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How to make lemonade from my graduate education
January 12, 2012 6:37 PM   Subscribe

As a Historic Preservation graduate student, what things should I be dead set on learning to make me more employable in a bad economy?

Let's not rail on me for Bad Choices, i.e., "Shoulda become a nurse!" because I am way past that, and let's get real, new nurses are having just as hard of a time finding employment as those from social sciences programs. I chose preservation as a way to fuel my love of art history with my love of green practices, as in, "The greenest building is the one already built", and a little bit of "Young mama with an art history degree does not know what to do next... grad school!" And so here I am, at university, studying a topic that is sometimes hard to translate into envisioning potential employment and ways to Make Enough Money to Support My Child in a Meaningful and Interesting Way. I also wholeheartedly believe that adapting older buildings will become more and more important as we realize that tearing them down and building new is super wasteful.
So what I want are suggestions, from those in the field or who know someone in the field of Historic Preservation. I've heard things such as Leed and GIS/Lidar technology, but give me more. Also, I am in the U.S., and really would love a federal government job.
posted by ohmansocute to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The green/preservation intersection is a great place to be specializing. I don't know much about the technical side of your field, but I work in organizations that employ preservationists and these make your overall portfolio stronger because they add institutional capacity:

-grant writing
-public presentation/community engagement/programming
-project management
posted by Miko at 6:43 PM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

My understanding, as the father of a kid heading to college in the fall to study history, is that historic preservation is actually a fairly hot field, or at least hot by liberal arts standards. What experience do you have from internships, volunteer work, etc? That matters a lot, maybe even more in your field. It always comes down to what you can do, and having proved you can do something relevant in the real world always helps.

I know pretty much the entire historian staff at our local battlefield park. I'm pretty sure all the younger ones interned with the National Park Service while in school, and that led to full time employment.
posted by COD at 7:05 PM on January 12, 2012

I've got a graduate degree in Historic Perservation, and I am... a purchasing manager in a pharmacy. I do think my experience in the field can be instructive to you. The most important thing to do while you are in school is to get actual real experience doing whatever it is you want to do after school. If you want to work in government, don't get an internship doing plaster repair. You might want to look into internships or volunteer opportunities in local government if there is are towns with Historic District zoning near you. If you can get experience with National Register nominations and the design review process that would be very good. I would also warn you that working in government as a preservationist means understanding that not everything is going to get saved, and politics and economics are going to force you to compromise -- sometimes in very painful ways.

You are also going to have to be willing to relocate. When I was in the field back in the early 2000s I quickly realized that I didn't want to drag my family to Wyoming or upstate New York (places my classmates got jobs), and so I switched careers. If you are willing to be mobile, you may have a better shot. Please MeMail me if you want to discuss it further.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:06 PM on January 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

Have you looked at job ads for entry level people (assuming that you are entry level, of course) in HPP? There will be some key words that will start repeating, if you read enough of those job ads. I just googled "historical preservation jobs" and brought up several centralized listings; if the jobs on those are representative, I think Miko's list of skills is exactly correct. But I also overlap very peripherally with some more technical HPP people, and for them skills like GIS, surveying, archival research, and things like that are at least as critical as being able to write reports in a very strict format.

If you want to work for the feds, try very, very hard to get an internship with a federal agency (or a consulting company that does all its work for the feds). And, make every effort to find someone already in the system (your department's alumni network will be golden for this) to walk you through the very involved and difficult federal hiring process.

And consider broadening your search beyond strictly federal agencies -- make sure to look at the hiring pages at places like the TVA, SHPOs, and tribal governments, all of which do cultural resources work and need skilled HPP people. But (and this gets into where you do your internship), they don't necessarily need a generic HPP person -- they need someone who has at least partial familiarity with the relevant laws, forms, and processes that constitute the day to day work of that agency.
posted by Forktine at 9:23 PM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can I ask which school you are at? That can color things a bit as to options... I went to Cornell for HPP a handful of years ago, so that's where I'm coming from.

First off, make sure to check out PreserveNet to get an idea of what kind of internships and jobs are bubbling up around the country. Internships are, as has been said, huge in getting real world experience and networking. One thing you will find is that the preservation field is quite small at times and networking to get to the people you need to talk to can be pretty easy.

Take advantage of your program's alumni as much as possible!!! Again, network network network.

Rock Steady and Forktine have great advice that I would second. The other thing is that many "preservation" jobs don't necessarily look like it on the surface. Working in the zoning office may not scream preservation at first glance, but having someone with a preservation mindset in a zoning office can help the "cause". Same with transportation, event planning, etc. etc. Think about how different jobs can be enhanced with a preservation-oriented mind in place.

Also, I'm not sure what your program's philosophy is, but Cornell's was very planning-based, along with the architecture and materials focus. Thinking of preservation in a wider planning landscape is extremely important.

Just a bit of my own story: I worked for a few years at a preservation-based architecture firm. I don't have any real architecture background, but did have field work experience and helped put together reports, etc. However, we were also contracted through the city we were in to be the HP consultants, so, for example, one of the things I found myself doing was reviewing the city's demolition lists and preparing reports to send to the landmark preservation board. So, even though I was with a firm, I found myself working closely with gov't pretty often on that and other projects (and it helped lead to a seat on the city zoning board). We ended up moving back to my much smaller home town and that's where I am now. My main job is not currently preservation-related, but I'm part of a grassroots group that is looking to revitalize our main street and I'm hoping to eventually manage that program. Oh and FYI, this, much to Rock Steady's horror is in upstate New York!!! The point is that there are good jobs in big cities, but there are also possibly opportunities in smaller places where you can jump out on top quickly with your background and perhaps find yourself creating a job for yourself.

Please feel free to MeMail me if you have further questions!
posted by stefnet at 6:35 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much guys. That really helps. I am on the West Coast, in a very small program that concentrates on traditional preservation and hands-on experience. I am limited in what I can take for an internship, but I have a few leads with nearby cities; I really wish I could jetset to another state for one but I have to be near my home since I am a single parent during the week, if that makes sense.
I am in a planning class right now and will continue to take coursework on public policy and non-profit management, as well as a GIS course. I am also interested in getting into preservation planning for cultural landscapes.
posted by ohmansocute at 7:59 AM on January 13, 2012

Heavily seconding Miko - grant writing, fundraising, and non-profit administration in general.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:11 AM on January 13, 2012

preservation planning for cultural landscapes

That sounds like fun. It also sounds like something that only a small number of federal agencies do very much of. That's ideal as long as you can connect yourself with those agencies and they are hiring in your area. (And it's also ideal if I am misinformed and every agency has an entire wing of people doing cultural landscape work.)

In contrast, for example, every federal agency that is involved in implementing physical projects, which is more than you might think, has to have (in-house or via consultants) access to people who can prepare the various reports to navigate the layers of local, state, tribal, and federal historical preservation oversight; those reports require various blends of field surveys, archival research, and desk time, and have huge impacts on what does and does not get built, and how.

I'm not saying that that example is a better path for you; for all I know you might find it stultifyingly boring. I am saying that if you are really "dead set on learning to make me more employable in a bad economy" as you ask in your question, you'd be well-served to figure out where most federal HPP jobs are, and plan to move laterally towards your desired specialty if it turns out that there are fewer jobs in it.
posted by Forktine at 3:45 PM on January 13, 2012

Oh believe me, Forktine, I will be able to write up all kinds of reports and do all levels of surveys. It isn't optional.
posted by ohmansocute at 8:41 PM on January 20, 2012

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