Tips for picking a graduate program that will be a good fit for you

I get lots of queries, both from my own undergraduates and from students shopping around for graduate programs in museum studies and public history, about which programs are currently the strongest.

Honestly, I don’t have an opinion about specific programs, which is amazing, because hoo boy do I have opinions about almost everything else.

So I thought I’d share here today some of the (maybe slightly unconventional) thoughts I have on finding a grad school that will be a good fit for you.*  (I apologize in advance if this post seems terribly U.S.-centric, but it’s what I’m familiar with right now.)

Before I start, let me say this—and really, I can’t emphasize it enough (hence the font change):

The best way to get into museum or public history work–and I’m hoping I’m not the first one to tell you this–is literally to get your foot in the door, no matter how that happens: volunteering, internship, entry-level job. Graduate school can, and likely will, bolster your chances of advancement in the field, but six months or more of hands-on work in a low- or no-pay job is what will convince others (as well as yourself!) that this really is the kind of work you feel called to do.

Laying a foundation

I’m going to begin with some advice that, alas, may require some time travel for many of my readers: Get a liberal arts education. I don’t mean you have to go to a fancypants Ivy League school or a boutique liberal arts college (though I’m a big fan of my alma mater). Rather, you’ll likely find you have a lot more options open to you on the arts-and-humanities and public-education side of the museum world** if you have a good deal of intellectual curiosity and you have cultivated the ability to research a topic in depth without losing sight of its broader context, identify novel connections among phenomena that at first glance may seem different, and engage in meaningful conversation with people from diverse backgrounds.

Even if you have earned an undergraduate degree that is light on the liberal arts and sciences, I encourage you to enrich your learning. Study a living, foreign language and culture until you reach the upper-division courses (typically after four semesters of study); take a variety of science classes that challenge you to see the world in new ways (seismology, environmental science, evolutionary biology, epidemiology, climatology, and nanotechnology come immediately to mind, and large universities often offer some kind of introductory class in these fields for non-majors); pursue history and anthropology; take art history, studio art, and music courses; and read all the assigned texts for your literature classes, then come to class ready to talk about them. Sample the “studies” disciplines that have cropped up over the past 20 to 30 years, as they will teach you to challenge traditional intellectual paradigms: Native American studies; women’s, gender, or queer studies; Chicana/o studies; African American studies; Asian American studies; and others.  In many museum careers, your mission at some level will be to nudge people into thinking differently about the world, to challenge their conceptions about how stuff works. A liberal arts education is going to equip you with the tools in critical and creative thinking that will make you a welcome contributor to our line of work.

Location, location, location

In other fields—law and medicine, for example—it’s important to attend the absolutely best-ranked school, as students graduating from those programs tend to land the most sought-after jobs.  In museum studies and public history, however, graduate school name recognition (usually) does not matter as much as you think it might.  Accordingly, I encourage you to think just as much about location as about programmatic reputation and rigor.

I suggest you think about program location for two primary reasons: opportunities following graduation and opportunities during school.

First, it may seem premature, but you should think about where you would like to live when you’re finished with the program.***  Almost all my former students at John F. Kennedy University’s museum studies program in the San Francisco Bay Area are working in that region in large part because that’s where they pursued their internships and entry-level positions while earning their Master’s degrees. My students graduating from the Master’s of Applied Historical Research at Boise State tend to get jobs in Idaho, for much the same reason. Through their work in local museums, they have established professional networks in their region. It’s much harder to get a job outside the immediate geographical area where you earn your Master’s degree because it takes a good deal of time and effort to establish those networks. It’s not impossible by any means–and social media is making it easier to connect with professionals elsewhere–but it’s something to think about as you’re selecting a program. If you know you will have family obligations that mean you must find work near Los Angeles, it might not make sense to spend a couple years interning in, say, Tallahassee.

While you’re thinking about opportunities after graduation, you also might want to look at who is currently employed in the institutions in the area where you want to settle eventually.  I mention this because the educational attainment of the local public history professionals can also be an indicator of the sophistication of the local public history scene. If a city’s or region’s museums look much like they did in the 1960s and ’70s, for example, you might find that’s partly due to funding issues but also possibly a sign of professional disconnection from the wider field. (Note: if you want to be a historical museum curator, check to see if the curators in the region have Ph.D.s in history, and if they do, either rethink your region or career aspirations, or consider a Ph.D. in history–though a humanities Ph.D. is a long, hard road offering even less a guarantee of employment than an M.A.)

Both because you’ll likely find your first professional position near your graduate institution and because you’ll want great opportunities to intern (and maybe get an entry-level job) while you’re in grad school, you’ll want to pick a program that is surrounded by museum or public history opportunities. Are there many history museums nearby, and are they of sufficient quality for you to apprentice there? If you’re looking at museum studies programs and you’re interested in informal science education, find out if there is a science center, natural history museum, planetarium, botanical garden, arboretum, zoo, or similar institution (and preferably several) nearby. If you’re interested in public history, if the program is in or near a state capital, then there are likely to be opportunities at historic sites as well as with state and federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Washington, D.C. and its environs are rich with historical sites, museums, and government agencies, and thus the region can be an excellent place to get started in public history. It’s a good idea to be pretty specific about your needs; if you want to study historic preservation, and you’re especially interested in preserving masonry structures built before the Civil War, be sure you have several such buildings to learn from close at hand, as well as local experts from whom you can learn.

Program structure

The structure of museum studies and public history programs varies quite a bit; such variations can be a function of program age, enrollment, faculty hiring, and/or resource allocation in the broader university. While certainly we could place such graduate programs on a nuanced spectrum, each end of that spectrum is occupied by two very different approaches. There are some programs–from glancing at its website, American University’s appears to be one of them–that offer a wide range of actual coursework on topics as diverse as oral history, historic site management, digital history, visual and material history, public policy, and visitor evaluation. There are also programs, however–and Boise State’s is one of these–where by design students do much of their learning outside of class; students here can take as many credits of internship work as they do of elective coursework. (In addition, our M.A.H.R. students take only one graduate class in public history, and currently we offer that introductory course only every other year because we don’t have the student enrollment or faculty staffing levels to justify offering the course every year.)

I think institutions can successfully occupy either end of the spectrum, but there will be people who disagree with me, probably vehemently. In the end, your career path is a combination of your learning, your initiative, your network, and a good deal of luck–not which classes you take. If you know you’re the kind of learner who prefers coursework to largely self-directed research and practice, then do yourself a favor and attend a program that offers classes in specialties that interest you.  If, on the other hand, coursework has always kind of bored you, and you like the challenge of self-directed learning, it’s worth investigating programs that are less structured around traditional graduate seminars.

Before you decide to go with the latter, free-form variety of program, however, you want to be sure four things are true:

  • You’re self-directed as a student.
  • You click with at least one faculty member there who can serve as a mentor to you as you navigate the wide-open spaces of public history practice.
  • There are institutions nearby where you can pursue a meaningful internship.
  • The program’s graduates are meeting with a good deal of success in the job market.

Of course, these factors also are beneficial in a more traditional, course-based program, but they are absolutely essential in a program with fewer course offerings in the field.

Don’t forget digital humanities practice

Another big trend in public history in particular is the digital humanities, and if you’re interested in that, then in the U.S. currently the mid-Atlantic states are among the most popular places to be; George Mason University is home to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the University of Virginia hosts the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Virginia Center for Digital History, and the University of Maryland offers the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

I’m seeing more job position descriptions, as well as internship supervisors, ask for applicants with digital media skills in both public history and museums. One great thing about the digital humanities is the people who work in it are incredibly well-connected throughout history and its subfields, so the chances of networking your way to an actual job may be higher than in other subfields of public history practice. If you’re interested in the intersection of museums or public history and digital media practice, I recommend you contact faculty or staff at these programs.

Where can you find programs?

The National Council on Public History offers a guide to public history programs and the Smithsonian maintains a list of undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as certificates, in museum studies, historic preservation, decorative arts, conservation, and more. Wikipedia’s page on the digital humanities provides a list of digital humanities centers.

I want your questions and comments.

Questions? Leave ’em below, or e-mail me at leslie -at- museumblogging -dot- com.

Public history and museum professionals–let’s help out our prospective colleagues here in the comments section.  What advice would you give about selecting a graduate program in these fields?

*And good god do I wish someone had offered me some job-focused advice when I was considering my first second third all my graduate programs. Maybe then I wouldn’t have that top-secret M.A. in writing poetry or have been on the academic job market for five years (thanks, interdisciplinary Ph.D.!).

**I’m excluding, for the time being, scientific research positions and high-ranking curatorial jobs in elite natural history museums, botanical gardens, arboreta, aquaria, and zoos.  If you want that kind of work, my best advice is to get a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline, not an M.A. in museum studies.

***Good news: you get to choose. If you had decided to pursue a more traditional Ph.D. in the hopes of becoming a professor, you wouldn’t have much say at all where you wind up.  (As much as I like my current job, for example, I’m not in Boise because I love freezing winters and red-state politics. After five years on the job market, this is where I found an academic home.)


  1. Man, I wish I had something to add – but your post is wonderfully (unsurprisingly) comprehensive, with a healthy dose of encouraging others towards real critical thinking. Which is what the crux of this question about graduate school really is for me; has the person thought about the debt? The jobs themselves? The reality of the work?

    I’m thinking of two former classmates, brilliant young women, got into the field during coursework, and just recently (in the last 6 months) got out of it. Because of: pay, no opportunity for advancement, unrealistic expectations, the functional-disfunctional dynamic. We could spin this into a larger discussion, of course, but let’s not and stay on track.

    I guess what I’m saying is, before pursuing a degree, do homework on the career. Can you live with driving a 15 year old car? Do you read historical non-fiction for pleasure? Is there a bleed between how you’d define hobbies and work? Have you enjoyed a service job in the past? Volunteering is a good step, especially if it is a position that is behind the scenes (like stuffing envelopes) you’ll see the funny internal politics or decision-making just by being in the same space.

  2. How about tuition and expected student debt load? The school that’s a great fit professionally or academically still might not be worth it, if it means years of financial difficulty, or if you end up unable to afford to work in the jobs you wanted to do in the first place. I’ve got plenty of colleagues — even at mid-level positions of the type that many students probably hope to have one day — who are struggling financially, largely because of heavy student loan debt. It sucks a lot of the enjoyment out of their careers. The reality is, public history is an overall low-paid, expensively educated field. I would strongly encourage students to get the numbers and do the math: figure out overall costs and probable monthly loan payments; seek out realistic, entry-level and mid-level salaries in their job markets; and seriously consider whether they would really be okay living on that budget. It’s a good idea to know up front what you’re committing to.

  3. Kristen and Emma–apologies! I somehow didn’t see your comments waiting in moderation until tonight. :(
    As someone who accrued student loan debt almost without break from 1993 to 2006, I absolutely agree with you. And it’s not just student loan debt; other kinds of debts and opportunity costs come with graduate school, too–and the longer you’re in school, the faster these liabilities increase. I don’t like to do this math, but if I had stuck with my original career goal of being a high school teacher in California, I would have hit the classroom around 1997 or 1998 and thus have about 14 years of seniority in a school district. My salary would be much, much higher than it is now that I’m a professor in Idaho–and all along I would have been making a decent salary, whereas instead for many of those years I was in grad school, bringing home $13,000 a year at best as an instructor or teaching assistant. Of course, when your salary is that low, any unexpected costs–dental work, car repairs–become emergency expenses and too often ours went on a credit card. We’re still paying those debts down.

    I’m glad that with the Occupy movement, especially on the CSU and UC campuses in California, there’s been a good deal of discourse about the burdens of student loan debt and the rapidly decreasing affordability of higher education. Perhaps more museum and public history programs need to find community partners who can sponsor additional scholarship or work-study opportunities for students. Of course, that’s FAR easier said than done.


  1. […] reading: Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ latest entry, “Tips for picking a graduate program that will be a good fit for you.” Dang that Dr. Lady is smart. I had a post on a similar topic some years ago, albeit not as well […]

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