Career Paths

Prioritizing Happiness: From Teaching History to Grantmaking

Julia Nguyen, January 2017

Julia Nguyen transitioned from teaching history to working as a program officer for the National Endowment for the Humanities.Confession: I was an unhappy history professor.

Coming to terms with this reality was not easy. I’d known since high school that I wanted to be a history professor. I’d inherited my love for history from my parents, who still have passionate arguments about the Protestant Reformation (true story). With this goal in mind, I focused my undergraduate work in US history and went straight to graduate school. I loved reading history, being in the archives, and writing. Graduate school was a happy time.

Like most of my cohort, I aimed for a tenure-track job while in graduate school. I knew, however, that the academic job market wasn’t good and, thanks to my department’s efforts, had realistic expectations. When I finished my PhD in 2001, I applied for academic jobs, but also kept a list of plan B possibilities in the back of my head (museums, historical societies, government) in case academic options fell through.

In my first foray into the academic job market, I was one of the fortunate ones. I secured a tenure-track job teaching history at a rapidly growing university in the Southeast. My colleagues were welcoming and supportive, the workload was reasonably realistic, and the salary was decent, given the area’s cost of living. For the right person, this would have been a great job.

I should have been happy, but barely into my teaching career, I realized that it was not my calling. Before arriving at my new job, I’d taught only a handful of classes at my graduate institution and a nearby college and had found it stressful. Ever the optimist, I thought that with more experience and confidence, I would come to enjoy teaching. By the middle of my second year on the tenure track, I knew that would not happen. The thought of tenure made me feel trapped, and teaching gave me anxiety attacks. For the sake of my own mental health, I knew that I needed to do something else. Just as importantly, I realized that my students deserved a professor who was fully engaged and who did not dread every class as she counted down to the end of the semester.

What next? When I get to this point in the career day presentation at my children’s school, there’s a photo of a barista. It gets laughs, but it also encapsulates my state of mind at the time. I had a PhD in history, I thought. What was I qualified to do? What would anyone hire me to do?

Once my initial panic subsided, I did what all good historians do: research. I started by reading everything I could find on nonacademic careers for humanities PhDs, which helped me recognize the transferrable skills that graduate work in a humanities field confers. This was useful reframing, but I still felt lost. I knew what my skills were, but how would I find someone to pay me for those skills?

I started with that list of plan B possibilities from graduate school and added others, ranging from nonprofits and university administration to the private sector. In many cases, there were roadblocks. I had some experience as a docent in a historic house museum, but no training in public history. My statistical skills were decent but not stellar. And considering my experiences on the tenure track, I also wanted to make sure that I was better suited for my second career.

Grantmaking emerged as an interesting possibility. This was not a sector to which I had given any thought before embarking on my adventures in nonacademic job hunting in the early 2000s. I knew that some agencies and foundations gave grants to humanities scholars, but I had no idea how that process worked or who did that work. I began to look for answers to my questions: What does grantmaking entail? What types of jobs are available? How does one break into the field?

For the second time, I got lucky. As I was doing background research, I came across a job posting for a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency and one of the nation’s largest funders of the humanities. I was certain that I would not get the job, but I knew it would be foolish not to try. After consulting many books and articles on how to prepare a federal job application, I carefully reshaped my CV and cover letter, highlighting analytical and communication skills, the ways I had engaged with others both inside and outside academia, and my ability to think broadly. In the meantime, I looked for other opportunities.

The federal hiring process can be extremely slow. Just as I thought that the position had gone to someone else, I got a call for a phone interview. Things immediately switched into high gear. I had the phone interview, flew to Washington, DC, for an in-person interview a week later, and soon had a job offer in hand. My family and I moved to the DC area, and I started work about six months after submitting the initial application.

What does a program officer do? My work follows the grant cycle. I work on a regular basis with potential applicants, talking through their ideas, reading and providing feedback on draft proposals, and helping them make stronger arguments for their projects. Program officers don’t review applications. Instead, we bring in peer reviewers to evaluate proposals at meetings chaired by program staff. I then work with my colleagues to come up with funding recommendations that we present to the agency’s senior staff and to the National Council on the Humanities, the agency’s advisory body. After the chair has made funding decisions, I oversee grantees. This is also the point at which we evaluate the grant program and revise its guidelines as the next cycle begins.

Program deadlines are staggered, so I may be working with applicants to one program while chairing a review panel for another and revising a third. Interwoven with this regular activity are special projects, travel to conferences, outreach, long-term planning, and keeping up with the field.

There are a few skills that are crucial in order to be a good program officer. One is the ability to work as a generalist. My expertise in US history is certainly valued, but I work with applicants and grantees in all disciplines of the humanities, and I need to be able to read and analyze their applications intelligently. Another is curiosity. I read and consult broadly to keep abreast of new trends and issues in the various humanities disciplines, as well as the state of the humanities in both K–12 and postsecondary education. An agency that is still funding the academia of 50 years ago does no one any good. Finally, analytical and communication skills are a must. I draw on these every day as I advise applicants, review and develop programs, and communicate the work of the division and the agency to stakeholders in a variety of settings.

Once my initial panic subsided, I did what all good historians do: research.

No job is perfect. Dealing with federal red tape can be frustrating. I’ve weathered a morale-sapping and disruptive government shutdown, multiple presidential administrations, and the reality of trying to do good work with tight budgets. But I truly believe in the agency’s mission and in my role as a public servant. More than a decade after arriving at NEH, I can say that it has been a good fit. I get to engage with the academic world and with the ideas that excite researchers and educators. I’ve worked with some of the smartest and most dedicated humanities scholars and educators in the country. As a graduate student, I never anticipated the turn my career would take, but I am glad it did.

Julia Nguyen is a senior program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, DC. She lives in Maryland.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this essay do not represent those of the National Endowment for the ­Humanities or the federal government.


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