Who’s Afraid of Being a Generalist? On Being a Historian outside the Academy

By Rachel Feinmark

After two years of endless academic job applications, Skype interviews, and harrowing job talks, I was exhausted from reinventing myself on a daily basis. For all the effort, I was starting to suspect that I might not even want any of the jobs I was working so hard to get. When I finally gave myself permission to apply for the public history positions I’d secretly been coveting, I felt a sense of relief. But as I revised my teaching statement for a museum studies role, I came to realize that I was less interested in refining my class on the history of display than I was in creating the display myself.

Rachel Feinmark leads a public tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City.

Rachel Feinmark leads a public tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City.

This shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to me; museums had been my true love since childhood. I was drawn to the anthropology exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, made even more fascinating by the long hours my father spent convincing me that the mannequins were actually “stuffed people” (like the hall of mammals! It made perfect sense at the time). I discovered museum studies as an undergraduate, which led to an MPhil in museum anthropology. But when I started a PhD in history, museums became a topic of academic study—a primary source, rather than a place to “do history.” Because a career in the academe seemed like the only logical next step, it never occurred to me to seek out any internships or outside training while in graduate school.

And so, when I decided to circle back to my long-standing interests and apply for jobs at museums and nonprofits, I found myself stuck in the middle: I was overqualified for entry-level positions, but lacked the kind of concrete work experience that employers demanded. The job search process was consistently frustrating; after one particularly positive interview, I received a personal call from the president of a large nonprofit telling me that she was confident I would succeed in the job, but that she just couldn’t convince her board that someone without years of work experience could be an appropriate candidate.

After months of futile networking and CV revisions, I discovered the Public Fellows Program of the American Council of Learned Societies, which places recent humanities PhD graduates in nonprofit and government organizations for two-year fellowships. Created to solve the very problem I had encountered regarding the gap between skills and experience, the Public Fellows Program “vouched” for my ability to tackle a full-time nonacademic job fresh out of graduate school. The scraps of experience that had earlier been deemed insufficient—organizing conferences, speaking at scholarship fundraising breakfasts, exhibit consulting—suddenly became valuable when considered by hiring committees that were primed to believe that a humanities PhD offered experience and training that was useful outside the university’s walls.

And so, as a public fellow, I began working as the manager of strategic communications at the Tenement Museum in the fall of 2015. At the museum, I split my time between the development and communications departments, but spend the majority of my days writing. I work on large government grants and proposals to foundations, and draft language for e-mails, letters, and op-eds. I enjoy the creativity of writing posts for the museum’s blog, and I use my skills as a historian in projects like updating and rewriting the museum’s souvenir book.

One of the most difficult, yet ultimately gratifying, things about becoming a historian outside of academia has been getting comfortable with being a generalist. At my office, I’m not a “historian of 20th-century American labor and human rights” or even a “20th-century American historian.” History has become my methodology, the proving ground for my writing and research skills. I might write about the 18th century and answer questions about the 1980s in the same hour, neither of which are my particular expertise, but both of which are accessible to me in ways that they might not be to my colleagues with different academic and professional backgrounds.

Of course, there are days when I miss getting my hands dirty with history—relaxing in a library armchair with an unexpectedly relevant book, sifting through archives and discovering new clues, or spending an hour pondering an effective turn of phrase. My own research is no longer the main focus of my day, which is both sad and liberating. I still attend and present at conferences, read in my field, and work on articles for journals. While I sometimes miss the time for sustained and deep research, my current job gives me more flexibility to follow multiple ideas and sources, resulting in short projects that satisfy my desire to explore a variety of fields and methodologies. And, rather than leading me to abandon my book project, my experience in public history has shown me that I can write for the general public, instead of limiting my audience to other historians and my mother.

At the same time, the work that I’m doing typically feels like a continuation of the tasks, if not the topics, that were my focus in graduate school. When I sit down to write a funding request with a file of five years of proposals, a disjointed series of e-mails between staff members from before my time and foundation officials I never met, and scattered research notes, it’s clear to me that I haven’t left my old work behind. The most important parts of my job involve managing conflicting information, weighing the value of various sources, and condensing large volumes of resources into concise explanations. I dig into the institutional history of the museum, write for the public, and map relationships between staff, foundations, and individual donors. I spend much of my time researching and writing persuasive pieces, often arguing for the very value and relevance of history in our national discourse. Working in both development and communications, I’ve come to understand that my greatest strength lies in my ability to be a compelling storyteller, even if the characters I write about have changed from when I was in grad school. Just because my title no longer contains the word “historian” doesn’t mean that I have ceased to be one; I’ve just become a different kind of historian.

Rachel Feinmark is manager of strategic communications at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and a 2015 Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow. She received a PhD in American history from the University of Chicago in 2014.

The ACLS recently named its 2016 cohort of public fellows, each of whom will receive a $65,000 annual stipend, health insurance, and professional development resources. Five out of the 20 awardees are recent history PhDs. These historians and their placements are listed below; they represent just a few of the excellent opportunities available through the fellowship:

Carly Goodman (PhD, Temple Univ.): Communications Analyst, American Friends Service Committee
India Mandelkern (PhD, Univ. of California, Berkeley): Executive Communications Specialist, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Eric Garcia McKinley (PhD, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign): Senior Research Analyst, American Public Media Group
Cassie Patricia Miller (PhD, Carnegie Mellon Univ.): Research and Investigations Specialist, Southern Poverty Law Center
Veera Eliisa Mitzner (PhD, European University Institute): Global Philanthropy Specialist, Rare

For a full list of public fellows, and information on applying for a future Mellon/ACLS Public Fellowship, please visit the ACLS website.

 

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  1. Al Johnson

    Thanks for the information on non traditional employment paths, and especially the Public Fellows program. The biggest hurdle always seems to be getting the initial experience for most graduates, and the other hurdle; fear of not using your degree skills, you answered marvelously in your story.

    Reply
    1. Laura Morreale

      What a wonderful way to talk about how the skills you learned in graduate school apply to your current position. I find it frustrating that instructors continuously tell their students how important it is to study history (because it teaches us those transferable skills), yet do not apply that same logic in their own professional lives. If anyone knows how to create a new narrative, historians do! Thanks so much for sharing your story.

      Reply