There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the number of academic public history programs, the saturation of the job market, and concern about the training students are receiving (see Robert Weyeneth’s article “A Perfect Storm”). Curtailing the number of public history programs, growing the public history market, and accrediting programs are all big challenges. I’d like to propose a small change: that potential students gain work experience BEFORE they enter an academic program.
What would happen if public history programs demanded that applicants worked in the public history field before they could apply to an academic program? Culinary schools have long used this model and have required that applicants have kitchen experience before they apply to a program. In fact, there are lots of similarities between culinary arts degree programs and public history programs. Both require expensive training for highly competitive positions for low wages. The number of academic culinary schools has also exploded in recent years, and fierce debates rage in the culinary world about the value of academic degrees vs. apprenticeships, the cost and type of internships, and the value of specialization in a field requiring a broad range of skills. (For a good article laying out the different approaches, see “Culinary School: The Pros and Cons of Culinary Education.”) Many culinary schools require that potential applicants must work at least six months in a kitchen before they can apply for academic training. Typically these requirements do not distinguish from work in a Michelin-starred restaurant or a local diner. The schools value work experience because they believe working in a kitchen provides potential students with at least a basic understanding of the long hours, high stress, and low pay common in the restaurant world. By working before studying, potential students can also learn their strengths and weaknesses and begin to focus on a field of expertise that will help guide their academic culinary career. (For a good example of requirements see the Culinary Institute of America, although they now only require that the student has the experience before they attend, not before applying.)
Could public history adopt a similar model? I see some distinct advantages:
- Required work experience would help focus students on what aspect of public history they are most interested in BEFORE they begin coursework or apply for internships. Once students are enrolled in an academic program, their work experience would help them more effectively pick their classes and electives. Interested in museum education? — take education electives! Administration? — take some business classes! In addition, if the student already knows they have no passion for collections work or fundraising, they won’t use a valuable internship simply to narrow down their career options.
- Work experience would raise students’ awareness of the variety of skills a public history career requires. Most entry-level jobs require not only historical skills but also customer service, management skills, janitorial abilities, among others. Although you can tell students what it’s like, only work experience can make it real. Public history faculty claim they try to give potential applicants a realistic picture of what it’s like to work in the field. However, wouldn’t some real experience have more of an impact? Ideally, knowing what the job is like might dissuade some marginal students from pursuing a career in a very competitive marketplace.
- Employers want students to have real job experience. At an American Association for State and Local History Association (AASLH) conference session in Birmingham in September 2013, Kristen Gwinn-Becker, Chief Executive Officer of HistoryIT, argued that proof that a potential employee can show up on time to work every day is more important than historical subject knowledge. She stated that job hunters must have at least some previous work experience and that paid work is almost always better than internships. (The session was “Forging Business and Academic Alliances in Training Historians for the 21st-Century Marketplace” — Patrick Moore, Chair).
Requiring students to have some real-world experience under their belt isn’t a panacea for what ails the public history field, but such a requirement could bring incremental improvement. It seems to me that the larger discussions often get bogged down, and nothing gets done. Perhaps by changing one small aspect, we can begin to address the larger issues.
Certainly this idea needs more work, and the details need to be hammered out. If, as Weyeneth assumes, the “Master of Arts degree has replaced the Bachelor’s degree as the minimal ticket of admission or union card into white collar employment,” what would need to change in the public history employment culture so that those with a Bachelor of Arts degree would be serious contenders for entry-level jobs, so they could gain the kind of work experience I’m suggesting? Should internships (paid or unpaid) count as work experience? (Some culinary schools allow this, others do not.) What are the other barriers to implementing this model? Where are the holes? Comment and continue the discussion!
~ Trevor Jones, Director of Museum Collections and Exhibitions, Kentucky Historical Society