Thursday, October 29, 2009

Blog XXXI (31): The History Ph.D. as a Librarian

In this posting, Dr. Mark H. Danley discusses the career options open to historians in libraries. Danley currently serves as Catalog Librarian at the University of Memphis Libraries. He has previously worked at the University of Southern Mississippi, the Jackson Barracks Military Library in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the U.S. Cavalry Association Library at Fort Riley, Kansas. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University. His dissertation was "The Theory and Practice of Strategy in the Eighteenth-Century British Army." He also holds an M.L.I.S. degree from Louisiana State University, an M.A. in history from Virginia Tech and a B.A. in history from the University of Richmond. A specialist on the British Army, he is currently editing with Patrick J. Speelman a collection of essays on the Seven Years’ War, tentatively titled The Seven Years' War: Global Perspectives. He has also written on the technical aspects of cataloging eighteenth-century military works, and on issues in the naval history of the Korean War. Here is his guest blog:

When a history Ph.D. casts around the professional universe for one of the many so-called “alternate careers” beyond teaching in a history department a 4-year college or university, “librarian” does not usually appear on the results lists. Librarianship is, however, an option for the holder of history doctorate. Librarianship is also a wide field with a wide range of jobs in it. Admittedly, many library jobs open today are hardly more desirable than the adjunct teaching circuit to which so many new history Ph.D.s find themselves relegated. Yet some library jobs are interesting and pay the bills, and a very few of which are relatively lucrative and intellectually engaging.

There are a lot of ways to put the knowledge one gains from a history doctoral program to good use working in an academic library – especially an academic research library. I doubt many history graduate students look forward to becoming a reference librarian, but on the other hand many literate people find that sort of work interesting and intellectually invigorating. Admittedly, reference work can call upon the skills the research skills that one gets in graduate history work. Some academic libraries have librarians whose primary role is specialized research assistance for the humanities, and historians might find that work interesting. My own interests lay in technical services – specifically cataloging. That is another area of academic librarianship where the critical thinking skills gained from graduate work in the humanities can be quite useful. The design and maintenance of large bibliographic databases, with the complex syndetic structures of catalog headings and the interrelationships between descriptive conventions and encoding schemes can get quite technical yet still require analytical abilities familiar to historians. Perhaps the area of academic research library operations traditionally most attractive to the humanities Ph.D. is special collections and archival work. The decisions that special collections librarians make about preserving and providing access to primary source materials, which we so often tell our students are the raw material of history, are easily enhanced by a historian’s understanding of the significance of those materials. More than a few history graduate students survey the realm of teaching opportunities (or lack thereof) that await them when they finally get their Ph.D. and decide happily that they’d rather be an archivist. There was a time when an advanced degree in a humanities field was indeed recognized as a qualifying credential to work as a manuscript curator, archivist, or perhaps as a rare books curator. That is not the case anymore.

The first thing a history graduate student interested in a library career must accept is that a history Ph.D. by itself is not going to get you a desirable job in an academic library. (I expect some people will throw up their hands in frustration here but I encourage brave souls to read on.) In order to work as an academic librarian you need a Master’s degree from a library science, library and information science, information science graduate program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA). Some history Ph.D.s (or Ph.D.s in other humanities fields for that matter) have no problem with this reality when they decide they want to go into the library field. They proceed to find a Master of Library Science (MLS), Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) or equivalent ALA-accredited program, complete it, and start a career in librarianship. Other holders of a history doctorate cannot accept the reality that they need yet another degree to work in a library and they try to circumvent it. There are several reasons for this. First, some historians just don’t believe they really need another degree to work effectively in a library. The culture of graduate school does not really inculcate historians with a high view of librarianship as a profession. The experience of earning a graduate degree in history almost always does convey the importance of libraries – but not always librarians. At best most scholars see academic librarians as skilled helpers, people with arcane knowledge to assist navigating the maze of a research collection and for which scholars should be grateful. But they’re just that – helpers – not the people doing the work themselves. In other words, they’re not scholars. At worst they see librarians as a sort of clerical servant, not a collaborator, not a professional, and certainly not a colleague. Fortunately, that “worst” is not something one encounters too often. Yet, the fact remains that many professional historians do not see librarians as their equals. They do not articulate or make explicit this view because they don’t have to – it never comes up. It’s just assumed.

So the implication for many new Ph.D.s is that they really don’t need a library degree because a history doctorate so immerses them in the library that they could certainly do anything a “mere” librarian could. In the case of many academic library operations – collection management, cataloging, et. al. that’s not true, but both bright-eyed doctoral student and senior professor are not always likely to realize it. Further compounding the problem of disbelief that one really needs another degree is the low academic quality of many MLS/MLIS programs. Many are not intellectually rigorous. On the other hand, most MLIS programs have at least some classes that are challenging and deal with topics of substantive importance. And in better academic research libraries you will find people who need and put to use the knowledge they gained from classes like that. Further, even classes that aren’t rigorous in the sense of a humanities graduate program teach you things that you need to know. Some of the best examples come from the technical field. Doctoral programs in history nowadays are a lot better about exposing students to technology, such as that used to digitize primary source materials, than history graduate programs were about a decade ago when digitization hit the historical community. Yet most recent history Ph.D.s do not know much about what it takes to make and manage a digital collection. This is the kind of thing you can and must learn in one of the more serious MLIS classes. Other examples come from some of the better cataloging, special collections, and archives courses. (Quality and seriousness of cataloging classes, however, varies highly across MLS/MLIS programs.) Further examples of classes that contain things you need to know but did not learn in history classes come from collection management operations of an academic library. How many history graduate programs teach about dealing with vendors and managing a large budget? Again, many of the weaker MLS/MLIS programs will not do that well either, but a good library school class will while a good history graduate class almost certainly won’t.

This takes me back to one of the points above. The necessity of the MLS/MLIS is especially pronounced if the new history Ph.D. is interested in going into the field of special collections librarianship. Many new historians look at the market for teaching jobs and make a (usually uninformed) decision that life as an archivist would be more appealing and a great way to use their historical knowledge outside of teaching. It can be. Yet things have changed considerably in the past 20 years or so. Twenty years ago, it was not unreasonable to maintain that a humanities doctorate – especially a history doctorate – was an appropriate qualifying credential to be an archivist. This is no longer true. The special collections field today – especially the archives and manuscripts part of it – demands a very technical education. Unless your history graduate program gave you a good practical introduction to the use of open-source archival management systems, standard XML encoding schemes like TEI, MEP, and MODS and the basics of MARC21 it did not give you enough to be an archivist today.

The importance of the MLS/MLIS and its relationship to a history Ph.D. brings up the issue of how holders of each degree relate to holders of the other in library organizations. If you read blogs, journal articles, etc. on the subject of humanities Ph.D.s in academic libraries inevitably you will come across discussions of how and whether the librarians without the Ph.D.s are resentful of, disparaging of, or antagonistic to the occasional Ph.D. who is working as an academic librarian. This is an interpersonal dynamic you may encounter and you should be aware of it. It does not, however, have to stop you from finding a good job in a library and making great colleagues and friends in the field.

First, you should accept openly that while other degrees (like your doctorate) are useful, at the end of the day the MLIS/MLIS is the terminal degree in the library field. Neither a Ph.D. in history nor anything else (no matter how great your dissertation was or who your adviser was) nor a Master’s degree in anything else is the qualifying credential to become a professional librarian. I have worked for several librarians who do not have a Ph.D. but they have years of experience as a catalogers, have the well-developed, comprehensive knowledge and experience to manage a department, do it well and deserve their positions.

Second, much of the resentment against Ph.D.s in academic libraries comes not from the degree itself but from librarians’ encounters with the arrogance of a few bad apples. In other words, act collegially and often you will have no problem. Respect the knowledge of others and often you will have no problem. Sometimes, of course, no matter what you do someone else will have a problem with you. When you interview for an academic library job, try to keep an eye out for librarians and library staff who might have the “resent-the-doctorate” attitude. In most cases, however, you will not even get that far. So, if you find yourself having difficulty finding a library job, before you get discouraged and angry at not even getting an interview for a job for which you were clearly qualified, recall one thing: you might not want to work there anyway. There is always a chance that if you did get that particular job, you would have all kind of difficulties with people resentful of the doctorate. There is a bright side. Not all academic libraries are like that. There are a large number of academic research libraries where people are secure and professional enough that they’re just interested in building a collegial productive environment. They will see a doctoral degree as an advantage and an asset that they can build upon. There are great libraries out there and if you develop your skills well, write strong cover letters, build a good set of references and interview well, you’ll likely find one.

The library blogsphere has seen a lot of hand-wringing about the professional overpopulation of librarians and how library schools produce far too many MLS graduates than there are new jobs. Sound familiar? Well, there is some truth to that claim that the American Library Association trumps up the supposed “need” for new librarians to replace expected upcoming retirements. It is also true that many new graduates from library science Master’s program have a difficult time finding jobs. But most do not have the MLS/Ph.D. combination. It’s not as if that will guarantee you a job. You will have an easier time than most new MLS/MLIS graduates and most new history Ph.D. graduates. Blogs and list-servs (yes there are still some list-servs out there) abound with new librarians complaining that academic library jobs are out of their reach, and for many of them it’s true. Many of the choicest academic library jobs are going to find attractive someone with the critical thinking and research skills that one gets from completing a Ph.D. program. You will also have an advantage in that you will be set apart from a much more common type found among the hopefuls for an open position in a good library –the ABD who never finished his or her doctorate and then migrated over to librarianship. While people leave history doctoral programs for multiple reasons, and while some of those reasons are good ones, the fact remains that someone who actually finished the doctorate and then earned a library degree will attract more and better job offers. Be wary, however, of a library’s motives for hiring you. Some academic librarians will want humanities Ph.D.s for the right reasons (e.g. someone who has a doctorate understands the research process better and therefore can help researchers better, etc.) Some academic libraries will want them for the wrong reasons – they think, for example, that having more Ph.D.s among the library faculty ranks will increase the librarians’ credibility with the teaching faculty. In some cases that can work, but in other cases it won’t.

I also recommend that when looking for jobs, consider carefully not just the library in which you will be working, but the overall university environment and especially the history department. Regarding the overall university environment, one thing to consider is whether librarians have faculty appointments or are considered staff. Working at a university where librarians are faculty and working at one where they are staff each has advantages and disadvantages of course. When you are staff it means you have a regular job. It’s less likely that you will be pulled into extensive (and time-consuming) university-level committee work) and it means you have both the freedom and the constraints of a 9-5 Monday through Friday work week (although if you work in reference, for example, you may be working a lot of evenings and weekends. Technical services, including cataloging jobs like the one I have, tend to be regular business hours though.) It also means you will have both the freedom and the constraints of a regular holiday schedule, and if your library is well managed you’ll have an unambiguous chain of command. The disadvantages are applicable if you want to remain active in your history research. If your vision for putting your doctorate to use in a library is simply to apply the knowledge to professional library work, then a staff position may be just fine. Staff may have less access to university resources to support research, for example, although this is something to ask about at the interview stage. But if you are research-inclined and you find a job you like that is a staff appointment, don’t just assume that your research will end. Some universities for example do indeed provide professional travel and development support for staff, including librarians.

The advantages and disadvantages of the faculty position follow from some of the comments above about the image of academic librarians among history professors and graduate students. To be blunt, the main disadvantage of having a library faculty appointment is that most other faculty will not take your own faculty status seriously. Regardless of what a few grumpy naysayers at your university might think, you will still have a faculty ID, and be able to check the “faculty” box on various forms. This will open up doors to both internal and external funding to your research and do things like get you faculty reciprocal borrowing privileges that many research libraries offer to each other.

Suppose you do get the MLS/MLIS or equivalent Master’s, find a great library job and get started. I also recommend that anyone who earns a history Ph.D. and then becomes a librarian stay active in your historical research. You will find that having a foot in both the history camp and library camp, so to speak, serves you well. At history conferences you will be often the only librarian, and at smaller library conferences you will often be the only history Ph.D. (you will not be the only one with a history Ph.D. at the American Library Association Conference, though, which I consider a good thing.) I have been amazed sometimes to hear professional historians say things about libraries that simply cannot be substantiated, and yet will all the great minds around there is hardly anyone to contest the claim. (And I hardly consider myself a “great mind”.) Likewise, I have seen academic research librarians attempt to make major decisions about the allocation of resources or the building of a collection say things that no actual researcher ever would. So there is a real need for professionals with a foot in both the library camp and the historian camp. Be one of them and you can make a real contribution. But you don’t necessarily have to keep up with your historical scholarship if you’re less inclined. That would never be my choice, but it is the choice of some. There are people out there who write a good dissertation and graduate but for whatever reason just don’t want to continue historical scholarship. Maybe the dissertation was enough research and writing for one lifetime. Maybe they enjoy the reading and thinking but the research and writing less so. Maybe they just don’t want the pressure. Sometimes a library career can be good for a history Ph.D.s of that inclination. The doctorate plus the library science master’s will have given them skills to apply and a meaningful career applying them can follow, whether or not they continue with their historical scholarship.

If you have a history Ph.D. and work in an academic library, it’s nice to have a good relationship with the history department at that university. You’ll have colleagues to talk with about your history research (if you keep up with it) and hear about theirs. You might also find some adjuncting opportunities if you get the teaching itch. Sometimes your relationship with the history department can get tricky. You might find, for example, that you get job offers for academic library jobs at universities whose history departments wouldn’t give your cv a second look if you applied for one of their openings. Suppose you take such a library job – depending on the personalities involved you might find at best polite brush-offs and at worst outright disdain from the history department. I suspect that situation is rare, however, unless one of the proverbial bad apples is involved. One thing that weighs in your favor is that at a larger university you may not be the only history Ph.D. outside the history department. Take a look at the American Historical Association's Directory of History Departments and check out the “non-departmental historians” section under each university’s listing and you will see what I mean. You may be fortunate enough to get hired for a library job at a university whose history department is interested in your historical work. In that case, they will view you as a kind of “freebie” – they get an extra historian with a specialty that complements their department but the salary isn’t on their budget line. If that happens, you’ll have to manage your time carefully to exploit your opportunities, as the job the library hired you to do will obviously take most of your time and by rights should be your priority. Good communication with your history colleagues and your library administration, however, can lead to some mutually rewarding collaboration.

Libraries are older than universities themselves, and professional librarianship dates from roughly the same time that historian became a recognizable profession. Despite the doom and gloom some of my comments may seem to cast upon the aspiring historian-librarian’s prospects there are indeed great career opportunities to bring together what you learned from your Ph.D. program with the challenges of contemporary academic library work. I hope that you’ll consider the good as well as the challenges. Get the library science Master’s, choose your job carefully, cultivate good relationships with all your colleagues, and a world of intellectually invigorating and sometimes lucrative career opportunities await.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blog XXX (30): The History Ph.D. as a Foreign Service Officer

Aaron P. Forsberg earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He entered the Foreign Service in March of 2001 and has served in Qatar, Thailand, Washington, D.C., and Japan. Prior to entering the Foreign Service, he taught history in the University of Maryland system and worked as a translator for the Tokyo office of the law firm White & Case LLP. He is author of America and the Japanese Miracle (2000). The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Department of State or the U.S. Government.

What's it like to train as a historian specializing in a certain field and then go to work as the ultimate generalist, a diplomat? In our increasingly specialized world, it's certainly a counterintuitive career move. When you’re riding in a jeep bouncing down a one-lane road somewhere in Timor-Leste off to yet another camp for internally displaced persons, for example, your first thought probably won't be how working on that Ph.D. in history prepared you for a career in foreign affairs. Yet as a Foreign Service Officer working for the Department of State, it is precisely post-conflict spots like the former East Timor and other assignments on the periphery far removed from what you studied that provide opportunities for a graduate education to pay off professionally early on. Speaking from my own experience, this blog entry describes a Foreign Service career with students of history in mind. To provide some useful context, I also touch on other careers in international relations.

Who among you should consider a career in the Foreign Service? Obviously, if the idea of representing the United States overseas is at all alluring, you should consider it. There's a certain exhilaration to being in the thick of the action. For students of foreign policy especially, a basic question to consider is whether to be an observer or a participant. The common assumption is that by choosing to train in history you have already chosen the former. That need not be the case. (Full disclosure: I was inclined toward a career in international relations beginning in high school, but jumped at the opportunity to earn a doctorate in history straight out of college because I welcomed the intellectual workout and thought it might prepare me to compete with Washington's policy wonks.) As I searched archives for documents on postwar U.S.-Japanese relations while turning my dissertation into a book, the policy fray beckoned so I decided to register for the Foreign Service Officer Test.

The particulars of the Foreign Service Officer selection process vary somewhat each year, but at its core it consists of an online exam and an oral interview. If you pass the online exam and complete all of the related submissions satisfactorily, you will be invited to take the all-day oral assessment, usually held in Washington, at your own expense. If you pass the oral, then your name is placed on a rank-ordered register for hiring. You must also undergo medical, security clearance, and suitability reviews. Hiring plans and budgetary resources (or the lack thereof) drive much of the process. I had to wait to take the test because one consequence of the budget battles of the mid-1990s was that the Department did not hire for a while. Then, starting even before 9/11, the Department hired aggressively for a period. We appear to be in another hiring surge. The selection and review process has shortened considerably in recent years, but it still takes several months at a bare minimum, so in that respect it is not unlike an academic job-search. You can learn more about the FSO selection process here:

When discussing the Foreign Service, the word "generalist" deserves special emphasis. It is the word used to describe the officer career track that can lead upward to appointment as an ambassador or other high position. Like the military, assignments last for specified periods and the promotion system is up-or-out. As a Foreign Service generalist, you will work at many different jobs over the course of your career. When registering for the Foreign Service exam you must specify what "career track" you prefer (political, economic, public diplomacy, management or consular), but you will not always serve in that career track. You will acquire topical and regional experience, and you will become extraordinarily knowledgeable about issues you cover that are in play. But the press of events will often determine those issues, and they will change along with your assignments. With rare exceptions, diplomats do not plow the same fields year after year.

Moving from the academy to the Foreign Service thus entails leaving a world emphasizing depth and continuity for one where breadth and flexibility get you noticed. In other words, a graduate education is potentially useful not for certifying an area of expertise, but for how it enables you to stand out as a generalist in some way. The specifics will vary depending upon you, your past course of study, and your future assignments.

Not all government careers relating to foreign affairs entail such a stark shift in paradigm from specialist to generalist. There are many analyst and other positions at departments and agencies (including Civil Service positions at State) that require advanced degrees in the social sciences. The expertise sought tends to be clearly defined and the employment is position-specific (meaning that you will not move to another position unless you apply for it). Likewise, professional staff positions on Congressional committees also tend to be somewhat specialized. Career staffers play a vital role in policy-making, and working for a committee represents an attractive career opportunity. Non-governmental organizations also hire Ph.D.s, often for director-level positions with administrative responsibility. More Ph.D.s than you might expect live and work in Washington.

Falling somewhere in the middle of the generalist-expert spectrum are the academics or policy specialists--often employed at think tanks and public affairs schools--who fill appointed positions at all levels in every administration, from cabinet secretaries to the special assistants to ambassadors at large embassies. There is no set of requirements for landing such a position, but as with so many things political Washington is the focus of attention. The logical starting point for academics is to become an authority on a policy-relevant issue through publications and networking, but there's an undeniable element of serendipity. One possible hook is a fellowship or grant to study something or somewhere that has policy relevance. Such a life requires vigorous self-promotion and active participation in the public discussion of your issue (read: media exposure). Besides becoming known, part of the job involves cultivating sponsors on Capitol Hill and in the administration (or up-and-coming players who will attain high office in the future).

So, what can a Ph.D. do for you? While an advanced degree is not required for entry into the Foreign Service, all of that reading you did for major and minor exams should prepare you reasonably well to pass the written sections of the Foreign Service Officer Test. The job knowledge component contains questions about American history, political institutions, the Constitution, literature and culture. You will also need to be familiar with economics, geography, communication, and management, among other subjects (for more detail, consult the Department's website link noted above). Experience grading papers and dealing with editors may also help to prepare you for the English expression and usage test component of the written exam. The degree itself may also land you a slightly higher starting salary compared to someone starting with a B.A. or M.A., but that is not the main thing it can do for you.

The real value of a graduate education is the training in analyzing complex issues, whether political, economic, social, or some combination of various factors. Being accustomed to bringing a high degree of analytical rigor to problems and having read widely contributes to making a person a quick study--a capable generalist. In practical terms, this means being able to make sense of particular or specialized issues and their connection to policy, probing in depth as necessary, and then explain them in comprehensible terms to others. This is true whether you are working overseas or in Washington. Proficiency in a hard foreign language acquired before, or as part of, your graduate study can also serve you very well.

Obviously you don't need a graduate education to be able to differentiate the what from the so-what in most instances. But some foreign policy issues are very complex and history generally looms larger for most peoples than it does for Americans, both on the macro level and on the level of institutional memory. I believe that my training in history and economics has enabled me to deal with some issues far more effectively than if I did not have such background. It is not just the knowledge I picked up along the way, it is the sense for what questions to ask, or what to read, or whom I should seek to consult regarding some aspect of the problem. One of the first things I do in a new assignment is to trace the history of the issues I'm covering to discover who follows them and knows them well. Like the best historical writing, standout political or economic reporting draws its strength from its sources. I have also found that in much of the world high-level bureaucrats and senior political leaders have studied abroad, often at the graduate level. Raising the subject of graduate school life in conversation is a natural way to build rapport.

Returning to the example of Timor, the young democracy's implosion in 2006 only four years after regaining its independence raised basic questions about state formation and the requirements for stability. One of the obvious sources of instability was the rivalry among leaders at the top, which quickly I learned had roots extending back as far as the declaration of independence from Portugal in 1975 and subsequent invasion by Indonesian military forces. As the desk officer in Washington covering the country, my job was to make sense of what was happening and take the lead in finding a way to assist the Timorese pick up the pieces and make a go of it again. (We did not have an ambassador in country for about nine months from late 2006 to mid-2007.) While I had studied decolonization and was broadly familiar with the problems of newly independent states, Timor-Leste was new to me and traveling in country the times I did was very different from making a trip to the archives. It was an exciting assignment involving engagement on fundamental issues in a very challenging particular context as I described in a 2007 article for State magazine (pp. 20-27 in the PDF file available here: Without discounting the difficulty of the long-term development challenges ahead, Timor’s peaceful elections and the launch of a popular new government that year enabled the country to move beyond the crisis. It's often said that the Foreign Service is not a job but a lifestyle, so I would be remiss if I did not touch on the adjustments you will need to make if you join. Three deserve separate mention. First, writing. Turnaround in the Department is fast and the style concise. The rhythm, the pace and the purpose all differ from the sort of writing one may do elsewhere. With a little humility and willingness to learn, however, this adjustment need not be difficult. That is not to understate its importance, however. Particularly for political and economic work, you are what you write, a point historians should grasp intuitively. I still recall an afternoon at the National Archives when I was reviewing some Department of State files from the early 1950s containing memos by George Kennan. I had always wondered why Kennan attracted as much notice as he did, because his writings seemed to me to give expression to views that many others shared. As I leafed through dozens and dozens of memos that afternoon, I got it. The clarity, temerity, and persuasive power of Kennan's writing set him apart from his colleagues.

Second, the operational aspects of any Foreign Service job are just as important as the policy element, sometimes more so. Whether arranging some aspect of the logistics of a presidential visit overseas or the mundane task of making sure that you have the keys to a meeting room so that negotiations can continue beyond their scheduled time, diplomats spend a lot of time attending to details that historians never mention. Effectiveness in completing such work is critical to both advancement and one's reputation; it's not optional or incidental.

Additionally, every Foreign Service Officer spends at least one year, and often two or more, doing consular work overseas, usually issuing visas or assisting American citizens in dealing with emergencies (I did my consular tour in Bangkok, Thailand). Even though some such duty will be in places you might not have ever thought of visiting, it will rank among the most memorable experiences of your career. It may not be immediately apparent, but the pace and style of decision-making required in entry-level consular work also serves as useful training for subsequent assignments dealing with policy issues, both overseas and in Washington. While Malcolm Gladwell does not discuss either consular work or diplomacy in Blink, the links he draws in that book between experience dealing with a matter and the accuracy with which we grasp the reality of the situation on first glance could easily apply to Foreign Service work. The point to highlight is that such operational work is no less real as far as a Foreign Service career than policy analysis, and your likely effectiveness in such capacity will be something the examiners consider during the selection process.

Finally, how much you like change and where you want to live are relevant questions to think about, because moving abroad is part of the Foreign Service experience. Everyone registering for the Foreign Service Officer Test should at least browse books like Realities of Foreign Service Life, by Patricia Linderman et al., which is readily available online. Regardless of your age or what you have done before, all generalists joining the Department begin at the entry level. Most assignments are for two or three years, and being worldwide available means that some of your assignments will be in places you might not have ever contemplated visiting. Qatar was certainly not on my radar screen until my first week of orientation. Over the course of a career most officers tend to focus on a region or two, but you don't have much control over where you go for your first assignment, and location is only one of many factors to consider when arranging subsequent assignments. Of all the jobs available, an ever-shrinking proportion is located in Western Europe, and everyone serves at one or more hardship posts sooner or later. Those who think moving to someplace new is exciting and challenging tend to thrive in careers that involve frequent moves. For me, getting paid to move and tackle something new every few years was in fact one of the chief attractions of this career. As with many things, it is a matter of degree. But you should consider where you fit on the spectrum between global nomad and person of place. A related issue is foreign language. One need not be a linguist to succeed in the Foreign Service, but proficiency in one or more foreign languages is essential for advancement and for enjoying life abroad to its fullest. Proficiency in a hard or rare language is one skill that former academics can and do leverage to stand out. If you don't come in with language, you will have the opportunity to receive training. Either way, learning and using a foreign language is part of living and working in the Foreign Service.

In closing, if you’ve gone to graduate school and are looking for a career outside of the university setting, the Foreign Service and other government careers are worth considering. This is not to understate the adjustment necessary. At times you will find yourself having to deal with problems and situations that are entirely new to you. While taking your Ph.D. to Washington may not be the typical move, the Foreign Service--and the Federal Government generally--cast a wider net in hiring than is commonly assumed. You will find that many of your colleagues have professional education or unique experiences upon which they draw at different points during their career. After successive tours dealing with Southeast Asia, I sought to put my Japanese language and Japan experience to use. I started working at the Embassy in Tokyo in July 2009, one month before the Democratic Party of Japan unseated the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power almost continuously since 1955. As someone who has researched and written about Japanese politics and foreign policy, it is hard to imagine a more interesting time to be assigned to Tokyo.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blog XXIX (29): The History Ph.D. as a Government Historian: Still the “Improbable Success Story”?

The next guest essay comes from Sarandis "Randy" Papadopoulos. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he did graduate work at the University of Alabama and the George Washington University. For the last decade he has been a historian with the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. A specialist on naval warfare during World War II, he has been an on-camera commentator for documentaries that have appeared on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and the DVD version of the film Tora, Tora, Tora (2001). After the terrorist attack on the Pentagon of September 11, 2001, he collaborated with the Department of Defense team that conducted thousands of oral histories of individuals that had been in the building on that day. He also co-authored Pentagon 9/11, the official history of the attack and response in the building. His comments are his own, and not those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or United States government. Here is his guest blog:

I drew my title from an essay by Ronald H. Spector, my dissertation director at the George Washington University (GWU), in a piece he had written twenty years ago. With the essay in mind (and no further consultation with him on this blog!), what I’d like to do is highlight some of the key characteristics of being a government or “official” historian. In particular, I’ll try relating why I became one, and how this type of work has played out for me in the decade since I received my doctorate.

My B.A. was from the University of Toronto, a large, urban research institution in Canada’s biggest city. After graduation and non-academic employment at the university I applied for a Masters in military history at several U.S. schools (I’m an American citizen). Accepted to the University of Alabama, I completed an M.A. in Military and Naval History, and began a doctorate at GWU. Eight years later I earned the Ph.D. with a dissertation on German and American submarine logistics. A year of contract teaching followed, both at GWU and the University of Maryland, College Park. In spring 2000 I began working as a historian in what is now named the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), and have been there since.

Why make the move from teaching at good schools to U.S. government employment? What could possibly motivate such a personal change? My personal answers were rooted in several elements, for I wanted permanent full-time work as a historian, preferably in my chosen field of military history (broadly defined) and, having been raised in a big city, wanted to live in such a place during my working years. I already knew what the Navy’s historians did, having met them while using the service’s library and archives, and the chance to learn more and write about the service seemed interesting. Employment by the U.S. Navy’s history shop, in Washington, D.C., therefore satisfied all my constraints, and quite handily.

I can hear a question come speedily: what about teaching? My response is equally quick: I have taught as often as my time permits and hope to teach in the future. After starting full-time with the Navy, and not including my first post-doctoral year, after-hours I taught seven history classes at GWU and Maryland. These classes ranged from a lecture course in U.S. diplomatic history, to undergraduate research seminars and graduate readings’ seminars in the history of strategy and policy. I have also guest lectured at four universities, supervised an undergraduate’s independent studies program and an M.A. student’s Capstone paper, graded two Ph.D. students’ comprehensive questions in military history, served as outside reader for four M.A. theses and one Ph.D. dissertation, and contributed to a faculty tenure review. Given my location in Washington I could have done more teaching, but my time and energy didn’t permit it.

So what does a U.S. Navy historian do? Fundamentally the answer is research and writing, or much what other historians do. I co-authored Pentagon 9/11, a book on the 2001 terrorist attack, drafted another monograph yet to be printed, published essays, delivered scholarly conference papers derived from my dissertation, book or other research, contributed book reviews, peer reviewed articles submitted to scholarly journals, and authored essays for reference works. I have also written museum scripts for the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, answered history reference questions from service personnel or the general public and processed documentary collections to establish intellectual control of NHHC archival records. Most recently my official work took me to the Pentagon, where I served as the historian attached to the Navy’s Quadrennial Defense Review office. There I offered historical context for a process balancing U.S. Navy strategy, force structure and programs within the limits of Department of Defense constraints.

Are there drawbacks to being a government historian? Perhaps the foremost challenge to official historians stems from their parent organization: the U.S. government, especially its armed services, is ever-changing at a rapid tempo. The expectations for answers and products to support changes are, consequently, for very fast results. While my work primarily addresses the post-1945 world, it has covered the diplomatic roles of Cold War navies, complexities of multinational operations and the difficulties Pentagon victims faced in confronting the terrorist attack of 9/11. Few historians would publish on such diverse subjects over a career, but to support current policy discussions I have also answered enquiries on past U.S. Navy shipbuilding, personnel policies and strategic concepts. Other perennial reference questions are the Second World War’s U-boat campaign, the Pearl Harbor attack and the 1967 U.S.S. Liberty strike. Academic scholars are rarely asked to research and answer questions on such diverse questions on short notice, postponing their long-term research in the process to satisfy such requests for information, yet this is exactly what government historians must do.

More generally, the quick pace of change in government demands official historians pick and choose products to best serve our employer, in addition to academic historians and the general public. The desire to provide research and context that are relevant to current concerns means we are constantly searching for the closest historical approximations to today’s issues. While every historian views the past through a contemporary lens, the concerns of official historians often track definitions of importance defined by others, rather than an individual intellect. Fortunately each official historian retains full autonomy to shape their arguments as they see fit, and doing so without pressure to sugarcoat conclusions or avoid controversy. As further professional security, official historians may withhold their names from any product with which they disagree.

Working for the government opens a key opportunity we “official” historians enjoy, with the chance, sometimes, to speak to service-member military practitioners. The chance to learn directly from enlisted personnel and officers in the military, as well as from veterans, opens possibilities to understand how they think as individuals, to ask questions of technical detail and discern how their institutions function. One key method for gaining such understanding is the use of oral histories, which we employed heavily in the book Pentagon 9/11, formal interviews conducted by historians throughout the Defense Department. Such a grasp of the world view of military service-members also lends my own work greater depth, something our non-governmental colleagues must expend even greater effort to gain without benefit of a face-to-face conversation.

In addition to interview sources, government military historians also employ the records held in libraries, archives, curatorial holdings and art collections. Many of these materials are available to researchers of all stripes whose investigations often benefit from formal military records. Where official historians enjoy a further advantage, however, is in holding the security clearances needed to read still-classified records. Such classified archives especially apply for events and people for the period after 1945. Addressing many subjects from that era, at the depth they deserve, makes access to classified materials essential. The work of recent members of the military is hard to grasp without seeing such sources, and official historians’ ability to read them complements the other sources available to the general public, making the narrative more complete. These advantages allow official historians to be historiographic pioneers, creating works that set the path for other writers to follow, while teaching members of the government, including members of the armed services, about their history.

At least for the first decade of the 21st century, then, and as unlikely as it may seem, at least one military historian can find every element of the professional scholarly experience working for the U.S. government.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Blog XXVIII (28): The History Ph.D. at a Community College

This next guest entry in this blog discusses the career options for the history Ph.D. while working at a community college. The author of this entry is Hal M. Friedman, a Professor of Modern History at Henry Ford Community College. He earned his B.S. from Eastern Michigan University and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Friedman is the author of three books: Creating an American Lake: United States Imperialism and Strategic Security in the Pacific Basin, 1945-1947 (2001); Governing the American Lake: The US Defense and Administration of the Pacific, 1945-1947 (2007); and most recently Arguing over the American Lake: Bureaucracy and Rivalry in the US Pacific, 1945-1947 (2009). Here is his guest blog:

I am the Associate Chair of the History Department at Henry Ford Community College (HFCC) and came to HFCC in a rather roundabout way, as I guess most Ph.D.s do to community colleges, so I'd like to give some background information on myself and illustrate what historians can accomplish in terms of careers at community colleges. My background includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science and History (I couldn’t decide on which one to major in) from Eastern Michigan University in 1987. I began graduate school at Michigan State University, finishing my M.A. in the History of International Relations in 1991 and my Ph.D. in the same field in 1995. Like now, academic jobs at that time were hard to come by, so when HFCC offered me a full-time, tenure-track position starting in January 1996, I jumped at it.

To set the context, some description of my college is necessary. Henry Ford Community College is both a typical and atypical community college. HFCC is typical in that the majority of its students come from working class, economic underclass, and/or immigrant backgrounds. The vast majority of its students are first generation college students. They also work part-time, full-time, or near full-time at various kinds of jobs, primarily low wage positions without benefits or much security. Working hours range between 10 and 50 hours per week and students attempt to complete between 6 and 15 credit hours per semester while simultaneously working at these jobs.

HFCC is also fairly typical in terms of the age, time constraints, and skill levels of its student body. Students are typically older, with an average age of 27, though the daytime students which I teach are primarily 18-20 years of age. Day and night students are also many times involved in family activities which detract from the amount of time that they can devote to studies, activities such as providing child care or helping to operate family businesses. Moreover, while skill levels may not differ greatly between day and night students, motivation levels and seriousness about studies certainly does. Students over the age of 21 appear in class on a more regular basis, complete assignments more regularly, and contribute to class discussion on a more substantial scale than do younger students. Probably most importantly, the majority of our students, quite typical for community colleges (and increasingly for four year colleges as well), come to the College grossly unprepared for college level work, especially in reading. In the fall of 1997, for instance, 1/3 of the History Department’s first semester students taking daytime history courses were reading at a junior high school level! I have also increasingly found students unwilling and/or unable to do assigned readings. Worse, I have found students reluctant to take notes on the assigned readings, even after I instruct them to do so on the first day of class. Moreover, I have found that many students' notions of what constitutes “effective note taking” is seriously lacking in rigor, with many failing students merely taking down outlines from my computer-generated lecture transparencies or being satisfied with a page or two of notes when much more detailed information is needed for study purposes.

Finally, HFCC is typical in that the majority of its resources are increasingly being focused on “workforce retraining” for the 21st Century, catering to Detroit area corporations to fulfill employee training of various kinds, and participating in community projects across the spectrum. Though the goal of transfer to four year institutions is still the objective of the largest single group of students at the college (about 40%), a majority of our students are actually attending classes for technical certificates, terminal associate degrees, or other types of job training. HFCC as a “comprehensive community college” is, in fact, a junior transfer college, a technical institute, a remedial academy, a center for lifelong learning, and a commercial college, all in one.

HFCC is an atypical community college in that it is over 70 years old. Most community colleges in the United States started as recently as the 1960s. In addition, HFCC is fairly large for a community college, averaging between 10,000 and 15,000 students (and currently pushing 18,000), depending on the state of the economy, with enrollments lower during more prosperous economic times. Moroever, the College is atypical in that its administrators unionized in the early 1970s, and it is one of the few community colleges in the country today to practice Shared Governance on a significant basis.

The College is located in a highly urbanized area, and is therefore a crossroads of sorts between several major universities, archives, and museums. In addition, the College is also located in a vibrant, culturally diverse area, which has had a significant impact on the curriculum. Dearborn, Michigan, is home to the largest community of Arabic peoples outside of Southwest Asia and North Africa, and, as of the spring of 2000, the College’s student body consists of 60% European-Americans, 20% African-Americans, and 20% Arab-Americans. Because of these realities and opportunities in teaching comparative cultural history, HFCC’s History Department dispensed with Western Civilization decades ago and has been teaching World History courses for over 40 years. This comparative focus, along with a strong tradition of academic freedom at the College, allowed me to redesign the Early American Survey from an Anglo-centered political history to a comparative cultural history course.

My teaching duties at HFCC have included the Early American, Modern American, and Modern World History survey courses, also typical at community colleges where the teaching is primarily, though not always, at the survey level. Not surprisingly, my teaching has caused me to spend significant amounts of time reading in areas of American and World History that I was not exposed to in undergraduate and graduate school. These readings at times have been part of the assigned texts to the students, but more normally have equated to additional readings on my part in the New Social and Cultural History that has so significantly and positively changed the American historical profession since the 1960s. These additional readings have, in particular, included texts in Modern World History, an area that has become so prominent in the field since the 1990s.

I have spent a great deal of time on professional development because I am convinced that my continued development as a professional historian outside of the classroom has an immediate and positive impact on my ability as a history instructor in the classroom. I have been able to serve as an article and textbook reviewer for a number of professional journals and publishing houses. HFCC’s funding for professional development has also allowed me to attend a variety of conferences on both research and teaching subjects in a number of roles, including as a presenter, a session chair, a session commentator, and a member of the Program Committee organizing the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians earlier in the decade. All of these activities have been bolstered by participation in a number of local academic study groups and national professional organizations.

I have been fortunate in having a highly supportive environment at HFCC in which to research and write history, in large part because of professional development funding built into the local union contract. Given this support, I have been able in the last 14 years to produce 12 scholarly articles, 4 encyclopedia entries, a book review essay, a film review, 24 critical book reviews, and works for two essay contests, one of the latter receiving an Honorable Mention. Moreover, I have found time and encouragement to transform my doctoral dissertation into a monograph and write two subsequent books which together comprise a trilogy on US national security policy toward the Pacific Basin immediately after World War Two. These books explore how and why the United States sought to turn the Pacific Basin into an exclusive American strategic preserve after the Second World War, Americanize the indigenous populations of selected island groups, and project American power toward East Asia.

I am in the process of writing a second trilogy of monographs. In 2010, the U.S. Naval War College Press will publish Digesting History: The US Naval War College, the Lessons of World War II, and Future Naval Warfare, 1945-1947. This book explores how the Naval War College (NWC) reacted between 1945 and 1947 to the lessons of the Second World War and especially to what NWC personnel thought the naval aspects of a Third World War might look like. In short, I investigated "imaginary war" as the United States Navy transitioned from the Second World War to the Cold War.

A career at a community college can be tough. The student body is very often less than motivated, has numerous outside distractions, and resists the changes necessary to digest higher education. At times, one also finds oneself fighting the college administration, something not exclusive to community colleges but something they are also not immune to. In fact, since community colleges have very heavy teaching loads, usually about 5 courses per term, one is usually on campus 4-5 days per week, so if there are problems with the administration, the students, the local community, or even among the faculty, there is no escaping it.

On the other hand, it can be a fascinating career with highly collegial colleagues who are free from the "publish or perish" pressures and the concern about "status" that is sometimes typical of four year colleges. The students who are interested and skilled are some of the best and most interesting students one can encounter. There is also the opportunity to make an impact in the local community and with the college itself if one is lucky enough to land at a college with a unionized and shared governance culture. Also, scholarship is possible depending on the type of pedagogy one pursues and how good one is at organizing time and priorities.

Graduate students and recent PhDs have to realize that a career at a community college is drastically different than one at a four year college or a research institution. Instead of focusing on research and the teaching of specialized topics to future history majors and graduate students, one is largely teaching to a general public who will never encounter scholarly history again. A career at a community college, however, is much preferred to failing to find a history teaching position at all and having to find an alternate career. It's not the best of all worlds, but it's far from the worst.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Blog XXVII (27): The History Ph.D. in the Military School System

The first guest entry in this blog to focus on non-traditional jobs for the history Ph.D. comes courtesy of Dr. S. Mike Pavelec, who now teaches full-time at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, which is part of the Air University complex at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Pavelec moved to Alabama after teaching for two years at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, which followed three years of teaching at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, Hawaii. He earned a BA and MA from the University of Calgary. He received his doctorate from Ohio State University in military history and is the author of The Jet Race and the Second World War (2007), as well as other works on military hardware and the military-industrial complex. His research focuses specifically on aviation and airpower. Prior to becoming a historian, he played professional football for the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League, and then the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He also did some acting, playing the villain in the film Billy Lone Bear (1996). Here is his guest blog:

In this entry I hope to shed some light on teaching
opportunities outside the traditional civilian academies. Following my PhD work at Ohio State, I was invited to teach at Hawaii Pacific University (HPU), which has a thriving military history program and a Masters in Diplomacy and Military Studies. I taught undergrads and graduate students in a civilian setting as one of the three military history professors at HPU. In other blog entries, you will read about civilian institutions, and the benefits and drawbacks of those programs. I will attempt to shed some light on government teaching positions.

I was fortunate while at HPU to also teach a graduate-level class for the Naval War College (NWC) at Pearl Harbor Naval Station, as part of the military’s Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) program. The JPME system is an important aspect of the modern U.S. military, and offers amazing opportunities for extra work and supplemental income. As well, it is a fantastic networking tool to meet fellow academics, and academically-minded military officers, in the system. When I moved from Hawaii to Chicago, the head of the department at the NWC tapped me to fill a vacant position as a one-year visiting faculty at the NWC. I went to Newport, and ended up teaching there for two years. The faculty at Newport was wonderful, and I made new friends and professional colleagues. I have since moved to Maxwell AFB to teach for the Air Force, in the School for Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS).

As with any job, there are benefits and drawbacks to teaching in the government system. First, the benefits. Teaching military history, strategic studies, and international relations is wonderful, and I still enjoy teaching to my strengths. Further, the two institutions I have been a part of are full of other professors who also teach these topics, so there is a constant stream of intellectual discourse on military matters past and current. There is no lack of colleagues who are willing to debate, argue, and even read chapters of current research. There are differences of opinion, but for the most part it is wonderful to be able to go into work and discuss the latest issues and debate past military strategy with other academics. Another bonus is that there is an added layer of organization that makes department meetings less onerous and a structure that keeps minutia from becoming an issue. However, as shown below, this can also be a drawback. Other added bonuses include government contracts and money, ample conference and research funding (in most government positions), and – after security checks – access to information and people. As well, the students tend to be top-notch. I have had excellent students from all the services as well as foreign nationals, who are generally interested in the American military experience, and are eager to work and complete tasks set before them. There can be grumbling about reading loads and time constraints (the students are typically on set schedules for completion), but these issues are not uncommon to graduate students in any setting. Finally, I consider it a privilege to be able to educate officers who will actually go out into the world and use the critical analytical skills and information that I have taught them and apply them to real-world situations at the Pentagon or in Iraq or Afghanistan. To know that I am making an actual difference in the world is especially rewarding.

That said, there are also ways that government teaching can be seen as confining for an academic. The structure mentioned above means that there is less freedom of action within the department. The organizational structure may become more constraining. Some departments require more ‘face time’ from the academics; actually being in the office even when not teaching. So for summer research, you can’t simply walk away for months on end; you have to get permission, take official leave and/or travel time, and submit itineraries. It varies across the JPME world, but officially it is more like a regular 9-5 job. In my own experience, whenever I have been researching or writing it has not been an issue, but be forewarned that there is an added layer of structure and organization. Further, as with any government position, there is the burden of paperwork: constant training and updates, travel paperwork, and endless forms to fill out (especially when in- or out-processing). As long as you are aware of the ‘official’ side of the job, it should not come as any surprise. Most important, for a civilian academic, is that you may not teach as much of what you want, but instead teach what is required. At the NWC, I taught the standard Strategy and Policy course (with a military co-instructor), although there was opportunity to teach electives. Here at SAASS, I teach in the standardized curriculum. Fortunately it includes two classes I would have wanted to teach anyway: “The History of Airpower” and “Technology and Innovation.” I will expand my course load in the years to come with other favorites, but be forewarned that you will teach what is asked rather than ‘what do you want to offer’ as in a civilian setting. Of course, there will be no more “World Civ” or “Medieval Studies,” but I am happy with the curriculum in the first place. As with the rest of the military, the day begins early, but you get used to that pretty quickly. And there are lots of opportunities for activity; your military colleagues and students are expected to maintain fitness regimens. Personally I have found it wonderful to get out of the office for a run or a round of golf on a regular basis, although I am still getting used to the Alabama heat!

Overall, my government teaching experiences have been amazing. In my opinion, I have found that the benefits far outweigh the detriments, but will still mention the subtle complexities for your consideration. The curricula tend to be broad; specialists have to really stretch to cover all of the bases within the concept of Strategic Studies. While I am a World War II specialist, I have had to expand my own thinking to include many eras of military history and strategic thinking, from ancient times (including the dreaded Landmark Thucidides) to the present and counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. However, it has made me a better academic. Finally, the structure issue can be a drawback, but excellent colleagues and government funds translate into a stimulating atmosphere for an academic.

Finally, there are a number of JPME institutions, which experience constant turnover and expanded programs (read: job opportunities). From the Army’s West Point (undergrads – Highland Falls, New York), War College (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) and CGSC (Command and General Staff College – Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas) to the Navy’s Annapolis (undergrads – Annapolis, Maryland), U.S. Naval War College, and NPS (Naval Post Graduate School – Monterrey, California) to the Air Force’s Academy (Colorado), Air University (Alabama), Marine Corps University (Quantico, Virginia), as well as the National Defense University (NDU – Washington, DC) and others. Watch the boards at for updates on postings.

A final consideration: Some may argue that once in the system it is difficult to return to ‘normal’ civilian institutions. I have heard this before from mentors as well as colleagues; I have not known enough who have tried to make the change to offer an opinion. As of now, I intend to stay, so it is a non-starter for me. However, if you are a military historian (strategic analyst, international relations, etc.) it is argued that it may be difficult to break back into civilian academics after more than a few years teaching for the government. That said, in a tough job market, it is still a great job, with fantastic colleagues and above-average students, with very good pay. I am convinced I made the correct decision, and am fortunate to have a wonderful teaching career with the U.S. government.