What Do You Need to Know About Jobs in Public History?
Choosing a career path is not to be taken lightly. There are many things to consider and be aware of—especially if you are not familiar with the ins and outs of a field like public history. A career in the Public History field offers many challenges (and what job doesn’t) but even greater rewards. Perhaps one of the most meaningful benefits is knowing that, whatever hat you wear at your organization, you are contributing to your community in a significant way.
Ask yourself some basic questions to help determine what type of job you are looking for, such as:
- In what kind of environment do I work best?
- Do I want to have a lot of interaction with colleagues and/or the general public?
- Do I prefer to work alone or in groups?
- Can I handle bureaucracy?
What kind of salary and benefits am I looking for? We might as well tell you right here…this is not a field that people enter because of the financial rewards. For many, this career is a financial sacrifice that is far outweighed by job satisfaction, the feeling of giving back to the community, and participating in something lasting and valuable.
Many jobs require that your schedule be flexible—meaning that you might have to work occasional weekends or non-traditional hours. Some people really like this because it gives them time for other things (seeing children off to school, taking a class, etc.). Since pay is generally not the big perk, museums, for example, are warming up to the idea of flexible schedules that suit the needs of both employee and employer. The bottom line is that there is room for negotiation!
If you do not have documented work experience in an area in which you would like to work, consider volunteering or taking a paid or unpaid internship. Many people enter the field this way—both young and old. These opportunities enable one to see the inner workings of an organization or field and help the individual decide whether or not it is a good fit. Do not underestimate the power of volunteering!
Get Your Foot in the Door
Making good choices about job opportunities requires that you do your homework and know yourself well. Some people accept jobs in the field that are not necessarily what they want to do just to get their foot in the door. Others hold out for their dream job, which may or may not come. There is no right or wrong way to go about this decision-making process. You are the only one who can determine your own comfort level.
Research the Offer
There are a few extremely important things to know about an institution before you accept a job:
- Is the organization for-profit, nonprofit, or government-funded?
- What is its financial situation? Is funding for your position guaranteed? Does the institution have a solid funding source or an endowment?
- How is the institution structured, and who does what? Museums, for example, often split operations into categories such as collections (includes jobs such as conservator, registrar and curator), public programs (which includes a variety of jobs dealing with a museum’s public offerings—sometimes this includes such things as exhibits, K-12 programs, and training, although these can be seen as their own categories, as well), public relations and marketing (jobs in this area often include graphic design for print and electronic media, publications, advertising, evaluations, visitor services, and outreach), development (which focuses on raising money), and administration (jobs here can include paid and volunteer staff management, and technical support).
- At most small- to mid-size institutions, individuals wear many hats—meaning that they might coordinate both public programs and public relations efforts. In the field of public history, multi-tasking is often part of the job!
- Who makes decisions, and how? What are staff communications like? Is there a board? Keep in mind that organization and management styles can differ greatly between like institutions. If you don’t have someone on the inside to answer these questions for you, you must ask a lot of questions during an interview about things like decision-making, turnover, long-range planning, etc. If you have never worked with a board before, you should also educate yourself on how they work (check out Board Source, the Oklahoma Museums Association’s Board Resources page, or AASLH’s Board Development 101 online workshop). Boards come in all shapes and sizes, too!
If you already have a BA or this is a career change, you might want to consider an advanced degree or a second degree in one of the fields mentioned earlier. Many, if not most, upper-level positions in this field will require advanced degrees.
Additionally, consider taking classes or workshops offered by professional organizations. Professional development opportunities which include attending annual meetings and conferences can supplement your education, inspire you to explore a new avenue in the field, help you network with other professionals, and simply re-energize you! Organizations offer opportunities that are suitable for both the novice and seasoned professional, and both paid and volunteer staff.
Network, Network, Network
Many people in the field will say the got their job because they knew somebody. The power of networking cannot be overstressed in this field. Keep in touch with your Alumni. Get on list-serves in your area of interest (check out AASLH’s Affinity Communities). Attend conferences and events in your area. Ask for informational meetings with staff at local institutions. And be sure to carry your resume and a business card (even one made at Kinkos will suffice) whenever you are out networking.
Working on Teams
Working on teams and developing collaborative relationships with other organizations are important things to enjoy if you are going to work in this field. Most public history organizations have internal and external teams that handle specific projects and work to foster institutional or community involvement/buy-in. (For example, a museum might have a programming team on which a curator serves in order to represent a different point-of-view and both learn from and inform the team about the duties of other departments.)
If you plan to enter the field, it is essential that you are people-friendly. It is also important that you see working with the public as a form of service, including even advocacy for those who have been written out of history in some cases. Some of best and most effective public historians come from a variety of backgrounds. They could be innovative museum educators who have a solid background specialization, archivists who are historians and are people-friendly because they are very confident in their ability to help find things in the maze, and still others those who wish to make products (exhibits, films, publications etc.) that will reach a general public at a level that is accessible and truly interesting but not “dumbed down,” which is always the goal.