The president of the NCPH, Robert Weyeneth, recently posted on the History@Work blog an entry which addresses the recent flare-ups about the hireability of History Master’s graduates.
In it, he points to what he sees as the 5 main problems with academic public history programs in relation to available jobs. The brass tacks of it are that there are too many ineffective programs churning out underqualified graduates. He postulates on whether the NCPH should step in and regulate the programs by handing out certifications to those with the right stuff. He doesn’t see that happening, since the NCPH hasn’t the resources or the gumption to draw such a line in the sand, and leaves it up to the (prospective) students to seek out quality programs.
My immediate reaction was one of gratification. It needed to be said that those with a Master’s in History but with no Public History training weren’t going to be shoo-ins for Public History jobs. This is just a reality of the world. Ideally, a Master’s degree is going to give you the experience and the foot in the door that you need to get started in the professional world. The truth is that they vary greatly.
When I left my job at ups, I had several long-timers ask me what my next step was. After I told them that I was pursuing an advanced degree in the humanities </irony>, they related their experiences with graduate school. Two of these old-time upsers had Master’s degrees in business. They both agreed that the professors who taught their classes would have never been able to run a successful business because they were out of touch with reality. They vented their frustration to me, and as I held them, their tears soaking my khaki ups polo, I wondered what I had gotten myself inot. Would I end up back here, with a useless degree, on the island of misfit toys?
I know a guy from the Circus Historical Society who has been long working on his undergraduate degree in a historic preservation program at an art & design college. If you do a search for public history or museum studies programs on gradschool.com, you come up with programs with a wide array of focuses. For example, the one at Ball State is through their school of architecture. Others are focused on art museum curation. I also have a friend in Indianapolis(we went to Ball State together, but don’t stay in touch), who, in some bizarre life-mirroring twist, also followed up her art degree by studying public history; she at IUPUI. Though she didn’t recommend the school to me, she was offered a job with the Indiana Historical Bureau before she even started on her thesis. Naturally, she took it. “I was just doing it to get a job,” she told me, “so when I got a job, I quit.” It seems that though she was interested in local history and preservation, what generally attracted her to the program was the chance to get an internship. Perhaps someday she’ll go back and complete her thesis. But in the current market, and with her little background, who of us can blame her for her choice?
What have I learned from these blog posts and these anecdotes from the real world? Well, I generally think that I’ve chosen a good program which is getting better. My classes are taught by professionals with recent experience in the field. We now have a borderline militant administrative adviser who is not going to allow us to waste our time here. We are strongly encouraged to make a plan and to make ourselves into the best possible option for something. Though some of the available texts are embarrassingly outdated, I think that my best plan of action is to try to do good work. Take every assignment seriously and excel in the program. Ultimately I will have to take full responsibility for my hireability.