What type of Educational Experience to Get
Constance B. Schulz, professor of history and Co-director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina explains that “the common purposes of public history education are to prepare historians trained in the traditional historical skills of research, interpretation, and writing to apply those skills in a broad variety of public settings in order to bring an understanding of the past to bear on the issues, problems, and enjoyment of the present, and to preserve the sources that make that understanding possible.” Sounds easy, right? Wrong!
How can a student new to the field or a mid-career professional looking to make a move decide what educational track to follow?People have widely divergent opinions on this. Some feel that formal history-related training is the most important, others feel a broad-based program that includes museum studies, nonprofit management, or business courses are essential. But most agree that no two-year program can or should give everyone the specialized skills they are going to need to work in history institutions.
In short, there is no single “right” way to get educated for public history work. If you interview people in the field, you’ll find that they took all different paths to their jobs. That said, here are some ideas:
Many people would agree that the foundation of a good public history education is an education in history. The core skills of research, writing, asking questions, analyzing sources, and speaking persuasively are useful in almost any realm of public history work. At the same time, public history is inherently cross-disciplinary work. You may end up drawing on skills you learned in education classes, theater, anthropology, or accounting.
Some graduate programs offer pre-professional training in a sub-specialty in public history, while others offer more general skills that you can apply to any number of directions you may go in the field. Some programs ask you to declare a specialty right away, but most see graduate school as a chance to expand your talents, gain hands-on experience, and determine where you want to go in this vast field.
The following list may be helpful in thinking about how different jobs draw on different skills.
- A student interested in pursuing a career working with museum collections can benefit from classes in material culture, conservation, art history, archival sciences, folklore, or archaeology.
- A student interested in pursuing a career in education will obviously take classes in education that teaches them about educational pedagogy, writing curriculum activities, learning styles of students, and educational psychology.
- A student interested in exhibit design will learn from courses in technology, drawing, and graphic design.
- A student interested in historic preservation will want courses in material culture, architecture, art history, and interior design.
- A student more interested in administration can take classes in finance, marketing, public relations, and public policy.
- Students entering any realm of the field could benefit from classes in public speaking, finance (almost everyone will eventually have to manage a budget), marketing, computer technology, and so on.
Keep in mind, not every skill is learned in the classroom. Most of the specific duties that you perform at work you will learn on the job. Your graduate education is a chance to build skills that will make you a good learner (and colleague) on the job.
To help you navigate the educational waters and figure out what works best for you, there are a number of terrific websites out there.
- The American Historical Association offers a list of programs that specialize in public history.
- The National Council for Preservation Education provides a list of colleges and universities that offer programs in historic preservation.
- The National Council on Public History maintains a list of colleges and universities that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in public history.
- The Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies offers a website that contains links to continuing education opportunities and degree and certificate programs in museum studies, public history, historic preservation, archival studies, and more.
- The Smithsonian Institution provides a list of academic programs that offer training in museum studies.
- The Society for American Archaeologists maintains a website with information on careers in Archaeology. It also includes a listing of academic programs.
- The Society of American Archivists provides a list of archival training programs in the United States.
About degrees: MA vs. MBA vs. PhD or Masters in Public Administration
Educational requirements vary depending on the particular job field you choose to enter. Most working public history professionals would agree that a combination of education in the field of history as well as hands-on experience in your chosen specialty (collections, education, fundraising, exhibit design) through internships at museums, historic sites, historical societies, etc., is appropriate for pursuing jobs in the field.
Many people working in the field have earned a Master of Arts degree.The MA degree is generally focused in a specific discipline such as history, historic preservation, archival administration, archaeology or anthropology, education, cultural resources management, museum studies or art history.
In recent years, however, people holding degrees such as the Masters of Business Administration or a Masters in Public Administration have been hired to fill positions such as executive director, development director, operations manager as well as other management jobs focusing on financial planning and business administration.
Some executive directors in the field hold a PhD, as do some curators.
And then there are always certificate programs. They are perfect for updating skills or acquiring new ones. Many universities offer continuing education programs in fundraising, marketing, finance, and public administration. These programs are more ideal for people who have been out of school for a few years, as opposed to recent graduates.
There is no perfect balance between education and experience. To provide you with a little food for thought see member stories on the balance between education and experience.
Is it possible to price oneself out of a position with a PhD? An interesting website found at www.beyondacademe.com explores the careers of many people with PhDs in history who chose to enter the public history field. Founded by two historians with PhDs who chose different paths after spending a few years in tenure track teaching positions, this website offers advice that the founders learned while making choices about their careers in academia and profiles a number of historians who are currently working in the public history field.
Will mid-career professionals need to consider returning to school to obtain a PhD to be competitive? Here are some perspectives from the field.