Published Date

January 1, 2004

AHA Topics

Career Paths, Professional Life

From Public History, Public Historians, and the American Historical Association (2004)


Whether degree offerings in higher education institutions—including undergraduate as well as graduate programs—adequately take into account the role public history can and does play in the nation’s cultural life and within the profession

Since this charge was closely related to the work of the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE), the task force worked with that committee, and more recently with the Committee on the Master’s Degree (CMD), particularly with Research Director Philip M. Katz, to focus attention on the role of public history in graduate education and placement. Within the context of its definition of public history as both public engagement and career choice, the task force also considered internship programs, the placement of history majors and PhDs in public history positions, and the adequacy of information students receive about opportunities in public history. It also discussed issues of concern to faculty, including the place of public history in the tenure and reward structure of traditional academic departments and the role of public historians as adjunct and part-time faculty. These topics reflect concerns expressed repeatedly in the surveys conducted by the task force and in the survey of public history employers jointly sponsored by the CGE and TFPH.1 Rethinking the outcomes of degree programs and the work of faculty is high on the agenda of other professional associations, including NCPH and AASLH.

As the CGE report stressed, the vast majority of history graduate students fail to learn about public history in any systematic, structured way. Overall, academic training programs give little legitimacy to public history. By advocating for greater inclusion of public history in graduate education, The Education of Historians in the 21st Century suggests an important reorientation of graduate education. It advocates a broader preparation of historians through incorporating public history into the doctoral curriculum, developing internship programs, and including discussions about the public roles and responsibilities of the historian in the doctoral curriculum. It also calls for building collegial relationships between graduate departments and public history institutions. The CMD is explicitly including public history in its assessment of the purpose and desired outcomes of the MA degree, in ways that will better position degree holders for public history careers.2 Beyond the AHA, NCPH has a long-standing interest in curriculum development and issues related to certification (of individuals and programs), degree standards, and the articulation of competencies for degree holders. Currently, its Curriculum and Training Committee is surveying existing MA programs with the goal of developing broad curriculum guidelines for public history programs. This September, the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate announced that history is one of six fields in which it will work with ten core and a number of collateral departments to re-think and re-structure doctoral programs.3 It is hoped that these initiatives will encourage additional graduate programs to review their curricula, including the degree to which they prepare students to take a role in public life and to pursue careers in public history. With its solid academic base and historic commitment to graduate education, the Association is exceptionally well poised to exercise leadership in addressing these issues.

We know much less about the undergraduate history major. Anecdotal information suggests that at best service learning projects and internships introduce undergraduates to the venues where public historians work. In fact, most students probably leave their undergraduate major without a clear idea of the diverse career opportunities available to people with preparation in the discipline.

As the survey of public history employers revealed, employers complain that graduate students in history lack the competencies required to for professional positions within their institutions. Employers cited poor writing skills (a complaint hardly exclusive to public history employers), a lack of understanding of local history, and the inability to communicate with different audiences and to work collaboratively as common failings of PhD holders. Respondents’ comments also signaled the deeper split between academic and public history—most do not look to history graduates to fill professional positions. This suggests a need to delineate the specific competencies a person with a public history degree (or public history concentration) should have; to consider carefully the role of public history practitioners in degree programs; and to develop ways of encouraging potential employers to hire graduates of public history programs. (Employment issues are discussed in greater detail under Charge 3).

Finally, many academically affiliated historians have indicated—in the task force’s broad survey, and in numerous forums and conversations—a deep, abiding interest in public history. They would welcome opportunities to extend their educational role to beyond the academy, yet are inhibited from doing so by the academy’s general disregard for such work. Newer faculty especially are constrained by promotion and tenure criteria that privilege traditional forms of research and publication. It is perhaps time to reconsider issues raised by the 1993 report of the AHA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Redefining Scholarly Work, Rethinking Historical Scholarship, and for the Association to exercise leadership in advocating the value of public history scholarship.

Related issues have been raised by public historians hired to teach special or occasional courses within history departments. Because they often hold full time professional positions outside of teaching, their concerns may differ from other part-time faculty, though fair pay is of universal importance. Part-time public history faculty need to be fully included in the academic structure of the department. The relationship of their courses to the degree program and the overall curriculum needs to be clearly articulated. More generally, departments need to develop structured ways for students, faculty, and practitioners to interact professionally in ways integral to the curriculum. A final set of issues have been raised within the task force itself about faculty hired to teach in public history programs: What is an appropriate level of public history experience for such appointments? What kinds of public history involvements are congruent with a faculty appointment? What are appropriate criteria for their promotion and tenure? These and other questions need vetting within the profession.



  1. In order to sustain and expand the discussion of how graduate degree programs can acquaint students with public history work, suggest avenues for productive advocacy on behalf of the discipline, and bring public practice to the attention of existing faculty, follow up the CGE’s Education of Historians in the 21st Century and the forthcoming report of the CMD with good practice articles in Perspectives , with efforts by the Professional Division to encourage and monitor their acceptance within the profession, and with sponsored sessions or discussions at the annual meeting of both the AHA and other historical organizations. (staff, Professional Division)
  2. Within the CMD, continue attention to curriculum standards and the articulation of competencies for holders of the MA degree. Remain in contact with curricular and related discussions among public historians, particularly within the National Council on Public History. (Committee on Master’s Degree, Professional Division, staff)
  3. Reopen the discussion about what “counts” in the work of history faculty begun in Rethinking Historical Scholarship , with the goal of encouraging history departments to recognize a wide range of scholarly activities in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. Consider developing documents for department chairs and others on civic engagement and public history as legitimate scholarly activities; encouraging discussion of the issues in Perspectives and the annual meeting; and identifying departments that do have broad criteria for tenure and promotion. Include community college faculty in this discussion, as their scholarship frequently includes a direct relationship with the “community” they serve. (Professional Division)
  4. Develop best practices documents on issues related to full time faculty teaching public history and on the relationship of part-time and adjunct public history faculty to history departments. Such documents might appropriately be developed in cooperation with NCPH. (Professional Division, Joint AHA-OAH Committee on Part-time and Adjunct Employment)
  5. Develop strategies for better informing students about the variety of careers open to history degree holders. Possibilities include recommending that undergraduate programs use the Association’s Careers for Students of History booklet as required reading in major seminars or as the basis for a discussion in departmental history clubs (here a companion “tip sheet” on how to use the pamphlet with undergraduates might prove helpful); and working with Phi Alpha Theta to distribute the pamphlet for discussion in local chapter forums at regional conferences, ideally including both faculty and public historian. Consider making the Careers booklet available electronically or at a greater discount than currently offered to departments that participate in the Institutional Services Program.4 (staff)
  6. Support the argument made in The Education of Historians in the 21 st Century that the profession pay greater attention to employment opportunities for graduate students in both traditional public history careers and other nonacademic settings, including state and federal government, media, information technology, research, community service, and the private sector. Possible ways of doing so include reprinting the box, Jobs Outside Academia, published in the May and September 2003 Perspectives, in future issues; expanding efforts to solicit job ads from a variety of public history employers for Perspectives and the AHA Web site; linking to open job listings on other organizations’ Web sites (e.g. NCPH, AASLH); and developing “tip sheets” on how to find employment in non-academic positions. (staff, Professional Division)
  7. To date, the TFPH has not engaged in discussion with the Teaching Division about teaching public history. It thus commends to itself the task of initiating such a conversation during its terminal year. Potentially fruitful areas of discussion include methods for incorporating public history methods into existing courses, ways of introducing students to the work of public historians, and promoting excellence in service learning projects and internship. (Task Force on Public History, Teaching Division)

Next section: Charge 3


  1. Philip M. Katz, “Public History Employers—What Do They Want? A Report on the Survey,” Perspectives 41 (September 2003), 35-8. []
  2. Philip M. Katz, “Where is the Mastery in the History Master’s Degree?” Perspectives 41 (November 2003), 24-27. []
  3. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate,” The other fields in the project are education, English, chemistry, math, and neuroscience. []
  4. The booklet costs $7 for members, $9 for non-members. An abridged version of the earlier edition of the booklet, “Careers for Students of History: A Mini-guide from the American Historical Association,” is online. []