Mad Skills: How Historians Are Like Swiss Army Knives
I was getting yelled at—and it was my job to sit there and take it with a smile. Working as a legislative affairs specialist for the US Forest Service, I sat in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, across from legislative directors for a state’s two senators and at-large congressional representative, who were vigorously pressing one of their constituents’ concerns. That constituent happened to be a mining company, which anxiously wanted to begin operations in a national forest in its state. The elected officials wanted to know why the permitting process, filled with National Environmental Policy Act statutory public planning and environmental analysis requirements, was taking so long. I had to mediate between the congressional staffers and the mining experts from my agency, which meant translating the technical mining permit process on national forests into a language that the congressional staff could understand and that would satisfy their constituents. Additionally, I had to be attuned to the participants’ preconceptions of public land management driving the strident “discussion” and manage that discussion within the context of everyone’s perspectives on the role of government. For a second, my mind wandered, and I wondered to myself, “How did I get here?”
My road to wearing a suit in a Capitol Hill office was not one I intended to follow when I entered a traditional history PhD program with the plan to land an academic job. For the last seven years, I have served as the Forest Service’s chief historian, based in the agency’s headquarters in Washington. The Forest Service often selects employees to serve in leadership positions temporarily, to promote their learning and growth. I seized the chance to join the legislative affairs staff in 2015 as the culmination of a campaign to change the way the Forest Service views its historian position. For years, I had advocated that the agency should think of me as a Swiss Army knife, a multi-tool that could serve a number of purposes to help the agency achieve its mission goals, rather than as simply a repository of facts. Articulated another way, I wanted to be less a historian of the agency and more a historian for the agency. The invitation to join the legislative affairs staff represented a litmus test as to whether my experiment would work.
Conceptualizing the historian position this way and marketing the skill set I brought to it coincided with the launch of Career Diversity for Historians, an AHA initiative to encourage history PhDs to broaden their career horizons. Two aspects of Career Diversity were identifying the skills historians should possess upon entering the job market and emphasizing the importance of marketing these skills to employers. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative highlights five skills that history graduates should acquire to broaden their career options—and that would make them more effective faculty members as well: (1) communication to a variety of audiences; (2) collaboration, particularly with nonhistorians; (3) quantitative literacy; (4) intellectual self-confidence, and the flexibility to use skills beyond their comfort zone; and (5) digital literacy, which complements all the other skills. In my own professional experience, I’ve come to rely on all these skills on a daily basis. Yet I did not consciously pursue them in graduate school. Had I actively sought different competencies to improve my marketability beyond academia, the transition to government work might have been smoother. So how should graduate students prepare for a more diverse set of career options?<
It’s a truism that you can’t control when opportunities will arise, but you can control how you prepare for them. As a graduate student, I didn’t prepare for a career beyond the professoriate—the opportunity found me. I attended the University of New Mexico, which has a great graduate program in western and environmental history whose graduates had a solid track record in finding academic jobs. As graduate students, my cohort knew that to compete on the job market with Ivy League graduates we needed to bring more to the table and offer potential employers more fields, more publications, and more teaching experience. At UNM I took advantage of every opportunity for work that came my way—as a staffer at the Western History Association, an assistant editor at the University of New Mexico Press, as a researcher on contract histories for the National Park Service, and as a wildland firefighter and Wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in the summers. I didn’t care if the jobs were considered “nontraditional”; they helped me pay the bills and build my CV’s publication record. Only later, when I entered the job market, did I understand that the work taught me valuable skills that allowed me to cast a much wider net in an employment search.
When I rejoined the Forest Service in 2009, I found its leadership receptive to new ideas about history. The Forest Service enjoys a century-plus history and an employee culture that is very proud of its past. Prior to hiring me, the agency had employed a chief historian for nearly 40 years, but the position was normally filled internally and not by trained historians. When I arrived with a history PhD and expertise in communicating with the public about history, I was in the unique position to present the agency with a much broader range of activities than one typically associates with a federal history program—publishing articles and books on administrative history, participating in public talks, conducting oral history projects, improving a web presence, and so on. After finding success with these types of projects, I began trying to persuade agency leaders to make more direct use of history and the historian position in their mission. Building on a foundation of solid performance and networking, I began contributing to speechwriting, policy analysis studies, and scientific general technical reports, along with newspaper, film, and radio interviews. In 2013, the Department of Justice solicited my help as an expert witness in a case it was handling for the Forest Service—an assignment that required defending my research report in a deposition and in federal court against opposing counsel (which made my dissertation defense feel like a birthday party in comparison).
Making Forest Service history more accessible to the public and more meaningful for the agency were the end goals of this effort and culminated with my invitation to join the legislative affairs staff. The staff works directly for the Chief of the Forest Service and is the direct link between the agency and Congress. Now I was called on to write congressional testimony for Forest Service leaders, evaluate proposed legislation, and serve as a liaison with House and Senate offices over a broad range of topical issues and geographic areas. When I later asked my new boss why he selected a historian for the position, he said he felt comfortable sending me up to Capitol Hill because I had the ability to communicate and collaborate with diverse groups, the intellectual flexibility (and self-confidence) to learn a wide variety of topics autodidactically in a short period of time, and a historian’s ability to place today’s issues within a larger context. It was as if he were rattling off the skills the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative wants to impart to students. I interpreted my appointment in legislative affairs as representative of how historians can apply their skills in meaningful ways that can impact the world around them.
I’ve returned to my historian position now that my assignment has concluded. Looking back on my education, I’m grateful for the lessons in intellectual flexibility and curiosity, and in how to communicate and collaborate with different groups through diverse mediums that my various jobs taught me in grad school. The work gave me valuable experience I use every day and has propelled my career forward. Not every graduate school has a public history program (mine didn’t) or is located in a major metropolitan area, but every program can provide students opportunities to work outside the classroom and connect with the surrounding community. History departments need to create these opportunities and focus on building skills beyond those necessary to traditional academic scholarship. There is virtually no downside to this shift in training—on the contrary, the possible rewards are limitless. You never know: your skills might open a path to Capitol Hill, where you too can get yelled at about something you care deeply about.
Lincoln Bramwell is chief historian of the USDA Forest Service in Washington, DC. He is the author and editor of several books, most recently Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge, Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (Univ. of Washington, 2014). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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