Where Historians Work: Q&A with Dr. Stephanie Gamble, Johns Hopkins University

“In addition to finding the things I wanted to do or didn’t want to do [for a career], there were parts of being an academic that I was unwilling to give up, and those were just as important.” ~ Dr. Stephanie Gamble, Librarian for History & Anthropology, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

_NWK9202Today, Katy talks to Dr. Stephanie Gamble, Librarian for History and Anthropology in the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University. Steph explains the wide range of responsibilities she undertakes as a librarian supporting the studies and efforts of both students and faculty. She also offers some tips for turning your CV into a resume . . . or, what she likes to call a “CV-ume.”

JUNTO: Good morning, Steph. Thanks for sharing your story with The Junto today. Tell us about the work that you do. How does it relate—or not relateto the research you undertook in your doctoral studies?

STEPHANIE GAMBLE: My job, in its essence, is to support the research and teaching from our History and Anthropology departments. Part of that is purchasing resources—books and electronic resources as well as items for Special Collections. Talk about staying on top of the historiography! I may not be reading everything that comes out, but I am seeing new books across the discipline on a weekly basis.

I also support undergraduate instruction in a variety of ways—single class visits, consulting with faculty on developing research assignments, and collaborating on digital assignments like Omeka exhibits. Conceptually, there is considerable overlap between historical research and information literacy, so in my teaching I am trying to help students learn the same skills and concepts as history faculty. My graduate work directly relates to my teaching, preparing me to engage with what research is and how to critically approach the components of historical research.

What I am most excited about in this, still fairly new, position is working with graduate students. Having been a graduate student at the very same institution combined with my experience as a librarian, I a uniquely suited to see the places there are gaps between what graduate students need and what the library offers and to be the bridge. For example, I had no idea as a graduate student that I could turn to the libraries for help in figuring out how to manage my research materials, which I struggled with. I know that many researchers are similarly frustrated by how to manage the volume of materials we collect in the course of a project. Now though, I know that academic libraries can help with data management as well as citation management, and I want to bring those skills to the graduate students at the start of their research. In that sense, the process of doctoral work very much informs the services and coaching I provide for graduate students.

Though research consultations get to engage with researchers at all levels as they look for information. That detective work and agile thinking that we hone as doctoral students remains a part of my work as I encounter new research questions and work with researchers to find solutions. I will confess, though, research finds are not quite as satisfying when you aren’t the one who developed the questions and gets to go through the source and use it. I jump in and out of other people’s research, rather than focusing on my own, which has moved from being the center of my universe as a graduate student to being a side project. I am often nostalgic for my own research. I do have (and had in my previous position) support to continue my own research, only as a much smaller portion of my work time. So, I continue to publish and attend and present at conferences.

I am, to my great delight, back at the institution where I completed my doctoral work, and my primary responsibility is to support the history department. In doing so, I can continue to attend seminars and workshops, disciplinary conferences, and teach in history classrooms–intellectually stimulating activities that relate directly to the work I did in my doctoral studies.

However, I also get to expand on that work in exciting, high-level ways. I was not introduced to Digital Humanities methods as a student, but I have been building my skills and knowledge in that area since I started work in libraries. In doing so, I use my own doctoral research as the testing ground for new tools and skills in order to have a practical application where I can apply what I am learning about DH and advance my research at the same time. This is the key area that is an inversion of the general trend that the skills I learned as a doctoral student apply to my work, but not the content of what I studied. Here, the skills are new and I learn them through my own research.

There are many things that I do as a librarian that at the surface to not relate to my training in graduate school. But, I regularly find myself thinking like a historian as I approach my work.

JUNTO: What skills as a historian did you bring to your position, and what skills did you learn while on the job? How do these skills complement each other in your daily work?

GAMBLE: The skills you develop and refine as a doctoral student are enormous and powerful. Imposter syndrome and isolation can lead doctoral candidates to feel like they only know a lot about something that few outside of the academy will care about, but doctoral candidates are SMART!

Research is really a huge bundle of skills. The ability to see gaps or problems that need to be explored, or re-explored, and to turn that into a set of questions. To take research questions and determine what information can help answer them, where it can be found, and as historians know too well, the ability to know what information can’t be found and examine why and what can be employed in its place. To collect, organize, and critically examine large amounts of material. Historians are thinkers, we ask smart questions (or two comments and one question, as my advisor was wont to do) and probe why things are the way they are.

In all honesty, I brought some knowledge of Higher Ed to my first position after graduate school, but I have learned much more about universities as a librarian. The same is true of teaching. I taught classes as a doctoral candidate, which helped me to land my first library position as Undergraduate Learning Specialist at the University of Kansas. But, it was through the libraries that I learned (and was expected to learn) about pedagogical best practices, theories of teaching and learning, assessment, and classroom climate, not only for my own teaching but to assist faculty in theirs.

JUNTO: In our phone conversation, you stressed the importance of reading widely across job postings when pursuing career opportunities. What criteria did you look for when searching for jobs? How did you frame the work you did in graduate school to support a successful application?

GAMBLE: The top reason I would suggest reading widely across postings is to become familiar with your field of interest. This serves two critical purposes. First, it helps you to see the typical requirements and job responsibilities in a particular field. From the requirements you can see what skills are valued and the responsibilities will give you a sense of what you would do. Both are important for considering if a position is what you expect and is truly of interest. For example, I initially thought curatorial positions were what I wanted to aspire to, but seeing the emphasis on cultivating donors and soliciting funding in job ads–which was reinforced in talking with curators–I determined that was not the best fit for me. Secondly, reading job ads will help you to be versed in the language of your field of interest. To be a successful candidate you will need to not simply mirror that language in your application, but also understand it. Sometimes that is mostly a matter of terminology. For my first position, I was asked to give a job talk (case in point–at libraries these are called presentations) in response to a prompt about an emerging instructional theory and information literacy. These were not terms I was familiar with (had I been able to give myself then my advice now, I would have!) but with a bit of guidance and reading up I realized that information literacy was what historians, for the most part, think of as research. By adjusting my language to reflect my new field I was able to give a successful presentation.

Being versed in the language also helps you to reflect on skills that you have but take for granted. It took reading a lot of job postings for me to realize that I could list skills like grant writing, project management, and managing research budgets. These are things all successful doctoral candidates have done to some extent but likely consider them survival rather than marketable skills.

Sometimes it is not as easy. Reading postings might make you aware of common requirements you don’t meet. (Another case in point–when I began looking for my second job, I confronted the reality of not having an MLA. For some jobs, the requirement was crystal clear–if you didn’t have one, your application wasn’t going to be read. For others, like Hopkins, the caveat “or relevant experience” made all the difference for someone like me. I quickly learned which job applications to spend time on and which not to.) If you start reading posts and assessing this early, you have time to fill in (at least some of) those gaps.

JUNTO: You mentioned the importance of “exploration” when it comes to choosing a career path. How did exploration into different history-related fields shape your career trajectory before and after the PhD?

GAMBLE: As we realized when we spoke, we share a similar origin to our career diversity stories—the National Institute of American History and Democracy (NIAHD) program at the College of William and Mary. As an undergraduate I was introduced to a very open approach to history. Through the history department and the NIADH program, I came to take for granted that history was about the built environment, material culture, and archaeological evidence, as much as it was about textual sources. I took classes that only met in museums and at historic sites, as well as classes like Public History and Slavery [Interpretation] in Museums, and I had to complete an internship, which I did at Jamestown Settlement doing maintenance work on the replica ships.  In a way, this wasn’t intentional exploration per se, but it is important to me in thinking about how I was comfortable taking a different career trajectory at the end of my PhD.

As an undergraduate, my understanding of the historical discipline was capacious and open ended. Applying to graduate school was the first time I realized that an advanced degree in history might be more exclusive. A mentor in my department reviewed my personal statement for me and encouraged me to excise all references to public history before applying to PhD programs. The department at Johns Hopkins was more traditional in its conception of academic history, but I was still given the latitude to explore. I was interested in museums from my experience as an undergrad working in museums and engaging with them through classes, so I reached out to director of the house museum on campus and set up an internship for a semester. That came late in my dissertation writing process, so it was very informal and low-time investment–two hours per week–but it helped me understand more about the different roles in a museum and the way smaller museums worked. That experience helped me to further refine what types of museums and museum work I was interested in and imparted some new skills, not to mention the ever-so-important lines on the CV/résumé. Exploring through paid work is helpful, too. I, like many in my department, worked part-time in the library, where I learned a bit about reference interviews and worked alongside subject librarians and saw what they do. That job likely gave me a leg-up applying to my first job at KU, and the relationships I cultivated during those two years certainly didn’t hurt when I applied to become the history librarian at JHU.

JUNTO: What advice would you give to a graduate student in history who wishes to explore other career options but wonders, “Where do I start?”

GAMBLE: I would recommend starting by assessing their big-picture priorities. The job market for faculty positions has a way of making you feel like you don’t get any options in your career–you take what you can get. Once you think about moving beyond that you start to regain options. Does location matter to you? If so, in what ways? Are you interested in a specific location or region (say because of a partner’s job, family, or some other need), or are there other considerations you want to keep in mind (urban vs. rural, climate, particular regions)? But also think about other parts of your work. Salary considerations, work environment, subject matter.

Often when turning away from the traditional job market the first consideration is what we don’t want, whether that is something specific about academia (i.e. the lack of work-life balance, the tenure clock), or simply not wanting a job hunt that is so restricted. Take time to think about what you do want in your daily life. For me, I wanted to have some kind of teaching role, I wanted to continue to be surrounded by bright and inquisitive people like I had been as a doctoral student, and I wanted to have space to continue learning and engaging with history—so I focused on museum education, academic libraries, and programming positions at archives and academic societies/institutes.

JUNTO: Any final thoughts on career diversity for doctoral candidates?

GAMBLE: Most doctoral students work in some capacity to fund their studies. To the extent possible, make that work count for you. Seek out employment that will build your experience in fields of interest. I worked part-time for a few years at the library Information Desk on campus which ended up being really helpful in getting my foot in the door with library positions. If you are interested in museums, take advantage of their enduring need for volunteers, whether in education, curation, management, programming, and so on. Informational interviews can also be a great resource; meet with people and find out what they do and what they look for in new hires.

I would also suggest giving yourself time to rethink your CV. Another history PhD turned librarian colleague of mine jokingly referred to our CVs as a “CV-ume” for the ways it was really a hybrid of the academic CV with its emphasis on publications and the corporate resume. Most alt-ac or ac-adjacent positions want to see your experience up front but are still interested in seeing your publications and conference presentations. Your advisors likely will not be as capable in telling you what looks right because they are used to vetting faculty CVs. If you’ve made contact with someone in your intended field, ask them to review your materials and make suggestions. It can be hard to want to give up putting that article at the top, but take their advice, they know what the competition looks like.

JUNTO: Thank you, Stephanie. These words of wisdom will certainly come in handy for those of searching for our place in the career-diverse world of the history profession!


And with that, Readers, we’ve reached the end of our first installment of “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America.” We want to hear from you! What did you think of this series? What people, institutions, or careers would you like to see profiled in the future? Are there questions you’re eager to know the answers to, but we did not pose this time around? Please feel free to reach out to series editor Katy Lasdow (kkl2121@columbia.edu) or The Junto team (thejuntoblog@gmail.com) with your thoughts and suggestions. As always, we welcome comments on the blog, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter.

We hope, as many of our readers begin the job hunt this fall, that we’ve provided some key strategies and resources that may help along the way. As the historians profiled in this series have demonstrated, there is great room for exploration and variety when thinking about the work that historians can do.

Thank you, once again, to all of the participants of the “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America” series. It was a pleasure speaking with you and featuring your stories. Best of luck in all that you do. A special thank you to Dr. Emily Swafford, Managers of Academic Affairs at the American Historical Association, for cross-promoting this series on Twitter.

To the start of an important conversation here on the blog, and to many more to come!

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