Perspectives on a Changing Field: Part I

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Editors’ Note: This is the third of five posts summarizing the findings of the Joint Task Force on Public History Education and Employment, an initiative launched in 2014 to study trends in public history education and employment.

As the Joint Task Force on Public History Education and Employment brings its work to a close, it is only natural to ask how effectively it has addressed the questions that inspired its creation. Although the data from the surveys of public history employers and alumni of graduate programs in public history offer a great deal of information about trends in employment and public history careers, they are not the final word on either subject. The task force derived important insights from its discussions about the survey data, exchanges with experienced public history educators and practitioners, and conversations that took place during presentations at professional conferences. This essay discusses several of these insights and their relevance for some of the basic questions the task force sought to answer. It is intended to enlarge conversations about the task force’s findings and better understand the shifting directions of public history education and employment.

Are There Too Many Public History Programs?

Concerns about “overproduction” of public historians played a significant role in prompting the creation of the task force. Even before the 2008 financial crisis hit, some experienced public historians had expressed unease at the growing number of public history programs at colleges and universities across the nation. The arrival of the Great Recession magnified these concerns. The most pessimistic forecasts envisioned a saturated job market and a generation of public historians unable to find employment in the field. Others predicted less-severe conditions but nonetheless foresaw years of difficulty.

The data from the alumni survey shows these fears to be unfounded. Although it is clear that many recent public history M.A.s had difficulty finding employment in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, hiring picked up as the recession eased. Further, the broad trends show that graduates of master’s-level programs generally obtain employment in the field, usually within a year of completing their degree. Statistics tell only part of the story, however.

One of the most striking developments of the past two decades is the shifting role of public history in history education at the college and university level. Whereas the first generation of dedicated public history programs—those founded at institutions such as the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of South Carolina, Eastern Illinois University, and Middle Tennessee State University—sought principally to train students for professional careers in the field, many programs today have other goals. Many have incorporated public history methods and approaches into undergraduate history courses to enrich undergraduate education and show how history engages questions of interest to general audiences. Other programs have integrated public history education into M.A. and Ph.D. curricula to produce more versatile graduates and introduce employment opportunities. Still others are using public history courses to develop and grow relationships with community partners. Put simply, not all public history programs are alike. They differ in their goals, offerings, and purpose.

To assume that every institution with a public history program expects most of its graduates to become professionally employed in the field, therefore, ignores an increasingly varied educational landscape. To be sure, some programs may be naïve about the competitiveness of the public history job market and the credentials job candidates need to be successful. The growing reach of public history within the academy makes it difficult to believe such programs will remain misinformed for long. Further, NCPH offers excellent guidance on public history education and program development. The best practices documents developed by the Curriculum and Training Committee are wonderfully informative guides to undergraduate and graduate education, internships, and program development, and articles and essays published in The Public Historian and on History@Work offer invaluable information on a wide range of subjects.[1]

NCPH has also taken steps to empower students. The Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Public History Program provides detailed guidance on evaluating public history programs and preparing for graduate school. Many of the suggestions it offers concern questions that students should ask program directors and faculty: Are required courses offered regularly? Where have students done internships recently? Where have recent graduates obtained employment? Following the Navigator’s guidance will help students identify programs suited to their interests and educational goals and obtain accurate information about assistantships, internships, and job placement.[2]

This is a cover shot of the cover of "THE PUBLIC HISTORY NAVIGATOR: HOW TO CHOOSE AND THRIVE IN A GRADUATE PUBLIC HISTORY PROGRAM," in orange. There are two sail boats on the cover, one with colorized blue sails, another with colorized green sails.

The public history job market remains highly competitive, and how much more challenging it will become because of the COVID-19 pandemic is uncertain. The “Public History Navigator” is one way NCPH has sought to help students make informed choices about graduate education and prepare themselves for careers in the field. Now more than ever, it is essential reading for would-be public historians.


Although the task force did not study the public history job market in detail, anecdotes from experienced educators and practitioners and comments from survey respondents indicate that competition for jobs varies by location and specialization (museums, historic preservation, archives, etc.). The comments from the employer and alumni surveys provide the sense that some metropolitan markets (Washington, D.C. and Chicago, for example) are highly competitive, while positions in small cities and rural areas often attract limited numbers of applicants. Just as the intended outcomes of public history education vary, so does the public history job market. Further research would likely reveal the extent of these variations and help job-seekers make informed decisions. At a minimum, respondents’ comments suggest that generalized statements such as “there are no jobs” ignore a complex reality.

In sum, while questions about the growth of public history programs and possible “overproduction” are worth exploring, careful investigation is needed to answer them well. Each question is more complicated than it may initially appear.

~Daniel Vivian is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky. He has served as co-chair of the Joint Task Force on Public History Education and Employment since 2014.

[1] Theresa Koenigsknect et al., The Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Public History Program, rev. ed. (Indianapolis: National Council on Public History, 2018).

[2] Best practices documents are available on the NCPH website.  Recent articles about public history education include Alicia McGill, “Examining the Pedagogy of Community-Based Heritage Work through an International Public History Field Experience,” The Public Historian 40, no. 1 (February 2018): 54-83; Ann McCleary, “Creating Teaching Opportunities and Building Capacity through the Museum on Main Program,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 71-91; Erin Conlin, “Reports from the Field: Organizing and Executing Meaningful and Manageable Community-Based Oral History Projects,” The Public Historian 38, no. 3 (August 2016): 50-77; Hilda Kean, “People, Historians, and Public History: Demystifying the Process of History Making,” The Public Historian 32, no. 3 (August 2010): 25-38.

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