Archive for Alt-Ac Careers

Welcoming the Next Generation of Historians

Somewhere along the line, I won the mentor lottery. Wonderful, generous people have taken me under their wing at key moments of my career. They have patiently and subtly guided me through various stages of my development, and I still call on many of them quite frequently for advice and feedback.

One of my closest mentors, Paul Weinbaum (with his ever-present cup of coffee), demonstrating one of many environments where historians work.

One of my closest mentors, Paul Weinbaum (with his ever-present cup of coffee), demonstrating one of many environments where historians work.

While it seems like something of a long shot that I could ever replicate their calm, cool counsel, I am nevertheless aware of the debt I owe my elders, and as a result, I do seek out opportunities to meet newer members of our profession and take an interest in their journeys.

That comes into play most often with the students of the Indiana University Department of History (my PhD alma mater). The history department is now one of my clients, and I work with faculty and staff to provide career programming for history students. For the undergraduate history majors, I coordinate the department’s internship program, building relationships with the local history organizations that serve as internship sites, encouraging students to take the skills they’re learning in the classroom and apply them to off-campus work environments, and ensuring that all this match-making results in consistent and high-quality experiences for both intern and supervisor.

My work with graduate students is a little more involved. I am part of a larger effort within IU and the history department to prepare history graduate students for a range of careers that will use the research, writing, and analytical skills they are developing as young historians. This upcoming week, the department will welcome its latest cohort of graduate students, during a series of orientation activities held in advance of the start of classes.

I will be speaking with the students on their very first day of orientation, reminding them that career preparation is a crucial part of their graduate education and alerting them to the range of professional opportunities—not just the professoriate—that they might pursue. This talk aims to introduce them to a departmental culture that prizes versatility and an academic year that will include a range of workshops and encounters designed to increase their knowledge of the work world.

Also this week, I will have the opportunity to speak to the graduate students in the public history program at IU-Bloomington’s sister campus in Indianapolis, IUPUI. Before the start of each school year, the IUPUI program hosts a one-day career development and networking event for current graduate students and local alumni, and I will be giving this year’s keynote address. In my presentation, “Pulling Back the Curtain and Changing the Lens: Current Metaphors of Public History,” I will discuss the ways that my work with LGBTQ history has introduced me to new historical methods, and I will explore their applicability to the wider discipline of public history.

With these various efforts, I have a chance to share some of the insight I’ve gained during my career, while also meeting some of my future colleagues and staying involved in a rich conversation drawn from a range of generational perspectives.

And I have my mentors to thank for showing me how it’s done.

The Value of Conferences

Early spring is conference season in my field, and even though it can make for an intense few weeks, I usually attend two or three conferences during the months of March, April, and May. I’m a big believer in the value of conferences. I consistently return from these gatherings inspired by new ideas and having developed new skills. In addition, I find these events rewarding on an interpersonal level; they allow me an opportunity to catch up with professional colleagues and meet new people working in content areas similar to mine. I’ve developed a wide network over decades of conference-going, and these folks provide crucial input for me as I brainstorm ideas for new projects, seek informational resources on difficult questions, or weigh in on the challenging public history issues of the moment.


A sign from historic Printer’s Alley in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

My first conference of 2015 took place in mid-April when I attended the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (twitter hashtag: #NCPH2015) in Nashville, Tennessee. Happily, a number of NCPH sessions intersected with my own current projects, and I was particularly energized by sessions exploring ways to increase the representation of women at historic sites and advocating for public historians to embrace the role of “History Communicators” who engage the public with a historical perspective on contemporary issues.

The week after NCPH, I was again on the conference trail, this time heading to Kokomo, Indiana, for the Indiana Preserving Historic Places Conference (Twitter hashtag: #INPHP2015). I am an semi-regular attendee of this gathering of Indiana historic preservation professionals, usually making it to the conference every two or three years. Much of this year’s conference revolved around the theme of preserving industrial heritage, and Kokomo–with its history as a site of glass manufacturing and its ongoing role in automobile production–provided an excellent backdrop to the exploration of these issues.

Kokomo Opalescent Glass Factory, Kokomo, Indiana. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

Kokomo Opalescent Glass Factory, Kokomo, Indiana. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

Industrial sites present unique challenges to preservationists. Their physical scale is far greater than many other historic sites and can make re-use a challenge. The presence of heavy machinery and other potentially dangerous features increases liability issues, and often the brownfields left behind require particular government-mandated procedures during preservation efforts. Nevertheless, one cannot adequately understand the history of the United States without considering the role of manufacture in the country’s economic development. In my own experience, I have had some of my most powerful experiences as a historian while touring such monuments to this heritage as Lowell National Historic Site in Massachusetts and the Sloss Iron Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Kokomo trip brought an end to my spring-time traveling for conferences, but the exposure to new ideas and the networking continues. A virtual conference on PhD’s working outside of the academy, Beyond the Professoriate 2015 (Twitter hashtag: #BeyondProf), took place online May 2 and 9. Such discussions, which often fall under the umbrella term “Alt-Ac” (Twitter hashtag: #altac), tend to focus on the initial transition of graduate students from their academic training into the wider world. Despite being well along in my own career, I attended this conference as a means of learning about other people’s experiences. For the 2014-2015 academic year, I have been working with graduate students at Indiana University, helping them prepare for a broad job search that is not confined to academic positions. The Beyond the Professoriate conference provided a nice block of time to gather my thoughts about the alt-ac process, while taking part in a larger conversation about the topic.

All told, I covered a broad range of professional interests during my spring 2015 conference season. I predict I’ll be implementing ideas spurred by these travels for months to come.


Upcoming Workshop: Job Seeking Beyond the Professoriate

It’s a wonderful time to be a history graduate student thinking about careers outside of the academy! Our discipline’s major professional organization, the American Historical Association, has launched a Career Diversity Project, aimed at gathering concrete data about where people with History PhDs work and what the employers who hire them are looking for. The AHA’s advocacy is sparking a larger discussion within the profession about moving graduate education beyond simply vocational training for the professoriate. In addition, an exciting number of entrepreneurial historians have started businesses, blogs, and websites providing a wealth of information for job-seekers with PhDs.

By Kit from Pittsburgh, USA (Grads Absorb the News) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Kit from Pittsburgh, USA (Grads Absorb the News) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This conversation is not new, of course. Since at least the 1970s, a sizable percentage of graduates from history PhD programs have worked in a variety of careers. And many people (such as myself) entered graduate school never planning to pursue an academic career. What’s changed is that career diversity is gaining wider acceptance within the field as a whole. Job seekers can now much more easily find information about a broad range of careers for historians, and academic graduate programs are increasingly supportive of students who choose a less-traveled career path.

On Friday, April 3, I will be at Indiana University, leading a workshop for graduate students on “Job Seeking Beyond the Professoriate.” This event is sponsored by the Indiana University Department of History and all Indiana University graduate students in the humanities are welcome to attend.

I’ll be tailoring much of the workshop to the specific needs and questions of the attendees. In addition, we’ll cover the following general topics:

  • the range of jobs humanities PhDs are qualified for
  • the types of skills non-academic employers are looking for
  • tips for repackaging academic skills for a wider job market
  • the basics of résumé writing (as opposed to C.V. building)

The workshop is the first of a series of efforts related to career preparation beyond the professoriate that I’ll be undertaking in collaboration with Indiana University. Check my website often to learn more.

“Job Seeking Beyond the Professoriate” will take place Friday, April 3, 2015, 1:00pm to 2:30 pm, in Ballantine Hall 209, Indiana University, Bloomington Campus.


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