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To Return to School or Not?

Julia Rose
Director of the West Baton Rouge Museum, Port Allen, Louisiana

Classrooms typically fill up during tough economic times. When the job market gets tight it makes sense to stay in school. Advice we often offer job seekers is to become more competitive. I offered the same advice to my son who graduated with a B.A. in English, cum laude, in May 2009. Staying in school is a safe and conservative option for newcomers who are facing a bleak job market. However, what advice can we offer seasoned history professionals who find themselves in the tide of 9+% unemployment and a shrinking museum job market? Stay in school? Tuition is expensive; graduate school makes large demands on students’ time; graduate school is a commitment that goes far beyond studying and book buying. Graduate school is largely about conducting original research. Grad students are required to make important contributions to their field. A doctoral program is easily a five year commitment, and that would be a quick program! A history professional with a Master of Arts degree needs to deeply consider his or her reasons for pursing a PhD. Why get a PhD? Do you want to be more competitive in the job market? Are you passionately curious about your field?

If your answer is the latter, then go forward blossoming scholar! Scholarship is the essence of a PhD program, while vocational training is not. It is likely that once you have completed your doctoral studies and earned a PhD you will emerge in your field as an expert. Museums, archives, libraries, schools and other knowledge based employers seek experts. Keep in mind however that expertise can be acquired in a variety of ways and a university education is only one avenue. The curator who has worked in her field for one to two decades is certainly allowed to consider herself an expert, especially if she has published and presented to her peers in that field. Likely, an employer in need of her expertise will be thrilled to interview her and consider her among a list of top candidates.

Doctoral programs typically require students to complete a program of study with a set of core courses and an additional set of course work tailored to each individual student’s research goals. (It is possible to apply completed course work from one’s Master of Arts transcript towards one’s doctoral coursework requirements, but this is only a possibility not a guarantee.) If a mid‐level career professional is seeking to become more marketable or competitive in the job market in 2009 or 2010 by entering a PhD program please recognize that time is not on your side! A doctoral program takes years to complete, while many universities have time limits that require dissertations and defenses completed within ten years. A mid‐level career professional who wishes to find employment within two to three years might more seriously consider publishing articles or a book in her area of expertise, or engage in a high profile project in her field. Notoriety and service to your field will likely increase your competitive edge and broaden your professional network. Earning a PhD will be a major accomplishment that could improve your chances for particular job opportunities, but there are no guarantees. The guarantee, I believe, a PhD will afford you is the personal gratification that you have made significant advances to your field and the satisfaction that you achieved your goal. For me, returning to graduate school afforded me that elusive crystal ball to see where I have been and where I still wanted to go.

Benjamin Filene
Director of Public History/Associate Professor, University of North Carolina Greensboro

In my opinion, most public history jobs don’t require a doctorate, aside from academic teaching positions and the occasional museum directorship. I generally don’t encourage my students to go on for the doctorate. I myself got a Ph.D. (in American Studies) in order to enter the museum world, and in a lot of ways it turned out to be overkill. I had to convince people I could write a straight sentence and work well others despite my Ph.D.—a dilemma that, sadly, says a lot about how academia is perceived in the wider world. Eventually, I had enough work experience to make these questions recede a bit.

That said, the Ph.D. has definitely brought me some opportunities that otherwise probably would have come less easily—chances to serve on exhibit advisory committees, review grants, edit books, and, most centrally, to teach. More importantly, the degree shaped me as a historian and a person. When graduate school becomes a six (or more)‐year experience it becomes very difficult to imagine how your life would be different if you had taken other paths. Pursuing the degree honed my ability to ask questions of the past, gather and evaluate evidence, engage with historical context, and build an original argument—all skills that helped me in my exhibit‐development work. It also gave me friendships with some brilliant and passionate people.

Fundamentally, though, most Ph.D. programs are pre‐professional schools for professors. Despite some changes in the last decade or so, academic history departments still tend to think about audience and measure success in significantly different ways than public history institutions do. I say go for your Ph.D. if you’re driven to immerse yourself in the world of historical scholarship and academia, but don’t do it to land your future museum job.

Stacey Otte
Former Executive Director, Catalina Island Museum

From talking with colleagues over the years, it seems clear that there are many paths to working in history organizations. Being a relativist myself, I tend to feel there isn’t any one right way, but the clearer you are about your end goals in the profession, the more informed your education and career choices will be.

One of my early internships was at the Smithsonian Institution as an undergraduate. It was an amazing summer for me and cemented in me the goal to work in museums after college. My supervisor strongly advised me to pursue a Ph.D. because in his experience it would insure a wider selection of jobs, higher pay rates and more ability to move upward in an organization. While I don’t (and didn’t) dispute his advice, I had to apply it to my life and goals. I ended up getting a master’s in museum studies and not going for a Ph.D. since I’m too much of a generalist to pick any specialty.

Over the years I have happily moved into museum administration from collections management in a small to midsized organization. My generalized museum’s studies degree has served me very well. Working in smaller organizations, as a whole, is very satisfying to me as I wear lots of hats and get my fingers in lots of pies and get to see results very quickly. So, for me the choice to not Ph.D. was the right one for me.

Knowing yourself and having clarity about your goals is probably the most important factor in determining whether you want to Ph.D. or not. Either way, a satisfying and challenging career in the history and museum field is bound to come your way.