The Lone Historian and the 3.2%: Career Diversity and the Society for History in the Federal Government

Emily Swafford | Apr 29, 2015

As readers of this blog series are probably aware, in 2013 the AHA published “The Many Careers of History PhDs,” which quantified and explored the various career outcomes enjoyed by history PhDs. Within the 25% who found employment beyond the professoriate, 3.2% reported working for the federal government. Within a survey sample of 2,500, that means a full 80 historians worked for the federal government (let’s say the equivalent of four rather large academic departments). Within an estimated total of 27,500 history PhDs in the workforce, it may suffice to say that there are a fair number of history PhDs (say 10 times more) employed as federal historians.[1] While societies for various kinds of history proliferate, the Society for History in the Federal Government (SHFG) might be the only one that also garnered its own category within “The Many Careers of History PhDs.”

Recently, SHFG held its annual meeting in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. On the program were panels presenting original research, as well as professional issues of particular interest to federal historians: the life cycle of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) within the State Department, barriers to declassification of records, etc. But as being a federal historian is one of the many ways of being a public historian, of presenting history and historical thinking to the public, I took the opportunity to have a public discussion about a key question of the influence historians have on society. I chaired a panel of mixed voices—two federal historians, one institutional historian, and one historian of institutions—and asked them to consider a fundamental question: What does it mean to be a historian of an agency and what does it mean to be a historian for an agency?

Some context may be needed here. While the federal government employs many historians (as shown by the results above!), many of them are concentrated within two departments: the Department of State and the Department of Defense. These two large departments have their own internal needs to track their history, and both have dedicated publishing initiatives, FRUS for the Department of State and a series of official histories for the Department of Defense. But the two agency historians on the panel I chaired, Jessie Kratz (National Archives) and Thomas Wellock (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), were departments of one: each a lone historian who fields requests for historical information from others in the agency and the general public, puts together exhibits, and manages the agency’s records, all while learning and writing that agency’s history. The consensus reached by the panelists, perhaps predictably, was that it was imperative to be both a historian of and a historian for, to both chart the agency’s history and present that history as vital for evaluating future internal and external policy decisions.

During the question and answer period, panelists and audience members constantly examined the work of federal historians within the larger issue of historians’ influence on society. Though federal historians may not always have a seat at the policy table (though some do), the panelists seemed to agree that by providing context for current discussions, they were having a positive impact on their agencies’ work. Indeed, Karen Kruse Thomas, development writer and school historian for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, summed up the role of institutional historian as “to inform and to educate.” Many in attendance, however, recognized the need for increased participation of trained historians in the federal government.

For those with academic positions who would like to try their hand in the federal government, you may want to look into the underutilized Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which allows the federal government to temporarily assign personnel from institutions of higher education. For those interested in starting a career as a federal historian, applying to the Presidential Management Fellows Program (a yearly hiring cycle that will begin again next fall) or to positions advertised under the federal government’s Pathways program can be a way to cut through onerous federal hiring requirements and processes. Speaking to your university’s career services center about how to submit applications through USAJobs.gov would also be a good place to start. But the most important starting point is open to graduate students of all levels. As panelist and Duke University professor Edward Balleisen pointed out, internships either within the government or within organizations that expose the intern to institutional practices and processes can provide the experience needed to succeed in a federal career.

If you’re not yet ready to apply for specific positions but are interested in learning more about work in the federal government, you have a couple of options. SHFG holds regular happy hours in Washington, DC, where you can talk to a variety of federal historians in person. Several will likely be in attendance at the Career Fair at AHA’s 2016 annual meeting in Atlanta. And of course, you can always record a preference for a federal historian when you sign up for AHA Career Contacts.

[1] Many thanks to Rob Townsend for estimated numbers of current history PhDs. Please note these numbers are very rough estimates, as the number of PhDs in total and the percentage working in the federal government may fluctuate quite a bit annually and over time, depending on a wide variety of outside factors.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.


Tags: AHA Today Career Diversity for Historians Resources for Early Career Resources for Graduate Students Public History


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