To Intern or Not to Intern?: Internships and Volunteer Opportunities for Historians

On Monday August 19, the National Council on Public History posted “Unpaid Internships: A foot in the door or a step backward?” on their History@Work blog. In this roundtable discussion, four public historians offered their insights on whether historians should “pursue unpaid internships or volunteer opportunities as part of [their] professional training.” The panel did not reach a consensus. I believe that historians who want to work for public history organizations need to seek out pre-employment experience through internships or volunteer work. Given the current economic climate and number of people looking to enter this line of work, my experience has shown that these opportunities are likely to be unpaid and competition stiff.


Think DifferentMy Story

While in graduate school, I volunteered at public history organizations like the Albany Institute of History & Art, the New York State Museum, and the Van Schaick Mansion. I also entered graduate school with a background in public history: I worked as a seasonal interpretive ranger at the Boston National Historical Park for 5 years. I thought that I could translate this experience and my academic credentials into a public history job. However, my academic training and interpretive background were not enough. Public history organizations want job candidates with more diversified skill sets.

Historical organizations in Boston tend to favor candidates with either a master's degree in library science (from programs that teach students social media skills and about digital humanities) or an M.B.A. in non-profit management.

After a few failed applications for public history positions, I changed my strategy. If these organizations want historians with a background in non-profit management and fundraising, then I would find a way to acquire experience with those skills.

I kept my eyes peeled for paid internships, but I did not see any.

There are two reasons for the paucity of paid public history internships:

First, most public history organizations do not have the money to pay for enough staff let alone interns.

Second, competition for unpaid internships is stiff. How stiff? I may have a Ph.D. and a willingness to learn, but that did not help me best the undergrads and master's students who garnered the advertised internships I applied for.


door-of-opportunitySeek Your Own Opportunities

Frustrated, but not deterred by my lack of success, I created my own opportunities. Rather than seek out internships with well-known public history organizations, I sought opportunities at smaller organizations.

First, I contacted Boston by Foot. This non-profit organization coordinates over 200 volunteer docents who lead history and architecture tours of Boston. At first, I volunteered to be a docent. However, as I went through their “Guides-in-Training” program, I realized that with a staff of two, I might be able to assist the organization in a mutually beneficial way. I asked the organizational director if I could volunteer in a way that would help them and allow me to learn more about how to run a non-profit. End result: I am learning how to cultivate corporate sponsorships.

Second, I e-mailed the South End Historical Society. I explained that I wanted to explore a transition into public history and asked if I could volunteer. Short on staff, they gladly took me up on my offer. Presently, I am serving on the House Tour Committee, which organizes and coordinates the largest fundraiser for the organization.


Ideas5 Valuable Lessons       

My search for public history employment and internships has taught me several valuable lessons:

1.     Do not discount the specialized skill sets and training public history organizations want. They hire people who possess experience with social media, digital humanities, and non-profit management.

2.  A Ph.D. in history does not automatically lead to a public history job or internship.

3.     Seek out and create your own opportunities. If an opportunity with well-known historical organizations does not work out, research and reach out to smaller organizations.

4.     Be specific about the opportunities you want. Tell historical organizations what it is you want to learn, why they can help you acquire this knowledge, and what skills you possess that they might make use of.

5.     Don’t be afraid to volunteer if you have the means to do so. Unpaid internships/volunteer opportunities pay, just not in money. Instead, you will gain experiences and connections that you will later use to obtain a paying job.


What Do You Think?

Do you think historians should pursue unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities as a part of their professional training?


Thinking BIGGER: Freelance Consulting

Think BigI am thinking about starting a consulting business. Consulting appeals to me because I love controlling my schedule, managing projects, and taking on work that I find interesting and fulfilling. It seems like consulting would allow me to be the historian, writer, and researcher I want to be. However, to start a consulting practice, I need to figure out what skills and expertise I possess that other people would pay for. This is the stage where I have been stuck. How do I translate my academic experience into marketable, real-world skills?

Reinventing You

reinventing-youLast Tuesday, my writing group attended a talk given by Dorie Clark, author of [amazon_link id="1422144135" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Reinventing You[/amazon_link]. The premise of her book: How can you get to where you want to go in your career?

Clark contextualized her book by telling the audience about her journey from laid-off political reporter to business expert. In between these two careers, Clark worked as a political campaign spokesperson, marketer, and filmmaker. After catching a break with the Harvard Business Review, Clark used her experience and reporting skills to generate a 3-step process for personal re-invention, a process that enables people to get from point A to point B (or even point C) in their careers.


Dorie Clark’s 3-Step Process

Step 1: Discover your personal brand. You need to know how your friends and coworkers perceive you. Clark suggested either working with a career counselor or asking half a dozen friends to describe you in 3 words.

Step 2: Discover your personal narrative. You need to find the thread that connects all of your different career and personal experiences. To find this thread, Clark advised the audience to write down their “war stories,” the stories that we often tell people. These stories form the cornerstones of how we perceive the world. If you can identify the thread that connects these cornerstones, you will understand why you have chosen to pursue the jobs and experiences you have, even if they seem unrelated.

Step 3: Manifest Your Brand. Don’t tell people about your brand, live it.


From Skeptic to Book Buyer

Think DifferentAlthough an inspiring speaker, Clark’s talk did not move me to buy her book. I have read a number of books on personal branding and I did not find her strategy for how to build a personal brand to be all that new and novel. Her strategy: be consistent with your message and promote it via social media, especially Twitter. However, the Q & A session changed my mind because the posed questions allowed Clark to discuss the contents of her book in more depth.

Clark urged the audience not to overlook and undervalue important attributes of their personality just because they can’t figure out how to connect their love of baking with their career interests. It occurred to me that my seemingly disparate interests, history, writing, marketing, organization, and technology (to name a few), all share a common theme: problem solving. (Perhaps problem solving constitutes a marketable skill set.)

Clark asserted that the economic crash of 2008 has affected the present and future job market in two profound ways:

First, potential employers no longer want to see how you conform. Instead, they want to know how potential employees (and consultants) are different and unique. They want to know about the valuable skills and special perspective you will bring to the table if they hire you.

Second, by 2020, 40% of Americans will be freelancers. People who set-up their freelance shops now are in the vanguard of this coming trend.

Clark counseled that freelancers need to mitigate risk for potential clients by creating a rock-solid brand that demonstrates a track record of reliability. Blogs present freelancers with a powerful tool for broadcasting their ideas to the world. They also demonstrate consistency if freelancers update them on a regular basis.


Imagining My Future

Yoga-DogI attended Clark’s talk more out of peer pressure than interest. However, I left her talk interested in her ideas and inspired to think more about what my “brand” can offer people. Appreciative, I purchased Reinventing You. I have not read it yet, but it is my next read.

Even without reading Clark’s book, her talk stimulated ideas and gave me hope that starting a consulting practice may not be a bad idea. Late last week, I sat down and listed the skills and knowledge I possess that others may be interested in making use of. It turned out to be an expansive list.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to think about how I can offer and market my various skills. I love the idea of offering my skills for hire, but I do not want to offer them haphazardly. I want to develop a clear business plan for how I would offer each skill, how each skill adds to the work I want to accomplish as a historian, and what I would charge for my services. Most of all, I want to create a plan that will enable me to expand my brand and still prioritize the project most important to me: writing my first book: America’s First Gateway: Albany, N.Y., 1615-1830.

As soon as I draft my plan of action, I will let you know.


What Do You Think?

Do you offer your historical, writing, academic or other skills for hire? If so, how are you going about it? Do you have a self-imposed guideline for the type of projects you take on? How many projects do you accept?

Are you thinking about offering your skills for hire? If so, what is your plan of action?