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From the Public History column of the March 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Advising Undergraduates about Career Opportunities in Public History

Melissa Bingmann, March 2009

What do graduates in history do upon graduation? We know very few earn a PhD and even fewer end up with tenure-track positions. Some go to law school, others go into K–12 teaching, while the majority find work in various fields that value liberal arts education. There are other students, however, who in addition to making use of their historical thinking skills, truly desire to continue their engagement with the past beyond an avocational interest. We have all met them, but few know what to tell them. These are the enthusiastic students who might say to you “I love history, but I do not want to teach.” Most advisors are able to list a few potential career opportunities for historians outside the academy, but struggle when it comes to helping an undergraduate develop a strategy for establishing a career in the public sector.

Advising Undergraduates

Undergraduates who love history but do not want to teach are often thrilled to find out that there are opportunities to work as a historian in a museum, archive, or consulting firm; on documentary editing projects; in historic preservation; and for the government. When told about careers conducting historical research to create exhibits, interpret primary sources for public audiences, develop public policy, plan public events, write a storyline for a documentary, or in a host of other endeavors, these students will often say “that’s exactly what I want to do!” Advisors should let them know that enrolling in a graduate program in public history is one of the best routes to employment in all of the above fields.

It is possible to secure employment as a public historian without earning an MA. Some students find entry-level employment or volunteer to eventually secure a professional position. Some historical institutions reward hard work and dedication and would rather hire a known entity, regardless of educational achievement. If a recent graduate completed a thesis or capstone paper that pertains to the research interest of the agency, this will also be taken into consideration. The most likely way to gain entry in the field through this strategy is to seek work as an interpreter, administrative assistant, or in another front-line position. All require and reward some level of historical competency and give an opportunity to hone and demonstrate professional skills. Many who find jobs in the field with a BA do eventually earn an MA in order to enhance their skills and advance their career.

Matching Undergraduates with an MA Program

It can take nearly as long to advance from an entry-level professional position or get a job through volunteering as it would take to earn an MA (one to three years), so many undergraduates choose to apply to graduate programs prior to seeking full-time professional employment as public historians. Graduate work in public history and conventional history have similar aims. In addition to demonstrating mastery of the historical discipline, students of public history must also learn to consider audience when developing a framework for historical analysis. The programs that will best prepare students for professional work train “historians who work in the public sector,” rather than simply training “public historians.” In many cases, public history students complete similar, if not the same, coursework as traditional MA students. For example, at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), graduate students on the public history track complete all of the same classes as students on the American or European track in addition to the “Introduction to Public History” class and a four-hour internship requirement.

Mastery of research skills, historiography, and methodology provide the basis for the work of all historians. A sound graduate experience designed to prepare historians for working with public audiences will also include opportunities for emerging professionals to hone additional skills. This can be accomplished through coursework, internships, the substitution of a skills requirement for a foreign language, and dual degree or certificate programs. A review of program offerings in these four areas is useful for students who are focused on working in a museum, archive, historic preservation, or documentary editing, for example, and for those seeking a program that offers breadth rather than depth. Some programs offer specific tracks while others offer a variety of courses that serve to introduce public history students to various aspects of the field. The latter structure works well for students who are unsure what type of historical work they will pursue, or want flexibility in their careers.

In addition, the ability to gain practical experience in the field either through an internship or other opportunity to apply these skills to produce a tangible product is paramount. Prospective students can get a feel for a program’s ability to offer practical experience by researching whether a program offers funding for public history work (rather than a traditional teaching assistantship) or assists with internship placement. At the very minimum, a good public history program should have an internship requirement. Most entry-level professional public history positions require a minimum of two years’ work experience. If a student came out of an MA program with two full-time summer internships and half-time work during the school year, they will be in the ballpark for meeting this minimum requirement.

A review of the course syllabi can reveal a program’s ability to prepare students for employment though applied coursework. For example, does the historic preservation course require students to develop a National Register nomination? Does the professor encourage an actual submittal? Does the exhibition development class work with a community partner so that students’ work has the opportunity to be presented in a public setting rather than exist solely as a classroom exercise? Would assignments be easily added to a portfolio to demonstrate skills recognized by potential public history employers? Some MA programs that have a traditional foreign language requirement accept demonstration of mastery of a skill in lieu of a foreign language requirement. The University of South Carolina, for example, allows students to take Geographic Information Systems (GIS) classes to fulfill the department’s language requirement.

Dual Degrees and Certificate Programs

Public history programs recognize that in addition to mastery of the historic discipline, pre-professional public historians need to demonstrate skills above and beyond those of conventional historians. This is often promoted through certificate programs and dual degrees. In many programs, students can earn a variety of graduate certificates in addition to the MA in history, including museum studies, cultural resource management, archives, documentary editing, historic preservation, and scholarly publishing. In most cases, the curriculum is designed so that students can earn the additional certificate in the same amount of time it would take to earn an MA in history. This type of program works well for students who know they want to work in a history museum, for example. The most common joint degree is the dual MA/MLS (Master of Library Science). It usually takes three years to complete. Typically students do not write a thesis and graduates find employment in archives. At IUPUI, graduate students can also earn a dual MA in history and philanthropic studies.

Although graduate certificate programs and dual degrees are of great benefit to many students, public history faculty struggle to avoid getting embedded in the idea that an MA in public history is not enough and students need a “degree and a half.”1 To help students determine which programs they should apply to, advisors should encourage them to research what other related programs and courses are available at a university and how many electives outside the department students are able to take that will count toward the degree. Keep in mind that the connection between public history programs and other disciplines may not be blatantly advertised. Museum studies courses are often in the anthropology department; classes that could apply to a career in historic preservation might be located in the School of Architecture or art history department; art history departments might also offer a course in decorative arts; and urban planning, nonprofit management, and new media classes all could benefit public historians but may be offered by a variety of departments and schools. In addition, certain public history programs have their own specialties. The Cooperstown Graduate Program, for example, focuses on history museums while Carnegie Mellon offers a PhD in history and policy. A review of course offerings will help applicants gain a sense of the defined or implied focus of the various programs available.

A Note on the Difference between Public History and Museum Studies Programs

I often have several museum studies students in my public history classes and have asked, “Why did you choose museum studies over public history when you clearly seem interested in history?” To my dismay, they have unanimously answered, “Since I was a history undergraduate major I thought that I would focus my graduate work on museum studies.” Unfortunately, these students either advised themselves or were given misleading information. As readers of Perspectives on History know, graduate-level work in the discipline is entirely different than undergraduate work. To be a truly effective public historian working in a museum, graduate training in history is essential, although not all museum work requires a content-driven graduate program.

Museum studies programs tend to be interdisciplinary and/or are grounded in anthropology departments because of their traditional emphasis on material culture. Universities that offer both museum studies and public history often make arrangements to cross-list courses and offer a joint degree or “track.” In most cases, the programs do not compete for students, but undergraduates researching graduate programs are often confused about the best means for securing the desired type of museum employment. This confusion stems from a misunderstanding of how public history programs are structured. To reiterate, a public history program will emphasize content and mastery of the historical discipline first and foremost. It will provide training in research and interpretive skills that are specific to a variety of audiences. On the other hand, museum studies programs offer courses that convey academic and professional knowledge that supports all aspects of museum work, including education, exhibits, collections, and development. Many are linked with other academic departments to cross-list courses to infuse some graduate-level content and skill development, but only expose students to the discipline’s research methodology or interpretation. There are a few programs, like Cooperstown Graduate Program, that blend the two disciplines and offer a degree focused on history museums that has a long-standing successful track record of placing graduates in historical museums. For the most part, students choose either history (or anthropology, or art history) and supplement by taking museum studies classes, or vice versa. When advising students who ask about the difference between museum studies and public history, I ask, “What do you want to do in a museum?” If they answer, “I am not sure, I just know I want to work in a museum of any kind,” I respond that museum studies will give them an overview of the various skills needed in each museum department, and allow them to specialize in education or collections, for example. If they respond that they are interested in content development for exhibits or state they want a research or interpretive position in a history museum, I suggest that public history will better prepare them for these types of positions. In summary, if they want to be flexible to work in any kind of museum, in most types of positions, then a museum studies program is probably the best fit. If they want to be able to market themselves as a historian who wants the flexibility of working in a museum, preservation agency, archives, or other career that values historical research and interpretation, then public history is a better bet.

Doctoral Work in Public History

There has been growing interest in doctoral work in public history as more universities establish terminal master’s programs to prepare historians for work outside of the academy. These departments seek faculty who have both work experience in public history and academic training in a doctoral program. The University of California at Santa Barbara and Middle Tennessee State University are the only two programs that I am aware of that offer a PhD in public history. Other programs that offer an MA in public history and also have a PhD program will often encourage students who desire to teach public history or seek higher-level public history positions (such as at the National Museum of American History, some state historical societies, or on documentary editing projects) to include public history as one of their main doctoral fields (Arizona State University, Loyola University Chicago, University of Las Vegas, and University of South Carolina are examples).

Some prospective public historians have begun contemplating going straight into a doctoral program rather than beginning with a terminal MA. There are positive and negative aspects to this path. First of all, if the student’s goal is to work in the public sector, work experience usually counts as much as the degree when it comes to finding a job. Students who graduate with little or no internship experience at either the MA or PhD level will find it difficult to find gainful employment. The MA graduate with work experience will probably be more marketable than the PhD without work experience. Furthermore, although it is changing, there is still a perception in the museum and historical society world that a PhD who is seeking a job outside of academia is only interested because they did not get a tenure-track position. Before the public history and museum studies fields established themselves, this was the career path of many museum curators and directors. Unfortunately, while many PhDs deliberately seek out careers in the public sector, the perception still exists that a PhD is overqualified for many public history jobs.

A better option might be to earn the MA, work in the field, and then go back to earn the PhD either to advance in the public sector or to seek a tenure-track position teaching and researching public history at a university. From my department’s perspective, the fact that I earned an MA from one program, worked in the field for 11 years, and earned a PhD from another program was a highly desirable aspect of my curriculum vitae. On the other hand, if the ultimate goal is to earn the PhD, this strategy obviously takes more time. One benefit of selecting a university that offers a doctoral track in public history is that the candidate, in most cases, can decide whether or not they want to continue for the PhD or finish with an MA. Students must be advised, however, that not every university permits students who go directly into a PhD program to then switch to the MA.

Conclusion

As many public history programs celebrate their 20th, 25th, 30th, and 35th anniversaries, there are significantly more career and graduate study options open to students interested in pursuing careers in history. This has caused confusion among those who advise undergraduates. First and foremost, it is essential to understand what it is that public history programs offer—graduate training in history, with an emphasis in researching and developing interpretations for a variety of audiences. Course offerings that include “Historic Site Interpretation,” “Community and Local History,” “Archives and Manuscripts,” “Historical Resource Management,” and “History and Public Policy” and the ability to place students in the field are indicative of a program’s ability to fulfill the latter. The former should be easily recognized by all historians upon a perusal of a program’s ability to teach methodology, train students to develop an extended research project, and demonstrate reading competency on a specialized topic. Advisors whose students tell them they love history, but don’t want to teach, would serve their advisees will by becoming familiar with the range of options for graduate training in public history.

Go to www.publichistory.org/index.asp to learn more about graduate programs in public history.

—Melissa Bingmann is assistant professor of history at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Notes

1. Rebecca Conard articulated this point in her remarks as a panelist on “State of the Field: Public History,” Organization of American Historians, 2004.