Experience: An Essential Addition to a History Degree

2014-05-21 18.37.43Dan Johnson is a PhD researcher in the Department of History. His research focusses on public understandings of crime history in museums.

As MA not-quite-graduates are entering the summer and beginning to write their dissertations, a dark shadow of uncertainty is creeping in. The majority of students are faced with the huge question of what’s next. For most, they have spent the last 4 years of their lives focussed on passing modules, writing papers, and conducting research. While some, like me, will decide to continue their courtship with academia by embarking on a PhD, many will begin their search for careers outside academia. Having a postgraduate degree in history provides a great foundation to move into many sectors of the workforce, however, one area that is in high demand where a master’s degree is less important is in heritage. Almost a year out of a Public History MA, I have seen some colleagues flourish and begin their careers strongly in the heritage sector while many are left floundering and struggling to find work. As they all have postgraduate degrees in history, I wondered why some are doing so well while others are not. Here are a few of my thoughts.

From speaking to other public history alumni, as well as museum practitioners and from my own experiences, I can determine that simply earning a Public History MA does not necessarily equate to a better chance of a job after the degree is finished. The course here at York trains students in the theory behind the inner workings of many aspects of the field including museum education, oral history, curation, history in the media, and much more. The research standards are just as rigorous as our more traditional history counterparts and we are trained to apply our historical interests into practical settings. On paper, we should be prime candidates for careers in museums, media, historical organisations, as well as many more areas in the heritage sector and beyond. So why are there many public history postgrads still searching for work, or even giving up on their heritage dreams? The answer is simple: despite attending every seminar, passing modules, and earning honours in a postgraduate history degree, the best candidates for heritage jobs will also bring a hefty amount of real world experiences to the interview table. Do a simple Google search for any museums/heritage job and experience will always be present in the ‘essential’ traits column.

I am writing this post because so many people wonder how they are supposed to gain these experiences while entrenched in a rigorous postgraduate degree. To those people, I argue that York provides many opportunities to gain this highly valued experience that employers are longing for. The Public History MA requires its students to do a placement during the spring term, which is a great step in the door for future voluntary and work opportunities with historical organisations across the UK, however, a few months work experience as part of the course may still fall on deaf ears of employers. Beyond the mandatory placement, there are opportunities for summer internships that not everyone  takes advantage of. Yes it is during the summer when students are slaving away over dissertations, but again, this is an amazing opportunity to gain experience and make connections with historical organisations that are so valuable in the field that we are trying to get into. It also demonstrates that students are capable of balancing multiple responsibilities at the same time, a highly sought after trait in a heritage sector that is increasingly gutted by funding cuts and relying on a limited number of full time employees to accomplish an ever-growing list of tasks. In addition to the placement and internship opportunities, the university has strong connections with many of the museums in York, which are always looking for volunteers during the year. Volunteering with an organisation a few times a month over the course of the year is vital to showing commitment to potential employers, demonstrates long term experience, and also allows students to get their names and faces recognised by potential employers when job interviews arise. If volunteering for sometimes mundane tasks in a museum are not interesting enough, the university has a number of opportunities to present research papers, organise public events, and gain funding for reading groups and conferences through the Humanities Research Centre and our many interdisciplinary research centres such as the Centre for Modern Studies. All of these provide valuable practical experience for history postgrads to bring into job applications and interviews.

What has become clear from looking at alumni with the same or similar degrees from higher education institutions across the UK and USA, that if you want a job in a museum or in the heritage sector, earning a degree and showing educational competency is not enough. The students that have taken advantage of the many opportunities that York has to offer have thrived, while those who showed up for seminars and wrote their research papers are struggling to find their way in this competitive and over-saturated field. If you glance at the graduate profiles on our website highlighting some of our most successful alumni, you will find that every one of them stresses the importance of gaining experience and putting your education into practice outside of the classroom. The University of York’s Public History MA offers every opportunity for its students to be fully prepared to be ideal candidates for careers with historical organisations; it is the responsibility of students to make the most of their time beyond the ivory tower of academia while completing their degrees. It is important to remember that if students truly want to get the most out of their public history degree, not all learning will happen in the classroom.