Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Compatible or Incompatible? Public History and the PhD

It has been three years since I completed my MA in public history.  Since graduating I have been involved in a number of interesting and professionally rewarding projects.  I've continued to learn new skills in each volunteer or paid position I've undertaken.  I also really enjoy my current position working with Residential School archives.

Despite all of this, I often debate about continuing my education - my thoughts have been as ranging as: returning to school for an ALA accredited MLIS program, a PhD, certificate style courses sponsored by organizations such as the Society for American Archivists, or informal continuing education programs.

Alexandra M. Lord's recent article, Writing For History Buffs highlights some of the difficulties I have conceptualizing how a PhD would fit into my public history goals. To some extent practical skills and experience tend to hold more weight in the public history field than a PhD.  Granted, it depends on the position and in some larger organizations a PhD is mandatory for top level curators and archivists. 

Despite at times feeling out of place amongst other public historians, Lord maintains she doesn't regret obtaining her PhD and feels as though it has helped her career and promotions as a public historian.  In contrast, I was told a couple of years ago by an Assistant Curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) that she would never go back for her PhD as it just wasn't worth it.  Her MA in public history contributed to her holding second highest position in her division  but the only way to get a Curator position at the CMC was to have a PhD.  This particular Assistant Curator maintained that the possibility of a position opening up at the right time, in whatever niche you decide to get a PhD in, is so small that the gamble just didn't seem worth it. I'm not sure who is right in this instance, or if there is even a right option.  Levels of education in the public history field vary greatly; as do personal situations.

In addition to the end value of a PhD, I've also struggled with the format of traditional history PhDs in Canada. Currently, the only way of pursuing a PhD in public history in Canada is to take a traditional history PhD program and select public history as one of your areas of concentration.  So despite being interested in public history you would still be following the traditional PhD model - course work, comprehensive exams and writing a doctoral thesis. 

Writing a doctoral thesis can be a great learning experience and is the standard milestone in academia. But is writing a very academic style work the best way to frame higher education for public historians? Would researching a curating a major exhibit, developing and implementing a records management system, or some other form of practical hands on work be more useful?   One of the most useful portions of my MA in public history was the hands on projects we completed and the internship component.  This hands on experience is virtually non existence in most history PhD programs.  History PhD programs continue to focus on preparing students for work in academia, even as positions in that realm becoming increasing limited.

Some public historians do end up working in academia.  However, a large number of public historians work in varying jobs outside of the ivory tower; in museums, archives, government, private corporations, parks, and countless other institutions.  Higher education programs need to consider how they can help prepare public historians for this variety of alternative roles.

What are your thoughts on PhDs in the public history field? If you have a PhD and work as a public historian how has your education impacted your career and outlook?


Katie Stringer said...

I'm currently a candidate getting my PhD in Public History... I took a roundabout way to get there, and my focus has always been in museums rather than just general public history (my MA is in history with a certificate in museum studies).

I think people can run into problems with academia and the public - of course we need people to train these new public historians, and many times they are PhDs... however, I'm a very strong believer that people need actual experience, and continuing experience in museums/archives/CRM/oral history/working with the public whatever, to be successful as a public historian or academic.

I'm excited that this time next year I will be finishing my dissertation in public history and will have that title of "doctor." But I'm not going to be bogged down in academia. I refuse! Eventually I would like to teach Public History, but I want to get more extensive real-world experience. Yes, that is offered in our program, but actually working rather than interning or volunteering is way different. I sometimes wonder if everyone realizes that...

Hope this makes some sense! Sorry for my crazy ramblings.

My blog might explain some more:

Krista McCracken said...

Thanks for your comment and link to your blog Katie.

I completely agree with your emphasis on actual experience and continuing experience in order to promote success.

It's great the your program incorporates actual working into the program. I wish more public history programs would take that approach.

Abigail Gautreau said...

I think it's tricky, and it really depends on what you want to do. A PhD is fundamentally a research degree, which isn't to say that there aren't brilliant people doing amazing research without PhDs, of course, because there are. I think the experience of doing deep research on a specialized subject it something that can come in handy depending on what you plan to do in public history and what your background is.

My MA and BA are in traditional history, so getting another MA didn't make sense, and I didn't have the public history skills to pursue a career in that arena with my existing credentials. I also switched historical fields (from European to African) and began working on totally different questions. The PhD also makes sense for me because I eventually want to come back and teach after working in the field for 20-30 years.

Do you need a PhD to do public history? Absolutely not. Does writing a dissertation push you into some lofty circle where you're incapable of doing public history work without consulting the wizards in the ivory tower? Not automatically, no. I think public history tends to draw people who want something other than the standard academic experience of writing a monograph and becoming a professor.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what you want to do and what credentials you need to do it. If you want a PhD and think it will be helpful, find a program and do it. If you have an MA and feel like you're doing interesting and enjoyable work and the PhD process would only be a distraction, don't do it.

Angie said...

I am all too familiar with the MA vs. Ph.D. debate. I've had the same internal struggle that I know my other colleagues have also had (Katie and Abby!)I have heard students from other public history programs debating the same conundrum, and usually what lays at the heart of the issue is the fear of limiting ourselves, or the desire to have a "leg up" on our competition. I admit I had the same thought process when I decided to go for my Ph.D. in public history. After finishing my first year, I have made some realizations. I don't believe that having a Ph.D. is "superior" to having a M.A. You can have a successful, intellectually challenging, and fulfilling career with a M.A. just as well with a Ph.D. I do believe, however, that having a Ph.D. will direct the TYPES of projects you will take on. You may be more interested and capable of handling large-scale, multi-year projects. In that respect a residency and dissertation is helpful in training you for that aspect. Like Abby said, it really comes down to a personal choice. Are you in a position to complete a Ph.D. program? And, most importantly, WILL YOU BE HAPPY DOING IT? A Ph.D. program is no walk in the park...and not to be taken lightly. I will conclude by saying that getting a Ph.D. really does not make you skip steps in the career ladder. It takes time to go through a program, during which your M.A. counterparts are gaining valuable full-time experience. My hope is that later in my career my Ph.D. will allow to me climb farther and quicker.

Kristen said...

Finally weighing in, although I think my colleagues have said just about everything I was thinking. My experience is closest to Abby's--my MA was in another field (archaeology) and I would like to teach at some point. Also our program requires both a thesis and a high level project of the type you described, so it is the best of both worlds, in a sense. It sounds to me like there are shorter (more affordable) programs like the archival certification that could get you the skills you want faster. If, on the other hand, you want a PhD is something you want, we will cheer you on every step of the way!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and to Katie for pointing the rest of us over here. :)