Historical Consulting: Pursuing a Career beyond Academia

AHA Session 31
National Council on Public History 1
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Riverside Suite (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Christopher Clarke, Consulting Historian
Michael R. Adamson, FTI Consulting
Emily Greenwald, Historical Research Associates, Inc.
Ryan Shackleton, Know History
William F. Willingham, Consulting Historian

Session Abstract

Historical consulting is a well-established profession, yet many historians seem unaware that it is a viable career option.

In 2011, Jim Grossman and Anthony Grafton launched a forum in Perspectives about the then trend of institutions instructing graduate students to have a “Plan B” in case they do not find those elusive tenure-track teaching positions. They argued that such a narrow perspective ultimately did a disservice to students, who instead should be taught from the beginning that a history PhD can prepare someone for a wide range of careers. One outgrowth of that forum was a track at 2013 AHA Annual Meeting called “The Malleable PhD.” A session in that track, titled “The Entrepreneurial Historian,” brought together academics and practitioners to discuss the need for historians to recognize that their skills and experience can translate into business opportunities.

Despite the relevance of consulting to the discussion about careers in history, a survey of programs from the past ten years of the AHA conference turned up none with the word “consulting” in the session name. Though there have been several consulting historians as presenters and participants in past conferences, the lack of sessions that openly discuss consulting work is surprising.

As a comparison, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) formed a Consultants Committee more than twenty years ago, in recognition of consulting historians as an expanding constituency of the organization. That committee organizes at least one session at the NCPH annual meeting every year, along with a networking reception for consultants, and the annual meeting program often includes other sessions or workshops focused on consulting. The American Alliance of Museums formed a professional network just this year, Independent Museums Professionals, to advocate for consultants and independents in the museum field.

To help bring the AHA into the current conversation about historical consulting, this roundtable features consulting historians from the United States and Canada who are executives, small business owners, and sole proprietors. They represent a wide range of backgrounds, business structures, and expertise. Some came to consulting work after careers in academia, while others established firms soon after completing their graduate studies. The participants will share their insights about building and maintaining fruitful careers in historical consulting.

All roundtable participants are active members of NCPH, a sponsor of this session. Both William F. Willingham and Ryan Shackleton are members of the Consultants Committee, which Ryan currently co-chairs. The committee advocates for consulting historians and the unique issues they face as practitioners. It also organizes panel sessions, workshops, and networking events at the NCPH Annual Meeting as well as provides consulting-related content through the NCPH blog, History@Work.

See more of: AHA Sessions