“Alt-Ac” Careerist Profile: Aimee Slaughter

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

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!