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?
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.
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).