The History at Work Speaker Series invites former history majors, minors, and advocates to discuss how they have transformed historical thinking into post-college careers, and to show current majors how to think about the strengths and possibilities of their own training.
In addition to these events the Department offers more examples of history at work in our undergraduate and graduate alumni profiles. And the History at Work guide gives you even more ways to think about post-college careers.
Some of our past events:
- Police work
- Grant development and public school administration
- Library science
- Medical school
- Business management
- Grassroots activism
- Curiosity and improvisation
For a police department that is always looking for diverse mindsets and knowledge sets, cops with bachelors degrees in a range of subjects can be a major asset. That includes the subject of history. Justin Gregory, the Deputy Chief of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, put it this way: “History plays a huge role in what we’re going through now. We are living history right now. And it’s a burden. But there will be a time when I look back and say, ‘I was part of [working to change] that,’ and I hope it reveals itself to be a positive thing when I’m done.”
But history isn’t just useful for what it teaches us about the present. Historical thinking is also valuable for the critical thinking skills that it cultivates — because when it comes to being a cop, “handcuffs aren’t the only solution.” For one thing, it helps to appreciate how complex an issue can be. Although there are situations on the job that unfold in an instant, police work also involves strategies of the longer term: thinking more expansively, building relationships with communities, and figuring out how to tackle new problems as they arise. It means considering factors at play that work deeply and sometimes invisibly, factors like race, mental illness, poverty, and trauma.
For the ACCPD, that might mean organizing Problem-Oriented Policing Projects, which involves bringing together different community members and experts to "think outside the box" — to draw on a range of experiences and knowledge in order to develop ways, beyond the use of force, to resolve the problems that communities face. The ability to consider different perspectives (another essential analytic of historical thinking) is also crucial to police and community work alike, to recognize and move beyond our implicit biases in order to see each other as human beings whose particular experiences and points of view need to be taken into consideration.
James Barlament has both a BA and MA in History from UGA, and he’s currently the Charter System Director for the Clarke County School District. And his path to that job was through grant development.
The world of grants might be invisible to most undergrads, but it shouldn't be! because it’s a major force behind research and social change. An institution or group will ask for outside funding in order to research and analyze a given problem or question, and to develop creative solutions to tackle those challenges.
Grant work is also a great home for history majors. For example, six months after getting his MA James got for a job with the College of Public Health as a program analyst for Traffic Safety Research and Evaluation Group, which was funded through a grant that analyzed other traffic safety programs. He’d spend half his day on data research (of crashes, traffic fatalities, and so on) and writing research papers or reports on the significant trends that he uncovered. The other half of his day was dedicated to program evaluation, which involved analyzing the success of existing traffic safety programs funded by grants (including Click It or Ticket, Operation Zero Tolerance, and Students Against Destructive Decisions). That job had been advertised through UGA and hadn’t required a background in any particular subject. But being a history student definitely helped him in the interview:
“I could do the research and analysis because of those skills that I had gained from being in history — and if you can make that relationship, that jump, it really impresses interviewers. Grant work is really good entry-level work because you don’t have to have a lot of experience. But if you do have experience in something like history — you’re a good writer, you’re a good researcher, you can find information, you can organize ideas well, you’re grounded in solid ideas about the meaning of where we are in this place and time — being an analyst or grant coordinator or writing grants is a good place to be.”
After seven years in that job James became the Grant and Research Coordinator for the Clarke County School District, which involved a lot of grant writing in addition to seeing a grant through from concept to design to implementation. Every grant application will ask: What is your need? What will you do with the money? How will you use it? Who’s going to be working on it? Answering these questions depends on research, writing, and organization skills that history majors have to cultivate — to "figure out what the buckets of work are, and figure out how to organize it in a way that won’t be overwhelming.” And it’s also key to know what happened in the past, in order to think strategically — to know which grants worked in the past, which ones didn’t, and why.
That work has paid off: Clarke County School District wins about fifteen grants a year, currently totaling about $15 million. These grants have involved projects ranging from professional development for math teachers, STEM, STEAM (which includes the arts in addition to science, technology, engineering, and math), mentoring for new teachers, and literacy; as well as issues that extend beyond the schools, including drug-free communities, gang-related task forces, economic mobility for Athens youth, and a partnership with College of Public Heath to conduct of a wide-ranging survey of Athens (on topics such as transportation, jobs, safety, community engagement, and health).
James’ current position involves overseeing the district’s transition to a charter system, which means that its twenty-one schools have more flexibility and more community input and decision-making. Engaging the participation of parents and community members to serve on teams for every school in the district is yet another form of research and analysis: it generates “better and more timely information about people in our community to help us make better decisions.” That’s challenging in a district that has 14,000 students, 80% of whom are economically disadvantaged. But the more that James and his colleagues learn about Athens and its history, the better they can develop grants and programs that actually address the county’s issues in a meaningful and transformative way.
Because libraries and archives offer so many different ways to deploy your degree, we invited staff from the UGA Library System to highlight just a few possible options.
1. Jan Hebbard is the Outreach Archivist for the Russell Library, which is UGA’s archive dedicated to politics and policymaking in Georgia. Jan majored in history as an undergrad and has an MA in public history, and this job was a perfect fit: she builds and curates exhibits out of the Russell’s collections, organizes lectures and other events for the campus and Athens community to tie into the exhibits, and has just started co-teaching a course with a faculty member for the first time. (The photo at right was part of an exhibit that Jan curated last year called "Food, Power, and Politics: The Story of School Lunch.") Jan’s work in history taught her to ask questions about the past, instead of just memorizing facts, and it has helped her draw connections between different fields of study, since so much of her work involves thinking about how to connect the archive’s collections to the interests and strengths of the campus and Athens communities.
2. Diane Trap, a reference librarian at UGA’s main library, sees her work as a kind of bartending — which was one of her favorite jobs before working in libraries — mixed with a big dose of the humanities. (Diane has a BA in English and a library science MA.) She uses her skills in researching and communicating to serve out whatever information that her patrons want to know, no matter how unpredictable the question.
3. Sheila McAlister, Director of the Digital Library of Georgia, works with archives, libraries, and museums across Georgia to help them organize and digitize materials, not only for in-state readers but as part of a partnership with the Digital Public Library of America. She oversees the work of building entries for each item — and writing well is key here — but also budgeting, grant writing and grant reading, computer programming, and digital preservation. She's also a resident sage on copyright law. She has a BA in Byzantine and Medieval Studies and specialized in archives for her masters, and as a director she finds that a mix of subject knowledge and practical experience makes for the strongest job candidates: that helps them really figure out the “puzzle” of analyzing and manipulating data and making it useable for others, too.
4. Julie Darken, the head of Monographs Cataloging at UGA, is in charge of outfitting each new book with a catalog entry and a kind of invisible roadmap that helps lead patrons to exactly what they’re looking for. Even though her department doesn’t usually interact with its patrons face to face, “you’re always on our minds, because we’re always asking: how would you be looking for this, and how would a reference librarian help you find this?” And to answer those questions Julie and her staff need to digest lots of information and distill it to its most important elements, ideally with some foreign language skills to boot — a few hallmarks of a humanities degree!
5. Nan McMurry is the head of Collection Development for the library’s general collections, although originally she figured that she’d be either a professor or a musician, picking up advanced degrees in both along the way. But she ultimately went into library science because she loved its collaborative environment. Like everyone at this session, Nan’s job has evolved a lot from its original parameters into something larger and custom-fit to her interests and skills: now she handles the big decisions about what the libraries should buy, based on UGA’s research and teaching strengths and what patrons actually use. Thousands of records of new books pour into Nan’s office every month, and that’s just how she likes it. “There’s something almost intoxicating about the idea of trying to organize all knowledge and make it available as part of a universe…To me that was a big draw: this is an impossible problem, and I want to work on it!”
A few tips, if you’re interested in working in a library or archive: you can apply for a student job, staff job, or internship even before you launch into a masters program. Look for internships by joining a statewide archival group, checking out libraries or other research institutions that you like, or just picking a city that appeals to you and seeing what libraries and research institutions it has to offer. The Digital Public Library of Georgia also frequently needs interns, as does the Russell Library — special collections and digital projects are rising fields right now— and UGA’s libraries regularly post student positions through Handshake.
The humanities and medicine may seem like split personalities. But the humanities can constitute real preliminary training for the challenges of being a doctor. Dr. Barbara Schuster, Founding Campus Dean of the Georgia Regents University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership, knows many physicians and surgeons who started off as humanists. She also thinks we could use more. The relationship may seem counterintuitive, but illness requires more than a mechanical approach to fixing bodies. A lot of the work that medical practice requires will sound familiar to a history major: reading, researching, analysis, writing, and communicating are all essential skills. And as Schuster sees it, the most valuable skill that humanists cultivate is the art of careful observation. Medicine thrives through the same attention to detail that it takes, for example, to analyze a text. It thrives through the same alertness to the complex relationships between individuals and environments that it takes to establish causes and effects in history. “Medicine is deep thinking,” Schuster stresses. “It’s communicating. It’s caregiving. And the humanities do that for us.” Of course medical school should be something you actually want to do, rather than something you sign up for to satisfy someone else. But you shouldn’t categorically exclude it as an option just because your major doesn’t seem like an obvious first step. In fact it might be exactly what you need.
History majors with more questions about preparing for med school can also contact Andrew Crain, a consultant at UGA’s Career Center. He specializes in pre-med and also happens to have majored in history himself.
Travis Coberly’s first job out of college was working as an operations manager with one foot in North America and the other in Europe: he managed a hydraulic hose factory in the U.S. that supplies manufacturers of agricultural machinery, for a small family-owned firm based in Germany. Travis had already talked about his job in his alumnus profile, but he also paid a visit to LeConte to say more about the nature of his work. He said that one of the most obvious ways his major has helped him out is that it has made the research process almost second nature. As it turns out, writing a research paper for a history class is surprisingly similar to writing a good report in the business world. Let’s say, not at all hypothetically, that you have two days to learn the fire codes of Virginia in order to develop a presentation for your boss that recommends how to set up an alarm system. “That is very historical: go to the library, get the legal codes, sit down and look through it, cross-reference with another company in the area, ask them what they have — that’s two primary sources right there — write it into a paper, cut through the fat, show up, present it, it’s all great, you get your ‘A.’” New situation, new culture, new stakes, same trusty analytical process.
When John Parker graduated with a BA in History from UGA in 1973, the uses of a history degree after college were as indeterminate as they are now. But today, as a Senior Vice President (General Counsel and Strategic Initiatives) for Coca-Cola, Parker points out that this indeterminacy is precisely what makes history and other humanities degrees an asset, rather than a hazard. Not only do college graduates move through multiple jobs in the course of their lives. More than ever before, employers are looking to hire people who are intellectually adaptive — people who think critically, who use creative problem-solving to address complex issues, and who are comfortable going outside their areas of expertise to communicate and interact across multiple disciplines. Call them “twenty-first-century-workplace competencies,” call them “T skills,” but whatever HR-speak you prefer, Parker is still playing on these strengths in his own work — for example in a recent merger he led involving 30,000 employees, several countries, and 20% of Coke’s future production — and he advises current majors to work seriously to cultivate them, too. “Don’t obsess about the job. Obsess about those twenty-first-century-workplace competencies. This is your challenge.”
Kent Strickland found his job accidentally: he dropped in on a presentation hosted by the SPIA Student Union, casually introduced himself to the speaker — and some interviews later, he found himself with a job as a campaign organizer for Impact, a non-profit that focuses on grassroots activism. Kent consults with researchers and other experts on particular issues that concern public health or public welfare, and then develops strategies in concert with local communities to bring about changes in policy or business practices. Kent majored in political science at UGA and minored in history and communications. He constantly uses skills that he developed as an undergrad: his work requires breaking large-concept goals (such as the reduction of antibiotics in Subway's food supply, or implementing the Clean Water Act) into manageable, concrete units of work. He has to conduct research on topics he doesn't know much about at first, sift what information is relevant and useful from what isn't, and then create a plan of action based on what he learns. History majors will also appreciate how Kent's work involves listening, paying attention to and engaging different persepectives, asking how experience is affected by different social and environmental factors, and — this is a huge one — understanding how power is mediated through federal, state, local, and economic institutions. And this is Kent's first job out of college: he only just graduated in Spring 2015.
Greg Gregory has wound his way through door-to-door sales, group insurance, specialty advertising, dry ice production and sales, commercial real estate, and industrial real estate development. He majored in journalism at UGA, but his circuitous and successful career also played on the very skills that history majors cultivate. At the Department of History's 2015 commencement, Gregory stressed that students who major in history are inherently curious about the world and about the perspectives and motivations of the people who live in it. "Curiosity is looking and searching for understanding about why things happen, what makes things work." It's this trait above all that Gregory credits for being receptive to many unexpected opportunities, and he urges history majors to sustain their own curiosity after college: "if you are curious, you will succeed."