Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Getting ready for the conference

Seth and I are looking forward to a spirited discussion on Friday morning.  We’ve formulated an agenda based on the major themes, issues, and recommendations that arose in the blog discussion.  Thanks to all who have contributed thus far.



Careers *for* historians, or careers *as* historians?

An appreciation of long-term perspective and the source-critical analytical skills public historians have worked to attain are useful in many fields, especially in our ‘knowledge economy’. (I also think Will’s suggestion of project management is a great one.) In the longer term, as Michael says, perhaps the bigger problem is how historians can realistically break into these other career paths. This will involve ourselves and our professional bodies doing a better job of letting other fields/industries/professions know ‘what we can do for you.’

But I’m struggling a bit with thinking about ‘specific paths’. There seems to be another question here. Are we discussing careers *for* historians, or careers *as* historians? I’ve met historians that absolutely love history and can’t think of doing anything else outside traditional conceptions of ‘being a historian’, and historians who love the process of creating history but can’t see where they could translate and use these skills elsewhere.

So for me, this is not simply a question of ‘new careers’, but also what historians see as ‘working in history’. Is bringing our historical skills to other careers enough? Or are we also concerned with preserving our identities as historians?

I know the vphd website was mentioned before, but it features accounts of humanities graduates successfully working as;

business analysts,


corporate researchers,

grant writers

all taking advantage of historians’ skills. But are these professions where public historians are ‘most needed right now’? Probably not. But are these jobs that historians can realistically get right now? I think so.



Where Public Historians Are Needed the Most Today

At last we’re really getting into “Imagining New Careers in History.”

However, I believe there is a big difference between where public historians are needed today, and where they can successfully insinuate themselves today.

I believe public historians are needed the most in fields where they currently are not in the majority, but where other professions have laid greater claim.  These fields include:

  • Cultural resource management (currently dominated by archaeologists – even for historical resources – with a large dose of academic historians)
  • National Security Information classification review (currently dominated by veterans of the military/intelligence communities and the State Department)
  •  Environmental assessment (perhaps currently dominated by environmental scientists)

I cannot say, however, that public historians could have the biggest impact along these career paths “right now.”  If that were the case, historians would be making a beeline for these fields right now.  Instead, two things have to happen:

1) Public historians will need to broaden their education.  For example, to be competitive in environmental assessment, historians should have some background in chemistry and environmental science.  And, depending on the particular property or property types being studied, cultural resource management specialists should have a firm background in the history and subject of those property types (but this is what public historians can do best).

2) NCPH, and other spokespersons for public history, must make a concerted effort to convince the hiring authorities for these new public history venues (often in the federal civil service) that “our” historians, properly trained, can indeed fulfill the requirements of the positions we are applying for, and can do it in a superior fashion. ~ Michael

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