Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group

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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

Digital Historians

Digital humanities projects have spread like wildfire over the past decade, with training programs and centers popping up in institutions across the country. Inclusions and exclusions of the past in the digital sphere happen every day, and public historians are ideal candidates to lead this revolution.

As public historians, we do not bring only our knowledge of research and writing to these efforts. Our public history training provides us with great familiarity with the history of preservation efforts and an understanding of the importance of funding, authority, audience and stakeholders in historical work. Finally, we bring our commitments to community engagement and shared authority which are particularly important in the new field of digital history which is fraught with questions of costs, expertise and access.


What specific jobs do I mean?

–Digital history project managers and staff who create, construct and maintain innovative work.

–Archives and special collections staff positions in digital preservation and web-based digital humanities projects.

–Digital humanities center staff jobs, as they are created in colleges and universities.

–Faculty jobs in which professors both teach digital history and engage in the theoretical issues that the new field raises.



P.S. The website is a great resource for us as we continue this conversation. While the website’s name focuses on the Ph.D., the site is in reality a clearinghouse of information for people with training in the humanities, easily encompassing historians who have strengths in public education, research and writing, and organizational skills. The site is now available to both individual members who can sign up for free, and to institutional college and university members.

Third Question

Where today do we need public historians the most?

[Seth: If you’re like me, you can probably see a need for public historians in even the most unexpected places.  We’re curious, though, to know where you folks think public historians could make the biggest impact right now in today’s job market.  And please be as specific as you can.  For instance, I’d love to see more people with public history skill sets involved in national politics, but “politics” is too vague for our purpose.  “President” would be a more useful response, though perhaps not so probable.  In any event, you get my meaning.  A number of you have already offered some suggestion in your comments, but let’s shoot for each participant identifying at least 2-3 specific career paths that have thus far remained unexplored by public historians.

As always, please respond to this question in a “new post.”  Try to keep your responses brief (250-300 words max).  To make a post, go to the “Dashboard.”  Click on “Posts” and then “Add New.”  Please sign your post with “~Firstname” in the body text.  Click “Publish” and you’re done.  Thank you!]


Our working group is called “Imagining New Careers in History.”  I volunteered for the group because I have a strong belief in the ability of public historians to occupy positions not normally associated with historians, such as the document reviewer/classifier/declassifier position that I, a non-traditional historian (no history degree), currently occupy with the Department of the Air Force.  In fact, I submitted a proposal for such a talk at a previous NCPH annual meeting, but it was not accepted.

Our third question suggests what I consider a rather traditional view of what constitutes public history – to “create engaging history projects” for public consumption.  This, to me, does not speak to “new careers.”  In “imagining new careers,” I am focusing on new types of positions which historians heretofore may not have considered or applied for – positions in which public historians can thrive and on which they can have a substantial positive impact. 

My Air Force reviewer/classifier job is such a position.  Usually, the only prerequisite for such a job is a security clearance; previous experience as a reviewer is a plus but not always necessary.  Over the past eleven years I observed that trained historians can often do better in these reviewer positions than non-historians because of their knowledge of and interest in the subject, their grasp of historical context, their experience with historical records and archives, and their ability to develop and deliver training curricula.  My experience includes the statement of a Department of Energy reviewer/classifier who had the recommended physics degree but wished he had got a history degree instead; and the fact that one of the best reviewers in my current organization is our newest and youngest employee, who happens to have bachelors and masters degrees in history. ~ Michael

More to follow…

I just spent the small amount of time I could spare composing a response, and then when I pushed post, it was gone.  Just didn’t want the deadline to pass with it appearing I am not interested.  I have to run!  Thanks to all for posting!!

Make it a great day…


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.


Historians and potential earnings

I think as historians we sometimes tend to think of our profession as being outside the ‘normal’ conduct of jobs and careers.

I interpret the most recent question as a problem everyone experiences in their professional careers, and is certainly not unique to historians; monetary compensation vs professional development opportunity. Is it worth working on this project or not? ‘I might not get paid, but I’m getting valuable experience.’

We can’t opt out of the market-based society we live in. Rent and bills must be paid. It strikes me that much of the ‘history job market’ operates on the fact that there is always a pool of cheap labour willing to work for next to nothing. Each year a new cohort replaces those who can no longer afford to take the low paid or non-paid voluntary opportunities that expand skill-sets.

It seems that when a historian reaches a certain level of competence and ability to collaborate imaginatively – skills that Will refers to in the question – many (most?) will find they have priced themselves out of the market. New grads and other willing volunteers not seeking a living wage, but now themselves seeking ‘experience’, can be used on projects at lower cost.

How to change the cycle? I don’t know. There’s a problem here that the market is screaming ‘don’t be a professional historian.’ But we all love history and hope to work as historians anyway. I know it’s my hope.


– Nick


I was puzzled by question #2 because I couldn’t fathom someone still looking to get established in the field declining to work on any kind of public history project, conventional or un-.  But, then, my path to public history has been a decidedly non-linear one.

When my career as an oil company geologist came to an abrupt end in the early 90s with yet another precipitous fall in oil prices, I fell back on my scientific education/work background and military history hobby, and began the transformation into a military history/environmental consultant with a specialization in the Cold War. 

Because I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I find myself heavily influenced by Hollywood, where the strategy for up-and-comers is to accumulate “credits” – credits for doing anything in show business.  As someone without a history degree of any kind, I had to establish some personal credibility by earning some “history credits.”  And I did that by volunteering to work on as many military history projects as I could find. 

Some turned out well, some not so well.  For two different projects, I got to go to Hawaii, which was interesting not because I was working in a resort area (working in a resort area where the other visitors are vacationing is downright frustrating!) but because I got to visit a couple of “backwater” military installations I wouldn’t have been able to visit otherwise.  By contrast, on a Base Closure and Realignment project, I tried to be honest and follow the tenets of Section 106 instead of giving the customer the answer he wanted, and was “rewarded” by being dumped from a follow-on project.

So, what scale of potential earnings was necessary to motivate my participation in unconventional collaborations?  ANY earnings at all.  ~ Michael

A little understanding…

For me, it’s more a matter of not quite understanding the question (#2).  If it’s about earning potential in the field of Public History, I confess I am just hoping to get a job.  When my daughter graduated in the same field a few years back, she created a bit of a low-key sensation when the whispered comment after her name was mentioned was “She got a job in the field of Public History!!”  Her being hired as archivist for a substantial city made the rounds as if she had been one of the Rocket Boys (i.e. movie: October Sky) who literally and figuratively been been propelled from the obscurity of her backward beginnings into an atmosphere full of potential.  She had secured a job as a Public Historian, and you couldn’t blast her out of it if you tried.  Now, wouldn’t I like to be in her shoes…

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