Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group

Monetizing skills

Apologies for my late submission.  I just came out of a work haze on several projects that, appropriate to this question, involved collaborating with individuals, groups, and stakeholders.

I am also contributing late because I struggled a lot with question #2. I kept asking myself why I was having so much trouble conceiving an answer or engaging in a conversation about it. As several people have already implied in their posts, the answer to question #2 seems contingent on one’s financial needs and personal obligations at various times in our lives. I can imagine we’ve all had projects on which we had to pass because they didn’t provide compensation enough to, as Nick says, pay the rent and bills.  As Nancy and others indicate, the demands of our personal and familial lives also shape these decisions.  I’ll also reiterate and add to the observations of those who brought up the complex issue of unpaid labor: beyond financial hardship, what are the professional costs of taking low-paid or unpaid positions on promising projects?  Can such a decision actually be perceived as a step back in one’s career?

But whether here on the blog or in person in April, I’d also like to shift the conversation slightly and ask the following: what professional skills can we develop that will on the one hand allow us to be better historians, public educators, and liaisons between the academy and the public, and on the other hand be valued by the market, which most of us don’t have the option of opting out of?  Put bluntly : what are some skills we can leverage for money while improving as professionals?  Further, how can we leverage those skills to improve the public history careers that already exist, and conceive new ones, especially those drawing on new technologies and social media?

Everyone’s goals for conference working groups are slightly different, of course, but these kinds of nitty gritty brainstorms were what I envisioned when I applied to join this group.

To the question I proposed above, I will start the list with a few skills ideas that I’d love to hear other people’s feedback on: (1) presentation and public speaking (2) web design and social media management and (3) the ability to write content – for websites, labels, any publicly consumed material – that blends clarity, pithiness, and scholarly rigor.



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4 thoughts on “Monetizing skills

  1. Hi Julie,

    Great points. It’s uncanny that the three skills you identify are all things I’ve tried to develop myself. (1) I took the Certified Interpretative Guide certification through the National Association for Interpretation. (2) I’ve tried to use twitter & wordpress as part of my ‘historian activities’. (3) I’m about to start writing a ‘heritage’ series for a travel website.

    Pursuing all of these things (on top of my dissertation) has got me thinking that a big problem for historians with jobs – maybe the biggest – is that so many potential employers don’t know what historians can offer to ANY organisation.

    In my experience, when I identify myself as a historian the reaction is ‘what arcane aspect of history do you study?’ rather than ‘you must be developing all sorts of useful skills’, such as research, writing, presenting, critical analysis, project management… etc. etc. (and the list really does go on and on.)

    Perhaps this is where organisations such as the NCPH, OAH, AHA can help. Maybe if more people understood what historians actually do and the skills we have spent years developing, there wouldn’t be such a problem monetising our skills in related fields.

    We should obviously all be able to articule what it is that we can do for perspective employers, but some institutional help would be nice.

  2. Ann McCleary on said:

    Excellent points, Julie and Nick.

    Again, I’m coming to this conversation from a relatively protected position as an educator–I have a job in a college, but I am training future public historians and I am worried about where they may find themselves career wise. I keep thinking about where they will find jobs with the clogged market right now, and it’s very hard for them to compete whewith more qualified and experienced applicants often laid off due to the bad economy.

    So like all of you, I am trying to think about how our students can use their skills and knowledge in crafting other potential jobs on which they could support themselves.

    Like you folks, I think that sometimes history is hard to sell. But it seems like there is more opportunity in heritage tourism now, for example, but that does involve sets of skills such as web development, digitization, and of course good historical research and analysis as well as the broader understanding of public history.

    I’m wondering what we need to integrate into our training to help prepare our students. How should public history training change to suit the changing employment opportunities?


  3. Thanks for both of your smart comments. It sounds like we agree on the following: not only do we need to conceive of and teach marketable skills for historians – we also need to think about how to rebrand the profession to the public to connotate skills that are not only helpful but necessary in a number of fields.

    Anne raises the great issue of how to alter our training of public historians to address changing employment opportunities and limits. I would add that we should also think about how to change the training of historians writ large – from the first-year student to the undergrad major to the PhD – to help shed the pesky stereotype that Nick describes so well: the isolated scholar studying arcane, unrelatable topics.

  4. It was recently suggested at a professional fundraising conference that we each have our own “elevator speech” prepared for those times when we’re asked, “What are you working on right now?” or “What do you do?” To craft a succinct answer that demonstrates the marketability, value, importance, relevance, etc., that could lead to collaboration is a skill that could and should be taught to students and professionals. While networking opportunities are available at conferences like NCPH, knowing how to network in order to take advantage of these opportunities is something that needs to be taught. It’s not as intuitive as some may think.

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