Today’s job market is predictably unpredictable. This is one of the reasons that the skills like critical thinking and writing that history majors develop allow them flexibility and choice in developing their career goals. Today’s History@UF post from Nora Kern (BA 2007) offers a great example of how one UF alum negotiated this path successfully.
Building a Career Out of the History Major
by Nora Kern, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
I didn’t have a career focus when I picked history as a major; I just always loved the subject. As a result, I’ve kissed a few career frogs, but learned valuable life lessons along the way. During undergrad, I toyed with the typical ‘what do I do with my history degree?’ career paths. I ruled out law school after working in the Gainesville branch of a statewide law firm. I was unsure about graduate school (and still am), so ruled that out as an immediate option. In my mind, that only left teaching. After many interviews, through sheer enthusiasm (and of course my UF 4.0 GPA didn’t hurt), I got a job teaching 4th grade at a rural elementary school between Gainesville and Micanopy. I was, quite frankly, unprepared in terms of pedagogical knowledge and classroom management techniques. But I acknowledged those deficits early on and was able to get a retired teacher, who became an important mentor to me, to help where needed. In the end, my class was part of a three-way tie for highest writing scores in the county.
While I was teaching, my principal shared a posting for an education policy fellowship in Washington, D.C. I thought policy work was something you did after a career in teaching. This is not true, I’d say less than half the folks in the field have teaching experience. Nonetheless, I decided to apply. I learned that I won the fellowship late in the summer, and two weeks later I made the long drive up to D.C. The fellowship was an incredible immersion into the policy world of Washington, D.C.—giving us lessons on education policy history, exposure to the spectrum of education interest groups and influencers, and on-the-job training. The fellowship lasted for nine months, with the idea being that when it was over, we would go forth and become policy wonks.
Following the fellowship, I decided that I wanted more legislative experience, so I applied to a ton of positions on Capitol Hill. I literally mean over 100 jobs. Eventually I landed a position as a legislative correspondent for a Democrat Congressman from central Georgia. Working on the Hill is a very specialized experience that opens many doors—both in terms of the personal connections you make and the content/process knowledge you learn. The Hill is also fun because you learn about a lot of issues. My portfolio issues included healthcare (I was there when Obamacare was passed…fun times!), environment, education, finance/banking, and agriculture.
The downside of working for a Congressman is that elections happen every two years, so job stability isn’t a strong aspect of the career. I suspected that my Congressman would not win his re-election, so I began to look for a job that would incorporate my policy and now legislative experience. I secured a job working on the federal relations team for a nonprofit education advocacy group that promoted longitudinal student data systems. While the mission of the organization, to promote data-driven decision making, appealed to me as an education reform tool, the day-to-day work environment was a poor fit. After a short time there, I began to hunt for a new job.
I currently work for a nonprofit education group that advocates for public charter schools. My title is Senior Manager for Research and Analysis, but in actuality, I’d describe myself as our in-house primary author. I handle a range of written communication work from social media, to short and long-issue briefs, to website content. There has been one constant in every job I’ve had since graduating (and, yes, there have been a lot in a short time): it always comes down to my strong writing and editing abilities. My history major, and especially writing an honors thesis, helped cultivate these skills by teaching me to look at an event from a high level, figure out a specific aspect to explore intensively, find supporting primary-source documents to build an argument, and create a narrative to weave all the pieces together. That basic process is the same in any content area—writing a political speech, creating legislative language, making talking points for an advocacy event, creating a lesson, or writing a blog. In this increasingly knowledge-based job market, history majors are at a huge advantage. You just have to be articulate and persuasive about your skills.
Six years after graduation, I know there are still many more professional lessons to learn. D.C. is a wonderful place for young people to build careers. If you have any interest in discussing career options further, or I can be a resource for you in any other way, please feel free to contact me. Best of luck in the future, and Go Gators!