Practical Advice on Getting a Public History Job
Debbie Ann Doyle, April 2006
Editor's Note: The following is part of a series of articles being commissioned by the Professional Division of the AHA to provide practical and helpful information on various aspects of the profession.
The first question that well-meaning friends and family members ask a history student is often "What are you going to do for a living?" Answering that always difficult question is easier when graduate students consider seriously the variety of careers open to history PhDs, but too many graduate students are trained only to become college professors. As the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education reported, too few PhD programs prepare students for careers outside academe, or even inform them of the variety of career options available. This article is intended to offer practical advice to students interested in acquiring the skills to find employment in museums, archives, historical societies, and the federal government—the wide range of professions known as public history.
The most important advice? Public history is not a backup career. The earlier a historian begins acquiring the skills that public history employers value, the better.
Undergraduate students interested in the field should consider applying to graduate programs in public history, which offer career-oriented training and opportunities for gaining practical experience in historic preservation, legal research, and other public history work. The National Council on Public History maintains a list of public history degree programs that is available online at www.ncph.org/degree.html.
Beginning graduate students should consider focusing on the research fields most attractive to public history employers, such as military and diplomatic history, local history, architectural history, business history, and legal history. Methodologies such as oral history and skills such as working with electronic media are also highly valued in the public history job market. Those aspiring to a museum career should be able to demonstrate the ability to use objects and visual evidence effectively in addition to conducting archival research, and become familiar with the literature and methodology of scholars in museum studies and visual studies. Ideally, an aspiring museum professional should be prepared to demonstrate experience working with objects and images, whether through developing a web site, working on a museum exhibit, or conducting dissertation research. Finally, graduate students should be aware that a two-year professional degree is now often required to obtain a position as an archivist or librarian.
Of course, historians trained in a traditional PhD program can also find work in public history. However, graduate students interested in this career path should take steps to acquire skills that employers will be looking for and be aware of stereotypes that may confront them on the job market.
Many public history employers are wary of hiring traditional PhDs. A survey of public history employers found that many assume PhDs are overly specialized, can't write clearly, can't communicate with a wide audience, and can't cooperate on group projects.1 In addition, employers suspect that PhDs are really looking for a teaching job and will quit at first sign of a better offer. PhDs seeking a public history job should be prepared to demonstrate that these stereotypes do not apply to them.
Experience in presenting research to a general audience, developing a web site, or working on a group project can reassure a potential employer that a candidate can communicate to nonspecialists. Practical workplace experience in public history will demonstrate that a historian can work well in an office setting and perform as part of a team. Some graduate departments offer internship opportunities at local historic societies, museums, or consulting firms, enabling their students to obtain work experience while pursuing their degrees. Students whose programs do not offer internships might consider seeking a part-time or summer job or volunteering at a local public history institution. Many smaller history organizations are chronically understaffed and welcome volunteers; others frequently hire temporary and part-time staff for short-term projects. In some cases, these opportunities can lead to a job offer. However, putting in the time to acquire public history skills may well increase the time needed to complete the dissertation, which can make a PhD less attractive to nonpublic history employers. Clearly, graduate students would benefit from settling on a career path early in their education.
Those already on the job market should stress the transferable skills gained while pursuing the PhD. At the very least, a PhD has completed a major research project with little supervision. Many have written successful grant proposals, an important asset in the nonprofit world. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation has identified the following skills that make a humanities PhD a valuable employee: 2
- They are strong communicators who share and use information effectively.
- They are mature critical thinkers able to frame and solve complex problems.
- They are skilled project managers who have brought major projects to term.
- They are fluent in a variety of languages and comfortable in cross-cultural settings.
- They are experienced teachers and public speakers.
- They are high achievers with broad life experiences.
Any graduate student interested in a public history career should be able to state, clearly and concisely, the skills acquired during their education and how they can put them to practical use.
The public history job market is less centralized than the academic job market, and the field of potential employers more variable. Many employers depend on state and local government for funding or rely on grants and donations, and jobs may dry up when funding becomes scarce. Museums sometimes open and close in the space of a few years. Practicing public historians are the best source of information about where the jobs are, where they might be in the future, and which organizations are threatened by budget cuts and other problems. The conferences and publications of groups like the American Association for State and Local History and the National Council on Public History are an invaluable resource for information about the state of the field and the job market. Though it may sound like a career-office cliché, networking and informational interviews are a great way to build the connections that can lead to a job offer.
Advertisements for public history positions are posted in a variety of places, including the web sites of the major public history organizations, state and local government web sites, local newspapers, and regional listservs. To help job candidates locate positions, the AHA has developed a web site on "Finding a Public History Job." The site includes links to sites offering advice on transforming a curriculum vita into a resume, hints on networking and interviewing, links to several major job listing sites, and additional guidance on obtaining a public history position.
—Debbie Ann Doyle, the AHA's public history coordinator, started working at the AHA part time while completing her dissertation on American cultural history and has been employed full time since 2000. She received her PhD in American history from American University in 2003.
1. Philip M. Katz, "Public History Employers: What Do They Want? A Report on the Survey," Perspectives (September 2003), .