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?

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