What's out there for someone with a new MA in history?
May 27, 2013 3:09 PM   Subscribe

I just graduated with a MA in history. Yay! But what do I now? I'm desperate to find a new job, but I'm not sure what I'm looking for. Details within.

So now that I have my shiny new degree in hand, I'm looking to get the hell out of my current position and into a new job ASAP.

The job I've been in now for the last five years isn't terrible and if it weren't for several factors that I have no control over (low pay in a non-profit field that has no relation to my degree, so no chance of using the degree for a better position, plus my field has been heavily impacted by the government sequestration; no room for advancement unless my immediate supervisor leaves and she could easily stay another ten years if she wanted; and--most importantly--a deeply obnoxious and toxic coworker who I literally cannot get away from because we share the same small office and neither she nor I can move elsewhere) I wouldn't mind staying around for another year or so. But due to all of the above (especially the coworker) I'm becoming increasingly desperate to get away and find something better. The problem is, I have no idea what to do or what to look for.

The majority of my job experience is in administration, mostly in assistant positions. I hate it. I hate it and I'm sick of doing it, but I have no idea what else this qualifies me for other than more administrative work. If the world was perfect, I'd be making a living writing books, but that's not realistic or likely to happen any time soon. My next choice would probably be something museum/educational institute related, but my initial research indicates that many places are either asking for qualifications I don't have (archive and preservation experience, years of experience working in an institution, etc.) or they're only offering part-time positions that would result in me taking a serious pay cut to an already low salary, with no benefits. Other than the above, I really have no idea what else might be out that I would be interested in. I'm not interested in teaching in a public or private school or adjuncting at a college; one of my friends has been doing the latter and has had nothing but trouble, with shitty pay on top of it.

Of course, I also have significant student loans that need to be paid back. Currently I'm making about 33500, with excellent benefits, in the NYC metro area, but I am not opposed to relocating for a good job. I'd also like to make enough money that I can support myself without having to resort to roommates/living in shitty areas of town/etc.

Here's a list of things I would prefer to find in my next job:

1. Some kind of creative aspect (i.e. exhibit design, writing up educational content for historical societies, etc., coming up with ideas for "living history" performances, that kind of thing).

2. Does not require being on a computer for the majority of the day. This is my job now, and while I enjoy using computers and have some basic skill in HTML and things like that, I know that being stuck on one all day has significantly impacted my posture, eyes, wrists and hands. It also negatively impacts my writing, because the last thing I want to do after typing and staring at a computer all day is more typing and staring at a computer for hours on end.

3. Is not administrative, or only deals with administrative functions as a small part of the job. As I mentioned already, I hate it.

4. Does not involve heavy contact with the public. Every job, with the exception of one (data entry) that I've held for the last fifteen years has heavily involved daily contact with large numbers of people on a constant basis. I can't stand the public. Something that involves either limited public dealing or dealing with a small, limited group of individuals would probably be okay though.

I should also add that if I could, I would be interested in relocating outside the US...but again, given my work experience and newly minted degree, I'm not sure if that would even be a possibility or what I should look into. Given my age (I'll be 33 in a few months, though I look much younger) I think I'm a little too old for the typical English teaching gigs and from what I know, those are mostly dead-end jobs anyway.

Many thanks for any advice!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What did you learn how to do in your MA program? Someone there must have told you that there are plenty of unemployed PhDs in history, and very few jobs that have an MA in history as a prerequisite. So what were your classmates (and you) training to do? What kind of history did you study? Do you have oral fluency in a second or third language?

Almost anything involving the direct application of historical expertise in the public sector is going to involve extensive engagement with technology and with public constituencies. I just can't think of a context that wouldn't with the sole exception of working in a library or archive (university or corporate) in a back end role, where you'd at least lose public contact (not technology however; accept it that knowledge workers are chained to the internet at this point in history the way industrial workers were chained to their mills and presses). And to be bluntly honest, as I know something of the world of libraries and archives, there are a bunch of highly trained MLS/MLIS folks out there chasing the best of those jobs, many with significant area expertise they conjoin to general technological and public-presentational expertise. Plenty of PhDs in that job market too.

In other words, it's hard to imagine that the position you are imagining exists actually exists, to put it a bit redundantly. An MA in a humanities field these days is not too much of a credential on its own. Most people use it as a stepping stone to a more advanced or technical degree, or because an employer they already work for will reward employees based on educational level or pay for the degree or both. You have very limited teaching options with an MA, unless you also get an education degree or teacher certification or both.

I hate to be a downer, but this is stuff that should have been on the table in the course of your MA program. A smart recent MA with some HTML skills and other good administrative skills might best look for work in the context of academic administration or libraries, but accept that you will either be dealing with a computer screen or the public or both in almost any job you can imagine for which you are specifically qualified.

I can imagine a few other possibilities - maybe in publishing as an editor, but you have to start very low on a dying vine, working as a private tutor, developing interpretive exhibits for the National Parks and other public entities (I know a history PhD who does this as a private consultancy, but it is a lot of work), or being a research assistant to a public intellectual or big-name scholar, etc. The other possibility is your area of historical expertise somehow makes you qualified to do something very specific (let's say, develop costume for Colonial Williamsburg).

The state historical society, community historical museum, state folklore society -- these are all dying institutions, starving for funding. Even the most elite federal institutions -- Smithsonian, for example -- are starving for funding and hiring few people these days. Honestly the best asset you can have in the non-profit local history universe is a private trust fund, but barring that, extreme skill at raising money through grant-writing, especially. Did you learn grantsmanship in your MA program? If not, you need to add those skills. And you should add more than just basic HTML -- you should know your way around a CMS and maybe a little PHP/MySQL and the basics of design with CSS to do almost anything in public sector cultural work or archival/library work or publishing work in almost any context where you will get paid anything. Basic server admin as well.

Sorry to bear bad news, but there's a sour market out there for humanities PhDs, let alone MAs. PhDs too -- you need a range of very crucial practical skills. We are in the midst of the digital transformation of the academy, of publishing, of archiving and librarianship and exhibition, of everything. An advanced humanities degree is no so useful without a range of digital production skills that go at least a bit into the domain of knowing how code is written, if not writing it yourself. You can get those skills in many ways.
posted by spitbull at 3:39 PM on May 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

1. Congrats on the new degree!

2. Take a deep breath.

3. In this economy, do not burn any bridges with your current job until you have locked in that new position, find a way, at least for now, to deal with the negatives of that position.

4. Best of luck.

5. I'll let others guide you as to possible use of your new degree because I don't have any experience in that field.
posted by HuronBob at 3:41 PM on May 27, 2013

One thing the AHA suggests for folks like us (history majors unite!) is policy research for think tanks or non-profits. The idea is that if you can do a thesis with original research, you can translate that to other fields. The job titles are usually things like "Policy Analyst," "Research Analyst," "Policy Associate," "Research Associate," "Research Assistant" (that one's dangerous because it tends to overlap with wet sciences and the job descriptions sometimes include "pipette skills" and even worse "rodent intercranial surgery.") and basically you can figure out the permutations from there.

I haven't had a lot of luck getting into that area, but you have an extra degree, so! Best of luck!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:46 PM on May 27, 2013

Hi! I'm a museum historian! Here's my advice:

First off, congratulations! Getting a master's in anything is a significant life achievement. Even if you don't end up getting the exact job you desire, you still have a master's degree, and no can take that away from you.

Second. Here is what your M.A. should have honed your existing skills in: research. Writing. Analysis. Putting discrete events in a larger, more significant context. Creative thinking. These are all excellent skills to have in any work environment -- the problem will be making yourself stand out from all of the other people who have the same skills to get a foot in the door of the places you'd like to work.

These are the questions I would ask you if you applied for a job working for me: What specific kind of history M.A. did you earn? What was your speciality? Did you take any public history courses? Did you write a thesis? And, if so, was the topic something that is applicable to the kind of places you'd like to work in (e.g., was the subject something a specific museum or other sort of historical site might find relevant to their mission)? Have you done any volunteering or internships at the sort of place you like to work? What skills do you have writing or communicating for audiences other than an academic one? What visual and spatial skills do you have (very important in exhibit design)? What experience do you have with digital projects or other media (ditto)? What kind of creative work have you done outside of work or grad school?

Some other things to think about: What kind of alumni network does your M.A. program have? (I got my job more or less through another alumnus of my grad program.) Is there someone with a degree from your program who has the sort of job you want to have, and have you talked to him or her about how they got that job?

Getting a job in a museum or historical society isn't imposible, but I'm afraid that work entails a lot of the things you say you don't want. There will be public contact -- after all, that's who your audience is. You're doing stuff for the general public, not other historians. Whether it's testing out ideas, getting feedback on exhibits or programs, there is always significant public contact in this sort of job, although probably not daily. There is also a lot of computer work -- I spend most of my day either in meetings or on the computer -- and there's a significant amount of administrative and collaborative work involved. However, it is a creative job, and intensely rewarding (except for the pay).

However, some downsides. No one in this field anywhere makes a lot of money. Your job most likely will be funded through soft money (fundraising, grants, or other outside funds), no matter where you work. You will be completing with people with museum studies M.A.s that learned a lot of things in grad school that you didn't (like exhibit writing, public programming, exhibit design). I disagree slightly with spitbull about the future of museums and historical societies -- quite a few that I know of are expanding their staff. But the ones that are doing well -- well enough to actually hire people -- are seriously revamping their missions and audiences to become much more publicly engaged and culturally relevant. You'll have to show that you can fit into that sort of environment to get a foot in the door.

Hope this helps. MeMail me if you'd like more info.
posted by heurtebise at 5:03 PM on May 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Check out jobs with the Smithsonian. Or the CIA or FBI. They employ people with good analytical skills.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:09 PM on May 27, 2013

The CIA is not hiring MAs in history, or the FBI for that matter, unless you also have specific needed expertise in a language, cultural setting, or technology area, and/or law enforcement background. Last I heard Smithsonian hiring was also frozen by the sequester. Think tanks and policy institutes can have their pick of unemployed PhDs and ex-academics with extensive specialized expertise.

Knowing how to write a research paper is a very minimal credential for an intellectual worker. A lot depends on either very specialized knowledge (like you speak Arabic or know the history of North Korean engineering) or intense tech skills.

Just being real. I'm one of many in academia who thinks most humanities MA programs are not addressing an actual job market. History PhDs are having trouble getting adjunct teaching gigs.

A good MA program tells you what you are training to do and prepares you to market yourself in that domain. Many presume you plan to go on to a PhD. Others teach very specialized subject areas. We don't know the (anon) OP's areas of expertise, and without that we can't give much more than vague advice.

Plenty of humanities MAs and not a few PhDs work at Starbucks too.
posted by spitbull at 7:37 AM on May 28, 2013

I got an MA in history two years ago (decided not to continue on to a PhD), and here is what I found:

1) You will not get a job in history. There are no jobs in history. A PhD will not improve your chances of getting a job in history any time this decade. Leaving grad school is therefore a good decision.

2) No job exists with the criteria you describe. If one does exist, it is probably not a very good job. You can probably find a job that satisfies 2 or 3 of your criteria, but not all 4.

3) The real world does not value your experience in academia, nor does a history degree speak for itself as an engineering degree does. You need to market yourself based on your skills, i.e. researching in depth, writing clearly and persuasively, and synthesizing information from disparate sources into a coherent analysis. These are useful skills in many careers. Make sure to emphasize them in your cover letter.

4) If I was making your salary I would take any position that paid better. You cannot be picky. Based on your experience, you should be applying to non-profit jobs, administrative jobs, and perhaps editing jobs. Use those as a stepping stone to what you really want. Take on additional work and distinguish yourself from your coworkers, and you will be in a good position to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
posted by twblalock at 12:19 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are interested in museum work, find some smaller local museums and see what volunteer opportunities they have. That will help you get experience, and just as importantly, may get you some connections to people who are already a part of the museum community. While there aren't a lot of jobs out there, everyone I know in the museum / history field got their job because they knew someone who recommended them when one of those positions did open up. Smaller institutions may not seem as flashy, but will give you more opportunities to get involved with archiving, collections management, exhibit design, or other jobs that you may be interested in.

I'm not sure many jobs exist in that field that won't have a component of either working with the public or doing administrative work. You may need to be willing to be flexible on one or both points to get started.
posted by nalyd at 7:55 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do not work in this field at all, so no clue what the actual job market would be like. Just throwing it out there as a possibility.

I do know that science-y and law type organizations (giant evil law firms, government offices, and pharmaceutical companies for example) will hire people with library or history backgrounds for things like corporate libraries and various research/white paper projects. I know some people who have done this sort of work, and thought that the science-y projects looked really interesting.
posted by forkisbetter at 9:05 AM on May 29, 2013

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