Should you get a Ph.D to work in a history museum? – Part 3: How might we make it useful?

Should you get a Ph.D to work in a history museum? – Part 3: How might we make it useful?

Part 3: How might we make it useful?

How might we fix the Ph.D. so that it is more useful for work in museums, or alt-acc work more generally?  What models are there?

Before getting into this, though, it’s best to take notice of the ongoing conversation on new uses for the history degree. Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman of the AHA put it best: “No More Plan B.” He describes the expectations history departments set in vivid language:

Yet graduate programs have proved achingly reluctant to see the world as it is. For all the innovation in the subjects and methods of history, the goal of the training remains the same: to produce more professors; the unchanged language of supervisors and students reflects this. We tell students that there are “alternatives” to academic careers. We warn them to develop a “plan B” in case they do not find a teaching post. And the very words in which we couch this useful advice make clear how much we hope they will not have to follow it—and suggest, to many of them, that if they do have to settle for employment outside the academy, they should crawl off home and gnaw their arms off.

Grafton and Grossman suggest some small changes that departments might try to improve the skills of Ph.Ds.:

… workshops that explore the world of work, bring in speakers from government and other areas where many historians find jobs, and mobilize their networks of contacts as advisers for their students. Internships could provide even deeper experience, although care would have to be taken to integrate them into dissertation writing calendars.

“No More Plan B” made quite a splash: see the Inside Higher Education report for more details, and L. Maren Wood’s essay in The Chronicle for some of the continuing reaction.

While changing departmental attitudes, and workshops and speakers and internships devised to fit around dissertations are a good first step, it’s not enough. Graduate training is about more than attitude; it’s also about skills. I’d suggest that departments go much further. If students want to work in museums, they should be trained to do that kind of work. That means changing the content of the program, what’s taught, and how it’s taught, and what’s expected from students, and what faculty need to know.

At Brown, we’ve tried one approach in the public humanities program. While the program is mostly designed as a professional M.A., students in the American Studies Ph.D. program can elect to receive an M.A. in Public Humanities instead of an M.A. in American Studies. To do this, they take two courses in public humanities – one theory, one practice; do a summer practicum at a public humanities institution, often a museum; and take one of their three preliminary examinations in a public humanities related field. Several have also written dissertations on museums, memorials, and public history topics.  

Courses in the program are taught by those with practical experience in public humanities settings. We teach practical courses, though generally with some significant theory or historical Most courses include group projects, so that students get experience in working with others. Many papers are shared with the whole class; the point is to write for others, not for you and the professor. Many courses have an outside “client” to whom the students’ work is useful, a budget to produce a product, and project management (using project management software) as part of the job. Writing is, generally not academic but practical: scripts, memoranda, reports. More and more, the end products are not written documents but websites, videos, oral histories, or exhibitions. More and more, the work is digital. We strongly urge students to take courses in nonprofit management, public policy, philanthropy; history skills are most useful when combined with the practical skills that let history work in the real world.

The Bard Graduate Center M.A. and Ph.D. in material culture studies represents another approach to training curators. The program complements its focus on material culture with practices that train for curatorial work: hands-on examinations of objects, including making of things; creation of an argument-driven exhibition as a collaborative venture between students and faculty; inclusion of professors, curators and connoisseurs to model the work student should do; access to museum collections in many New York museums; and “an internship that provides practical experience in an institutional or commercial setting.”

The University of Delaware’s History of American Civilization Ph.D. program works closely with the Winterthur Museum and requires a field in material culture. The University of South Carolina offers an M.A. in public history en route to the Ph.D., and requires that students in that program undertake an internship.

I’m sure there are other programs, each with their own approaches. What they have in common, though, is that they see museum work as not a “Plan B” for historians, but a profession in its own right, with a set of skills and approaches that overlaps with, but are not the same as, those of a history professor.

We might learn something from areas of study that have incorporated practical, public work with their academic work. The statistics of Smithsonian organizations above show that the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage hires many Ph.Ds, more than 90 percent of its research staff. Folklore and ethnomusicology have long made public practice a cornerstone of their fields, incorporating it into the training of all students. Some anthropology programs, too, have strong practical bent, training for museum and corporate work.

But what makes these history programs, and these programs in related fields, work for training for museum curators and educators – or for public history, or alt-acc careers more generally – is that they are designed for that purpose. They are more than a history Ph.D. program that doesn’t scowl when a student suggests a career as other than a history professor. That’s a good start, and a minimum for every program. But it’s only a start. Careers in museums, careers outside the academy more generally, require skills and expertise and a style of work that can be taught. History Ph.D. programs should learn from public history, public humanities, and museum studies programs, and teach them.

And until they do, I’ll continue to believe that the M.A. is the right program for most people who want to work in museums. 

3 thoughts on “Should you get a Ph.D to work in a history museum? – Part 3: How might we make it useful?

  1. More good stuff. Benjamin Filene’s “Passionate Histories: ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us” in The Public Historian, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 2012), pp. 11-33 is a great elaboration on this subject.

  2. Good series, Steve. At the risk of self-promotion, I would encourage people to go back and look at the older AHA reports on graduate education, both at the doctoral level ( and the MA level ( Those reports deal with some of the same issues you lay out here — including the mismatch between the training that many graduate programs provide and the actual expectations of public history employers.

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