Putting my Ph.D. to Work

I think many of us writing our dissertations look forward to those few months after graduation to recover and decompress before we start whatever our next chapter might be. I know I was thinking about stretching out on a sandy beach somewhere drinking something very alcoholic. Daydreams aside, whenever I envisioned life after graduation, I expected some sort of fog to lift and everything would normalize again. Instead, I am busier than ever. The fog lifted, but only to reveal my mostly empty bank account.

With summer coming to a close and classes about to start, I thought now might be a good time to post an update about how I’m using this degree I worked so hard to get. I am one of the fortunate few PhDs to have a job waiting for me after graduation. Many of my friends and colleagues know that I started a postdoctoral fellowship in May to write an administrative history for Stones River National Battlefield. This is a great transitional project that builds upon my doctoral residency and dissertation, while also providing new experience in writing an official administrative history for the National Park Service. While it is a fantastic opportunity, it also means I’ve had to research and write three chapters this summer, which is not easy to do so soon after finishing a dissertation. However, the importance producing such a document for park managers was certainly underscored by debates over the Confederate flag this summer and how we make meaning of Civil War commemorative landscapes like Stones River.

In an interesting turn of events, I became a tour guide for a history walking tour company in Nashville. I first came to this job out of necessity (I needed the money), but have stuck with it because it gives me the chance to interact with the public on a weekly basis. I’m learning a ton about Nashville, how best to engage people with historic urban landscapes, and working for a for-profit history business.

I have taken a break from my work on Cumberland Gap National Historical Park for most of the summer, but I am happy to report that my research is starting to reach new audiences. I had the privilege of presenting a public program at the park to celebrate its Job Corps Center’s 50th anniversary. I have also been talking to CRM contractors about NPS Job Corps history, because they are working on projects that deal with these resources. Now, I am starting to think seriously about journal articles and book proposals, and trying to figure out how to fit these with my already full research and writing schedule.

Each of these new adventures delves into important issues in public history and cultural landscapes. There are too many things to bring together in one post, but I may follow up with some special posts in the next few weeks. Let me know what you’re interested in hearing about!

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“Don’t Let Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story:” Interpretive Themes at Jack Daniel’s Distillery

At the beginning of Jack Daniels Distillery tour

At the beginning of Jack Daniel’s Distillery tour

I spent Mother’s Day with my family in Lynchburg, Tennessee, at Jack Daniel’s Whiskey Distillery, because moms like Jack Daniel, too. I have wanted to write about one of these tours for a couple of years now. Not because I’m a huge whiskey drinker (most of my friends know I’m perfectly happy with cheap beer), but because I am completely fascinated how these large distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee use heritage to sell their brand and product. These efforts aren’t just a casual occurrence; companies are spending millions of dollars on visitor centers and other services, catering to what I consider a public history experience.

I first noticed this a couple years ago when I stumbled into the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville. I didn’t mean to run a public history analysis on the place (I was celebrating my 26th birthday, after all), but I couldn’t help myself once our guide mentioned the number of people that make the pilgrimage to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. This trail, created and trademarked in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers Association to educate the public about the bourbon craft and its important contribution to Kentucky heritage, now links 18 Kentucky distilleries. The KDA itself dates back to 1880, formed so that distillers could lobby for state laws and regulations that favored their industry. It is with little surprise that they continue to work together today for a common marketing strategy.

In each of the past five years, Kentucky Bourbon Trail visitors have set and smashed attendance records. In 2014, participating distilleries welcomed 725,000 visitors. Some companies might hesitate sending customers to their competitors, but the KDA wisely encourages visitors to pay homage to multiple distilleries on their trip through a passport program (designed in a similar fashion to the National Park Service program) they launched back in 2007, in which visitors can collect stamps from all the distilleries they visit. Although, I’m sure most of the lushes on the bourbon trail are much more interested in collecting bottles than stamps, which is probably what the KDA is hoping for.

My family shopping after the tour

My family shopping after the tour

I give all this background on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and KDA to bring up my recent tour of Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. JD is not a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (although I’m sure there are plenty of sots that extend their tour from Kentucky to Lynchburg), and I am not going into the debate about Tennessee whiskey versus Kentucky bourbon. But I do think that both the KDA and JD both know the importance of using heritage tourism to support and sell their brand and products. I noticed certain themes used by both the guide at Evan Williams and those presentations I’ve heard at JD. I want to talk about those themes and interpretive strategies in this post.

First, these distillery tours, including JD, really do benefit from a cultural landscape approach, meaning that guides work to point out the importance of setting, natural resources, and built environment in making fine spirits. Whiskey making at JD has changed a lot over the years, and a cultural landscape approach helps explain changes over time. At JD, tour guides place emphasis on the natural resources both local and imported to craft their product, including the spring that Jack Daniel purchased when he started the business.

Ben, our guide, talks to the group about the spring that  becomes whiskey.

Ben, our guide, talks to the group about the spring that becomes whiskey.

The quality of the natural resources in relationship to the setting is notable, because these themes help tour guides explain how JD “crafts” its products and makes a unique Tennessee product. It is amazing, then, that in the midst of walking through a factory that produces so much whiskey en masse that guides effectively show how each bottle of JD is handcrafted, particularly the ubiquitous No. 7. I’m sure this emphasis on craftsmanship is necessary for a company like to JD to stay ahead of all the artisanal enterprises that have been cropping up in recent years.

Jack Daniels's office

Jack Daniel’s office

Contributing to this idea of craftsmanship is the cult of personality that is exploited by tour guides and furthered by preservation efforts at the site. Jack Daniel’s original office is just a few steps away from the spring. The company has carefully preserved the building and uses it as a stop for its tours. Inside the office, you learn about Jack and his larger-than-life personality. Guides then talk about Lem Motlow, his nephew who inherited the business and brought it through prohibition. They also talk about the master distillers who carry on Jack Daniel’s legacy for quality spirits. But in the same breath, the guides also mention that company was sold to the Brown-Forman Corporation in 1956, which is one of the largest American companies for spirits and wine. I find it incredibly interesting that this part of the story is given such little attention since it is likely that this absorption allowed Jack Daniel’s whiskey to be so internationally recognizable. In fact, the tour guides speak proudly of the reach JD spirits has across the world. But, spending a lot of time on this absorption would mean taking away from the cult of personality that surrounds Jack Daniel and the idea that this is a “family company,” which is also emphasized in the office tour.

Text on panel inside visitor center

Text on panel inside visitor center

Inside the visitor center there are a few exhibit panels and artifact cases. One exhibit panel describes one mystery surrounding Jack Daniels in which historical facts seem to undermine the legend. The exhibit writers end the text with the following: “Of course, facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.” I think that’s the take away message from the JD tour. The tour guides are sharing very valuable information with visitors about the process and product, but to a certain extent they are perpetuating myths about Jack Daniel and the history of the company. They use history when it helps them tell a good story, but at the end of the day they are weaving together a tale that they hope will encourage you to buy their product. I also noted that Art Hancock, the company’s first marketing person, began collecting the artifacts shown in the cases in 1954. Sixty years ago, Art understood the marketing potential of Jack Daniel’s story and began collecting artifacts to tell that story. So it seems that the impulse to collect and present material culture relating to Jack Daniel’s story originated with a company marketer.  Using history as a marketing tool is just as much of a tradition in Lynchburg as distilling.

I thoroughly enjoy the Jack Daniel’s distillery tour and recommend it to anyone visiting the area. I’m certainly not trying to knock it in this post, considering that the tours are free to the public. I do think that public historians have something to learn from Jack Daniels and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. For example, I wonder if they have any historians on staff and what kind of training they go through. I would love to know more about how these operations are organized, and, what, if anything, non-profits might learn from them. I also think they do a great job explaining process and product, which some historic industrial sites struggle to do.

On the other hand, I think public historians can add value to these operations, if they are not doing so already. Jack Daniel’s, for example, could easily offer a walking tour that extends into the town of Lynchburg itself to better talk about the social, economic, and political relationships between the town and the distillery. And I do think there are ways that guides can bring these larger issues into the tours, particularly when discussing the company’s absorption by a larger parent corporation. Public historians know how to use the facts to tell a good story. 

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“Beyond the Administrative History:” Report from NCPH Working Group

Last Friday, my working group on National Park Service administrative histories convened for discussion at the National Council on Public History meeting in Nashville. Administrative histories are documents that the NPS uses to understand the agency’s involvement in a particular park, office, region, or program, to help with future management decisions. We’ve been talking over the past several months contributing to a Google Doc about how the NPS might revisit its guidelines, last written in 2004, and think “beyond the administrative history.” In other words, how can we make these documents more usable? I was happy with group’s diversity and impressed by the participants’ credentials. Everyone present had extensive experience with writing, reviewing, or using these documents. There were consultants, park historians, regional historians, and scholars. Okay, I guess I still count as a graduate student, but I’m trying to move beyond that label as well. We discussed three questions and I’ll share some of our thoughts that stick out in my memory (I didn’t take notes).

  • What makes an administrative history useful?

Administrative histories tell the park’s story; every manager should know hers/his park’s story. An administrative history should show where the “land mines” are buried, where the past and potential controversies lie. These histories should help with compliance, but also tie to larger historical narratives. I also argued that an administrative history, when done right, can be a road map for civic engagement, especially when it shows how the NPS marginalized or excluded certain groups.

  • What do we do with administrative histories when they are done?

A common and legitimate complaint is that once completed, many administrative histories are doomed to languish on a shelf or in a box. We discussed (as many have over the years) of having a searchable database for this literature group with special tags. We also considered several different “add ons” that might be included in contracts or funded later through ONPS CR funds marked for “Transfer of Knowledge.” These additions can include workshops and training for personnel about the document, a place for admin history authors at the table for concurrent or future park planning initiatives, videos for the web, or other interpretive content. We didn’t get into who owns the research, but I think it is important to talk up front about the possibility of publishing in academic journals or with university or trade presses. These all require a good deal of foresight. I also encouraged the group to think beyond the traditional monograph as the final product for these studies. Can we possibly do digital projects (such as this one on the Blue Ridge Parkway), videos, or something else instead?

  • What are the future directions with administrative histories?

Looking at the agenda, my memory of this part of the conversation is less clear. However, my major point from reading the discussions on the Google Doc is that park managers need to recognize that administrative histories are a process, not a one-and-done product. There are things parks can do while they wait for an administrative history project to be funded. I think this is where graduate students can be a big help. They can examine bits and pieces of a park’s history through research papers, theses, and dissertations. However, for this to be successful for both the agency and the student, the NPS needs to provide some measure of support and treat these studies as legitimate agency literature and scholarship. I’ve noticed an attitude within the agency that if they did not spend a bunch of money on a project, it somehow doesn’t “count.” That is a disservice to the student, the park resources, and the public the agency serves. A good partnership can mean that a contractor will have less ground to cover if they can build upon accumulating literature.

Moving forward from our meeting in Nashville, the NPS will hopefully incorporate our ideas into its guidelines for administrative histories, which it is currently reviewing and revising. Group facilitators will also summarize our discussions in a History at Work post. Finally, an upcoming edition of The Public Historian will focus on NPS biographies.

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Cultural Landscapes: More than Visual Assets

In a sharing circle about cultural landscapes, an indigenous woman from a Californian tribe spoke up. When pressed about her thoughts about cultural landscapes as discussed during the George Wright Society conference, she reminded the group that westerners mostly conceive landscapes as something that is visual, while other cultures do not.

"Cole Thomas Landscape 1825" by Thomas Cole - The Athenaeum,. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Cole Thomas Landscape 1825” by Thomas ColeThe Athenaeum,. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She’s right. Think about how obsessed we are with capturing panoramic views in pictures so that we can prove that we were there and share these experiences with others. I recall from my art history classes the nineteenth-century artists who intersected Romanticism and landscape painting to convey scenes that were picturesque or sublime. Then, there was Ansel Adams who doggedly photographed some of America’s most iconic national parks in black and white. His personal concern for nature and wilderness prompted him to use his photos to further the environmental cause and advocate for these places.

"Adams The Tetons and the Snake River" by Ansel Adams - http://www.archives.gov/media_desk/press_kits/picturing_the_century_photo_gallery/tetons_snake_river.jpg (hi-res)This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 519904.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.English | Español | Français | Italiano | Македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | Polski | Português | Русский | Slovenščina | Türkçe | Tiếng Việt | 中文(简体) | 中文(繁體) | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Adams The Tetons and the Snake River” by Ansel AdamsThis media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 519904Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Landscape photography has increasingly become more democratic as technology has evolved. I have a function on my iPhone where even I can take a panoramic photo, which I did the other week at the Golden Gate bridge.

The woman in the sharing circle told us that in her culture, landscape is something that is experienced through all the senses. It is feeling your feet in the bare earth and knowing that connection to the land.

Image from http://www.health-happiness.co.uk/USERIMAGES/barefeet%20on%20earth%20carl%20jung.jpg

Source: http://www.health-happiness.co.uk.

I started thinking about other sensory experiences when I’m in a landscape. I think about summer days on the Cacapon River when I’m in the water and can feel the gently tug of the water as it moves downstream, the fish nibbling my legs, and the smooth rocks under my feet. I also know what that place looks and feels like in all the seasons, not just summer.

Kayaking on the Cacapon

Kayaking on the Cacapon

Her point and others made in the sharing circle raises the question if the term “cultural landscape” is inadequate or even too limiting. Having the word “cultural” in the title already denotes a difference between the natural environment—a bifurcation cultural landscape studies tries to unify. The word “landscape” also places an emphasis on the visual assets of a place rather than other sensory perceptions. What might be a suitable replacement for the term cultural landscape?

One possible idea I had came from a session on climate change. Climate scientists have released a report with the title, “Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the Twenty-first Century.” Could we borrow the phrase “Humanity’s Life Support System” somehow? But again, this sounds a bit too science-y and keeping the word “cultural” in “cultural landscape” remains appealing. Going back to indigenous conceptions of cultural landscape—they have none. I have heard a number of indigenous people express that this is something not in their language.

Maybe we can leave it to something as simple as “Place Keeping.” To me, “place” is something that is distinct and pulls at you in unexpected ways. “Place” is neither natural nor cultural, rural nor urban. Place can be large or small. Furthermore, a place isn’t just visually distinctive, but often embraces other tangible and intangible assets and values. I like the term “keeping” over “preservation,” because it recognizes that these places are still dynamic and subject to change. It also acknowledges that as human beings we are only around for a short time so let’s try to protect the important qualities that make a place special so that we may pass them along to future generations. Whether or not these generations will find the same value that we have in these places is up to them.

As a scholar and a former resource manager, I question if “place keeping” is a serious enough term to convey the necessities of vigorous study or legal protection. “Cultural landscape” sounds serious and important and something we should be doing. “Place keeping” sounds ambiguous, and gray areas are not welcome in management. I’m sure that cultural landscape once sounded strange on the tongue, so maybe with time “place keeping” or a better phrase will become more familiar and accepted in both academia and in management, but won’t be off-putting to the public. I will stick with cultural landscapes for the time being, but let’s keep experimenting with new terms to see what “feels right” and try to be more mindful that landscapes are more than just visual assets.

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Post-Defense Life and George Wright

I (successfully) defended my dissertation over two weeks ago. I found the defense actually quite enjoyable, although I did sweat the entire time. Anyone who tells you not to be nervous for your defense is full of it. But the barbs were pretty toothless and I was pleasantly surprised about the nice things my committee members had to say about my work. I became Dr. Sirna after a few signatures over some Donut Country sweets that a friend left on my car that morning. I went to the gym afterwards to work out my nervous energy, and then I celebrated by drinking some shandy in my backyard, enjoying the sweet Tennessee sunshine.

Thanks EKG!

Thanks EKG!

There is no rest for the wicked, as they say. I went back to work the next morning and sat in a conference call about my next big project. I’ll probably say more about that in a few weeks. I finished up the last few copyedits of my dissertation and submitted the whole dang thing to the university, splurging on copyrights in the process. Enjoy, ProQuest.


View of Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point

Two days after submitting, I flew to Oakland, California for the George Wright Society meeting on parks and protected lands. The first time I attended this meeting coincided with sequestration, so not very many NPS made it to Denver that year. Fortunately, many natural and cultural resource managers from the NPS and other agencies did make it to Oakland. It was great to talk to managers again after so many months of dissertation writing. Here are some of my highlights from sessions:

  • Katie Algeo, Western Kentucky University, and master’s student Collins Eke, presented their work on tracking migration patterns from Mammoth Cave National Park between 1920 and 1940. I can’t stress enough how important this work is to understanding the impact of populations living within proposed park boundaries. They were able to do this using data from the 1940 census. They found that many families remained in the area after the Kentucky National Park Commission purchased their land. Those that did move to cities tended not to go south, but north and west where jobs were available and could be accessed by the Dixie Highway. It’s interesting that people did not move to the county seat or Bowling Green, which is perhaps indicative of local politics.
  • Climate change is a big topic at GWS, and cultural resources people take part in this conversation. I was interested to learn that Robert Melnick has a grant to research and write about climate change and cultural resources, which I look forward to reading.
  • I learned about interesting work at Martin Van Buren’s Lindenwald and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park about using agricultural landscapes to engage local communities. However, this session got me thinking about how sites can do this when these places have difficult histories relating to population removal, slavery, share cropping, and migrant workers.
  • I attended a focus session on philanthropy and indigenous cultures and learned about how native peoples in California have been working to preserve sacred places for their communities, such as through the Native American Land Conservancy.
  • Lu Ann Jones held a workshop on oral history and wilderness, which I found quite fascinating since the two kind of seem like a paradox, but are perhaps very similar to one another.
Title slide from my presentation

Title slide from my presentation

My own panel was held the last day of the conference, which was on social policy and the national parks. Really, it was a fifty-year retrospective of how the agency has interacted with various social groups or was influenced by larger policy and trends. I spoke about the Job Corps program, using Catoctin Mountain Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and Mammoth Cave National Park as case studies. I concluded with some general recommendations for NPS managers, including oral history projects, resource documentation, and civic engagement. I was joined by John Sprinkle, NPS Bureau Historian, who described Francis P. Bolton’s efforts to preserve Mount Vernon’s view shed at Piscataway Park. Eleanor Mahoney, Ph.D. candidate at University of Washington and editor of Living Landscape Observer, argued that economic change is a driving factor to park creation. Chris Johnson, a historian in the NPS Pacific West office and another freshly minted Ph.D. from the University of Washington, rounded out our panel to discuss his new administrative history on Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park in Hawaii and how the agency’s relationship with the native community has developed over time and became quite contentious at certain moments. Our presentations were well received by those hearty souls who decided to stick out the conference to the very end. Their general reaction was that the NPS needs to look at its own past more, and this inward reflection is often missing in park management. We hope to discuss these topics more frequently in the future.

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Why Do a Ph.D. in Public History?

The answer to this question would probably be better as a retrospective 1, 5, 10, or 20 years after finishing this degree instead of a few months prior to graduation, but this is a question that I have often considered over the past five years. This morning, I read a tweet from someone who was looking at grad school and wondering what the point was of a Ph.D. if you aren’t interested in becoming a professor. Excellent question, @ATPublicHistory. My thoughts on this have been all over the place, but I want to share some of my thought process and the list of pros and cons I’ve contemplated over the years.

I first want to clarify that there are three types of doctoral degree programs in which public history Ph.D.’s fall. First, there is the traditional academic history program with candidates who have no interest in teaching or want a public history job as a Plan B. Or have candidates who worked in public history before going the academic route. Second, there are traditional academic history programs that offer a field in public history (West Virginia University, Arizona State University, and University of South Carolina rank among the more well-known institutions). This means that candidates will likely train to be academic historians with a better grounding in public history theory and methodology than the first program mentioned. Candidates may also have opportunities to do internships or assistantship work in public history. These programs likely have a robust public history MA program. MTSU falls into the third category, which offers a Ph.D. in public history. MTSU is kind of an academic unicorn in this regard. The only other program that offers this degree is NC State, which is a very recent development and I can’t speak to what that program is like.

At MTSU, working in the field is a given for most Ph.D. candidates. There is no need for uncomfortable conversations with your professor about how you will not be seeking an academic position. The program also has success placing students in academic public history positions. Candidates’ studies are grounded in public history theory and methodology and have access to a great group of faculty in various public history subfields. Furthermore, candidates can get exposure doing all types of public history work at three on-campus centers that offer graduate assistantships. The program is designed to be a four-year program, which is shorter than the average academic history doctoral program. Candidates also spend a year in the field for their doctoral residency, which is a great opportunity to gain more experience and expand your network.

The major drawback to our program is that we don’t have as much time to spend on our dissertations and can’t really seek outside grants.

Before I get into my thought process for why I wanted a Ph.D. in public history, I need to give a disclaimer. The decision to seek a Ph.D. is highly individual. I can’t give broad advice to anyone on this subject because you have to do a lot of self-examination to know if such a degree is right or wrong for you. The only piece of broad advice I will give is this: Do not get a Ph.D. for the sake of calling yourself a doctor. Get over yourself. The process of earning such a degree is empowering, but it is more so humbling. It becomes all too apparent how little you really know.


Master’s graduation at West Virginia University

Back in the spring of 2011, I was approaching graduation from my master’s program in public history. All through my master’s degree I worked very hard to get a permanent position with the National Park Service, but it didn’t happen and I felt lost. I had not spent a lot of time exploring other public history jobs because I was so focused on the NPS. Furthermore, the job market was utterly dismal that year. I decided to apply to MTSU’s program because it really was a perfect fit for me (based upon faculty, courses, graduate assistantship opportunities, funding, location, and alumni placement). I still kept applying to jobs and only came out with two interviews that entire summer after graduation. Thoroughly discouraged by the job market, I decided to firm up my commitment to the Ph.D. program. In retrospect, I probably could have found a public history job, but it would have taken me 6-12 months. In my family, “not working” just isn’t a thing, so the thought of being unemployed for that long seemed like a total non-starter (as I am sure is the case for most people). I needed to be doing something to stay in the public history field and a Ph.D. in public history remained appealing to me.

I tell this story because I maybe didn’t have the best reasons for enrolling in a Ph.D. program (i.e. fear of unemployment). However, I did have a number of real reasons to go for it. From my work in the NPS, I knew I enjoyed higher caliber projects that challenged my intellect and creativity as a historian and cultural resource manager. I love big challenges and thinking outside the box. I also saw myself as being a future leader in the field and working across disciplines. Furthermore, I had a research project in mind, which has kept me happily occupied over the past four years and has allowed me to make a contribution to the field.

You do not need a doctorate to do these things, but I think it certainly helps. Although I don’t know the eventual payoff for my degree yet, I can already tell that I have become a better public historian for it. I have demonstrated ability to plan and implement multifaceted projects with multiple stakeholders and I can synthesize complex information for public audiences and clients. I could do these things before, but now on a much bigger scale. I also feel like I have come into my own as a public historian, rather than just a graduate student or an intern. I also avoided the mistake I made as a master’s student by being hyper focused on a particular career path and instead have worked hard the past four years to keep my options open so I can be ready for whatever the job market has to offer.

I entered the Ph.D. program with a good sense of optimism, but I had a mental list of pros and cons about doing a Ph.D. I have added to this list over the years and thought I might as well share. If you don’t believe me I suggest perusing the Professor Is In, Chronicle Vitae, Chronicle for Higher Ed, or Inside Higher Ed. These blogs mostly talk about the academic job crisis but they raise very real concerns with anyone in a Ph.D. program, whether your intention is teaching or not. I also recommend reading up on altac or postac literature and check out Versatile Ph.D. online forum. Most of these posts are about leaving academia, but I often find their job advice helpful because they are tailored to those with doctoral degrees.


  • At least four more years living near the poverty line. Living on a stipend sucks, kids. There is no getting around it. In fact, it has gotten increasingly difficult to live on a stipend every year. This is the one thing I wish I could have told myself before I decided to go for the Ph.D.
  • Four years of lost wages plus more student loans. I’ve read that the first five years are the most important in your career, because that’s when you make the quickest advancement. Here I am, 28 years old, and I haven’t started adding to my retirement fund yet. I was very conservative with the amount of loans I took out, but it is still a very stressful situation when you’re not guaranteed a high paying job.
  • Upon graduation you run the risk of becoming simultaneously overqualified and under-qualified. Because you spent the past four years of your life in school, employers might think you have too little experience for mid-level positions but have too much education for entry-level positions. Certain biases still exist among people who think academics can’t meet deadlines, communicate with the public, and so forth.
  • A doctoral program can wreak havoc on your personal life. Graduate school is hard on everyone, but it can seem especially acute in your mid-20s. I admit that it has been hard for me to see friends my age start awesome jobs, get married, buy houses, and have kids, while I’m still in school living on a stipend. It is difficult to start and maintain relationships when you don’t know what you will be doing from year to year. For a woman, graduate school may also mean delaying having children. Although, I must point out that I know a number of colleagues that have successfully married and had children while working on their degrees.
  • No guarantees. Having a Ph.D. in itself does not mean you will receive a huge payout. In fact, I think those of us with doctorates in public history should expect to start near the bottom like everyone else because of the skills gap I mentioned before. However, MTSU’s placement has heartened me considerably and given me a reasonable outlook on job possibilities.


  • Despite lost wages, I think once you have found a position you will be able to make up for lost time by advancing up the career ladder quickly.
  • No ceiling. Not having a Ph.D. will never be a problem.
  • Credibility. Despite my initial disclaimer, having a “Ph.D.” by your name does identify you as a subject matter expert and perhaps a leader in some circles.
  • Increased capacity to take on large, complex projects. Taking qualifying exams, planning and implementing a doctoral residency, and writing a 385-page dissertation have all prepared me well for these types of challenges.

This list makes it clear that the negative reasons for going for a Ph.D. in public history are more short-term issues, while the positive aspects I hope will pay out over the long term. I think that’s what makes the prospect of the Ph.D. so difficult to grapple. It is very much a gamble and requires you to have a long-term vision for yourself. Best of luck to anyone thinking through this issue.

If you are thinking about grad school to pursue a public history degree, also suggest checking out NCPH’s Public History Navigator, but I did help write that guide so I’m biased.

*Correction: I previously stated that Loyola University Chicago offers a field in public history, but actually they offer a joint degree in US History and Public History. My apologies! Updated: April 11, 2015.

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Note on Revisions: Revised Edition

My blog feels as stale as a week old bagel. Or maybe a three-month old bagel since my last post was December 8. Gross.

Books in my office errwhere

Books errwhere

I would like to say that a lot has happened between then and now, but really I was just immersed in the dissertation grind. I submitted my final copy to my committee on February 27, celebrated my 28th birthday the next day, and have been trying to recover ever since. I felt bad for leaving my blog to sit idle and lose any flavor or freshness it might have once had. I had hoped to return with renewed energy once I unloaded that dissertation, but I didn’t know where to start or what to say. I’ve abandoned any hope of saying anything earth shattering or revealing brilliant insights that I had while I was away. I think today, in the spirit of “getting back on the horse,” I’m just going to tell you what these past few months of revising have been like. If there is a theme with this blog (besides landscapes, which I don’t talk about as often as I had intended) it is that I’m hoping to demystify the process of getting a doctorate in public history. Our program has a very detailed handbook that is supposed to outline the process very clearly and concisely, which it does. Our advisors want us to succeed, but they also want us to give us enough room to figure things out for ourselves, which I also understand. However, I’ve always felt something was missing. MTSU is a great program, but we are kind of lacking in graduate student culture. This goes beyond having a group of friends that will go out with you on Friday night (because who has the money for that?), but extends to the issue of not having very many students ahead of me in the program to really clue me in on what exactly goes into qualifying exams, residencies, portfolios, and dissertations. One recent graduate has been very helpful to me over the past three years, but not everyone has a Kristen Baldwin Deathridge. I even reach out to doctoral friends at other universities, but their requirements and expectations are different from our program, so their advice only goes so far and creates different types of anxieties. So anyway, if this post helps someone in the next cohort, I will consider this time worth spent.

If I could have done anything different when writing this dissertation, I wish I would have figured out my argument sooner instead of the third draft. The whole time I was working on this project, including all the way through the fall when I was drafting, I was most concerned about developing this framework for interpreting park landscapes. It wasn’t until Christmas break, after I had submitted draft chapters to my committee, that I realized that a framework isn’t an argument. I figured this out when I started reading other park histories that had been published in the past few years. I was like, “Wow, their argument is really interesting and I can pick out easily…Uh oh, what’s mine???” I sat down for a weekend and just made a short outline about what my real argument was and then I spent time developing that in the third draft. I am embarrassed to admit that it took me three drafts to figure it out, but I don’t think I’m the only one to experience this. Also, let this be a reminder that it is important to step away from your own work for a few weeks to read others in your field. I had a major breakthrough during this time.

Prepare for your timeline to change. Last November, my advisor and I worked out a timeline for completion that gave me instant anxiety. One deadline was literally on Christmas Eve. I won’t get into details, but let’s just say things didn’t go the way we planned. In January, I was mentally preparing myself for an August graduation. But, thankfully, I met with my advisor and we came up with a new game plan. And so far, I’m still on schedule for May graduation. But that time in January was tough for me; I am a planner and I work really hard to meet deadlines. Let me reassure anyone out there that it is not the end of the world if your game plan changes.

“Revising a dissertation is like moving,” a doctoral friend from another university said to me. So true. You move big things first and you feel like you’re making progress, but then you are left with all the little things and you think I’m never going to pull this off. Eventually you do. Just know that it is normal to feel like it will never be done even when you are close to the finish line.

Don’t take revisions personally. If I didn’t say so in previous posts, I’m saying it now. One reviewer made something like 365 comments on one chapter (the chapter was 60 pages long if that makes any difference). I don’t normally take revisions personally, because I know they make the final product better in the end. However, the sheer number of comments on one chapter gave me pause. “Where do I even begin? Is this even salvageable? Am I cut out for this?” This experience could have put me in an imposter syndrome spiral, but fortunately I met with this person beforehand so I knew the big picture changes she wanted. I started with the big structural changes first and then tackled the details. I wish I could say that was the last I had to revise that chapter but I still went through it a total or five or six times. It took a long time, but I think it is my strongest chapter now. But I realize how important it was that I didn’t give up after that initial shock. I would have never made it through if I let my emotions get the best of me.

Formatting is the devil. Speaking of the little things, give yourself plenty of time to figure out the ridiculousness that is formatting when dealing with two different style guides (Turabian and the College of Graduate Studies). Personally, I think they should give you a degree in Microsoft Word when you finish.

Perfectionism is both your friend and enemy. If you are in a doctoral program, I’m sure you have some degree of perfectionism in you. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist, but I do hold high standards. As I was nearing my February 27 deadline, I was waffling between the need to get everything perfect and the sincere desire for just pressing the send button. In the end, I did all I could with the knowledge that I’ll have two more levels of vetting before ProQuest gets its greedy hands on my dissertation.

Have something to look forward to and plan to give yourself a break. I held tight to the February 27 deadline because the best gift I could give myself on my 28th birthday was not worrying about my dissertation. My boyfriend kept asking what I wanted to do for my birthday, but I couldn’t make any plans. I just wanted to not work. And I didn’t and it was great! I had grand plans of taking a few days off before starting in my next project. But here it is March 12 and I haven’t done much of anything. I went home to West Virginia and enjoyed being with family. It felt like the first time in a long while that I could enjoy their company with no deadlines hanging over my head. I also realized that my brain needed a lengthy break. The few things that I did try to do after submitting my dissertation were kind of terrible.

Time to wrap up. I just want to point out one last thing. Some doctoral students take years to write their dissertations. I only had ten months between my proposal defense and my submission to my committee. My final draft is 385 pages, so I definitely didn’t skimp for the sake of time. I’m here to say it isn’t easy, but it is possible if you can work on it full-time. I very much treated it like a full-time job and even tracked my hours (because I’m weird like that).

My defense is scheduled for March 23. Wish me luck!

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