After my apprenticeship ended this December, I found myself unemployed and facing a very intimidating job market. Though I applied to many history jobs, my situation necessitated that I apply to jobs outside the field. The job I ultimately landed has nothing to do with history, or so I thought. The truth is, I use my history-related skills every day, and it was these same skills that attracted my employer to me. As a result of my experiences, I thought I’d write a guide for those of you facing jobs outside of history.
As most of us already know, the academic job market is brutal, and many other history-related fields aren’t much better. What these dreary statistics, combined with the need to make a living mean is that many of us will have to take non-history jobs, at least temporarily. If you’re anything like me, a teacher at birth, you may find this to be disappointing at best. That’s why its important to know that you can still use your history-related skills, even as a non-historian. You can sell those skills while interviewing and flaunt them on-the-job. Trying to frame your job through the lens of a historian’s craft might make being away from academia easier. With that said, here are some of the most important skills that won me a non-history related job and that continue to impress my employers at work. These are the skills to emphasize in and interview and utilize every day on the job.
Once an employer sees a long chain of degrees behind your name, they’re going to expect you to be pretty competent. You are, and you should make use of this skill. A lot of jobs will throw you in the water and expect you to know how to swim, which means you’ll also be thinking on your feet. But this is something you know how to do. The easiest example is your experience standing in front of a classroom, fielding challenging and unexpected questions. You’re also a scholar, which means you are always posing questions and then searching for answers. This skill set means you have the tools you need to complete the tasks employers put before you. You’re also not afraid to ask questions, which will increase your knowledge and improve your job performance.
If you think freshmen papers are bad, you might be surprised by how much of that writing survives into the work world. Somewhere some composition folks aren’t doing their jobs. But being able to communicate in writing in the work world is crucial. Email is one of the main ways workers communicate, so being able to write clearly, concisely, correctly, and politely is incredibly important, especially if the information you’re communicating is critical or about a high priority task. And don’t worry, these are plenty of opportunities for writing outsides of correspondence (though the perfectly crafted email can be somewhat satisfying). For one thing, the world is replete with proposals of all kinds that need to be written, something all historians should know how to do. It may not be that least stressful, most fun part of being a historian, but working on any proposal is good practice for your own. There’s all sorts of other things to write – technical information, press releases, web content/blogs. You’re also incredibly valuable as an editor. Employers will want to exploit these skills, which means you get a chance to use them.
In my mind, learning and teaching are different sides of the same coin. As a historian, particularly if you have higher degrees, you are a sponge for information and treat every task as a chance to gain knowledge. Employers will love how fast you learn and how much knowledge you retain. You’re also flexible and can apply your knowledge in many different situations, which also relates to problem solving. As a PhD, you also know how to communicate complex information in an understandable manner (I hope), which will be an important skill when interacting with your co-workers. In other words, you will be able to communicate your knowledge to them. Don’t be afraid to show off your brain!
Every historian knows that, ultimately, you are your own taskmaster. That means you know about self-directed research and you’re used to writing to deadlines. These are both skills that will serve you well in a work environment. Your boss may task you, but it’s up to you to get the job done in time. When you interview, make sure to emphasize your self-motivational skills. Talk about what it’s like to write a thesis or dissertation or to develop a lecture. Talk about the time table for completion you had to write in your prospectus and how you work to adhere to it. If someone doesn’t understand all the lonesome researching and writing that goes into earning your degree, enlighten them!
Businesses always need someone who can find information and answer questions. You are an absolute wiz at this. No one knows how to use a search function like you do. For example, say you have to write a proposal for your new employer but your aren’t knowledgeable about the business yet. Your research skills mean you’ll be able to find the right information and parse it quickly. Have oral history skills? Even better! You know how to talk to people to get the information you need. Your co-workers will come to you for answers because they’ll know you’ll always be able to provide them. I use my research skills every day, whether it’s writing proposals or digging up information on our server. Ferreting our information is one of the best parts of my job.
I debated putting this on the list because I know that organization is a spectrum of disarray that varies from person to person. But the fact of the matter is that if you’re a PhD then you must have some system, even if you’re the only one who understands it. This is the idea you have to sell to your employer – no matter what, you know how to to get things done and you have the right systems in place to help you do it. As a PhD, people will expect you to be on top of your game, and you are.
Good Under Pressure
You may have read this point and laughed, but it’s true, you are! Think of all the things that have been thrown at you that you’ve survived and excelled at. A great example to bring up in an interview is your comps. For 2 hours you sat in a room and answered complex questions from three people about ~100 books with no notes. And you lived! Maybe you’ve defended your dissertation – talk about that harrowing experience. Any example of grace under first that you can bring up is valuable. Work can be incredibly fast-paced as your pursue the completion of important projects and you want to prove to your employer that you can survive the stress. Being a PhD student qualifies you to make that claim.
This point is closely related to being good under pressure, as it can be pretty stressful when you have a bunch of tasks piled on you at once. But you’re a PhD student and you already know that, which is what you need to stress to your potential employer. You may even be crazy enough to enjoy the juggling and fast pace, something else to emphasize in your interview. You may not being doing history work, but you can take joy in the flurry of activity, balancing tasks, and completing them correctly. Keeping yourself busy may even help you forget that you prefer having your nose in a book or digging through archives. But remember, being good at your job is its own reward.
You may not be applying for or working in a history-related job, but your love of history and the skills associated with your degree will never leave you. They will continue to enrich your life no matter what you do, so don’t despair. You can get a job with your skills, and you can use that job to keep your skills sharp. Don’t be afraid to make a living while you’re waiting to get called up to the Big Show.