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.

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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.

Cons:

  • 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.

Pros:

  • 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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