From the entry level: Five tips for new public historians

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start labelWhen I graduated in 2009 from Texas State University with my Master’s degree in public history, I could not wait to go out into the world to apply the knowledge that I had gained while in school. Last year, I was invited back to my alma mater to speak to an Introduction to Public History class about my work and how my degree has helped. In my presentation, I passed along several tips about making the most of graduate school and things to keep in mind when entering the workforce. Here are the top five things to think about while in graduate school and as you enter the workforce:

1)    Graduate school keeps us busy, but looking back I wish I had taken more time to volunteer at historical institutions to gain experience.  Volunteering provides you with a chance to gain experience in the field.  For those of you who know that you want to work in public history, but are not quite sure yet what type of public history you would like to pursue, then volunteering gives you a chance to figure out your interest and discover if public history is for you.  I have friends that thought they wanted to work in archives, but they had second thoughts when they actually experienced the work.  Volunteering often previews your skills for the people who are in a position to later employ you.  I know several people whose volunteer work was actually the equivalent of an on-the-job interview.

2)    Like most of my fellow grad students, I knew that it was important to belong to professional organizations.  But I was missing a critical element: by just belonging, I was missing out on a lot of what the organizations offered.  There was so much more that I could have gotten if I had participated in more that the organizations had to offer. One way to be more involved is to serve on a committee or volunteer at the annual conference. Several of my professional organizations, including NCPH, have committees and round tables that are specifically aimed at young professionals and graduate students. The goal of these committees is to find ways to increase the number of young professionals in the organizations and to find ways that the organizations can help those that are already members.  For example, the Society of American Archivists’ Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable [] has been a great group to belong to because of the information sent out in their listserv, which covers a variety of topics and job announcements.

If you are not ready to get involved or the cost prohibits your joining larger organizations, then consider joining your regional organizations.  Regional organizations provide a great way to get your feet wet and in many cases provide ready opportunities to get involved and have articles published.  In addition, they provide a lot of activities and networking opportunities at nearby locations.

3)    Networking.  We are constantly reminded about the importance of networking with others in our field.  Networking can occur in a variety of ways.  As I mentioned previously, volunteering is a great form of networking.  If you do a good job while volunteering, the people you work with will remember you and can be a potential recommendation or a potential source for making you aware of job openings. Also, organizations like NCPH offer great opportunities to network at conferences, such as the Speed Networking session and Dessert before Dinner.  Networking can also provide you with the chance to hear about research opportunities and the development of new projects.

4)    Don’t be afraid to take a short term or temporary position.  I know we all dream about having a permanent position, but in this economy it’s getting harder and harder to find them.  Temporary positions can offer some benefits.  In many cases, temporary jobs are created to help the permanent staff with the development of a new exhibit or a digitization project.  Taking these short-term jobs can provide you with specialized experience that can pay dividends later. Second, your success in these positions can lead to a permanent position. Always treat a temporary job as an interview for something more permanent.

5)    When it comes to jobs, think “outside the box.”  When I was looking for a job, I looked at all the traditional institutions like museums, archives, and historical commissions.  This was a very narrow view because there are also public history jobs in places such as corporations, the Department of Defense, and entertainment agencies. And that’s just to name a few. I ended up getting what I would call an “outside the box” job as a wing historian with the United States Air Force.  When I applied to become a civilian wing historian, most of my colleagues were not even aware that the Air Force employed civilian historians. If I had not looked outside the box, I would have missed the opportunity to work in a position that has provided me with a lot of opportunities to use my public history skills.

Some of these tips may seem obvious, but I hope that they prove helpful.  I would like to invite other public history professionals to post those things they learned as new public historians.

~ Megan Blair is an Air Force Historian currently working in Missouri.  She has a BA and MA in History from Texas State University-San Marcos. The views expressed in her entries are entirely her own. 

  1. Megan, great post! As someone still relatively new–but not as much, now–to public history, I fully concur with your advice–especially looking off the beaten path. Being originally from San Antonio, I thought when starting out that public history=museum. Now living in the DC area, I’ve learned that there are so many other places to work as a public historian!

    From what I’ve seen, I’d also add to be versatile. So often we think that we are going to want a specific job, only to find that a lot of small places combine roles. So even if your dream job is x, if you can do x, y, and z, you’ll have more luck on the job market.

    Great post!

    1. Megan Blair says:

      Thank you David for your comments. I am also originally from San Antonio and grew up with much of the same impression that public history = museum. It has not been until recently that I have discovered the many different places that public historians can work.

  2. Emily Schreiner says:

    Great post, Megan! I’m doing most of those things already, but it reassures me that things will work out eventually!

  3. Angela Vanderbilt says:

    Thank you so much Megan for your post! I graduated a year ago with my MA in Public History and have also tried all of these things and am still hoping to find a position in public history. I was hoping by applying for the temporary/short term positions that I would have better luck “getting my foot in the door”, but to no avail – yet. Not giving up hope yet! As a “non-traditional” student (going back to get my MA after 20 years out of undergraduate school), I was working full-time while in graduate school, and it was difficult to put the time into volunteering on top of work, class and study time constraints. Hoping that networking will open some doors now. I am still as committed to and excited about a career in public history as when I first started grad school, can’t wait to get started, hopefully soon!

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