WASHINGTON – Seminars on landing tenure-track jobs are common at annual gatherings of academic associations. And the recent meeting of the American Historical Association was no exception, with offerings on interviewing skills and more. But one of the most well-attended sessions here Friday centered on finding a position not in academe but somewhere else: government.
“Finding and Loving a Government Job: Part Deux,” was a follow-up to an unexpectedly popular session of the same name at AHA’s 2012 conference. Presented then as part of a workshop on the “Malleable Ph.D.,” which addressed alternative academic careers in light of the weak academic job market, AHA asked a number of historians with established careers in government to talk about the pros and cons of work in the public sector.
At the recent follow-up session -- with the job market still weak, according to new figures from the AHA  -- panelists from the State and Defense Departments and Congress expressed few regrets at leaving the ivory tower. They encouraged graduate students and recent Ph.D.s to explore similar paths.
David Nickles, chief of the Asia and Middle East division at the State Department’s Office of the Historian, said he never intended to take a government job when he began his graduate program in history at Harvard University. But sensing that the market was “difficult” approaching his graduation in 2000, he said he “cast a wide net.” And he’s glad he did. Saying his office is regularly privy to classified documents never seen by academic historians, he added, “This kind of opportunity, of course, is what historians live for.”
And because many of his colleagues also come from academe, Nickles said, “It feels a lot like graduate school, but it’s less competitive and there’s more security.”
Similarly to Nickles, John A. Lawrence, former chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said his government job provided a front-row seat to history, such as when -- parked below Rome’s Spanish Steps during a rainstorm in 2011 -- he listened to Pelosi take a call from President Obama on his strategy regarding the Libyan civil war.
But unlike Nickles, Lawrence intended on a career in government while obtaining his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley some 40 years ago – much to the chagrin of some of his professors. One seemed “confused” when he asked for a recommendation for a government internship program, Lawrence said.
However, he said, academe, government and the electorate would be better served by more getting more trained historians involved in policy making, given their ability to read and write critically and contextualize current politics. Lawrence said historians have a responsibility to help correct the “appalling lack of respect” for historical perspectives in public policy debates, which has real-world consequences. For example, he said, without knowledge of the Jim Crow South, it’s harder to appreciate the potential impact of widespread voter regulation legislation now being brought at the state level.
To that end, Lawrence said academe needs to re-examine salary and other career-related structures to encourage – not punish – Ph.D.s moving back and forth between colleges and universities and the public sector. And the history curriculum also needs a “hard look,” he said, as including more “practical” course work in economics, government and public policy could help diversify the career paths of historians. Lawrence said law schools, for example, don't assume that all students will become practicing lawyers.
“The profession remains far too cautious about encouraging jobs outside academe,” Lawrence said, adding that even when tenure-track jobs are plentiful, a job in government shouldn’t be seen as a “consolation prize” but rather as meaningful, fulfilling work.
How to Make the Move
Panelists offered tips for getting government jobs, and talked about some of the biggest roadblocks to Ph.D.s breaking in to the sector – namely themselves.
Nickles said recent Ph.D.s are too modest after coming from the university setting, where, “you’re not an expert in something -- you really shouldn’t even be talking about something -- unless you’ve written a manuscript about it.” Standards for knowledge outside the university are much lower, he said, to much laughter. People with doctorates also have to clearly translate the skills and knowledge they learned in graduate school for government human resources officials, who “cannot deal with subtlety,” he said.
Robert D’Alessandro, chief of the U.S. Army Center of Military History and a retired Army colonel who attended graduate school at the College of William and Mary and at George Washington University during his service, agreed. Government job applicants with Ph.D.s need to stress their strength in communications, ability to synthesize vast amounts of information into “useable” knowledge, and decision-making skills in the initial applications processes -- much of which are online, administered by generalist human resources officials looking for key words and phrases, he said.
“You really are what we’re looking for,” D’Alessandro said. “You just have to get through the system.”
Erin Mahan, chief historian at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, also stressed the importance of getting one’s “foot in the door.”
“You spend so much time getting a Ph.D. thinking ‘I’ve got to get that greatest job first,’ ” she said. But accepting an entry-level job as an analyst in a government agency – typical for a Ph.D. -- or being willing to research something other than one’s area of specialization can lead to better opportunities later on.
Mahan, who researched U.S.-French relations while at the University of Virginia, said the academic job market was unkind to that specialty. So she accepted various jobs in government and has written and published on topics as diverse as nuclear nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction.
Panelists did acknowledge the downsides of working in government, including less autonomy over one’s schedule and research agenda. Nickles said that a friend’s “three reasons” for working in academe – June, July, and August – obviously don’t apply to government, and that he carries out research on his own that doesn’t fit into a work day. But over all, he said, “In my opinion, the advantages of working in government considerably outweigh the disadvantages.”
Addressing potential concerns among audience members that government historians may feel pressure to promote a "whiggish" version of events, Nickles noted that his office is under a Congressional and presidential mandate to be "thorough, accurate and reliable" in its reporting. "We are fortunate," he said.
Government historians also discussed the current poor job market in the federal government, given sequestration – which has negatively affected military budgets in particular – and other personnel cuts. But all panelists expressed optimism that government hiring was more dependably cyclical than hiring in academe.
Eleanor Congdon, an associate professor of history at Youngstown State University who attended the session, asked if she should encourage a student who had been interested in careers in academe as well as the military to enter the service before graduate school. D'Alessandro endorsed the idea.
In an interview, Congdon said many professors do encourage their students to pursue the narrow path from to graduate school to academic job. But professors have an obligation to help students find careers based on their interests and skills, she said.
“My feeling is my job is to make my students into the best they can be,” Congdon said. “I don’t want to make them into the institution."
Erin Conlin, an advanced Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Florida who will soon be on the job market, said her first preference was still that elusive tenure-track job – particularly because, as a former middle and high school history teacher, she loves teaching. But she said she didn’t think of a possible job in government, given the uncertainties of the academic job market, as a “consolation prize,” especially if it offered opportunities to engage the public.
“I’m gathering information,” in advance of crunch time to find a job, she said. “I’m doing the legwork.”