Public History: Skills and Opportunities

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By Jo McCutcheon

Thinking about my work as a public historian and some of the recent and on-going discussions about training in history generally and doctoral training specifically have made me think about the skills and opportunities I try to provide to both students and professional consulting researchers.[1]  Mixing academic teaching with entrepreneurialism has given me the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students and researchers in a rich environment.  Teaching permits me to keep up with scholarship, conferences and academic discussions.  Historical research consulting requires a diversity of history specific knowledge, but has also included developing a research environment that meets the diverse needs of clients, while working with undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate researchers. Reflecting on the skills and opportunities of this work, these may be considered by those teaching, seeking graduate training and professional development.

The most important skill that should be taught earlier and to more students so that more of the analytical training is transferable to students is working with databases and learning to systematize research using primary documents.  Library and Archives Canada, the award winning website, Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History [2] and other extensive digitization projects in Canada and the United States assist with teaching databases and students and researchers can learn to use databases to enhance research and analysis.  Exposing students and professional researchers to the systematization of research provides them with more transferable skills that are often key to many opportunities in public history.

I began using databases to undertake historical research in 1991 during a summer employment opportunity that became one of my first public history research positions. The skills and knowledge I gained during that work experience were carried into my remaining undergraduate and graduate courses, research assistantships and were central to my PhD research and have continued to be important to the consulting professional historical research projects.  When possible, I also try to introduce undergraduate students to designing, constructing, populating, maintaining and analyzing historical research databases.  These skills have benefited students seeking professional research opportunities and consulting researchers who have been trained, mentored and had practical experience using simple and complex databases have used these skills in turn to pursue their graduate training.

Working in a professional research environment for more than ten years has in many ways provided the collegiality and mentorship opportunities that are part of many graduate programs.  Many consultants are working on graduate degrees and theses and have used the team atmosphere to discuss research strategies, debate historical theory and share research findings to be presented at the Canadian Historical Association.  More needs to be undertaken sooner to let students know about the professional organizations that exist.  It is rare for an undergraduate student to really understand the role of an organization like the CHA but they could benefit from learning about the opportunities for students in history.

Working at CDCI Research has provided me with an opportunity to weave my interests in teaching/researching/mentoring and working with a diversity of new and established researchers in a professional office.  Often our project model is like a large grant-funded research project with several levels of researchers, mentoring and sharing research findings.

I have read hundreds of applications from history students at all levels, and from several other key disciplines, I would estimate that we have over time hired about 300 professional research consultants.  A key component of my work is to write responses to RFPs and review and analyse detailed curriculum vitae of current researches and those of researchers who respond to advertisements or send cvs by word of mouth. I have become really adept at is assessing the general knowledge of researchers in specific research fields and assessing their transferable skills and then outlining the transferable skills to meet the criteria of each proposal.  What I have learned from this work is that history students have fantastic transferable skills, superior writing skills and excellent communication skills overall.

If you read the article  “No More Plan B” and looked up John C. Burnham’s article on a similar topic from April 2000,[3] you will know there are tensions in the academy regarding PhDs, the academy and ‘real’ i.e. teaching jobs.   There are also tensions between public historians practising at cultural institutions and consulting or contract historians. Several American organizations at this time do much more to support scholars outside of the academic with list serves like H-Scholar, the Versatile PhD and the National Council of Public History and its committee for consultants and contractors. Many individuals with history degrees use their training and transferable skills everyday.  Is there more that can be done to support those outside the academy or working in public institutions?

One comment worth contemplating about this tension from Grafton and Grossman perhaps underscores the challenge to this part of the public history field:

Even worse, many of our students who actually do leave the historical profession and takes what they’ve learned in graduate school to the business world are seen as having crossed the line from the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism – as if the life of scholarship were somehow exempt from impure motive and bitter competition.

Most days, I really, really like my job, even the non-history parts of it that require me to stretch my knowledge base and understanding and take in a new business theory or view of working on a project.  I love that I work with engaging, smart, hard working individuals who for the most part share an interest in history and research.  I love being able to still go to the Library and Archives, read 19th century newspapers and reading about new trends in graduate training, and conferences.  If you have not had a chance to read John C. Burnham’s article, it is worth a read.  By virtue of our training in history and research, we have excellent skills,  “As historians, we take our training much too much for granted.  We use it every day and do not appreciate it.” More training and understanding of databases and systematic research will provide students and researchers with more professional opportunities.



[1] Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman. “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History,” Perspectives on History (October 2011) http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2011/1110/1110pre1.cfm , November 1, 2011.

Jo McCutcheon is a Public historian at CDCI Research. Teach history part-time at University of Ottawa. Canadian context of childhood, clothing, appearance and methods. http://cdci.ca

[3] John C. Burnham. “Historians have the Job Market all Wrong.” http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2000/0004/0004vie1.cfm, November 1, 2011.

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