My name is Gemmia Burden (most of the people in my life call me Gemma). I started a PhD at the University of Queensland in 2010 and after 7 years (finally) finished earlier this year. I’m currently working two jobs, full time as a cultural heritage consultant at Australian Heritage Specialists, and as a casual research assistant for Associate Professor Anna Johnston at UQ’s Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities.
1. Describe your PhD research.
My thesis explored the Queensland Museum’s collection, interpretation and display of Aboriginal cultural items, including material culture and ancestral remains, over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I was interested in researching how the collections came to be at the Museum, and I really wanted to unpack how they were used once they became ‘museum objects’. The institutional construction of Aboriginality and how that was disseminated to the visiting public was my focus, which I traced through the collections. My key argument was that the Museum’s development of Aboriginality was aligned with the realities of frontier and post-frontier colonial society, and that as an arm of the colonial state, it was complicit in the violent dispossession of Aboriginal people.
2. Why did you decide to do a history PhD?
This is a surprisingly tough question to answer! I like to think my research has relevance in contemporary Australia, and of course that was a motivating factor. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an element of wanting to achieve a PhD for the sake of achieving it, and more pertinently, because that’s ‘what you do’. Like many history students, I had visions of moving straight through undergrad and honours, knocking out a PhD thesis in 3.5 years and then landing a fabulous ongoing academic position. I forged ahead with this goal without really considering what I wanted to do, or facing the fact that this trajectory was entirely untenable. But in saying that, now that it’s done, I’m incredibly glad I did it, and while a PhD isn’t essential in my area of work, it is highly regarded, and it will no doubt be beneficial to any future endeavors. And I do still think that it has value.
3. Tell us about your work as an historian at Australian Heritage Specialists.
I work in both European and Aboriginal heritage on a wide range of projects. My first jobs were preparing the historical research for buildings, and my first big project was researching and writing the historical context of a state listed early twentieth century convent. Researching and writing the historical context for a varying range of reports relating to heritage is probably what I do most, and I work with architects, planners, designers, archaeologists and anthropologists. And it’s not just buildings, also wider sites, landscapes, council areas and archaeological places. That’s one thing I love about this job, the variety of places, things and people I get to explore. I also get to be a bit creative and apply historical research outside of traditional prose. I recently finished overseeing the research and production of a visual timeline of extreme weather events for a Queensland coastal region as part of a bigger climate change project, with the timeline used in their community consultation programs.
I also get to sit around the table with Traditional Owners on all sorts of projects, from cultural heritage to native title to stolen wages. It’s challenging and confronting, but most of all incredibly humbling. One of the stand out projects I’ve been lucky to be involved in, albeit peripherally, was 2016’s ‘Bunya to the Bay’. Run by Stanley River Environmental Education Centre, this program sent a selection of senior high school students on a bicycle / kayak journey from the upper reaches of the Brisbane River to its mouth in Moreton Bay. They wanted to make Aboriginal heritage the focus, so we facilitated engagement with the four Traditional Owner groups on whose country the voyage passed through. Seeing the kids at the end of their journey and being on Country with the Traditional Owners was extraordinarily special.
4. What do you love about your job?
Being on Country with Traditional Owners! I studied Aboriginal history as I had that altruistic motivation of wanting to make a difference, and now I’m in a position where I actually can. This is by far the most rewarding aspect of my job. I also love the variety of projects I get to work on. Outside of Aboriginal cultural heritage, I’ve done assessments on dilapidated heritage and character buildings, state listed buildings, whole of council studies, assessed landmarks such as the Big Pineapple, and seen parts of my hometown and region I never would have made it to if not for work. I also love seeing my research make a difference on the ground. Whether it’s contributing to the protection or identification of a heritage place, assisting to build better processes for negotiating Aboriginal cultural heritage, or providing advice on the management of sites, the impacts of my research and writing can be immediately tangible.
Aside from the rewards of my actual work, the promise of job security and not worrying about grant applications or contracts is a huge benefit. With my RA work I have a foot in the academic door, and my colleagues at AHS are incredibly supportive of my academic pursuits. Achievements in academia, whether it’s a degree, publication or prize, are valued and respected in the professional world. So while I don’t get the work week for my own research and publications, I do have space and support to pursue my interests without the pressures of academic life.
5. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
Another difficult question! I’d have to say 1960s Australia so that I could participate in the land rights protests. If I could take my current knowledge with me, nineteenth century London or New York would be fascinating. I love learning and am intrigued by most aspects of the past, so I’d be happy for the DeLorean to be set to random. Although I am an Outlander tragic so eighteenth century Scotland looks good to me.
6. What advice do you have for other history PhD graduates who are looking to work as professional historians?
There are plenty of opportunities for historians outside Academia. I think sometimes professional history is viewed as a plan B or fallback option, and it definitely is a different way of ‘doing’ history. However, it’s equally as rewarding and can often be more (and immediately) impactful. So I’d say the first step would be considering applied history and heritage as an equally viable career option.
A key part of successful heritage consultancy is the ability to work with people from varying backgrounds as well as different stakeholder groups. So while research, analysis and writing skills are essential, so too is ability to navigate in (I hate to say it) the “real world”. It’s important to sell transferable skills and highlight non-academic qualifications. My boss often talks about how he’d rather see a CV with customer service experience from a high school job at KFC than a university medal or Dean’s commendation.
Overall, I think there is a good balance between applied history and academia. They go hand in hand and draw on each other, so academic research and writing will always be encouraged and supported in the professional world. In fact, I feel like my research interests have expanded enormously with the experience I’ve gained, and I’m thinking more about a wider cross section of platforms to engage with (journals, conferences etc). Which takes me back to the point above, professional history really shouldn’t be a plan B!
I studied history at two regional universities: James Cook University and the University of New England. Since being awarded my PhD in 2002, I have found employment as an historian, researcher and tertiary educator and have published widely on Australian history. My work has been in the form of fixed term contracts and casual jobs, and it is likely that many of today’s early career researchers will follow a similar career path.
If a fairy godmother appeared in my garden, and offered me the choice of a semi-permanent position at a sandstone university, or alternatively, an uncertain, insecure future of short-term teaching and research contracts for the term of my natural life, which one would I choose? Yeah, you guessed it, probably the first option. But there is no shame in the second option either. We, as historians, haven’t become historians to become millionaires: we are here to make a difference with our research, writing and teaching.
What my career has indicated is that it is possible, even in regional centres, to be an historian and get enough pay for it to keep going over several years. I achieved this by accumulating knowledge through a diverse program of publications, by a willingness to take teaching positions seriously, and perhaps most importantly, by getting to know people inside and outside the profession over a long period of time. It is often the case that a personal connection will help secure casual work or a short-term historical project.
There is no one way to develop a career in history. Because I am more familiar with the academic world, this ‘How To’ is focused mostly on academia, but there are jobs outside university for which historians are well suited, such as assessing built heritage for governments, working in the area of public policy or communicating history to the public through museums or other cultural institutions. Some good historians join the public service, become librarians, school teachers and so on, but still manage to produce lively history publications in their spare time.
I would not want to pretend that the world of casual employment is ideal: the expertise and experience of casual academics, for example, often goes unacknowledged. But if you follow your heart, and keep working towards research projects you are passionate about, the trials and tribulations of academia and other employment avenues will eventually seem very small indeed.
Trying to find your way in the history profession in this era of “flexible” employment can be very daunting, but there are a few things that an emerging historian can do to stay resilient and open to the opportunities that come along.
Listen and learn from people (not just the powerful or attractive!)
Conferences and the staff room are a chance to explore the perspectives of a range of historians. Do not make the mistake of only mixing with your friendship group or even worse, choosing to speak only to historians who might advance your career. That shy, introverted wallflower in the corner may end up being of more value and support to you as a colleague and friend than any number of “historical stars”. Find out what other historians are doing, as their stories may help you to think more deeply about your own historical philosophy. In a more pragmatic sense, the more people you know, the more you will be remembered when the possibility of work enters the conversation.
Write Book Reviews
As an historian you need to keep reading, and if you want to write books, you need to be thinking deeply about writing and how it can help or hinder an author’s message. After you have written for a variety of historical journals, you might like to consider writing reviews for money. Australian Book Review has, in recent years, been encouraging young reviewers to write for them, and there are, of course, other media outlets (although book review pages seem to be shrinking nowadays). While the money is not huge, it can be very useful when the bills need to be paid.
Keep writing for publication
Keep up a steady output of journal articles, and write about a broad range of issues. Don’t confine yourself to your PhD specialisation and think big, bold and beautiful. The more you publish, the more you will be noticed and the more you will demonstrate to potential employers that you can make an original contribution to knowledge. The capacity to target your research to a variety of media and audiences will also help to keep your employment options open.
Do your best
Casual employment, especially casual teaching, is not easy. There is a temptation among some academics to cut corners with teaching so that they can spend more time researching. Don’t be one of them. If we don’t believe passionately in the potential of each student, and work to achieve that, then who will care about history in the future like we do? By going the extra mile with teaching, it also helps us to secure further contracts.
Turn up to Morning Tea and other events
If you are a recognisable part of the scene, and they’ve got to know you over time, you are more likely to be in the running for job opportunities in academia.
Let people know you are looking for work
A letter or email explaining the type of work you are interested in and your qualifications/experiences (resume attached) will let Heads of Department know that you are serious. It may not lead to anything, but it might. The teaching work I have done has been partly down to a willingness to quietly put myself out there as a possible employee.
Let people know you are good (without overdoing it)
If you have published a paper you are very proud of, send it to someone in the profession who is interested in the same topic. There is no guarantee that they’ll read it, but you are still building awareness of yourself as an historian and that may count for a lot in the long run.
Apply for research fellowships at libraries and archives
These are as rare as hens’ teeth, but they are very helpful to your research and your career if you can secure one. Among other things, a library award on your resume shows a prospective employer that your work has been considered worthy of support by others. It really is a bit of a lottery, but I can offer a couple of suggestions. First, concentrate your research proposal on one or two major collections of papers in a specific cultural institution: assessors in many cases are looking for practical research that can be substantially completed in the allotted timeframe of the fellowship. Second, tailor your application to suit the current policies and preferences of the awarding body.
Ask for help: mentors
Ideally you should have more than one, and no one mentor will have the answer to each and every one of your questions. Usually one of your former lecturers or postgraduate supervisors will be willing to give you some useful advice which might help you avoid mistakes in your applications or in dealing with fellow academics. You may find that you have a mentor for life, and that continuity can be a good thing, but you should attempt to get a range of perspectives on your work and career. Attendance at AHA conferences may help you identify established historians who are interested in your area and are willing to share some knowledge and possible work opportunities.
Awareness can be the first step!
Make sure you keep in touch with job and research opportunities by joining organisations such as the Professional Historians Association (there should be a branch to join in your State/Territory), the Australian Historical Association and various other historical societies which have regularly newsletters. Depending upon your interests, you might also like to consider joining an organisation devoted to a specific strand of history (e.g. mining or education history) or even a multidisciplinary organisation specialising in urban studies, Irish studies or whatever broad theme you prefer. Active involvement in committees or other volunteering work related to a historical society may also be useful for your resume.
Know your limitations
You can only do so much. Do not over-commit yourself, and make sure you take time out for family, friends and other interests.
Keep the Passion Alive
If you choose to pursue history as a career or calling, you will suffer a lot of hard knocks. That job with your name on it may be given to someone else, that brilliant book proposal or fellowship idea might fall flat, or you may feel that your work is not valued. You cannot allow yourself to be discouraged by such setbacks. What matters, in the long run, is being true to yourself and what you want to achieve as an historian. If you have enough drive to work towards publications that mean something to you, then the work becomes its own reward.