Friday, March 26, 2010

Blog XLVI (46): The History Ph.D. as Public Historian

What is public history?

It is okay if you do not know. Consider this comment from James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian who served as president of the American Historical Association in 2003: “I cannot remember exactly when I first encountered the term 'public history.' It does not seem all that many years ago. And I am embarrassed to confess that I initially thought public history was the story of public events—the kind of history that most of us taught and wrote before the private lives of ordinary people in home and family became an important field of historical inquiry.”

Public history is a fairly broad term. A public historian works for historical societies, state preservation offices, historical parks, non-profit organizations, museums, archives, libraries, records managers for government agencies, or businesses. They design historical displays, publish in electronic media, design historical tours and guide books, give public lectures, and write books designed for the general public. In fact, most of the authors of essays about employment outside of a history department that have appeared in this blog are probably “public historians.” According to a study the AHA conducted in 2008, almost a fourth of all public historians work for museums (23.8 percent) and another 20.5 percent work for some sort of government agency—be it at the federal, state, or local level. The chart displayed above shows the employment distribution for public historians.

McPherson is not the only one who is confused about this term, “public history.” In that 2008 study, which included a survey of 3,856 individuals doing public history, 364 rejected that job description. “I don’t have the qualifications for that title,” one of them explained.

Whatever term is used, the acid test for public history--or any other field--is employment. Who is getting hired and where? According to the AHA study, most public historians hold the MA as their highest degree (55.6 percent). Only 20.9 percent have a Ph.D. These employment figures represent a decline in the number of Ph.D.s finding in employment in public history. Another study the AHA did back in 1980 found that 38.5 percent were Ph.D.s.

This decline makes sense. There are now roughly 120 public history programs and the MA is generally the terminal degree for those programs. With that point made, there is strong ancetidotal evidence that the public history MA degree is insufficient training for the actual job. Phil Cantelon, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of History Associates, Incorporated, a firm in the business of public history, observed, “I think in all the years at History Associates, we’ve hired only one person out of a public history program. The curricula for those programs tend to be pretty narrow.” In a 2003 study that the AHA conducted on the background of public historians, one correspondent remarked that “the public history graduate programs don't give students enough history.”

Most of the subjects in that 2003 study emphasized the importance of administrative skills such as time management, budget planning, computer literacy, personnel supervision, oral history interviewing, historic preservation, archival management, museum-based education, marketing, and fundraising. Almost everyone of those respondents said what separated the successful candidates from the others was having some type of internship on their resume.

Women also seem to be drawn to public history. Employment of females in this field jumped from 36.0 percent in 1980 to 65.5 percent in 2008. The second chart makes this significant starkly clear.

The female domination of public history makes sense. Unlike men, women must make a choice between family and career. More significantly, there is an inverse relationship between education levels and fertility. Public history positions only require the MA degree rather than the Ph.D and force less of a choice between family and career. Finally, despite what most people think, traditional academia is not that supportive of family management concerns—like spousal employment for two Ph.D. couples, and child care. See Blogs XII: Sex in Grad School and XIII: Marriage and Grad School for more discussion on these issues.

What options are open for the Ph.D.? In some ways that degree is a liability. The simple way around this problem is to realize that many public history employers are looking for skills rather than a credential. These talents include good writing skills and oral communication ability. The Ph.D. can give individuals these traits, but often does not, and a job applicant needs to make it clear that they have acquired competency in these areas. The budding public historian needs to be aware that good writing is not the ponderous, jargon loaded text that often passes for style in Ph.D. dissertations and that good public speaking comes from undergraduate teaching, which may or may not be something that a graduate program develops.

What do public historians do on a day to day basis? The short answer is: it depends. There are several public history firms. There are, however, only three major companies: History Associates, Incorporate; The History Factory; and Historical Research Associates, Incorporated. Most other public history firms are one man or one woman shops, and their success is often the product of word of mouth. The services these firms provide include writing corporate histories for their clients. They also do research for hire. Much of this research is for litigation, which requires research in state and federal archives with which lawyers are unfamiliar or do not have the time to do themselves. This research can often be crucial, and can save firms millions of dollars. The corporations also do records management.

If the public historian works for a government agency, they might be doing some of the same things. The federal government even has a civil service designation: “GS-170 Historian.” These historians do research and write official histories. The histories might be written for a specific community in the government—but could be classified for decades and not available to the public—while others write histories that are designed to made available to the public immediately. Government historians also produce important reference works. A good example is Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989, which historians working for the U.S. Senate produced. Declassification of the documents is another major activity. The most famous effort along these lines is the Foreign Relations of the United States series that comes out of the U.S. Department of State’s historian office. Titles like these are important projects.

Government historians also serve as the historical memory for their agencies. Basically their job is to provide policymakers with information about past efforts of their departments and bureaus. This might be collecting information on how many military personnel were deployed to Germany, Japan, Okinawa, and Austria for occupation duty, so that the decision makers have that information when they decide how many people to send to Iraq or Afghanistan. Historians also collect information that is often the result of public and congressional inquiry. Apparently during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the Senate Historical Office spent a lot of time responding to journalists who wanted to know who Andrew Johnson was and what he did to get himself impeached.

The challenges of being a public historian are often different from being an academic one. The first thing is that most public history positions are basically office jobs. That means it is an 8 to 5 position. You have to be in the office at a certain time. That is far more structure than what many people see in an academic environment. Vacation time is often more limited. Forget getting a month off in December and three in the summer.

The good news is that with most of these jobs, work stays at the office. There is no grading papers at home, at night, and on the weekends. More significantly, the pay in these positions is generally better than what you will find in academic positions. That is as it should be since you do not have the same time off that you get in the summer and the holiday season.

A reoccurring theme among public historians is that there is a good deal of on the job training. “History Associates has a training program for all our young people. We’ll train them on research. We train them on how to do a budget, how to track a budget. We, in effect, give them a little entrepreneurial training,” Phil Cantelon explained. The fact that many people commented during the 2003 AHA study on the importance of having an internship is an indication of the importance of hands on training.

Another major difference between the public historian and the academic historian is that they must be generalists. If you work for a government agency, you need to be prepared to work on any time period or topic involving your employer. A military historian cannot respond to an issue involving the Vietnam War, by telling a general or an Assistant Secretary of Defense, “I don’t know, I am a Civil War historian.” They need to be prepared to respond to issues involving the artillery in the Korean War or the Chaplain Corps during Vietnam. The same is true for the private for profit firms. “HAI historians must be generalists, not only because they must be prepared to handle a variety of topics from book to book but also because clients, understandably, want general rather than specialized histories,” Kenneth Durr, Senior Historian and Director of the History Division of History Associates, explained.

Most public historians also work as part of a team. “I do not think we often think—as historians—about collaborative efforts, but it is great to be involved in one, and it provides a wonderful pool of knowledge form which we can draw. One of the things I enjoy most about my job is that I learn something new every day and as a result of researching new topics frequently, I am constantly learning,” Melissa Jane Taylor of the U.S. State Department’s Historian's Office, observed. Cantelon has a similar view. Group work is something that does not happen in history graduate programs. “Teamwork’s hard, for trained historians especially, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

A big problem that public historians face is the perception that they are glorified publicists; that they must offer the interpretations that policymakers want or that their clients demand. "We realized that being paid for our work would open us up to remarks about being court historians. We never thought about public history; we thought about being history professionals, serving clients who needed the very best history, and being paid for it,” Cantelon recalled. His colleague Durr argues that market forces work against such manipulated history. “The demand for historical works by paying clients is, of course, a small one. But that works in our favor. Those who come to us almost always value history and know that somehow their organization can benefit from it. Still, few know exactly why this is, and our first job is to help them reach that understanding,” he explained. “It can be argued that we don't pay as close attention to the negatives in an organization's history as journalists or academics might. But that is a luxury we do not have. We do not cover up the blemishes (most of our clients, in fact, insist that we do not) but we do paint with a broad brush, and from that perspective nearly every story we've told is a generally positive one. Our clients have all provided society with valued services, products, and expertise.”

Such considerations also come into play for the public historian working for a government agency. “Federal historians do not adopt an ideological approach to their historical narratives that castigates government, nor do they write under the interpretive direction of agency administrators as ‘court historians,’” Victoria A. Harden, president of the Society for History in the Federal Government, explained in 1999. “In general, when a federal historian is writing a scholarly article as an authority in the field, he or she enjoys the same degree of editorial freedom as do scholars in academia. This is not the case, however, for highly controversial topics—the only topics for which the concept of academic freedom has important consequences. Federal historians, whether civil servants or contractors, do not speak or write from a personal viewpoint when acting in their official capacities on matters that have political consequence for their agencies. Their work, whether an exhibit, a book, an article, or a web site, is subject to review and approval by agency administrators.”

There is a good deal of self selection at work in these positions. “Now it is true that a historian who believes that the American military basically consists of a gaggle of cement-headed Neanderthal fascists is unlikely to apply for a job as an army historian in the first place,” Stanley Sandler, a historian with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, observed. “Conversely, anyone simple enough to look upon the military as the spotless repository of all that is good and true in America will also not get far beyond the first interview. Army historians, of course, can point out that there are prevailing trends and fashions that academic historians up for tenure violate at their professional peril.”

The court historian issue gets to a bigger issue—that there is a deep divide between the academic and public history communities. “Public historians may sometimes feel like the Rodney Dangerfields of the profession (‘don't get no respect’),” Sandler stated only half in jest. Ann Deines, a National Park Service historian, added, “When someone discovers I work for the National Park Service, they invariably ask if I get to wear the Smokey Bear hat.”

There are many reasons for this division. Few--very few--academic historians, particularly those at the supposedly leading schools have ever been outside of academia. Good grad students, or so the conventional wisdom holds, will go into tenure track positions. It is the weaker ones that will have to look for non-traditional history jobs. “While researching about different careers and the many ways in which one can practice history, I was struck by the academic community’s failure to regard those outside academia as historians engaged in scholarly and valuable work,” Alexandra Lord, a historian for the U.S. Public Health Service observed. “Having embraced these foolish prejudices as a graduate student and then a professor, I have come now, as a nonacademic historian, to wonder why these prejudices are so pervasive. What does it say about our profession when we believe that historians who work with senators, reporters, policy analysts, and the general public should not be the among the best of our profession? What does it say when we dismiss the historian who uses his or her degree in a unique and innovative fashion that promotes the study of history?”

There is also a certain amount of hostility among public historians towards the academic community. “I watched as the job market fell apart in the early '90s. Other than hand-wringing at dismal statistics, the AHA didn't give a damn" one public historian told the 2003 AHA study. Another remarked, “A PhD is not likely to be hired—[it] indicates a professorial candidate who lost tenure.” Cantelon of History Associates said, “The company is a source of great personal satisfaction to me. But it is also my frustration. One of my biggest challenges as a professional historian outside the academy is convincing the academy that there is a potential market for historians other than teaching or going into archives.”

Cantelon also provided a possible reason for these divisions. “Almost every profession in the academy has a division between teaching and doing. You can teach law, or you can practice law. You can teach medicine or practice medicine. But in history, you can only teach, or that’s what historians think. But it’s not really true. You can do work, you can practice history outside, you can apply history, and do excellent professional work.”

If, with all these considerations in mind, you are still interested in public history, where do you go to find a job? There are several different places to look. The National Council on Public History has a website with job listings.

The civil service designation for a historian is "GS-170 Historian." Almost all jobs with the U.S. government are listed on:

The Historical Research Associates, Incorporated has a page listing its current openings.

The History Factory has a listing of available jobs.

A good website for finding jobs with state and local governments is:

The American Association for State and Local History as a listing of open jobs.

H-Net's job listings have a category for public history jobs, but most of these seem to be for faculty to teach public history.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a listing in its job advertisements for "organizations other than colleges."


  1. I agree that many don't understand what this part of the profession does. I consider myself a public historian (that was my degree) and currently work at an archives at a large university. Those who work there with library science backgrounds have no clue what "public history" is about. So I'd say this part of the field really needs to educate people on what the term means. Maybe if more understood the value and need for public historians, we'd have more funding and positions available.

  2. Good article. There is a real snobbery and lack of recognition given to public historians by the academic community. I'm sure it goes both ways but I've always felt that academics promote the idea that public historians aren't somehow "real" historians.

    It makes no sense to me. There is great need for generalists who do historical work on an issue-driven or user-need basis - yet the academic community seems only too willing to surrender this role to others. Academic research seems so often obscure, irrelevant, and laden with jargon making it inaccessable to anyone but other academics.

    The irony in all this is that the "lowly" public historians are more visible and read by the public. They are the ones often called on by govt or the media when an expert perspective is needed. Maybe academic historians look down on the position of the public historian out of jealousy and feelings of lost opportunity.

  3. I graduated from UNC three years ago and am applying to graduate schools next year. I actually struggled with whether to apply to a Public History course or to keep with a "regular" program. I want to do non-profit work, traveling exhibits on radical history, who knows! I've never wanted to be stuck in academia but at the same time, I really do want to study history. I do worry about the balance of academic and hands-on experience. What am I supposed to say in my personal statement? "Hi, y'all. What I really want to do is design exhibits about social movements so I got muhself a certificate of documentary studies-multimedia-from Duke but I want to balance that with your normal history program" "Oh sure, come on in"

  4. Brilliant article. This is what I was looking from long time. Actually, There is great need for generalists who do historical work on an issue-driven or user-need basis. I highly agreed with you at this point.

  5. Very well written article. I really enjoyed yours article whatever you written here in this post. What I think that public historians are more visible and read by the public.

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  7. Does anybody know whether the number of Ph.D.s in genreal is declining?