What employers seek in public history graduates (Part 1): An online discussion in preparation for NCPH 2013

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binocularsThis is an initial post in a series to discuss the genesis of the idea for the “What Employers Seek in Public History Graduates” session at the 2013 National Council on Public History meeting in Ottawa. Session panelists will share their thoughts on the topic in entries in the coming weeks.


Caveat emptor: What I’m not going to do is answer the question about what employers seek in public history grads. (“Say what you’re going to say,” he thinks to himself. “Say it. Say what you said.” Grad school permanently burned that mantra into my brain. Blog posts are different, right?)

Shortly after I completed my M.A. at the University of Central Florida, the UCF history department launched its Public History program. I had been working in the field of public history since midway through my time in graduate school—as education director at the Orange County Regional History Center—and the History Center had supported the department’s creation of the degree track.

In addition to my education duties, I was also in charge of the institution’s volunteer program. I was always seeking ways to engage more folks with our museum and I believed involving these new public history students with us would be a win/win for the History Center, the students, and the department. Thus began conversations with Rose Beiler, one of my thesis advisors and director of the program, about how the department and the museum could work together.

My initial idea was that every student in the program would complete a two-semester internship at the History Center. This would give students a healthy dose of real-world experience and provide us with high-quality people. While Rose was (and remains) one of the most willing and outgoing partners in getting graduate students to work outside of the academy, she also presented me with the reality of the situation for the department. The degree was a thirty-six hour program with a minimum number of hours of history classes, a three-credit Capstone course, and at least six hours of thesis work. In short, there was just not room in the schedule for my idea (I have noticed this has changed since then, as there is an Internship requirement in the program today).

When I considered my conversations with Dr. Beiler, I realized this was the right course of action for the department and for the students. The process of doing history was, and should remain, the primary focus of academic history departments. As Peter N. Stearns wrote in “Why Study History?” for the American Historical Association, students of history develop skills in the ability to assess evidence, ability to assess conflicting interpretations, and experience in assessing past examples of change. I believe these skills are most effectively taught within the university setting.

And I’m living proof (though some might argue) that my own formal training in history served me extremely well in the museum profession. A grounding in history made the programs I created and contributed to stronger and more effective and provided me fodder to fight against the tides of myth and sentimentality that can sometimes permeate the study of local history.

Yet while I agreed with the decision vis-à-vis curriculum constraints, this still did not answer my fundamental belief that students benefited greatly from training outside of the classroom to truly understand what life is like in a public history organization—the very real challenges of presenting history to a public with scant knowledge of history, the push/pull of the mission vs. money debate, and the need to learn not only from experience, but also from experienced practitioners. Much like “regular” history, public history work is often messy and disjointed. Adding the human element of co-workers, boards of directors, volunteers, community members, etc. only complicates matters.

But if it isn’t always possible for public history programs to teach those skills or provide service learning opportunities in formal curricula, public history educators must inculcate in their students the importance of lifelong learning in the profession. Public historians—like professionals in many fields—have many opportunities to acquire new skills and credentials. Students should be strongly encouraged to immediately (and regularly) seek these out. This includes:

• Joining professional organizations such as the American Association for State and Local History (my current employer), the National Council on Public History, the American Alliance of Museums, and/or state and regional museum associations
• Regularly attending and presenting at conferences (we’ll be discussing this idea at NCPH’s 2013 meeting and the 2013 AASLH meeting is sure to cover the topic in some way)
• Reading the latest museum-related publications (not focusing exclusively on new historical interpretations)
• Attending online and onsite workshops and even post-graduate training such as Developing History Leaders @SHA

One reason I pulled this session together is that more than anything, I don’t believe it’s the job of history departments to train museum professionals. They can provide opportunities within courses and programs but I believe they should train historians first and foremost. History organizations can much more effectively train or nurture the technical skills of museum work.

I want to use our session to foster a culture of professional development beyond the university and into the field of public history. I want us to come to some agreement that it’s okay that public history students aren’t receiving formal training in “museum” work but that they must pursue that training either while in school or afterwards, in order to be employable at history organizations.

Over the next several months, the participants in our panel—Trina Nelson Thomas, Senior Director, Public Programs for the Indiana Historical Society, Scott Stroh, Executive Director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, William F. Bomar, Ph.D. Director, Moundville Archaeological Park, and Alexandra Mosquin, Ph.D., Gestionnaire/Manager Recherches historiques/ Historical Research, Parcs Canada/Parks Canada—will weigh in with their thoughts on this issue.

We hope to hear from you in person in Ottawa on April 18 from 3:30-5pm and via comments as well.

~ Bob Beatty is Vice President for Programs for the American Association for State & Local History where he leads AASLH’s professional development program including workshops, an annual meeting, affinity groups and other initiatives, publications as editor of History News and a member of the AASLH Editorial Advisory Board, and the AASLH Twitter feed. From 1999-2007 he directed the Education Department at the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center where he led or oversaw dozens of community outreach programs ranging from school partnerships, youth/family activities, adult programming, and community partnerships.

  1. Adina Langer says:

    In your opinion, what are the benefits of belonging to multiple professional organizations, and how should a newly minted (or developing) public historian make choices about which organizations to be a part of, especially given personal budget constraints?

  2. Bob Beatty says:

    You raise a very good question and like the old “How many _____ does it take to change a lightbulb,” you’re bound to get multiple answers.

    If you can swing the budget, I’d say join a few (even at the student level) to see what they offer and then winnow out the ones that are less useful.

    If you can’t afford that, my suggestion is to talk to as many people as you can about the various organizations that are out there. Each of them (us) has its own fans and true diehards and from there you can get a better sense of those that folks gravitate toward and why.

    But I do want to say, unequivocally, that membership in one organization does not and should not preclude membership in others. Like history organizations (or any “business”), universities, etc. we all have our competitive advantages, that which makes us each unique.

    I’ll reserve any further comment because it might look like I’m pandering for AASLH members–and this isn’t necessarily the forum for that (though I’m happy to talk about it offline).

  3. Mary Rizzo says:

    Interesting post! While I agree that history departments are best suited to train people to think like historians, one of the biggest hurdles I see for people who are trying to make the leap into public history after being in a history program is an inability to work collaboratively. Academic historical work is usually a solitary activity, but public history work is almost never so. I’ve been in a hiring position in a couple different organizations and one of my main criteria for whether to hire a student with a history or public history degree is if they have experience working with partners on projects. That’s a skill that history departments should find time for.

    1. Angela Sirna says:

      I have been in two public history programs (MA, WVU and Ph.D., MTSU), and almost every public history course I have taken has had some kind of group project. How can grads successfully communicate these experiences in our job applications? I find it silly to list group school projects when employers are interested in paid, work experience.

      1. Mary Rizzo says:

        That’s a great point. It seems most appropriate to me in a cover letter–that you’ve had extensive experience in collaborative work, that you’re comfortable working with partners, that you are able to collectively shape a project, etc… And, then, in an interview, I’d reiterate that point. For the nonprofit organization that I work with, partnership is our bread-and-butter and the history grad who is able to hunker down in a library solo is nowhere near as marketable as one who can do that AND cold call a museum director to talk about a potential project idea.

  4. Marianne Babal says:

    Having recently reviewed dozens of resumes, I’m convinced people often overlook ways to sell their own skills. Hirers are not just looking at your paid jobs, Angela, they are looking at the totality of your skills and experience. The question is not what did you get paid (or if), but what did you bring to the table, learn, and contribute to the outcome. I agree with Mary that being able to function on a team, and collaborate is a key skillset.

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