From Aspiration to Occupation: Getting a Job in Public History

It’s been called a perfect storm. More public history programs are training more people who want a career in a field with few entry-level positions. Plus, there are people with humanities Ph.Ds who see public history as a fallback after struggling to get tenure track faculty positions and others who are interested in changing careers. Never mind the interns working for college credit. Taken together, there is a great deal of competition out there for anyone who wants to get started on a public history career.

But rather than wring hands and develop ulcers, it’s better to learn as much as possible about the public history job search process in order to position yourself as well as possible. At the New Jersey Historical Commission’s 2014 NJ Forum, I organized a roundtable on Careers in Public History for this exact purpose. My panelists represented different kinds of institutions, backgrounds, and stages in their careers. They were: David Caruso, Director of the Center for Oral History at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia; Dana Dorman, archivist and librarian for the Historical Society of Haddonfield; Michele Racioppi, program assistant at the New Jersey Historic Trust; and, Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, director and distinguished professor in the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta.

The purpose of the roundtable was twofold. First, it was to give attendees—about half of whom were currently enrolled in an undergraduate, master’s degree, or PhD program—a sense of what it’s actually like to work in public history. Then, we turned to preparing for a job search, as you can see in this storify of tweets from the session.

Some of the most important insights came from Michele and Dana, who are fairly new in the field. Both had temp and part-time jobs to begin with (or have them now). I’ve had the same experience. When I began to build my public history portfolio, my first job was as the part-time seasonal assistant to the curator, the only other paid staff, at a historic house museum. Job seekers should know that it is unlikely they will get a full-time job right away. The path to it will likely be paved with part-time work, so be prepared to have another job or source of income (I also worked as an adjunct). Dana, too, talked about how she’s not quite, but almost the only paid staff at her current position.Being the only paid staff means that, as Dana and Michele confirmed, you will be expected to do a little bit of everything. Public history jobs are not suitable for people who rigidly want to stick to their job description. Or, to put it another way, feel that it’s beneath them to take out the trash once in a while.

Although four out of the five of us on the panel had majors other than public history, a public history program will not prepare you for every job. Even though David runs an oral history center now, he began with little experience in oral history. Instead, he brought a background in engineering. To him, communication skills were most important. Be able to convincingly advocate for yourself and the projects you want to do. Gretchen strongly suggested learning some basic business skills, like how to read a budget. Museums, her field, are businesses and need employees that understand that. As she asserted, though, the most important criteria is having some real world experience to accompany the theory learned in school. Internships, temp jobs, and volunteer work can help get you that experience.

Unsurprisingly, the question of what kind of digital skills are needed came up. The consensus was that few people need to be able to code, but that knowing basic digital tools (and the tools in your field, like PastPerfect for museum collections) is essential. WordPress, which powers millions of websites, can be a good place to start. Telling your potential employer during an interview that you can add pages and posts to their website will definitely add to your value, especially for small organizations. But, most importantly, knowing how to learn new digital skills means that you can hopefully be a resource for an employer, whose needs may change. There are many free or relatively inexpensive resources to learn these skills, including Girl Develop It, Treehouse, Udemy, Code Academy and the Women’s Coding Collective. For lessons more germane to the digital humanities’ use in academic settings, see The Programming Historian.

Overall, the message from the roundtable was that a public history career can be rewarding, though finding that first full-time job will be a job in itself. While our panelists gave several specific tips for the job search, which are included below, the most important criteria of all was a passion for connecting the past and the present to put history to work in the world with and for the public. None of us spends our entire day researching in the archives. Instead, we work with the public. If that’s not what you want to do, than a public history career may not be the right one for you.

Top Tips for Getting a Public History Career:

  1. Project management is a valuable skill. Learn it.
  2. Find something that sets you apart from your competition. Make that clear in your resume and cover letter.
  3. Especially within certain geographic areas, public history networks are small. Everyone knows each other. Use this to your advantage by becoming part of those networks. But also know that people are going to hear about you from others.
  4. Have a basic understanding of the digital needs of the kinds of organizations you might want to work for. Don’t have to be a coder, necessarily.
  5. Internships should be meaningful for both parties. Use them to your advantage.
  6. Learn how to fundraise. Development is a marketable skill. Volunteer to write grants for local organizations to learn.
  7. Be a good collaborator. Public history jobs require working on teams. Show that you can do that.

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