their peers at Indiana State University, which facilitates a second or third book.
Now, while some individuals have an easier career path than others that does not mean a smart person cannot raise from being consigned to a small Podunk school to a major university. I know of a historian with an endowed chair at an Ivy League institution who received his Ph.D. from Southeastern Illinois State University.
What any historian needs to do to move up in the world is to do original research that is meaningful and important. It might take you longer and require more effort to get to that point if you do not have the same resources as others, but if the work is important it will get you noticed. That is how you make your own opportunities in graduate school and after: sustained effort and regular publishing.