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“Alt-Ac” Careerist Profile: Leo Slater July 25, 2016

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Describe your current work or job. How does it compare to your academic experience either as a graduate student or lecturer? What do you like? What’s challenging? Slater photo 1

As the National Science Foundation’s historian, I am part of the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, so we are very concerned with the present and future and with communications and politics.  As the historian on the team, it is my job to provide historical perspective and help preserve corporate memory.  At a research-focused organization like NSF, the past fades quickly even as the future is being made, so some grounding in the past is essential, and this is the historian’s role.

What skills did you acquire from your PhD training that have or are helping you in your current occupation?
What I learned in graduate school was how read, write, and think in critical and organized fashions.  I learned how to use archives.  Writing was in long form, detailed, and transparently documented.  In my current position, much writing is done in short forms—a thousand words on one topic at one time is a lot—and we write for many different audiences, not just a small group of peers.  And I don’t just use archives; I help to make sure that important documents are identified, preserved, and archived.  So, I guess, the skills that I gained in PhD training did educate me for what I do now, but one needs to learn new processes and methods to supplement the basic training.  Different types of written communication and the need to create archival collections and not merely use them are some of the major differences between academic and public history.

How did you end up in your position or job? What steps did you take to get there? What decisions were you required to make in regards to taking your job? For instance, what did you sacrifice in leaving academia? What did you gain? Were you surveying a variety of career or job options?

Well, it’s been a bit of a long path, as I began my academic life with a
BA and an MS in chemistry, followed by four years in the pharmaceutical industry.  But it was my time as a history fellow during my graduate training that led me to public history.  The academic job market was not good, and I was not very geographically flexible.  Besides, the Chemical Heritage Foundation was doing a lot of really interesting things, and there were plenty of intellectual challenges to be had outside of academe. I certainly had to abandon my life-long goal of teaching college.  But change is good, and I am very pleased by the choices I have made.  My current position is my third in a Federal history office, totaling some twelve years now, so I am pretty specialized in the ins-and-outs of this branch of public history.SlaterInset

Retrospectively, is there anything you would have done to prepare for your current position or job?
Nothing big. I really feel that my career in history has brought me pretty smoothly to where I am today.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile for folks applying to history grad schools, or during their graduate training, to be aware of the alternatives to academic careers and to understand public history as a diverse set of alternate career choices.  I understand that, for the most part, students are much more conscious of this than when I was in school.

How can PhD students in History or History of Science/Tech/Med sell themselves off of the academic job market?

It is important to be able to work as a part of team, to meet deadlines, to engage with many substantial tasks that may not be research, writing, or lecturing.  Too often when folks contact me about making a jump from academe, they still want to maintain the same work habits and produce the same products as though they were a research fellow at an academic institution: “I want to work independently on a long-term project of my own choosing…”  Sure, there are some positions like this, but that is not something to put in one’s cover letter.  And for most folks, it just isn’t a possibility.  One needs to be prepared to work on teams, to multitask, to be engaged with other people’s objectives and interests.  Before you market yourself, make your peace with doing what those hiring want done.

What questions should graduate students and early careerists be asking that we (GECC) aren’t asking you here? Any last words you want to impart on young scholars trying to make it out in the big world?

The other advice I always offer—even if nobody asks—is this:  Educate yourself about what is out there and think hard about how it might fit with your training, your interests, and your strengths, but be adventurous, too.  One of my favorite and long-lasting jobs was one that I really didn’t think I wanted, but applied for it and went on the interview.  The place and people turned out to be great!  Never turn down a job that you haven’t been offered.  Go on interviews, be enthusiastic, and be flexible.

***

A former pharmaceutical research chemist, Leo B. Slater earned a PhD in History at Princeton University in 1997 and has held a number of fellowships and positions including:  the DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Memorial Fellowship in the History of Biomedical Sciences and Technology, Office of NIH History; Fellow at the Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Enterprise of The Johns Hopkins University; and Director of Historical Services at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.  From 2007 to 2016, he served as Historian at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.  Today, he is Historian for the National Science Foundation.  In 2009, he published War and Disease: Biomedical Research on Malaria in the Twentieth Century (Rutgers University Press; paper 2014).

“Alt-Ac” Careerist Profile: Audra J. Wolfe July 4, 2016

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Describe your current work or job. How does it compare to your academic experience either as a graduate student or lecturer? What do you like? What’s challenging?

Wolfe-headshot-for-fb-720x1080

Courtesy of Clinton C. Wolfe Photography

I simultaneously wear two hats. Most of my income comes from The Outside Reader, my editorial and publishing consulting company. In that role, I work with nonfiction authors who are struggling with some aspect of the publishing process. Perhaps they’re having trouble finding a publisher, or maybe their book is under contract, but something isn’t working. I both provide advice that the authors can apply themselves (consulting) and implement that advice (editing). I specialize in “developmental editing,” which can mean lots of different things depending on the manuscript but usually involves big-picture thinking. For instance, I help my authors clarify their arguments, work out the relationship between evidence and the argument (the “warrant”), identify a narrative through-line, etc.

I like this work very much. Helping smart, talented people find their potential is something I definitely enjoy, and there’s no question that the work is intellectually challenging. It’s so challenging, in fact, that that’s my biggest struggle with it. Aside from my editorial work, I also maintain my own writing projects, which usually generate about 10 to 20 percent of my income. When you’re spending all your time working out other people’s arguments, it can be difficult to find the mental space to focus on your own.

What skills did you acquire from your PhD training that have or are helping you in your current occupation?

Skimming. A developmental editor has to wade through vast amounts of material and identify the argument, the audience, the warrant, and the relation between these in very short order.AudraWolfeInset

A note of caution here: Graduate training in the humanities tends to better equip students for criticism than for creation. Anyone can diagnose what’s wrong with a book or manuscript. My job is to identify its potential. Editorial work, in general, requires that you set aside a certain amount of judgment to embrace what a book could be. In my experience mentoring aspiring developmental editors, some recent Ph.D.s struggle with this.

How did you end up in your position or job? What steps did you take to get there? What decisions were you required to make in regards to taking your job? For instance, what did you sacrifice in leaving academia? What did you gain? Were you surveying a variety of career or job options?

Having never gone on the academic job market, I can’t really comment as to “sacrifice.”

Editing and publishing are apprentice-based fields. I interned at the University of Pennsylvania Press during the last year of my dissertation. I loved the work enough that I gave up the last year of a National Science Foundation dissertation fellowship to accept a position as an editorial assistant at that press. The next part required some luck: After only six months in that position, an editorial position opened up at Rutgers University Press that was nearly a perfect match for my skills. From 2002 to 2006, I was the acquiring editor for the sciences at RUP, gradually moving up the ladder from associate editor to editor to senior editor (editors, like professors, have a specific career trajectory).

The mid-2000s were an extremely difficult time for university press publishers, and I was looking for new challenges and a shorter commute. That’s how I ended up at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where I worked from 2006 to 2009. At CHF, I edited Chemical Heritage Magazine (then a glossy quarterly), started a podcast (Distillations), and launched a book series with the University of Chicago Press (Synthesis).

The problem, though, was that I really missed books. In April 2009 I resigned my position to launch my own business, back in books. This of course brought a certain amount of financial instability, but I had planned for this. I also prepared an elaborate business plan (and had several different backup plans in case it failed). During the first few years of my business, I occasionally adjuncted/lectured to guarantee some income, but now prefer to focus solely on my consulting.

The main moral of this story, I think, is to be in touch with what you want and what you enjoy, and to make active choices to align your life with those desires. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve repeatedly found myself leaving good situations (a NSF, a good job at CHF) to try new things that might or might not have worked out. Some of these decisions were better than others, but I always took great comfort in the fact that—contrary to what you hear in the academy—most people change jobs many times over the course of their lifetime.

Retrospectively, is there anything you would have done to prepare for your current position or job?

The only way to learn editing is by editing. More generally, though, I’d encourage graduate students to take advantage of opportunities to develop a wide range of skill sets. You may or may not find these opportunities within your department. I know this is an area of controversy, but—in my opinion—it is not a humanities department’s responsibility to teach these skills. Professors aren’t publishers or museum professionals, and they may or may not have accurate knowledge of what kinds of skills are needed in those fields, or what kind of training is appropriate. If you want to learn more about these fields, look to professionals in these fields.

I’d also encourage you to take chances. I’ve been self-employed now for more than 7 years. Self-employment isn’t for everyone and certainly carries risks, but if you find yourself in the third year of adjuncting, you don’t have much to lose by trying something new. The key, though, is to have amassed enough experience doing something to be able to command a livable wage. The sooner you start acquiring that experience, the better.

How can PhD students in History or History of Science/Tech/Med sell themselves off of the academic job market?

People ask me this all the time, but it’s the wrong question. You can’t sell skills that you don’t have. Tough love time: Please understand that if you’re applying for, say, an acquisitions editor position, you’re competing with people who’ve been working in publishing (as assistants or interns) for one to three years. They may not have Ph.D.s, but they have experience. The most important thing you can do is develop skills related to whatever other field it is you want to pursue. Not only does this make you more competitive as a candidate, but it also adds credibility. Employers are not naive; they don’t want to hire someone who’s already halfway out the door. Anything you can do to demonstrate that you are actually interested in a job as a potential career is greatly appreciated.

What questions should graduate students and early careerists be asking that we (GECC) aren’t asking you here?

How to network outside your field! As above: Despite some well-meaning advice, I don’t think it’s really possible for (or the responsibility of) scholars to train their students for work outside the academy (unless that scholar has also worked in that other field). You need to meet actual practitioners. Check out their meetings, read their blogs and career advice posts, follow them on Twitter, ask for informational interviews.

Informational interviews are great. Reach out to successful people you admire and ask for a short (<30 minutes) phone call about what they do, how they got there, what they like and dislike, etc. Do not ask for a job in this call, and don’t forget to send a thank-you email when you’re done. It’s meant to be low-pressure for both parties, and maybe even fun.

***

Audra J. Wolfe is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and historian.  Her first book, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), was awarded the Forum for the History of Science in America’s Philip J. Pauly Book Prize. Her articles have appeared in both scholarly and more popular venues, including Slate, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.com. Her current book-in-progress, “Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science,” explores the history of science as cultural diplomacy in the Cold War. Wolfe’s editorial and publishing consulting company, The Outside Reader, helps scholars navigate the publishing process.

 

“Alt-Ac” Careerist Profile: Aimee Slaughter June 15, 2016

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Interview with Aimee Slaughter, Museum Educator and Publications Outreach Manager at the Los Alamos Historical Society and Museum, Los Alamos, New MexicoSlaughterPic

Degree: Ph.D. in History of Science from University of Minnesota

Describe your current work or job. How does it compare to your academic experience either as a graduate student or lecturer? What do you like? What’s challenging?

I currently have two part-time positions with the Los Alamos Historical Society and Museum, Publications Outreach Manager and Museum Educator. I tend to spend most of my time working as Museum Educator. I really enjoy the work and find it very rewarding. I get to work in a very collaborative environment, interact with museum visitors, and stretch my teaching and research muscles. Working at a small non-profit, many of the challenges and benefits are just two sides of the same coin. It also means that most days I’m doing something different than I did the day before. Working for a small non-profit means not having much in the way of benefits, but that I have a lot of say in shaping both what my job and what the organization look like. The best thing is the wide range of experiences I’m getting in museum work.

What skills did you acquire from your PhD training that have or are helping you in your current occupation?Slaughter_Quote

There is definitely some history knowledge that is helpful working at a history museum that tells (among other things) the story of the Manhattan Project. More than that, though, I didn’t really appreciate until recently the value of training in history for having an open perspective on historical events. There are things that are basic in the history of science that I had begun to take for granted—perspectives on the social construction of science and technology, recognizing the agency of historical actors, an appreciation for historical contingencies, etc.—that are not a part of everyone’s view of the world. There’s a sensitivity about history that I’ve gained that allows me to be more careful, precise, and hopefully respectful in my work with the museum.

How did you end up in your position or job? What steps did you take to get there? What decisions were you required to make in regards to taking your job? For instance, what did you sacrifice in leaving academia? What did you gain? Were you surveying a variety of career or job options?

In graduate school, when colloquium speakers would talk to the graduate students about their career paths, I often felt that their trajectories were so idiosyncratic they were difficult to generalize from, and I feel the same way now trying to answer this question! After I was ABD, I moved to Los Alamos to be with my partner at the time while I was finishing writing my dissertation. I started volunteering for the History Museum as a docent, and then was hired as Publications Outreach Manager before graduating. Around a year later I was then hired as Museum Educator. I feel fortunate having this opportunity to live where I wanted to live and have work that is interesting to me. (The question about sacrifice is an interesting one, because I did have to make sacrifices, personally and professionally, in moving away from the people and resources of my graduate program, but I think there are also sacrifices people make in staying in academia, and I feel that sometimes people with “alt-ac” careers are asked more about sacrifices than people with “traditional” academic careers.)

Retrospectively, is there anything you would have done to prepare for your current position or job? What skills have you had to learn to adapt to your “alt-ac” or “pseudo-ac” job?

I would maybe have liked to have taken some Museum Studies classes in graduate school, but at the time I was focused on not prolonging my program longer than necessary. There are some things that I am learning now through professional development opportunities that I maybe could have instead brought with me to the job. I think generally, though, graduate programs could put more energy into helping students develop the skills involved with the job search itself: Where do you find job opportunities? How do you know if a job might be a good fit for you? How do you create a compelling CV / resume / cover letter / teaching philosophy / writing sample / etc.?

How can PhD students in History or History of Science/Tech/Med sell themselves off of the academic job market?

In my (limited) experience, employers want to know that the position they’re hiring for isn’t just a back-up option for you, that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about the work. Craft your application materials to fit the job you’re applying to. And, something that I’m personally bad at doing, have other people read your application materials and get feedback from them.

What questions should graduate students and early careerists be asking that we (GECC) aren’t asking you here?

It might be interesting to ask some questions that I think are really very important for graduate students to consider: Why are you in graduate school? What are you hoping to gain from the experience? The perspective that I learned from my graduate school experiences, starting in physics and then changing to HSTM, was that graduate school was something I was doing because I enjoyed it, not as a means to an end. The subject and the practice were (and continue to be) interesting to me. If the experience and the degree can then help me in my future work, all the better, but I was not completing graduate work with expectations of a job in academia. Academic jobs were options, along with jobs in museums or public history. Those questions can be angsty, existential questions, but I do feel like they’re important. I started graduate school in physics without really asking myself why I wanted to be there, and I sometimes worry that academia doesn’t do enough to encourage this kind of self-reflection among graduate students.

Outside the Academy: Reevaluating Alternatives for the History (of Science) Graduate Student June 15, 2016

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If you have yet to read Jim Grossman’s piece for the American Historical Association regarding the preparation of graduate students for non-academic jobs, then you should. For ease and convenience, I’ve linked it here so hop to it. But in the case that you’d rather stick around here first, here’s a quick rundown. Grossman basically says that the outcomes-based approach to designing undergraduate history education has not been adapted to Master’s and PhD curricula. Due to the typical history graduate program’s “definition of success,” which is, according to Grossman, a “tenure-track appointment,” programs have neglected, in most ways, to prepare graduate students for the equally likely outcome of a Master’s and PhD program, which is not a tenure track job. Grossman points out that only half of graduate students go on to hold a professorship, and let’s be honest, this data probably does not take into consideration those of us receiving our degrees from a History of Science or Medicine program or Science and Technology Studies program, or numerous other disciplines within which historians identify.

Despite our being trained to pay attention to historical change, undergraduate education and universities are changing, and our advisers, who lived through a different era of college education and graduate training, may not have the skills and insight required to help us fledgling historians leave the nest, requiring us to be innovative, adaptive, and creative. Grossman offers this insight, and we should be encouraging our advisors and mentors to read between the lines: “Preparing PhD students for careers outside the professoriate does not constitute a distraction from the professorial career path that most students apparently still expect when they enter graduate school.”

In other words, alternative academic jobs are not alternative; in fact, increasingly they may become the norm. The skills that are perhaps less central to the traditional graduate program in history or history of science should not be seen as distractions towards our end-goals. The usefulness of a PhD is no longer just to educate the undergraduate or to engage in a frenzied push to publish to attain tenure; we can and should apply our critical thinking skills, our ability to communicate with ease about complex issues, and our ability to do both quantitative and qualitative research to other realms, including industry, non-profits, “pseudo-academia” (to borrow a term from a friend), start-ups and the like.

It was with this line of thinking that I would like to introduce our summer blog series, “Outside the Academy: Reevaluating Alternatives for the History (of Science) Graduate Student” in which we will be featuring a number of Master’s and PhDs in History and History of Science. Our contributing authors will discuss their careers, the new skills they’ve acquired and the old they’ve adapted, and help us to see ways to push back against the pervasive and debilitating tendency to think of academics outside academy as having “failed.” Check out our first contributor here!

GECC Business Meeting Minutes – HSS 2015 January 23, 2016

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Quick rehash of the GECC Business Meeting

Feel free to contribute to the conversation yourself by adding comments below! We’re always looking for fresh ideas and ways to improve the graduate student experience both at HSS Conferences and away.

***

Meeting Minutes – November 20th, 2015, 12:00pm, Georgian Room (Mezzanine Level), Westin St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, California.

  • Order of Business
    • Social Media
    • Outreach
    • CV Reviews
    • Mentorship
  • Minutes begin:
    • Officer introductions
      • Overlapping terms of 2 years
    • Desired feedback about future (of) programs; dealing with the costs
    • Open forum
    • Workshop with Emma Williams from Elsevier
  • Introductions
    • Emmie Miller, communications officer
      • Description of content on blog: scholar profiles, professionalization themed informational blogs; Facebook, links to blog posts, CFPs, job postings; mirrors the Twitter
    • Thomas Darragh, CV Reviews
      • CV Reviewer, description; organizes and coordinates CV reviewers and people receiving reviews
      • Reforming position: professionalization coordinator?
      • Outsourcing services not under our mission statement to other caucuses, like possibly the Women’s Mentorship Tea
    • Courtney Thompson, Mentorship Officer
      • Organizes and facilitates Women’s Tea
      • Mentorship Program
    • Bridget Collins, Chair
      • Delivers reports to HSS
      • Organizes GECC Mixer
      • Sponsoring sessions; having a session or workshop
    • Tasks needed to be fulfilled: improvement of database of international programs
  • 3 Societies, HSS + PSA (Atlanta)
    • Stronger presence to support students without caucuses, such as PSA
    • Getting in touch with PSA to garner attention for their students, in addition to at 3 Societies
  • Publisher Relationships
    • Role of publishers in the mentorship program; sponsorship, funding, working with early careerists
  • Feedback – Future of Programs
    • Challenges we’ve been facing
      • Mentorship – too few mentors
      • Mentors – “I have nothing to offer”
      • More diversity
      • Putting limits on it; capping the number of students, only graduate students, deadlines, one-time service, undergraduates
      • Female mentors for tea
      • Doesn’t have to be a faculty member
      • (SSSS has more junior people as mentors)
      • List of mentors not possible for fairness reasons
    • Dawn Digrius – geography, types of historians of science
      • Meeting in Atlanta, which local programs
    • Real struggle with mentors?
      • Influence of HSS
        • Emails for us
        • We email departments
      • Publishers could help
        • Not just for career advice
        • People want something network-y
      • 1/5 said yes, not always what you need or want
      • How to get more senior scholars
  • No time for tea!
    • Discussion there
    • Expensive, $200 anonymous; co-chair with Women’s Caucus
      • Curtail costs, labor distribution
  • CV Review
    • Wrangle, response
      • Plenty of reviewers, smaller #s of students
  • Elections
    • Bridget, chair
    • Courtney, co-chair
    • Thomas, mentorship
    • Emmie, communications officer
      • Kele, co-communications officer
    • Professionalization Coordinator – ?
  • Emma Williams Workshop

 

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