My First Professional Speaking Engagement

Yesterday was a pretty exciting day for me, as I had the privilege of giving my first professionally invited talk/speaking engagement. The history department at my Alma mater (Lindenwood University) invited me to address the undergrads in the department about public history and applying for graduate school, and I think the presentation went well. I aimed to keep the speech between 35-45 minutes with some space for questions and answers at the end. I also encouraged questions throughout the talk in an attempt to make it more of a conversation rather than a monologue. The crowd was pretty quiet during the talk, but I had good questions at the end, and I’d like to think the students came away with a better understanding of what public history is.

I broke up the talk into three sections:

1. My career transition from the “high school teacher track” to public history.

2. A definition of public history (see here for an essay I wrote that captures my ideas on the subject) and what sorts of jobs people can get in public history.

3. Tips and tricks for applying to graduate school (see here for more).

Here are a couple questions I received at the end of my talk and how I answered them:

1. What is the most important question to consider when applying for graduate school? In my opinion, one needs to figure out their budget for graduate school before going any further in the application process. For each program that interests you, make sure to study what sort of financial aid is available (fellowships, scholarships, stipends, grants, loans, etc.) and figure out how you can get as much aid as possible. For me, it was extremely important to find a program that gave me the ability to go to school without taking out any additional loans. I have some outstanding loans from undergrad that will need to be addressed in the near future, and I realized that I didn’t get into history to become a millionaire. While I was willing to pay some money out-of-pocket for grad school, it was imperative not to put myself in a hole financially, and my general mantra towards advanced degrees is that one should make the school work to recruit you, not the other way around.

Nevertheless, I also realized that by setting these boundaries during my school search, I eliminated solid programs that could potentially do a lot to influence my career. I have several public history acquaintances at American University in Washington, D.C. who have told me they received no financial aid whatsoever for their graduate degree. The cost of school–added with the cost of living in the D.C. metro area–is astronomical, most definitely in the five digits and beyond. With that cost, however, are some pretty amazing opportunities to work with cultural institutions like the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, or the National Park Service. You as an individual must weigh the pros and cons of each program you apply to and determine what is the best fit for you financially while also keeping an eye towards your future earnings if you were to pursue a career in public history.

2. What’s the difference between museum studies and public history? There is a lot of overlap between the two fields and I had trouble distinguishing the two when I initially started my search for a graduate school. Generally speaking, public historians are trained in historical methods, historical research, and communicating the stuff of history to a public audience. The medium in which public historians communicate with their audiences could be in a museum, but it could also take place in a historical society, archive, library, film production, a historic preservation project, or a classroom. Museum studies students do not receive training in historical methodology; rather, they receive specific training for work within a museum setting. This training includes exhibit design, label writing, curation, object-based learning, and museum education. Museum studies students are trained for work in a wide range of museums, including history museums, art museums, children’s museums, and science museums. Public historians are not necessarily qualified to work in all of these types of museums, but they have opportunities outside the museum walls.

3. Do I need an advanced degree to pursue a career in public history? Generally speaking, you need at least an M.A. to work in public history. Granted, I have no doubt that there small historical societies and museums who are willing to take applicants with just a B.A. degree, and there are part-time jobs that do not require an advanced degree. In my own experiences, however, most of the jobs I’ve read about and applied for require an advanced degree, and oftentimes they want a portfolio or some sort of tangible example of work you’ve done in the field.

4. What is the nature of your Master’s thesis? Is it related to public history? My specific master’s thesis does not cover a public history topic. I was not required to pick a public history topic, although my study on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, analyzes historical memory and does briefly discuss the role of monuments in conveying messages to public audiences about collective memory. This case is not the uniform standard in every program, however. Some public history programs require a public history-related thesis, while others require no thesis and opt to have students complete a portfolio. I highly recommend that prospective students ask program directors about the nature of these projects and seriously consider if they’d be willing to complete a thesis or portfolio of some sort. All too often, students complete their coursework but struggle to finish their final project. Those pursuing a Ph.D. sometimes end up getting an ABD “degree” (All but dissertation). You don’t want to do that.

If you have a question about public history or applying for graduate school, feel free to leave a comment below.