Looking for a job in public history: an outsider's perspective

, , , ,

“‘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 Penrose Staircase: an illustration of a logical paradox (public domain)

The Penrose Staircase: an illustration of a logical paradox (public domain)

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.

  1. Matthew, this is a wonderfully frank post about how difficult it is to “break into” public history and it mirrors much of my own experience. I graduated from college with a History degree, high honors, and a book-length thesis analyzing historic sites in my local area. I worked in a variety of internships and volunteer positions that covered everything from collections cataloguing to archives processing to designing exhibitions. After working for two years in front-of-house ‘interpreter’ positions at museums and historic sites, I completed an MA in Cultural Heritage that gave me more experience in developing exhibitions and managing historic sites. I currently work for a heritage organization (a library) but I’m doing mostly marketing and fundraising. I have applied for hundreds of positions in curatorial and exhibition departments without a single interview so far. I have contemplated giving up altogether, but at the moment, the vast majority of my experience is in public history! Would I even be qualified for any other kind of work?

    I guess I don’t have any answers to your quandary, except to say that most of the recent graduates I know are going through the same thing even with a great deal of experience (often voluntary) and enthusiasm. Something isn’t working here and I’d be very interested to see what the lucky ones–the ones that have found work–have to say.

  2. Nick Sacco says:

    This well-written essay really captures the concerns of public history students across the country. Although I still have one year of graduate school left, I have browsed job openings around the country and have continually run up against the “walled fortress” of prior experience requirements.

    Unfortunately, I ran into the same problem when I received my history teaching certification with my BA. As the job market worsened, schools raised their requirements and increasingly relied on experienced teachers already in the system (and have increasingly turned away student teachers still in school). The future is an exciting place, but that place is full of uncertainty for many of us who have engaged in years of internships and schooling. At this point, I feel that all I can do is keep my fingers crossed.

  3. Matthew Exline says:

    I suspected that I was not the only one facing this problem.

  4. Matthew, this is a wonderful post. I just graduated from an MA Public History program, and applied to over 100+ jobs with no luck (as did many of my classmates). I also have a family to support as my husband now returns to school to finish his BA. We’ve decided to stay around the area where I went to graduate school, and I’ve now branched into applying to every admin job nearby since I have that experience. In lieu of a PH job, I’ve continued my internship at Girl Museum, Inc. (a virtual museum), working for free but it’s great experience in the virtual side of museums, as well as continuing to write (& hopefully publish) PH-related articles. Keep your head up, and look for ways to volunteer locally/online (festivals are a great way to volunteer without sacrificing all your work-able hours) and keep doing what grad school ingrained into us: book reviews, exhibition reviews, and journal articles. Hopefully it’ll help keep you in the game while having to wade through the brutal job market we’ve got going on. Best of luck!

  5. Upsilon says:

    I too sympathize with this situation as I approach the end of my PH masters degree (am slightly shielded from the ravages of PH inexperience w/prior experience as a librarian). However, it’s not that PH employers are necessarily trying to “keep out” new grads, though. Because of the lack of public funding for these types of jobs, the few openings that come up are more competitive than ever. In my state, the cultural state agencies were decimated during a recent budgetary cycle, which led to many highly qualified and experienced folks applying to the very jobs that used to be tailored toward new grads. So, why don’t museums and organizations train and hire new grads? Because it’s a sellers market and they don’t have to. Until the funding situation changes, we will continue to compete with overqualfied vets for entry-level jobs.

  6. robertlfs says:

    I doubt that my response here is going to be very popular. I am not in PH but in Museum Studies and Anthropology – so perhaps close enough. Here are a few thoughts:

    I am not completely certain if it is from a reduction in jobs or a shift in the market, but clearly, today experience trumps academic degrees. According to the American Alliance of Museums 2012 employment data, 46% of all museum employees hold a terminal Bachelors Degree. Another 20 some odd % have MAs. As I recollect 4% have PhDs. The remainder are hs grads or hold Associate Degrees. When the habitual Linked-in, Museum-L, etc. queries are posted soliciting advice for academic programs, consistently, the response from the administrator types who do the hiring is in essence “show me what you are going to be able to do the first day on the job” leading to the experience Catch-22 that this thread has raised.

    Eleven of 15 students of mine who have graduated in the last four years with an MA and a certificate in Museum Studies are now employed full-time, not necessarily in a dream job, but in a museum related field. Two are not employed and the other two I have lost touch with. Several of these folks had part-time employment initially, some spent time doing unpaid internships, or working at Starbuck’s and volunteering, but they persisted and got through. Our program is very applied in focus so our students end up with a good bit of hands-on as well. I now insist that MA students I advise have a peer-reviewed publication by the time they graduate. Having said the above, I do not want to imply that the folks who do not find employment are somehow deficient. However, I was somewhat perplexed that a few years ago I hired for two positions (28k and 34k with full benefits at a university) at the small museum where I am a director and although I received 80 applications for each position only 3 of the applicants for each position had any museum experience or coursework – despite advertising on Museum-L and other listservs.

    In the museum world, and I assume in PH as well, the nature of employment is shifting. For example in museums, as we move more toward engagement and co-creation with the public, the applicant for a collections manager position who has experience and vision for how volunteers and the public in general can be integrated into collections work will have a competitive edge.

    I have posed to recent graduates that if they have a vision for a project at the museum where I am director and could identify a relevant grant to fund that vision, I would work with them to write the grant to get the funding. I am working with two soon to be graduating students now in the beginning stages of that process. I have only had two other individuals ever follow through with me on my proposal – both of which got funded for small amounts of money. Grant writing your salary is another possible way to get started.

    The economy is not good, particularly if the humanities and social sciences. But according to mydesert.com today, BLS stats show “3.9% unemployment of college graduates, compared to the 7.8% of unemployment” for all folks in the U.S.

    I began working professionally in my field in 1991. I did not get my dream job until 2007 at the age of 55. I currently am director of a small university-based museum, associate professor in an anthropology dept, and teach in the museum studies program. My job today is a perfect match for my passion and direction in life. Were I to retire today, my current job is very much like what I would want to do as a volunteer for free. And I should add, that when I interviewed for and was offered my current job back in 2007, I had never worked in a museum before, had never taught a course in museum studies, nor had I ever even taken a course in museum studies. However, the sum total of all my experiences in anthropology, archaeology, nonprofit administration, management, made me the perfect candidate for the position. I also worked for over 25 years as a mechanic, machinist, cardboard box assembly, etc. etc. Although I see today that all of those positions helped me land my dream job, I did not really see that at the time I had some of those jobs, a couple of which I really loathed. What I have learned is that if one has vision and persistence, the “dream job” will happen. My wife will agree that has been her experience too. Our four children are perhaps a bit less convinced in their own life path, and our eleven grandchildren – another story entirely.

    Off of my Pollyannish soapbox. Best wishes to you all as you go about your important life’s work.

    1. Melissa says:

      I actually appreciate your post. I just graduated with a BA in public history. I’m also in my late 30s & was a single mom during most of my schooling. I have a lot of experience in the real world, have worked tons of jobs, and can work like crazy. However, those jobs were to get me by– jobs such as fast food, yard work, certified nursing aide, and the list could go on & on. These kind of jobs do not make a resume look very good, esp’lly when I moved a lot & was not at them long. In fact, I would think they make a resume look worse. How do you put down your work experience if it has nothing to do with what you now went to school for? It looks bad if I put nothing down. It looks bad if I put non-professional, non-academic jobs, or should I say “dead-end” jobs. I think this is the place I am stuck at right now. I would like to work in archival studies (even a museum couldn’t bore me ever!), but right now, it looks as though I’ll have to get a Masters in Lib. Science/Archiving. I’ve thought also about genocide studies & doing that through archaeology. Either choice sounds fun to me. But what to do in regards to the above? Any professional, great ideas?

      1. Matthew Exline says:


        My two cents for what it’s worth:
        When you’re trying to go in a new direction that doesn’t appear to be supported by your prior job history, you can always try restructuring your resume. Instead of focusing on a traditional-style chronological retelling of your work history, focus on groups of key skills or competencies that can be extracted from your prior history and that are applicable to your dream job. There’s lots of info about this on the web and in books on resumes.

        I do think a takeaway from this discussion is to be very careful in assuming that more education is always the answer. Be very careful in evaluating specific programs to make sure that it will position you where you want to go, and be doubly wary of anything involving student loans.

        1. Melissa says:

          Thank you for the advice. I will certainly try that way instead.

      2. Gerri says:

        it is just as hard to get a job in libraries, and even more in archival studies. If you really want to go for archives, get your MLS but go somewhere with the archival certificate – Like U of Texas at Austin. The economy is not good, and the publishing world (think Google) is making the printed book go away. With no printed books, you have less need for librarians to manage them. The librarians are being shifted to the archives, so fewer hires in the Land of Archives, and more experience needed for each job posted. (sound familiar?)

  7. Trevor says:

    I think this is less a problem with public history than it is with generally getting the first two or three years of professional experience in any field that is set up with a lot of people trying to get into something that is not a booming industry.

    When I first moved to DC I spent six months applying for jobs, literally any and everything I could find, I focused on anything that had history associations. For a while the only things I got responses for was a job as a Barista at a Barns and Noble (which I almost took). I ended up landing a gig working on access databases for immigration and customs enforcement that let me continue applying for jobs for another six months, at which point I ended up with two offers for entry level gigs in public history related work (one at a DC non-profit and another which I took working on Zotero at the Center for History and New Media). In both cases, one of the most important parts was technical knowledge I had pulled together, and it didn’t hurt that I currently had a full time job where I was doing some of that technical work.

    So in that respect, I think it is valuable to keep applying for the public history jobs, but to also start applying for things that are full-time positions that might leverage some of your experience and help on a resume of full time working experience. Anything that involves writing, editing, doing research, are all in play. If you have (or can pull together) some experience with tech stuff (social media, databases, etc) that can often help one land a job and the few cultural heritage organizations out there that are hiring are often hiring for folks with technical skill sets, so it can’t hurt to develop that a bit.

    Outside of that, I’d be curious to know what the scope of your job search is? Are you applying nationally, or more locally. In hindsight moving to the DC metro area was a critical part of me working my way into the field. Along with that, there is good reason to think about trying to get into an organization you would be interested in being involved with (like a university) and doing just about anything, working in admissions, in student services, etc to start building out that work experience so that someone could check the box as you having it while simultaneously developing a range of skills and abilities relevant to just about any position (managing projects, writing, etc.) My last suggestion would be (if you haven’t already) look into some of the very good general books on jobs. You can get an older edition of “What color is your parachute” on Amazon for one cent and it’s loaded with good ideas for how to go about getting the career you want. While it often feels like the very specific world of history/public history wouldn’t be relevant to such a general book, I’ve found that kind of advice from a much more general perspective to be super helpful. In the end, the job search is itself the hardest full time job around, and it takes a lot of energy to keep up the pace of applying for 2 jobs a day that is generally required to get one’s foot in the door.

  8. Shirley Wajda says:

    Mr. Exline provides a sobering example of the Catch-22 all recent graduates face as they enter a job market in straitened financial times. Although I have no numbers behind me, my experience in the Great Recession job market since 2009 tells me that employers are risk-averse in their hiring–that is, they feel more secure hiring someone with the proof of skill provided by work experience, rather than hire someone who has the basic training and smarts to learn and to transfer one skill set to another–all the discussion in the humanities about transferable skills aside. They are not, as Mr. Exline points out, hiring recruits to train. When CEO’s of museums and historical societies are thinking about visitorship and the gate, it’s all about producing exhibitions and programs and keeping the doors open and the board members happy.

    Another aspect of the current labor market is the shifting definition of “intern”. By definition an intern is someone who receives supervision while undergoing practical training. And undergraduate and graduate students pay tuition for unpaid internships. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that the intern, and not the supervising institution, benefits. Yet this is often not the case, and what interns sometimes actually do requires greater independence and responsibility than the term “intern” implies. What will be the impact of recent court cases on the nature of internships and the requirements of waged labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act as they apply to public history and museum studies programs? Is it ethical to have students pay for the privilege of interning?

    Mr. Exline provides a caution to faculty in museum studies and public history (and I speak as a former faculty member of some twenty years’ experience). He writes: “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.”

    I could read this description as yet another example of the reign of the text over the artifact in history departments. As a material culture scholar and now as a curator, I have long been worried about public history programs’ emphasis on the written and printed document. We do a disservice to our students when we are risk-averse ourselves–that is, we should step out of our comfort zones to learn and comprehend other areas of public history and museum practice. For example, being a scholar of historic or cultural landscapes doesn’t necessarily require knowing the intricacies National Historical Preservation Act’s Section 106. But our students would benefit if we knew both.

    I wish much luck and courage to Mr. Exline and I hope he will keep us informed about his quest.

  9. Matthew Exline says:

    I am delighted to see that I have managed to start a conversation and that some have taken the time and effort to engage with the issue. A few brief points of clarification:
    1) My job search is nation-wide in scope.
    2) I attended a regular history program, not a public history program. If, in hindsight, some of my internships were not well calculated to prepare me for the kind of job I want now, then that is my own fault. At the time I didn’t know what kind of work I wanted to do after graduating or what kind of internship would best prepare me for it–and I received very little guidance, either.
    3) At the same time, I would be thrilled to see a bit more practical, hands-on emphasis even in traditional history programs–to the extent that faculty are able to provide it, which may not be very much in a lot of programs. I know a lot about working with texts but very little about working with artifacts.
    4) I know the job market is saturated and that ph employers have to find a way to sift candidates. I was trying to raise the question of whether relying on prior experience is the wisest and most effective means of doing that sifting, and I was pointing out the effect that method of sifting has had on my own job search. Could it be possible, just possible, that someone without x years of narrowly-defined job experience but who is passionate and a hard worker might be better at the job than someone who does meet the experience criteria? But employers who lay down blanket criteria for prior experience will never find out.

  10. Erik Greenberg says:

    I believe that Matthew’s closing comments address the true nature of this problem. Yes the field is overcrowded, unemployment is a persistent problem everywhere, and to get a job in museums you have to have worked in museums, I know, but I believe that above all, the failure of most history programs to offer practice in non-textual studies of the past, coupled with rather uninformed advice about the range of work in the field of history is a far greater problem, still.

    To be clear, I have been very fortunate in my career path. Having first intended to teach history in the public schools, a timely internship and entry level employment got me into the world of museums almost by accident. Once there, I realized the great promise of this kind of work, and I have stayed with this work and progressed in it ever since. Having said all that, my advancement in the museum world had absolutely nothing to do with my studies in the university (I hold a Ph.D. in history). My classes were focused exclusively on histoiography and the creation of large, book length studies. My professors knew (and still know) less about the field of Public History than I do, and too many historians view the field of public history as a less rigorous or intellectually demanding pursuit than the traditional tenure track. Consequently undergraduates receive no training in working with objects, in public outreach, in working with people in disparate fields (marketing, development, etc.) and graduate programs (save those in public history) are even less interested in this kind of work. In short, if you are a young scholar, interested in the field of history but not sure what kind of work you might undertake beyond teaching and writing, few professors have any valuable advice for you.

    That said, my few bits of advice for you, Matthew, are the following:

    1) Continue to find ways to volunteer. It is one of the few ways people can find the experience they need in the field.

    2) Find a research project you like, and try and use the web to make it a publicly accessible project. Over time, maybe you can write a grant to fund it.

    3) Ask yourself why you want to work in public history. What is it you hope to achieve, if you can’t find definitive, affirmative answers, you may wish to find some other field of employment. If you can articulate clear, passionate reasons to stay, at it, though, best of luck to you!

    I hope this helps a bit.



    1. Melissa says:

      The author brought up an excellent point: how can you volunteer when there are bills to pay & a family to support? I would’ve loved to volunteer during my 5 yrs. in college, but there’s no way I could’ve kept up & supported my family. I see young kids easily doing this, and they get schooling abroad, and those same kids say it’s so easy. No, it’s not. Not when you’ve decided to start over & you have family & cannot just pack up & go wherever, whenever. Some people can work, go to school, have a family… that’s just not the way it was for me. Now what? (More of a rhetorical question.) 🙂

  11. Kristopher Skelton says:

    I could have written this, as it mirrors my own experience- except I do have an MA in pub hist, curated a museum exhibit, processed two archive collections, and worked on AAM accreditation for a museum. Now it gets worse because I’ve heard from several hiring managers (on LinkedIn and in email communication) that their first method for thinning the piles of resumes they receive is to reject anyone who isn’t “local” (I’ve heard varying definitions but proximity seems important).

    It sounds like your querying people about what it takes to get a job in the industry is what I would call “informational interviewing.” That technique, as intimidating as it is for an introvert like me, has been great for not only helping with a career direction, but also to grow my network. I’ve accidentally met two alumni from my pub hist program and another alumnus from my university’s anthro program while sending cold emails asking to discuss the field. They have gone out of their way to offer advice and recommend other people to talk to.

    The easy thing is to target the industry (companies/organizations) then people (“who we are” or “meet the team” on the targeted websites. The harder thing to do is be where you need to be. I’m currently on a break from packing my apartment to move out of this college town and back to a city with more than one non-university-related job- I sympathize with the difficulties of that proposition.

  12. Emily Gann says:

    This discussion ties in with a proposal that myself and a few colleagues will be submitting to NCPH 2014. As new professionals (what we qualify as 5 years or less) we hope to share our experiences, both academic and in the pursuit of employment, with current graduate students. We are proposing a roundtable of 4 or 5 new professionals with different educational training and employment, so if you have been trained in public history and/or work in a library and archives institution, small or medium museum, or in the private hertiage sector, shoot me a note and we can discuss your participation in our panel. Or if you wanted to share advice or insight, as has been the trend of the above conversation, please feel free to send that a long as well.

    Thank you.

    1. Dulce says:

      Hi Emily, I am a new professional in the museum industry and just finished my M.A. this spring. If you are still looking for panel participants, please feel free to email me at [email protected].

  13. Do any of the organizations you’ve worked with in the past have a potential project waiting in the wings? A large collection that needs processed in, or transcriptions written, or … who knows? Every history organization I know has a pretty daunting backlog somewhere in the system. Perhaps you could locate a grant, with the organization’s blessing/ sponsorship, to tackle a project that would also compensate you a bit for your time, plus you can build in learning some new (and more marketable) skills in the process.

  14. Vincent Murray says:

    I agree with Trevor regarding the Catch 22 being more about the job market and less about the field of Public History. You cannot get a job without experience and you cannot get experience without a job. Another issue that comes up is why, as an employer, would I want to invest in a newly graduated student, when they will just depart for a higher paying position once they gain the OJT from me? I’d be better off hiring someone with existing experience and a consistent track record.

  15. k says:

    There are some very good comments and advice above, so I will not repeat those. I’d like to bring two ideas into this conversation that, unfortunately, may not be very helpful for Mr. Exline, but that may shed some light on these issues and help others.

    Significantly, the fact that employers do not want to hire and train inexperienced people is neither new, nor is it purely the case in the humanities. This is a symptom of a wider shift in the business world.

    Related to this is the second point: public history work has all but professionalized; it requires specific skills. Rarely, as Mr. Exline and other commenters have noted, can one “add public history and shake” to get a job. If the preservation class has you writing a research paper instead of a National Register nomination or an Historic Structure Report, this might not be the right program. Likewise, if you want to work in museums and classes don’t consist of researching and producing panels that are used in actual exhibits or cataloging actual artifacts in Past Perfect, this might not be the right program. If you don’t have an idea of what you want to do when you graduate, maybe now isn’t the time for you to be in an MA program at all. Of course, many of us start with one idea and then move on to another, but goals are important.

    The advice that I give peers and students is to think about what you might want to do and choose a program based on the kind of results that it gets. Talk to people who have the jobs you think you might want and find out how they got them. Browse NCPH’s Guide to Public History Programs. There are programs in which students work on history products and work with communities, rather than only writing research papers and working on academic publications. Academic publications only matter if you want an academic job (so far as employment goes, at least).

    People come out of these programs with experience. Even then, as other commenters have noted, they often have to wait and make do with part-time and/or non-historical work until they can get into the public history job they have been wanting.

    I know some of this sounds harsh, and we could wish for a different world, but we must do what we can to prep for the one we find ourselves a part of. All of this is incredibly frustrating, and I’m not pretending otherwise.

    Of course, it isn’t fair to blame the students themselves for these things. How can you possibly know to look into these types of employment options, if your professors aren’t telling you about them? There remains, despite the good work that NCPH/OAH/AHA joint committees have done, a definite misunderstanding between administrators and some faculty and many of the “public history” faculty.

    It can be very difficult to get institutional support for the types of partnerships with the public that are the most beneficial and provide the most experience for students. Professors in public history classes spend large amounts of time prepping and processing projects for their students. This work is rarely recognized as research by their tenure and promotion committees, though as much research can go into a 100 word exhibit label as into a 25 page article. Like educators everywhere, professors are spread thin these days, trying to balance their care for their students with their responsibilities to the university and their own research (not to mention their families and mortgages).

    I am not trying to make excuses for a broken system, but explanations can be helpful. For those of you readers who aren’t finished with your programs yet or who haven’t yet decided on a graduate school, it might be wise to talk to more people and look at some more programs. For those like the original poster who are now struggling on the job market, keep trying. Rework your resume or CV and cover letter as many times as you need to do so. Find the good advice out there online for those who are leaving academia and learning to repackage those skills for other markets.

    As others have said, it can take time, as well as more hard work and sacrifice (even after graduating) to get your foot in the door of the place you want to be. Sadly, this is much the case in any field today.

    Hopefully more and more professors will take the hardships of their own job search into their classrooms in order to better prepare the next seekers.

    1. Sarah says:

      Clearly I should have read your comment before posting mine, but AMEN. That is all.

  16. Sarah says:

    While I can sympathize and empathize with you, the fact that you waited until you were nearly done with your MASTER’S in History to start looking into the Public History field was your first mistake.

    All that volunteering? You should have done that over summers during high school and undergrad, because by then you would have had enough experience to get a part-time job you could have worked while you went through graduate school. The fact that I did these things is pretty much the only reason I have been able to find jobs, despite most of them remaining part-time jobs with poor pay.

    It is eminently frustrating to many Public Historians that people who study solely academic history (or other subjects entirely) think that doing museum work is easy. It is not. Like library science, you need a LOT of training and experience before you can get a decent job in the field. Academic historians are trained almost exclusively to do research and write. While those are both important to running museums, particularly history museums, they take a back seat to administration, education, public programs, and curation.

    Had you asked me after undergrad whether or not you should study history or public history and that you wanted to work for museums, I would have told you get to get a part-time, minimum wage job as an archival assistant (i.e. glorified filer) or tour guide or receptionist or even security guard in a museum (likely a teensy one with limited funding) for at least a summer (a year would be better) before you decided to go on to grad school. Not only would you then have a little experience under your belt, you’d also know whether or not you could hack it working for museums before you spent a fortune on the (alas necessary) Master’s degree. I took two years off between undergrad and grad school to work for a small open air museum and it was the best decision I ever made – I had way more practical experience than my graduate classmates and I was able to work in the field while I was going to grad school part-time, so I was immediately able to discern which classes would be most valuable to me and my career (instead of just guessing).

    So while I sympathize with the job search because it is difficult even for people who have MAs in Public History or Museum Studies AND who have experience to find decent jobs, it does miff me a bit that you didn’t think about this before getting a history degree because frankly you’re making it harder for people who have chosen public history (making history accessible, understandable, and engaging to the general public, instead of impressing other ivory tower academics) their life’s work.

    Sorry to be so blunt and mean about it, but it’s true and it’s something that needs to be addressed at the university end of things rather than the museum end. Museum jobs are low-paid and rarely full-time salaried. And the field is not growing at all, but rather shrinking. So the fact that your professors did not prepare you practically in any way for a career in the museum field or be frank with you about your prospects in other fields is their fault, not yours (nor museums’).

    1. Melissa says:

      I was a non-trad student, coming back after almost 20 years. I knew nothing about present technology, what goes on in college these days… hardly anything. I chose something I am very passionate about. Just because the author did not do what you did, does not make him ignorant, which sounds like what you were trying to tell him. Not all of us have our lives planned 100%. I did that during high school 20 yrs. ago, only to find out that I had a major health problem- something I never expected. That threw me off track. In 2008, I decided to go back to school, and accidentally ended up LOVING history, whereas before in h.s., I hated it. I changed majors right away, & I recently just graduated. I know it will be difficult & I know I do not have the volunteer & internship experience that many younger kids do these days. I could have chosen to do so, but by taking risks with my health AND leaving my family for periods at a time. I chose not to. I do not think that because a person wants a certain job or wants to further his education (I’m thinking of a masters, currently- lib. sci.), he should’ve known all the exact ways to go about it. Many times in life, you learn by mistake. It’s not always practical or best. Myself- I am very introverted, I felt intimidated talking to career counselors, but tried to do so, without luck. As far as practical experience in life, I have plenty. In my field, some. In talking to many of my past profs. & how they got to where they were, I realized that there is NO one way to go about getting the job you want after college. Sometimes, a lot of luck is involved. Other times, things like you suggested, work. And for others, different routes are successful. You said: “the fact that you waited until you were nearly done with your MASTER’S in History to start looking into the Public History field was your first mistake.” I don’t believe so. Sometimes, you don’t realize your true passion until later. Perhaps there was something else he had his eye on (I did, at first). Maybe it was a topic or a certain prof. that inspired him to look into public hist. I took an English class that inspired me to look into lib sci & archiving. I didn’t know what to do with my degree once I’d get it, but I knew I did NOT want to teach. I was lost for awhile, but I was determined to stick with history- I love it too much. I do not blame my profs for not telling me more. I think the dept. should have made the option of public history more known (most hist. mjrs. want to teach, it seems) & given us info the minute we major in hist. I had never heard of a public hist. degree before.
      I know this is a bit all over the place (I’ve been out in the yard in hot sun all day!), so please forgive my writing right now 😉

  17. The success I’ve experienced in my current career is directly attributable to my training in history, but it was not the career I envisioned for myself twenty five years ago when I started college. I graduated with a history bachelor’s in 1992 and enlisted in the Army as an intelligence specialist. I spent the first six years in language school and a series of positions as an electronic warfare technician. My assignments enabled me to use the research and writing skills I had developed from my history coursework. I completed a distance-based history master’s over a four-year period, which greatly improved my research and writing, published a number of encyclopedia articles and book reviews and then attend Officer Candidate School in 2001. I became a HUMINT warrant officer and spent four more years managing collection teams, performing analysis, reports editing and teaching my collectors how to write. In 2007 I fell into a series of positions as an intelligence policy officer. For the last six years I have reviewed and written intelligence policy for the Army and written national, joint, and allied intelligence policy, besides advising deployed units and commanders on the limits and intentions of current HUMINT policy. I’m working through my GI Bill funding on a second history master’s that might lead to an encore career in public history, but if it does not, that’s fine, too. Just study what you love and look for any career where you can use your skills and talents, especially if that career seems unexpected or non-traditional. I always looked for jobs or assignments that sounded fun and I’ve never been disappointed. I’m retiring next year and attempting to strike a path in public history, but if that doesn’t work out, my future is cluttered with options–all the result of a choice I made twenty one years ago to take a non-traditional path to applying my academic training.


  18. Vincent Murray says:

    I hadn’t planned on a Public History career when I returned to college back in the 1990s. I had a job in the field of Information Technology that paid well and just wanted to finish a BA that I’d started earlier in the decade. In the process, I was often asked, “What are you going to do with a BA in History?” I would typically answer, “Would you like fries with that?” or “Paper or plastic?”
    While I was being sarcastic, I was quite aware of the limitations of a BA in History vs. the BS in Computer Science, which is where I had started. So, while still an undergrad, I began bringing professionals to ASU to talk about careers in the field of history and in the process discovered the Public History program.
    I applied to the program and was accepted and for the next few years worked full-time at my IT job while earning my MA. When it came time to switch careers, I cashed out my retirement and consolidated all of my debt so I could afford a huge drop in pay.
    Nine years later, I feel fortunate that I could work my butt off, for less–and sometimes no–money to get into such a rewarding field. I currently make more money than I would’ve in the IT field and I’m very happy doing so. It is my dream job and I worked incredibly hard to make it happen.
    My advice to you is consider what you really want in life and be willing to make the necessary sacrifice(s) to make it happen.

  19. Toni Messina says:

    I faced the same “catch” in a different field when I got my journalism degree in 1971. I really wanted to major in art history, but the foreign language requirement was so demanding, I knew I would never graduate. Finally, about nine months after graduating, I found a company willing to take a risk with a low-experience person.

    Fast forward a few decades to a conversation with a career coach: “What,” she asked, “is your dream job?”

    “Well,” I said, “working for Antiques Roadshow or History Detectives.” It so happens that I was able to redefine a position I had held into something with some public history aspects. I’m in city government and hope that, in the not-too-distant future, our archives, artifacts, art works and architecture will all be more accessible to and engaging for our community.

    I’m trying to get some of the training that many of you got on the front end of your education; we’ll see how this works out. My advice: assess your strengths (I recommend Gallup Strengthsfinder 2.0), find a position that fits you and see if you can practice your passion “in situ.”

  20. Matthew Exline says:

    I appreciate the advice and sympathy from (almost) everyone.
    @Sarah: I will just say this. When I was in high school I searched high and low for any information I could find about what professional historians (both public and academic) did and how I could become one. But in the early 2000s the current wealth of advice and info on the internet about becoming a public historian did not yet exist. Never once did anyone urge me to volunteer–I only found out about internships when I went to college. So I spent my high school summers volunteering to help teach and mentor at-risk youth in underserved communities instead. Oh well.

    1. Sarah says:

      I graduated from high school in 2003. I wasn’t yet planning on a degree in “public history” (didn’t even know that was a field at the time), but I loved history so much I just had to find an outlet. I volunteered as a tour guide at a local open-air “pioneer” museum with a group of other teenagers. Not the most historically accurate place to work, but it was fun and I discovered how much I loved history and talking to people about history. And it got my foot in the door.

      Hilariously, I wanted to be a history professor in high school. Until I got to college and got to know my professors better and what they did and realized that I could never work well in such an insular and competitive atmosphere. Museums have their share of politics and pressure and drama, but it’s a different sort. And I find the atmosphere much more congenial and less competitive than academics.

      I’m not saying that your volunteering with at-risk youth was not admirable and I’m sorry if I came across as less than helpful. I just hear this a lot from academics and it gets to be very frustrating, so I apologize for taking it out on you. But museum skill sets tend to be very specific, which is why the job descriptions are so convoluted and most places require so much experience. I can empathize with the fact that museums generally do not hire people without experience anymore, but that is because they don’t have to – there are plenty of well-qualified people out there already (too many, some say).

      I went into my public history MA program already prepared for relative poverty and hard work. Sadly, my program (despite being a public history program) said nothing about the challenges of finding jobs in the field, particularly after the recession prevented so many older museum professionals from retiring (though the same could be said of the academic field). But my experience told me otherwise, for which I am eternally grateful.

      I wish a Master’s degree was all that it took to get a nice job. But these days, even that is no guarantee.

      1. Christine says:

        Sarah – which small open air museum did you work for? It sounds familiar.

    2. Clio says:

      For more than a decade museum listservs and publications have pushed a combination of getting a masters and volunteering as much as you can to get your foot in the door. This is not new.

  21. Shawn says:


    Thank you for this frank and open look into what us budding historians have in front of us. I am turning 40 this year, and about to start my MA in History. I am nervous for what the future might have in store, but yet there is a mix of optimisim in there. We shall see. Good luck to you.

  22. amy says:

    Another big problem is the divide between MLIS and Public History. I find it insanely frustrating that Universities whose collections fall under the Library building or department will not look at a PH degree. Which leads to another problem: PH programs are not enought or need to start revamping themselves to make its graduates more marketable.

    1. Gerri says:

      Amy – In libraries we catalog and answer specific information questions, and in the MLS degree there is coursework on cataloging and why people search and find the way they do.. Does a PH program do that? That might be why Libraries don’t look at PH degrees.

  23. Meg9 says:

    I’ve been most frustrated by the number of years of experience required, even for positions that should be entry level for MA recipients (Curatorial Assistant, for instance) I would hope that someone with 3 years of Curatorial Assistant experience would be moving up the ladder instead of moving over to another Curatorial Assistant position and that a person with a Museum Studies MA and a few curatorial internships under their belt would be qualified for the job, but that doesn’t appear to be the case! Very frustrating, but I’m using the job search time to temp and work on peer reviewed publications and conferences…which will continue to make me overqualified for non collections management positions and under qualified for the curatorial positions that I really want.

    I haven’t heard a good explanation for the “MA degree plus 3 years of experience” issue. If I could work for free and intern, I would—but that’s not realistic for most people.

  24. Christine says:

    Can you develop small projects with local museums – yes technically it is volunteering, but if done part time, one day a week, you are still building experience while you are waiting.

    I am currently helping to run a program, volunteer, I admit – in the hopes that it will take off and get the grant funding needed to hire me on. I am still in school, so I told them I had a year until I graduated. So I go a few Saturdays a month. It involves public history and public archaeology, a lot of community outreach, social networking and other skills I want to keep up and adds to my CV while still permitting me to hold a paying job. I love what I do, and hopefully it will take off, but if not, I have a bunch more recent experience in some skills that I had not used in a while. Win-win.

  25. Michael Diaz says:

    As a fellow under-employed public historian, I can feel your pain. However, I wonder if your choice of schools isn’t part of the problem here. The liberal arts field is generally populated by political liberals who might be hesitant to hire a graduate from a school that teaches “Young Earth” Creationism and has ties to such unsavory characters as Jerry Fallwell. Many people might view the academic integrity of a school with such a clear political focus in its mission as hopelessly compromised, and thus be unwilling to hire one of its graduates over a candidate from a more conventional school.

    1. Mary says:

      this. Liberty “University” would give most hiring committees pause. Perhaps the author would do better working for a religious non-profit.

  26. Hi Matthew,

    Your post spoke volumes about my experience trying to “break into” public history in 2007, when I finished my MA. It seemed no amount of volunteering, prestigious references/mentors, or past experience as a self-employed historian helped at all. I gave up in 2010, when I started an MLIS (Library and Information Science) program at Rutgers.

    I graduated about 6 months ago, and I do not have a full-time job yet. BUT, I am feeling much more positive than I was in 2007. I have an amazing volunteer gig for a website that reached 2 million hits total last month, and 350K this month alone. I’m writing a monthly blog. I worked as a TA last semester. And I’ve found a robust professional support system with librarians.

    When I completed my MA in public history 6 years ago, there was no obvious professional support system for emerging professionals. And from what I’ve gathered from your post, you’re currently experiencing the same thing. Perhaps the field is too small? (It’s about 1/66th the size of the lib/info sci field.) Too spread out? I don’t have the answer to that, but I will note that through my recent volunteering and research efforts, I’ve discovered that there is very little support for emerging professionals in many fields. This seems counter-intuitive to me. Aren’t those new to a field most in need of support, guidance, and actual pragmatic advice?

    I’m not sure what the solution is, either. But being brave enough to ask the question is an amazing first step. Thank you for your frank post – it’s comforting to know I’m not alone.

    1. Jim Lyons says:


      Reading your post about all the experience you’ve had makes me want to shake someone. What’s wrong people? What does it take to have what’s called “experience” if experience isn’t enough?

      All I can say is keep at it and don’t give up.


  27. As a former employer of a number of historians, and other types of professionals, I have a bit of experience in sorting through applications, cvs, and such. I appreciate the conundrum you’ve described, Matthew, and assure you that it’s common across professions for new graduates to face experience requirements even for entry-level positions. My advice to you and to others in a similar position is twofold: First, look for positions within the private, for-profit sector. If you want to work for a museum, then try to get a job with a company that contracts with museums for exhibit design, content research, long-range planning, whatever. Private sector companies have much greater flexibility to hire based on subjective criteria than on empirical box-checking. By far the most important quality I looked for when hiring, beyond a basic skills and knowledge set, was how much the candidate believed the job on offer was one he or she really wanted to do. In other words, I would choose the “less qualified” on paper candidate who came across to me as really eager to do the job at hand rather than simply have the job as a stepping stone or as an interim position until something better were to come along. This doesn’t mean I wanted dead-enders. On the contrary, I wanted those who would grow in their careers by their willingness to learn and to stay at least long enough for me to recoup my investment in their training. Again, it’s really the private sector that has the luxury to hire by such subjective criteria.

    Second, avoid unpaid internships. Just don’t do them. In my opinion, not paying for work done is immoral and should be illegal, for I’m pretty sure that slavery is banned in this country. If the organization wants the work done, the organization has to pay for it. I would much prefer to hire someone who has worked at any paying job–retail, service, waiting tables, driving cabs–and gained thereby a good sense of what it takes to keep a job, than someone whose “work” experience isn’t really a work experience at all.

    All my best regards, Shelley Bookspan

  28. For Matthew and all the excellent and invested respondees who have posted here:

    Public History as a recognized specialization in Cultural Resources Management, as envisioned by the University of California-Santa Barbara in the early 1990s, was an entirely new approach to historiography. Instead of detail the story of one person, one house, one arrowhead, one churchyard, Public History was now to subsume education in and application of studies in sociology, psychology, anthropology, religious studies, economics, historiography, archival research methodologies, geography, geology, field archaeology, and–most critically–the capability to take all these subsumed points of view to create a context and to write it very, very well. And that would only be the first step in Public History documentation.

    Those of us who fell into Public History in its infancy were often refugees from other studies in which we found ourselves to be square pegs for round holes–tenure tracks but stuck in adjunct faculty status–or frankly unnerved by the temperament of the average practitioner of one of these specializations (archaeology comes immediately to mind, yikes!). We all got a serious kick in the tuchas when federal funds were yanked from many state cultural resource research projects and the SHPOs and state historical societies through which these funds secured personnel. So an awful lot of us were out there floating about in CRM-land, we were all about the same boomer generation age group, and there were far too many of us for the work to be done.

    Thus began the very important change to contracting shops (vs. outright employment with benefits) and an intensity of sharp-toothed competition that had a lot of us crying into our beers at night when we (finally) got home. Most of these shops were focused on archaeology but over the past two decades the additional specializations of NEPA, brownfields, infrastructure engineering, community impact and input, mitigation, mediation, and project management became essential add-ons, sometimes in the form of training, or in the form of bringing in a new associate who owned that specialization.

    it wasn’t a pretty time. Engineering corporations responding to federal CRM law created inhouse CRM teams…and then on short notice might cut the whole team loose again if they were not generating enough income. Small CRM shops found themselves desperately low-balling their bids in hopes of winning out over larger well-known competitors. Single shops became multiple-state shops in order to always have a team to respond to state RFPs without having their personnel away from home in Missouri on site in Alaska for a month.

    Many of us just burned out.

    But those of us who have survived have brought with us some things you new grads would be unable to replicate: products (in the form of 25 reports in the SHPO drawers; or major archaeological finds in unexpected places due to superbly honed skills to read topography, USGS topo quads, and translate a particular First Nation people’s winter count artifacts); enough notoriety in the nicest sense to become the go-to person for reporters, county personnel needing a cultural refresher, radio hosts who have learned that you know your topic well and love to talk, district court staff who need special consultant, or a burgeoning list of public-interest (vs. academic) publications that can be used to either enjoy or use to teach young folks.

    Unless you are already in your 40s when you have decided to return to college for an MA in PH–and bringing a whole lot of living, shrewd instincts for human behaviors, and highly tuned social instincts with you–newly minted MA’s simply cannot match the well-seasoned Public Historian who, within an hour, carrying a photocopy of an 1898 plat map, can traverse the six streets criss-crossing a post-civil war town on a county road and–having seen all churches, all houses, all railroad embankments, all burial grounds, all proximity to water, all hills, all valleys, and its location in the part of the state that might indicate “where the money came from” can write an adequate unpretentious guess-timation of the story of that community, from founding to the present day. I do this work a LOT, as support for research for my Public History niche: I write books. And as will hopefully happen for many of you as it happened for many of us, it started out as just another project which someone else admired, and which we found we were pretty good at, and then had another offer, and had some empty years where we did other basic research and reportage, and then had another offer…and suddenly you’re up to book #14 and its 20 years later…

    We are in a time in the 21st century where the B.A. has become what the high school diploma used to represent: enough. Then, in the late 1980s came the big “certification” push as competition for work became seriously vicious and those with suddenly useless B.A.’s were finishing their M.A.s or stuck on their doctoral theses and wanted the uneducated but very skilled field rabble off the playing field. Now we’re in a time when the MA and the MS are absolute musts…and just the beginning. Or, worse, may suddenly cause you to be overqualified for 501C3s that have only modest operating funds and inexperienced grantwriters on their boards. It has taken me 20 years to build a national—now international—network but I still have tough times and I am not getting any younger. But what I do have is the conviction that I have the absolute right to refuse a contract if it means working with hard-hearted, cold, mean-spirited people (life’s too short, trust your instincts); that, conversely, I know and continue to bring in gifted, generous, happy, professional folks to help make a great product (and the client very happy); that I have a right to higher-than-many hourly rate that I charge with blinking, and love those projects that come to me without pushback or argument on the issue (they want my skills and my reputation); that I am unfit for cube farm life, have a particular inner clock which must be obeyed, will do my best work when I am in my Happy places–which includes watching NCIS reruns at 2AM while writing up monthly expense accounts–and do not do well around verbally abusive or pretentious coworkers, all of which means I have had my own shop for 20 years and have worked with some of the grandest folks in the region and the country. And those who proved to be ‘less grand’ were quietly not invited back to the next CRM party.

    The pressure to go for the doctorate is immense, but I neither need it or want it. I am already teaching at the adjunct faculty level, when I wish and by invitation. But I do respond the sensible and continual up-training provided by technical and academic seminars, conferences, and webinars. I read in my field of work constantly. And I will work for myself for the rest of my life and never retire, as long as a hiring entity out there (maybe on Jupiter if I live long enough!) wants me.

    My prayer is that I fall over with my last breath autographing book #26 at a public library presentation. I love my work! BUT: this has been 20 years of struggle, changing skins, always challenging my own ethics for solid foundation, always having to walk that wobbly fence of needing income and being truthful about whether I was really fit for the job offered.

    Take your new M.A.s in Public History out the door and down to the street. The catch-22 is real: you will not have work in public history until you can demonstrate both the visible (work time, products) and the invisible (professional conduct, an extensive network of go-to mentors who will not fault you for needing to ask questions about process and systems).

    And when you are well on your way, some years from now, you will pay that debt of good counsel and wonderful mentoring forward by helping those coming behind you. They are NEVER your competition: they are your colleagues, and you will need each other as your grow in your work.

    All my best wishes for your success! Stay the course…

    Deborah Morse-Kahn, M.A.
    Regional Research Associates, LLC
    Minnesota’s North Shore on Lake Superior
    Amazon.com Page: http://tinyurl.com/b87f23h

  29. Matthew Exline says:

    I have read the comments from employers and those with experience in the field with great interest. I’ve seen several comments that essentially are saying “yes, it’s a catch-22, that’s just the way it is and always will be, so learn to live with it.” Yes, now I know that’s the way it is. That’s why I wrote the article. It’s just that I’m enough of an idealist to be able to imagine a way that’s different. It’s understandable that wishing for anything besides the status quo might make some uncomfortable.

  30. L.A. Gwinn says:


    Thank you for sparking this frank discussion. I agree with the advice on resume reformatting and encourage you to highlight your work with mentoring youth during during interviews. I may hit the other end of the spectrum- returning to “full-time” employment after being home with children for a number of years. My joke has been “keeping the pilot light burning.” Some of the best advice given to me was “learn grant writing and fundraising/marketing- it will help get your foot in the door.” Most of my museum interview call backs have been due to my fundraising/marketing/strategic planning skills. While I cannot volunteer in the traditional sense, I have been able to successfully write grants, collection plans, and whatever else comes to mind from home in the wee hours of the morning for museums. Meanwhile, I work as a traditional nonprofit consultant to pay the bills, mostly socially service NGOs. If you can, try to contact your local council of nonprofits or Association of Professional Fundraisers about free grant writing workshops and such. It is one way to create a professional network, and add that you are serious about continuing professional development on your resume. (The old adage that schooling doesn’t stop after you get the degree.) Sometime my “pro bono” work does turn into a short-term paying project, if not, I use it on my resume for the future. Best of luck to you!

  31. MH says:


    I recently had an entry-level public history position open for which I had over 300 applicants. Usually 100 or so is considered a lot for this organization, and even that is a big pool for one job. There were many many recent graduates with lots of enthusiasm and obvious talent but no relevant experience. I am sure many of them would have done an excellent job, but due to the strictures of being a publicly funded employer, I had very little wiggle room to accept candidates who did not meet the requirements listed in the job description. And because of the small number of jobs in the field, and high levels of interest, I had many people apply who did have relevant experience. Where I am going with this is that experience, wherever and however you can get it, for-profit, non-profit, volunteer or otherwise, will help you. I have a family too so I know how hard it is, but previous posters suggested finding grant funding for a project you might be interested in, which can be a good way to go. Grant writing experience is helpful at any time. And many smaller organizations, for example, could really use help, so you could partner with one. The other point I wanted to make is that there is a lot of competition out there for very few positions, so the difficulties you are experiencing are not a reflection on you and your abilities. Keep trying! You will get there, even if not in the way you might think you will.

  32. Jim Lyons says:

    Aug 9, 2013


    I read your question but haven’t yet read all the replies, wanting to get this off first.

    Nearly 13 years ago now I offered the following advice to a young fellow (in this very group) who was in the same fix you’re in. I’m printing it again in hopes there might be something useful to you in it.



    Date: Wed, 6 Sep 2000 21:06:46 -0700
    To: Museum discussion list From: Jim Lyons
    Subject: Re: how to get my foot in the door? Cc: [email protected]
    Bcc: [email protected]

    >>Hello everyone.

    I am finishing my masters thesis in October. Recently, I applied for a job at a museum and did not even get an interview. I would like to know if anyone has advice on how to get my foot in the door. Over and over again I have heard that you have to know somebody. However, I do not want to get a job this way. Does anyone have advice? Thank you
    Christian Trabue
    [email protected]


    “…There is a regular check list of suggestions on this list which has included:

    1) volunteering in your local museum to get personally known and build experience…”

    (From Roger Smith)


    Sept 7, 2000


    I believe Roger has given you some good ideas, of which I only copied the one above.

    I heartily second the suggestion you volunteer at a museum where you are considering applying for a paid position. There are several reasons:

    1) You will meet and get to know the people you will be working with, and

    2) They will get to know you as well. If you are pleasant and competent it will be noticed.

    3) After a while you may find that, egads, you wouldn’t work there if they paid you :-). You may not like the people, the work, or some little thing you don’t know yet even exists. You may even discover that the museum field is not for you. It happened to me once (not in the museum field), much to my surprise.

    4) You will know the ins and outs of the place and hopefully will be able to learn something about the workings of several departments. Perhaps one dept. will appeal to you more than the others. (Granted, a job in that dept. may not open up, but if you’re in another job in the museum when one does, maybe you can transfer into it.)

    5) When you say you don’t want a job just because you know someone, I think you’re saying you don’t want the job because you’re the bosses son (or some such). Right? Volunteering is another way to know someone – a highly honorable way. The director will know you and your work. Obviously I can’t speak for anyone else, but if I was the director and had a job opening, the first place I’d look would be to the people I knew both as a person and as a worker. Of course you have to make it known that if a position opens up, you would like to be considered for the job. It wouldn’t do at all for them to think you loved working the midnight to 8am shift at Sleezie’s Fast Foods.

    Here’s another suggestion. Look around for some project that no one there can do, and learn how to do it well. You may become a very highly valued member of the volunteer staff. And you can bet it will look good in the director’s eyes.

    For example, now that I’m retired I volunteer at two museums, the Moffett Field Museum and the Museum of American Heritage in Palo Alto, Calif. Because in my previous profession – 25 years as a full-time dealer in historical newspapers – I have done a fair amount of deacidification and encapsulation work at Moffett Field, as well a setting up a rather extensive display of old newspapers dealing with dirigibles and flight. At the moment I’m the only one there able to do those things.

    In addition, Moffett Field had an old and incomplete dogtag-making machine that no one could work. I restored it from the parts of an old typewriter and taught myself how to work it. Then I hunted all over creation trying to find a supply of dogtag blanks. But it paid off. At the 1999 Air Show at Moffett myself and two other volunteers I trained made (and sold at a good profit for the Museum) over 400 dogtags.

    And, at the Museum of American Heritage in Palo Alto, Calif., earlier this year we had a .50-caliber machine-gun on display and someone messed with it. I was the only one around who knew how to put it together again. It was a little thing, perhaps, but little things add up.

    So volunteer and make your self highly valuable to the museum. All else being equal, I’d say you would have a whale of an advantage over someone else applying for the job you want.

    Hope this has been of some help.


  33. Pingback: Homepage
  34. Mary Concannon says:

    Hello to all. MANY excellent responses are embedded within the replies above. I can relate to almost all of you on one level or another. Here is my two-cents worth of commentary: I have been in the Public History field for 20 years (more or less!), and it is the most satisfying work i’ve ever done. HOWEVER:: finding a JOB w/in the field has been horrendous, no matter which end of ‘experience’ i have had.
    When i wanted a full-time job, only part-time positions were offered; i now wish to work 3/4 time, and there is little-to-nothing available.
    I calculated my volunteer hours, and they average about 5+ years of time; i feel as though–at this juncture in my ‘career’–i have given all the volunteer time i wish to give, particularly as i was incredibly hard-hit (as were others) by the 2008 debacle. That economic failure continues to hurt the field and the number of jobs organizations wish to fund.
    Which brings me to another salient point: history is NOT a subject/interest that garners a great deal of financial support, especially for smaller historic sites, as it should. And–to make matters worse–funders fail to realize that w/o staff those sites will not thrive and grow. So–as was mentioned early on–unless it’s a ‘known’ site like the Smithsonian or Mount Vernon, too many sites do not/can not grow financially … thus limiting not only the number of staff working but also the remuneration those staff members realize.
    There is also the subject of Boards … a persnickety commentary to undertake. All i can say is that too many Boards fail to realize that supporting staff with livable salaries and perhaps even benefits (gasp!) is THE way to go-and-grow as it were.
    I, too, would love to participate in round-tables/seminars around these issues. There are too many of us struggling to find a place in a field we love … office work just isn’t the same!
    Thanks for ‘listening,’ and best of luck to us all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.