When opportunity knocks

Categories: In the Academy, NCPH
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doorsTurn to the sixth page of the 2013 Program of the American Historical Association and you will spot a genial turn of phrase: “the malleable PhD.” It refers to the idea—already engrained in the practice of public history—that graduate training need not limit one to a tenure-track teaching career. A history degree, as NCPH members have shown for decades, readies one for a broad variety of jobs, from investment banker to foundation officer, from marketing consultant to park ranger. Eight sessions were listed for this thread within the 2013 AHA conference. At nearly the same time, the AHA and the Organization of American Historians have begun promoting their involvement in the “Versatile PhD” program. It’s a service to which associations and more than forty universities subscribe so that their student members have access to online “high quality non-academic career materials” and advice about turning their skills and interests to a wide range of jobs.

These are welcome developments. Taking a holistic view, as historians fill a spectrum of jobs and the historical discipline expands its influence, all historians will benefit. Seeing the OAH and AHA underscore the applicability of historical training hints that the historical profession is becoming serious about seizing opportunity or even creating it rather than waiting for it—i.e., waiting for “the job market” in academia to shift against trends of the past forty years and suddenly improve.

Recent history PhD L. Maren Wood, laid bare the truth this fall that a lot of history PhDs find work outside of academia—again, something about which public historians already are aware. In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “What Doors Does a Ph.D. in History Open?” (October 30, 2012), Wood presented the facts: tracking 487 graduates of four major history PhD programs, from 1990 to 2010, she found that 27% of them “are working in a range of industries other than academic research and teaching.” She urges history departments to learn where their alumni have headed and to share these stories with students. I would also note that Dr. Wood, with entrepreneurial gusto, has started her own educational consulting firm to help departments “track long term career outcomes for PhD recipients.”

Celebrating the versatility of historical training also runs parallel to continuing conversations in public history circles. Employers who hire public historians and faculty who train them are talking about the skills graduates need. At our upcoming spring meeting in Ottawa, NCPH will host an American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) sponsored session, “What Employers Seek in Public History Graduates.” It will build on a similar session from 2012 and be one of several such exchanges between NCPH and AASLH at each other’s conferences over the next few years. In addition, the NCPH board, at the instigation of Vice President Patrick Moore, has begun talking about ways to foster conversations between employers and public history faculty. These discussions also build on the NCPH Curriculum and Training Committee’s multi-year survey of public history training in the early- to mid-2000s, and the AHA’s major study of the Master’s degree in history during that same period (Retrieving the Master’s Degree from the Dustbin of History, 2005).

Aligning public history education more closely with the needs and expectations of potential employers to make public history graduates even more marketable than they are now is crucial when public history graduates face competition from three directions. First, traditional history PhDs and MAs, testing their malleability, are venturing forth from the academic realm to look for jobs across the employment spectrum. Second, other disciplines and professionals, such as archaeologists, whose work often engages public history issues, are beginning to seek some of the same jobs as public historians in historic preservation, for example. And third, fellow public history graduate students are increasing in number and increasingly competing with each other. With 150 graduate programs in the U.S. and other countries and counting, the cohorts of new degree recipients may be outpacing new job openings. In his first presidential column in the NCPH newsletter [PDF], Bob Weyeneth called for NCPH “to survey the terrain. Let’s look at how public history is being taught and where graduates are really getting jobs. Let’s learn who is teaching public history and whether they are practitioners with knowledge of the skills their students will need in public history employment.”

I think one of the things that make the practice of public history such a fascinating enterprise is its porous borders, the way it mixes so readily with other disciplines, professions, and interests. On the one hand this might mean more competition for jobs. On the other, it indicates there is very wide terrain across which public historians can keep producing their own possibilities.

Founding editor G. Wesley Johnson launched the first issue of The Public Historian, after all, naming eight broad sectors “of the new Public History,” ranging from government to business, historic preservation to media. Certainly public historians have turned up more in the 34 years since. Across 20,000 pages of The Public Historian and the hundreds of sessions and workshops of 35 annual conferences is a vastly variegated practice of public history. We find new roles for ourselves. Last December in the NCPH newsletter [PDF], consultant Darlene Roth revealed an array of opportunities for public historians who learn to market their “skills of doing history [, which] are more frequently used, needed, and recompensed than the expertise of knowing history.” NCPH Digital Media Editor Cathy Stanton happens to run another blog (in addition to NCPH’s History@Work), called History at the Table. It’s dedicated to “emerging collaborations among working farms, local and regional food networks, and historic sites and organizations,” a burgeoning field. Meanwhile, a recent article on the Museum of Vancouver’s blog, “The City as Museum and the Museum as City,” offers a bold blueprint for making the city museum and its staff central players in the creation of their city, alongside, even leading, the designers, politicians, bureaucrats, and private sector.

These malleable, versatile, inventive, entrepreneurial, venturesome approaches make me highly optimistic that public historians will continue to create opportunity.

~ John Dichtl is Executive Director of the National Council on Public History.  This article is also published in the December 2012 NCPH newsletter.

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