A Student’s View of the NCPH Guide

I was recently tasked with writing a short essay for the National Council on Public History’s Public History News as a part of my duties with the organization for the 2013-14 academic year. For my first essay I felt it important to reflect on the NCPH Guide to Public History Programs and talk about my process for finding a public history program that fit my needs. This guide was a great help to me when I applied for programs and we’re hoping more public history programs will take advantage of it to provide interested parties with up-to-date information. Current NCPH members can find this essay in Public History News 34, no. 1 (December 2013), 7, which is heading to your mailbox right now.

When I began my search for a graduate school to develop my skills as a public historian two years ago, the National Council on Public History’s Guide to Public History Programs became a vital aid in helping me choose a program that was most appropriate to my needs and interests. This guide—distributed as a print publication for members of NCPH as late as 2006 but now accessible online to anyone—is an important resource for prospective students and public historians seeking a clear picture of the state of the field.

Public history education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels has experienced tremendous growth over the past ten years. As NCPH President Bob Weyeneth has argued, history students who are interested in taking their work outside the classroom have turned to public history to “shape public attitudes about the past,” work in a collaborative setting, and make history meaningful to themselves and their audiences. I graduated in the spring of 2011 with a social studies teaching degree and worked as a teacher for one year, but my own experiences with several public history internships during undergrad inspired me to consider a career teaching people of all ages about the past in an interpretive setting.

I acquired valuable skills during those internships, but I understood that I needed more training in public history theories, methods, and practices. At the time I was unsure where to go or who to turn to for help in finding a public history graduate program that worked for me. Thankfully, a professor led me to the Guide, which helped to start the process of learning about and applying for public history programs

I began my search by combing through each hyperlinked guide entry, which led to a PDF document that outlined a specific program’s history, contact information, financial aid opportunities, places where students had internships, and employers who hired students after graduation. I made an excel spreadsheet with each of these designated fields and a list of 30 schools that looked compelling to me. I then visited each program’s website to learn more about tuition costs, curriculum requirements, and campus life. I also made phone calls to program directors, telling them that I had looked at the Guide and that I wanted to hear a “pitch” for their program (I discovered later that email was oftentimes a faster and more reliable means of communication than a phone call). As I narrowed down my list, I arranged formal phone interviews and campus visits with my top choices.

When applying for public history programs, I thought about the following questions:

  • Do I understand what public history is? Do I know the difference between public history and museum studies?
  • Do I want to study a specific concentration within public history (archives, historic preservation, interpretation, etc.) or do I want more generalized training?
  • Am I willing to relocate for graduate school? If so, where?
  • How much will it cost to attend school? What is my budget? What are some possible avenues for financial aid?
  • What is the status of the economy? Are there jobs in public history?
  • What is the history of the school’s public history program? Does it fit my needs?
  • What were my impressions of the faculty I communicated with during the application process? Did they sound committed to helping me achieve my scholarly and career goals?
  • Am I prepared to fully commit myself to graduate school? Going to school simply to wait for the job market to improve is problematic.

Answers to some of these questions are still coming into focus for me, especially while I have been helping to update the current NCPH Guide in my role as the NCPH graduate assistant this year. The previous complete update for the Guide was in 2010. Rapid changes in the field and the negative effects of the Great Recession, I think, make it more important than ever for public history programs to provide precise information for prospective students and professional public historians.