Help wanted: Thoughts on the recent boom in academic public history jobs

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people looking aheadIn recent years, the number of tenure track academic jobs in history has dropped to some of the lowest levels in 25 years. In response, Anthony Grafton, James Grossman and Jesse Lemisch have suggested that historians shift their attentions outside of the ivory tower, with Grafton and Grossman encouraging PhDs to get jobs in public history and Lemisch calling for historians to create new public history opportunities. Meanwhile, as they debated these issues, public history became a hot commodity in the academic job market. In 2008, the number of job announcements rose 27.9 percent and last year the number of postings rose significantly again.

Many public historians have talked about this sudden spurt of academic jobs in public history over coffee at conferences or excited tweets throughout the job season. In this post we wanted to bring this sudden job surge more publicly into discussions about the future of public history. What follows is by no means a scholarly survey of public academic history jobs. Rather, we write from the vantage point of advanced PhD candidates who closely watch every public history job posting that comes along the airwaves. Our observations about shifts in the field arise from that experience.

In 2011-2012, over twenty colleges and universities posted advertisements for tenure track jobs that required a background in public history or digital history. A number of others posted jobs for fellowships and visiting assistant professor positions with specializations in these fields. Posted at liberal arts, research and regional public schools, the announcements called for applicants who could teach public history, museum studies, and historic preservation, lead public history programs and/or direct community history projects. Digital history stood out as particularly popular, with postings calling for people with experience in website creation, online teaching and digital preservation. The jobs primarily came from colleges and universities in the South, Midwest and West, with far fewer appearing in the Northeast or Mid Atlantic. By hiring new faculty, many of these institutions sought to create new public history tracks and programs, while others sought to expand already existing programs. History departments across the country turned to public history education to weather the storm in higher education, reminiscent of the profession’s crisis a few decades earlier.

In the 1970s, a glut of history PhDs and scarcity of jobs prompted historians to search for non-academic careers. This search for jobs greatly built and strengthened the field of public history, particularly in academia with the creation of dozens of public history programs through the 1990s. Today, at another moment of major change in the profession, last year’s surge in academic public history jobs reflects a renewed interest at the college and university level. As history departments seek to make their programs more economically viable, they are again emphasizing usable skills, this time focusing on historic preservation, community building, non-profit development, and digital work.

The job markets in 2008 and last year point to challenges and opportunities for the public history profession. Public history programs face a shrinking job market for their undergraduate and graduate public history students. The creation of new jobs in public history makes this question of employing our public history students even more pressing. Given the rapid growth of these programs, we are concerned that we might struggle to place all of the new BA and MA graduates in public history jobs.

In addition, even though college and university departments are posting public history jobs, it is still unclear what the history profession’s commitment to public history is. We are enthusiastic about the possibility of teaching public history to future students, but we know that the success of these programs lies in part with administrators’ commitment to supporting these programs and fostering genuine spaces for civic dialogue in the communities in which these programs reside. We are imagining our work not only as training narrowly skilled preservationists and museum staff, but as an opportunity to reimagine academic public history training to more broadly prepare cultural and digital workers. We strongly believe that public history’s commitment to civic engagement helps make the humanities more relevant in an increasingly corporatized educational environment. Training history undergraduate and graduate students in community-building, shared authority, and multimedia communications enriches and ethically frames the field, particularly in the digital humanities.

~ Lara Kelland and Anne Parsons

Lara is a PhD Candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where she is working on a dissertation entitled “Clio’s Foot Soldiers: Twentieth-Century U.S. Social Movements and the Uses of Collective Memory.” Anne also studies at UIC, where she studies the history of confinement in America, public history and gender & women’s studies.  She has researched LGBT history in Chicago for the exhibition “Out in Chicago.”


  1. It is great that so many departments are beginning to take public history. I do have a couple of caveats however:

    1. Actual public history jobs, outside of the academy, are not particularly abundant. This is even more the case with the collapse in government employment after 2008. Add to that the impossibility of young historians getting a job in the National Park Service, and the perilous state of American museums, and you have to wonder if we are about to flood a shallow job market with too many graduates.

    2. I am afraid that many of these new public history professors are being set up for failure. Departments are sometimes more willing to hire a public historian than they are to support a public history program. The added demands of running a public history program–the hands-on courses; establishing and maintaining community connections; establishing, supervising, and evaluating internships; fundraising and grant-writing–are far beyond the normal measures of academic service.

    Some new public history professors are being told: “Welcome aboard! You will teach a 4/4 load including a bunch of surveys, create and run our public history program, and of course will still need to meet the scholarship and service requirements for tenure. Please don’t bother the secretary, who is very busy. Will your public history work count as scholarship? Ha ha that is a good one–you need to write a book of course, just like anyone else. Oh and service means university committee service–not serving on the board of the local museum. Now go and write some grants and bring is some resources–we don’t have any for you. Tenure review is in three years, so get busy.”

    What we need is a best practices guide to creating a public history program. The first item is that your public historian should be hired as a program director, with no more than a half-time teaching load, administrative support, and a budget.

    1. Denise Meringolo says:

      I think a “Best Practices” guide for creating a public history program is a FANTASTIC idea.

      In fact, I think this is a task that would be best served by a joint committee of the OAH/NCPH/AHA –similar to the creation of the Engaged Historian report that addressed issues of tenure and promotion.

      1. Michelle A Hamilton says:

        I totally agree with the need for a new best practices document. Departments with existing public history programs often greatly underestimate the amount of money, time and dedication needed, and I fear those without one will be even more unrealistic.

      2. John Dichtl says:

        NCPH’s Curriculum & Training Committee, in 2008-2010, published four “best practices” guides. (The M.A. Program in Public History; Public History for Undergraduate Students; Public History Internships; and, Certificate Programs in Public History) Elements of a guide for creating a program are probably in each of these, but a stand alone document for starting a program from scratch is a terrific idea. A joint publication of NCPH, AHA, and OAH certainly makes sense. A good way to proceed would be for members to approach the Curriculum & Training Committee, see if the idea flies there, and then with committee backing, outline what such a guide would include. With that, one could approach the NCPH Board and then the AHA Council and OAH Board.

  2. Anne Parsons says:

    Thanks so much for your responses. I heartily agree with Larry, Denise and Michelle that the creation of best practices for creating a public history program would be an important effort, particularly at this time. It would be an excellent roadmap not only for academic public historians who are creating/expanding such programs, but also for departments looking to embark on these projects.

    I also agree with Larry that the question of how to employ undergraduate and graduate students in a shrinking job market is central to the question of expanding academic public history training. This issue could also be addressed by a task force, or as part of other discussions already happening within the profession.


  3. Zach Wnek says:

    As a public history grad student, I believe the student must always have an eye on the job board. At times willing to take on projects which they have little to no training in from the public history program (by no fault of the program) such as Digital History projects. I am currently working on developing an onlnie exhibit and franticially trying to find ways to boost my website technical skills to at least be competent in my website creation. The ability, and willingness, to take on these different types of projects, I believe, will make the job market more favorable to new graduates wihout a PhD. Here’s hoping! – Zach

  4. Anne Parsons says:

    John –

    Thanks for the suggestion for moving forward on this issue. I would definitely be interested in seeing something come from these discussions.


  5. Lara Kelland says:

    I would like to second Anne’s gratitude for the thoughtful comments posted here. I too think it’s critical for us to think systematically, not only about how we train future public historians, but also how we engage concerns about overproduction and the working conditions for new academic public historians. Having faced situations similar to those described by Larry, I am couldn’t agree more about the need for more discussion.

    I appreciate John’s suggestion for engaging this issue with existing committees that serve the AHA, OAH, and NCPH, but I also wonder if the issue might not merit a space for young academic public historians to come together. As those of us taking positions in the next few years will certainly be facing a changing professional field and job marketplace for our students, perhaps some conversations between recently hired academic public historians and those soon to be hired could also engage these questions from that particular angle. Given the difficulty of getting to NCPH annual meetings during the job hunting years, I might also suggest a virtual conference include those who run public history programs and those who will be likely taking such positions in the next few years. I would love to hear if anyone has experience with staging a digital conference such as this. Then, perhaps the outcomes from this gathering could be forwarded to the pertinent committees in the large professional organizations.

  6. Anne Parsons says:

    Zach –

    Great to hear about your willingness to take on new projects and build up new skills, even when you might not have formal training in them. That’s definitely key in this job market. Good luck with the website!


  7. Looks like a bubble to me!

    1. cathy says:

      I tend to agree – what do you think about what will/may happen if and when it pops?

      I like Lara and Anne’s suggestion that we might use this expansive moment to broaden the definition of what we’re actually training people to do, and why. Brown’s focus on “public humanities” rather than “public history” points in this direction, and it would be great to see some of these new and expanding programs joining in a collective discussion about other ways that we could re-frame and re-articulate the value of what we do.

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