Friday, 14 November 2014

Crosspost: Graduate School and the Consulting Historian

This was originally posted at History@Work, the blog of the National Council for Public History. Please leave comments at the original.

Academic careers are hard to come by these days. Public historians will not be surprised by the posts on the active #altac hashtag on Twitter or the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s (SSHRC) recent “White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities” that observed that only between 10 and 15 percent of those who enter PhD programs will be employed at a post-secondary institution [1]. A declining number of tenured and tenure-track positions, coupled with an increased reliance on precarious labor in the form of adjunct and temporary appointments, has destabilized the academic job market for graduates. Deep budget cuts to museums, archives, and other research-oriented institutions–not just in history and the humanities, but also in the social, physical, and life sciences–make finding “traditional” public history jobs increasingly difficult as well.

As a second-year PhD student working towards defending my dissertation proposal and completing my qualifying exams this term, I do not have the answers to questions about the utility of a PhD, but I am interested in designing my project with an awareness of the challenges facing new graduates. As Abby Curtin notes in her recent post on History@Work, while theses provide opportunities to explore rich historical questions, it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be strategic in project design or have an eye towards future employability.

I returned to school last fall after spending five years working full-time for a variety of governmental departments and agencies in public history and allied fields–work which stemmed from a paid internship while working on my MA in Public History from Carleton University. As my work life shifted away from hands-on research, I hung out my shingle and began consulting on a part-time basis. In returning to academia with this “real world” experience, I find my new challenge isn’t re-adjusting to academic reading (both in terms of quantity and quality) or imposing discipline on a largely unstructured day. Rather, it is in designing research questions and methodologies that recognize the reality of the labor market and also pass muster from both my supervisor and my committee.

Generally, my default position is the path of least resistance. In the case of my dissertation project, which looks at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm (Consultant Committee co-chair Adina Langer wrote about her visit to the Farm during the 2013 NCPH conference), this would mean focusing on time periods where my research would take me to the archives. As one experienced consultant told me when I was just getting started, the simple fact of being in the archives can open the door to contracts.

Many archives that I will be using, such as the Library and Archives Canada and the Archives of Ontario, maintain publicly accessible consultants’ lists. Being on these lists and physically present in the archives makes it easy to begin building expertise and a client base, and it offers the chance to make good mistakes while staying within the safety net of departmental funding. Indeed, I’ve received most of my consulting work through these lists.  Perhaps unusually, I had one client send me a check for significantly more than my invoice, insisting that my rates were too low. At the same time, potential clients have let me know that I’ve quoted too high a rate when they turn down my bid. Over time, I’ve become familiar with certain archival collections, including Record Group 17 (Department of Agriculture) and First and Second World War attestation papers, allowing me the ability to provide fixed-bid project, rather than hourly, quotes with confidence.

Funding agencies, such as SSHRCC, often require applicants to include knowledge dissemination strategies in scholarship proposals. Some universities, those with digital humanities programs in particular, have funds to support interdisciplinary collaboration between, say, a historian and a computer scientist to develop an online exhibition or a mobile app. Selecting teaching assistantships that include project management duties or that require students (and therefore teaching assistants) to liaise with community partners is another good way to build a project portfolio while still in graduate school.

One of the challenges is drawing the marketable skill out of the academic task. As Heather Lee Miller points out, many aspects of consulting are foreign to the academic mindset [2]. The concept of the billable hour, when I first confronted it in a litigation support context, barely made sense to me. And yet teaching and research assistantships in Canada are often limited to the 130-hour per term work limit imposed by external funding agencies such as SSHRCC, making tracking hours on what are effectively medium-term projects essential to most graduate school experiences. Moving from what is essentially a very poorly paid salaried position to one where hourly rates matter requires a leap of faith–one I have not taken on a full-time basis. Nonetheless, there are plenty of resources available for those looking to get started.

[1] The white paper states that approximately half of entrants do not complete their degree and of those who remain, between 20–30% find work in a university or college. Note that. in Canada, “colleges” do not generally grant degrees, but “universities” do. It is also not clear from the report whether this figure includes all PhDs working in universities and colleges or only those in tenured or tenure-track positions.

[2] “The Business of History,” Journal of Women’s History (Winter 2013). (Note: Paywall)

~ Pete Anderson is a PhD candidate in Geography at Queen’s University, Kingston, where he studies the social and environmental history of Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm. He has worked in public history and allied fields for the Canadian federal government and as a public history consultant. As a consultant, his clients have included family historians, academics, and provincial heritage organizations. Pete is a member of the NCPH’s Consultants Committee and can be found on Twitter @dairpo. He occasionally blogs at his personal website, at Active History, and on the blog of the Network in Canadian History and the Environment.