Looking for a job in public history: an outsider's perspective
04 July 2013 – Matthew Exline
“‘He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all those close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to. . . . ‘
“‘And then you can ground him?’ Yossarian asked.
“‘No. Then I can’t ground him.’
“‘You mean there’s a catch?’
“‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’”
–Joseph Heller, Catch-22.
The ink was hardly dry on my new history diploma before the awkward conversations began. “Congratulations on graduating! That’s exciting,” co-workers, friends, and family members would say. “So, what are you hoping to do next?” I would launch into my standard speech about hoping for some kind of job in public history. “Maybe a museum, or a historic site, or consulting,” I say optimistically. Nobody likes a complainer, so I usually smile and pretend everything is fine. Now it is time to start telling the truth. After completing three history internships, stacks of term papers, two book-length theses, a feature-length documentary, and everything else that went into getting my two history degrees, I still feel as far away from my dream job than I was when I graduated from high school. I am facing my own personal Catch-22, because the hiring qualifications for many public history jobs seem deliberately calculated to shut out a recent graduate like me.
I first became aware of the problem during the final semester of my Master’s degree. With light finally showing at the end of the tunnel, I decided it was time to start my job search in earnest. Up to this point I hadn’t really known for sure what kind of history I wanted to do. But during graduate school my goals had crystallized. “Public history,” as distressingly broad as that may sound, was now my intended destination.
I spent long hours reading job descriptions, getting a feel for the market. I found no shortage of wonderful-sounding positions for which my hard-earned degree would suffice.
Yet time and again my heart sank as I read about the experience requirements. Some jobs were clearly senior-level positions, designed for professionals who had already made a name for themselves in their field. But even lower-level positions with modest salaries and encouraging titles such as “assistant curator” or “assistant collections manager” or “historic preservation assistant” had heart-breaking requirements about years of prior experience doing whatever the precise job was. After having maxed-out my possible number of internship hours at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I can boast of eight months of part-time experience processing archival collections, and another six months of part-time research and writing, plus a year spent working on a film documentary. I had no experience creating and installing museum exhibits, handling artifacts, or guiding tours, had never heard of a cultural landscape, and didn’t know what Section 106 was or why it had to be complied with.
The root of the problem was clearly evident: organizations, institutions, and companies often rely on prior experience as a predictor of being qualified for a given job. I found this strange. Surely there are other ways to gauge or predict the likelihood of future success in a job. Suppose doctors told expectant couples, “I’m sorry, but you are not qualified to become parents until you’ve had five years of experience raising children,” or the United States military started telling hopeful enlistees, “We now only accept recruits with at least two years of combat experience.” Of course, that’s not how it works at all. Yet it seemed as if the job advertisements were really saying, “You are not qualified to work as a public historian until you have x years of experience working as a public historian.” This mindset turns the profession into a walled fortress that cannot be breached from the outside. I fervently wished I could find an organization willing to train an eager would-be historian, or at least let me learn on the job using transferable skills, instead of expecting me to be an expert already. Surely that would be in everyone’s best interest in the long run, since the organizations would no longer be excluding an entire pool of potentially capable candidates, including me. Unless, I realized, that is exactly what they are deliberately trying to do.
But I knew that wishing for a new hiring paradigm would not get me a job. If the system was my enemy, then I had to find a way to defeat it, either by brute force or else by cunning. I began posing the problem to other professionals, both in and out of public history. How do you get prerequisite experience in your field? How do you beat the Catch-22? “Don’t let an experience qualification barrier stand in your way,” one historian told me. “Don’t tell yourself no, let someone else tell you no.” That advice struck me as bold and empowering. I decided to try whether brute force and sheer dogged persistence would win through. I went on job application binges, sending off applications and résumés for dozens of positions I was not remotely qualified for, ignoring the nagging sense of futility. Occasionally I made it to the interview stage and would try to talk my way into the job, desperately searching for something from my past that would convince the interviewer I was experienced. But it was no use. Interviewers quickly realized I didn’t have whatever number of years of experience they were looking for. They were more than happy to tell me no.
So much for brute force. Meanwhile, I continued to pose my conundrum to anyone I could. “Start volunteering,” I heard from several sources, as a way to outwit the system. This advice, however, brought to light a new version of the Catch-22. If you spend your time volunteering in order to get a job in the future, then how do you live in the present? Working as an unpaid intern was fine while I was a student. But now I have a family to support, bills to pay. How could I make time to put in significant time as a volunteer, and still have enough hours left in the day to make a living working at a low-wage substitute job? Perhaps I would be better off striking out on my own as a freelancer, if only I knew how to find enough paying clients.
Surely, I tell myself, I must be missing something. Maybe it’s all in my imagination, this Catch-22. Perhaps it is my own fault anyway. If I just keep searching, or send more applications, or cold-contact more prospective employers, maybe I will win the lottery. “Or maybe,” says the still small voice inside me, in the small hours of the morning, “nobody will hire you because you aren’t good enough. Maybe the professors who gave you good grades and awards, or the internship supervisors who liked your work, were all lying to shield you from the truth that you are not and never will be a historian.” “Shut up, still small voice,” I say, wearily, and start reading another job description.
~ Matthew Exline recently graduated with his MA in History from Liberty University. He also holds a BA in History from Patrick Henry College, where he received two academic awards. He lives with his wife and daughter near Lynchburg, VA. His current job situation is rather complicated.