History Futures: A Conversation with Allison Miller

History Futures in a new series based on interviews conducted with History PhDs who are pursuing interesting and fulfilling careers outside of the tenure track. The idea for this series came out of a series of conversations with current doctoral students in the Department of History at my alma mater, Rutgers New Brunswick. It is my hope that these conversations will not only help current students imagine their own possible futures, but will also contribute to the broader conversation that historians in particular need to have about the future of our profession.

The first guest in our History /Futures series is Dr. Allison Miller. Allison is the Associate Editor of JSTOR Daily. She has a PhD in US gender history from Rutgers and has written for the Nation. The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. She is also the former editor of Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association.

Justin Lorts: Can you to share a bit about your career journey and how you found your way to your current role at JSTOR Daily?

Allison Miller: It’s been a long and winding road, I suppose. And first, I want to say that my path is not everyone’s path and just nothing I say should be taken as prescriptive at all because I made some decisions along the way that not everyone has the opportunity to make. I graduated from college in 1995 and did a couple of aimless years in temping for paralegal jobs.

In about 1997I got a job through personal networking at magazine called Lingua Franca. I was fired after about nine months because I held my boss in pretty open contempt, which you should not do on your first job or any job really. So, that that is my prescriptive advice. Do not do that.

So then I spent some time in copy editing for magazines in New York City. And the way I got those jobs was again through connections that I built up with my job at Lingua Franca. And this will date me, but the internet was still new and search engines barely existed. And so there was a website that is now known as MediaBistro that I found a couple postings on and applied cold. For copy editing jobs you take a test, and if you are good enough you get hired freelance. So I did that for several years. I got hired to a staff position a few years later at Cosmo Girl, which no longer exists, but it was a great job.

And then I decided I had had it with magazine publishing and journalism. I was bored I felt the whole of the writing was very arch. It didn’t align with my goals anymore and I really wanted to be able to write a book, but I did not have the credentials for that. So I decided, well, why not graduate school and by this point, it was about 2004 so I ended up a Rutgers, which was the only program that I got into for a PhD program. So I was delighted to accept. I started in 2005.

I graduated in 2012 and then did an adjunct year at Rutgers, which held me over until I got a two-year postdoc at the University of Southern California. I was kind of striking out on the job market, you know, coming close a couple times, but I finally got an academic job offer my second year at USC and at the same time I had applied for the job as the editor of Perspectives, at the AHA.

So long story short, the academic offer proved to be completely toxic and my mentors were all saying “run!” And I was lucky, very fortunate to have the AHA offer at the same time. So with that, I moved to Washington DC from Los Angeles. I was able to leverage both my academic experience and my experience in editing to get the AHA job. And I think that made me very attractive to them. And luckily I had that experience in print publishing as well, because Perspectives had a print edition.

But always thought I wanted to move back to New York but it’s not that easy. As I found out my skills were suited to the industry in 2005. Since then, everything had become digital. My print skills and knowledge base was almost inconsequential and I didn’t have digital skills to put on my resume, because I wasn’t able to acquire them at the AHA.

I really wanted the job I have now. I knew someone who had worked at JSTOR Daily, so I got in touch with them when I saw a position there, which turned out to be completely the wrong position for me (it didn’t align with my skills or opportunity).  But now I had a connection there because I had gotten an interview. Later, I saw the editor who had given me the in an interview at a conference. I was kind of like, “Let’s have coffee,” really working my connection however tenuous. After, when this job did come open, she emailed me and asked “Are you still interested?” And I said, “Absolutely!”

And that was my ticket back to New York. I’ve been in this job almost a year now. I haven’t been out of the house. Very much so. I can’t really tell you how New York has changed in the meantime, but I’m really happy to have a job and to be able to survive today when so many people are not as fortunate

JL: So before you got your current job, it sounds like you at least had a sense of what an associate editor might do…

AM: Well, I mean, I don’t really know that that’s true. Because JSTOR Daily is an online publication, as I said, I had no online skills. I had access to lynda.com [ed: now LinkedIn Learning] so I took some courses in WordPress editing. I got a friend of mine who had a WordPress site to add a microsite where I could just play around with it and I was sure I would have to take a test, but I didn’t have to, thank goodness. So it was a lot different. And I am technically not in journalism. I’m in marketing and I never would have thought I’d be in marketing. Because who wants to promote capitalism, even though it’s nonprofit.

JL: For those hear who might be intrigued by your work as Associate Editor, walk us through a “typical” day.

AM: Well, I get in and I get I start working at about eight o’clock in the morning, (I’m kind of a morning person).I work 8:00 to 5:00 most days with an hour of lunch and I’m working pretty much the whole time that I am on. One of my part of my job is to I manage our social media account, and typically the night before I’ve scheduled Tweets and Facebook posts using Sprout Social. So I get in and log on to see what’s trending on Twitter. I might notify my boss, in case we have to suspend our feed. For example, when the Black Lives Matter protest started happening in late May that required a significant pivot and sensitivity to what was going on and what our readers wanted.

Then I will get started editing. I typically edit three to four short form pieces a day, and that they can be in various stages, from rough copy to just needing one proof before they’re ready to go to the next step.

And I’ll typically have a meeting or two during the day. I have some independent projects that I work on which are kind of cool. A lot of emailing working with writers and getting story ideas. I’m surfing JSTOR, which is always fun.

JL: Last night I was on JSTOR Daily and on the front page there were articles on Johnny Cash, collecting oral histories during COVID, Tab Cola and conspiracy theories, a short article on pigeons, and something on dry ice. It sounds like you have your hand kind of editing just a broad range of cool short articles, which is very different than what you’re trained to do as a historian. So what’s it like to work with such a diverse range of topics? And how did your doctoral training help you with that? And how does it actually not help you with that?

AM: I edit short form content, so short form content on our site is typically built around one journal article two at most. And what the writers need to do is to distill an important or interesting or cool part of the article into a readable 500 word post that is kind of snappy. Like if you are at a campus café and you’re talking to your friend about what makes your latest chapter really cool and the fun things you found in the archive.

Just as you can’t use everything you find in the archive, there’s no way to get into the meat of every single journal article that post is built around. So one skill you don’t necessarily develop in graduate school is this kind of journalistic instinct of finding the cool part of an article, the thing that you want to talk about rather than the distillation of the entire argument, the evidence and the major points.

I would say also graduate school does not necessarily teach you about narrative very well, especially in history, which is weird because our discipline is very rich in narrative possibilities, and I think being stuck in analytic frameworks can possibly hinder storytelling.

JL: Are there areas where your training has been helpful?

AM: First of all, the content knowledge is extremely helpful. Other than that, it’s knowing when you don’t know, something that is really helpful and being able to figure out what resources you need in order to answer that question quickly.

I think graduate school definitely prepares you to see context and to see where things are necessarily informed by a larger story. Graduate school does not necessarily prepare you for dealing with how to clarify things. Historians always say “complicate our understanding,” but in a 500 word blog post, you don’t have room for very complicated analysis.

Teaching also really helps in certain respects because I think that people want to learn things, but you have to tell them how it’s going to help them or make them smarter or just give them a sense of understanding that they didn’t even know they needed.

JL: Earlier you described your current role as your dream job. What’s the most fulfilling part about being an Associate Editor at JSTOR Daily?

AM: Besides the free access to JSTOR?

I really like working with my team.

I like the fact that there’s respect for higher education, that there’s respect for scholarship, and that there’s respect for peer review in my job. This is going to sound weird, but I like not working in higher education anymore and really appreciate the sense of corporate responsibility that I feel like is not really valued as much in universities, that-  let’s face it – kind of see themselves as standing apart from like capitalism or stuff like that.

I really love being an editor. People want me to write more – and I do love writing – but I really like just working with words and storytelling and doing fun things.

JL: I would definitely echo the team part. After spending close to a decade in archives, or laboring over my laptop, just being able to be a part of a team with a shared goal was incredibly refreshing.  So different from graduate school.

One of the participants is asking a question about what is was like navigating the non-academic job market with a PhD on your CV and next to your name. They’ve heard that employers assume you are overqualified or hyper-specialized and won’t help you. What was your experience with this?

AM: First of all, I don’t want to pick on the question, but it’s not a CV. It’s a resume and the non-academic job market usually requires a resume. It’s important to know the differences.

I don’t really know. Because honestly, if you send out a resume and you don’t hear back, you just assume that it’s a “no.” I have found that the academic job market is way more transparent than anything I’ve experienced looking for jobs in journalism. This idea that everyone deserves a nicely written “thanks, but no thanks” note when you apply for a job is just unheard of outside of the academy. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve applied to and just not heard anything.

At JSTOR, I have to say that the PhD commands respect. If you walk into a room and you say, “I have a PhD” and people laugh, then walk out of that room.

JL: Another student is asking how you can gain skills and connections while in graduate school, if you didn’t already start off with a background in the field.

AM: People will always tell you, you need an internship. You need this, you need that. But until there is structural reform in departments and there are things like internships for credit, I don’t think that graduate students will be able to get them efficiently, because there are there are so many demands on your time.

I’ll talk about skills in journalism. As someone who hires freelancers, I always ask to see writing samples, and by that I don’t mean a dissertation chapter I mean short, kind of pithy blog posts that are written in the third person and not an opinion article, but are based on a certain amount of expertise. Journalism has its own conventions and its own skill set and it is definitely hard to develop those skills.

I would say to check out whether your institution has a subscription through the library to LinkedIn Learning or something very basic where you can take courses for free, learn to code, get yourself a website. There’s free WordPress options that you can use to develop the skills to build a website from the back end just get used to editing online.

Look for courses or websites on how to write for the web, which is really important, because you want to write certain kinds of titles, you want to write certain kinds of first paragraphs. You want certain number of links. I mean just you’ll find that out as you go along.

As far as like getting skills specific to other careers, I would say go to the AHA’s website and look for their career contacts program. They will set you up with an informational interview with someone in an industry that you can specify, and they will talk to you about skills that you can develop on your own time to put on a resume.

Because I know this is extremely nerve racking, I want to like emphasize that I totally validate that you might think you have no skills. But I do think that you can develop certain ways of writing, certain ways of doing research, that are related to what you do in graduate school. The AHA will tell you, critical thinking is the most important thing ever. And that’s true, but also you can get involved in things like the Sussman conference [a conference organized by history graduate students at Rutgers] and maybe figure out the budget so that you learn spreadsheets. You can also look for volunteering opportunities at things like local museums and historical societies. They might say, no, or they might have a not very well-developed volunteer program, but people need help and you might be the person to do it or to have those skills that they need.

JL: There’s another question about dysfunctional beliefs, whether there was a concern about disappointing your advisor or members of your committee and how you approached the conversation with your advisor and academic mentors when you decided to pursue a career outside of the academy. 

AM: I was very close with my dissertation advisor and was sure that something would eventually come into my lap. I spent four years on the academic job market.  So at the AHA, my last year on the job market, I had pigeon holed my advisor at a party and I said, “You know, this is going to be my last year on the academic job market.” And he said, “I don’t know how I feel about that.” So that kind of said it all to me and it kind of set me free in a way.

I also knew that the other people on my committee were supportive of me no matter what I did. And I told them and my mentors at USC, I think I’m not doing this anymore.  But the conversation with my advisor kind of came to me. I didn’t initiate it or the decision.

I thought that it wasn’t in my power to get these opportunities, that it belonged to my mentors and advisors. And it’s true that I did have a lot of opportunities. I had a lot of doors opened to me by people at Rutgers. But ultimately, it’s my life. I have the agency over my career.

I’m sure that there are better answers to your question about initiating something but my experience was very kind of dramatic to me like a dramatic kind of realization

JL:  I was very fortunate, and my dissertation advisor actually got me my first job in academic administration. So she was very supportive. But I realize that not all advisors are that supportive and students can have very different relationships with their advisors. What I usually advise you to do is to find allies in the department. Maybe it’s the grad director of the search chair. Maybe it’s a new junior faculty member. Just someone who you can go to and talk through these ideas with. 

Throughout your doctoral training you get so used to viewing your career, viewing your success, viewing everything through the lens of your advisor. You always want their feedback, you want their praise, and everything comes down to that relationship. But at some point everyone has to make that break and even if you stay in academia you need to separate your own sense of professional success and identity from that person.

One of the things Allison said is true. It’s your life, it’s your career, and ultimately you have the agency to make those decisions. But if you’re struggling with that, find people in the department who are going to be allies for you that are going to support you, that are going to be there to listen to your ideas, so that if you do reach that point with your advisor, where you have to make that break, you’re not on your own. You have a whole support group that can that can support you through the process. Because finding a non-academic or a non-faculty job can be just as frustrating and heartbreaking as the academic job market. So having that support will be crucial, both in the immediate term and in the long run.

AM: I love this next question about narrative and how to think about the skills we develop as a historian and leverage those to just make them more palatable to the general public.

I think that’s a great question and it’s a skill that sometimes graduate school inherently discourages. I base everything when I tell a story on interesting details. I took a journalism class in high school, and we went to a conference once and there the the keynote speaker gave a speech about using quotations and how do you know you have a good quote.

And he told a story about a reporting going to interview someone about a problem of bugs in the school and the reporter comes back and the quote is, “I smashed a bug in my locker.” And the editor says, “Well, go back and find out like more about this thing.” And so the reporter comes back and says, “Alright, here’s a new quote: “I saw a bug and you know it was gross and it was crawling really fast and I didn’t think I could get it and then I smashed at once and I smashed it again and I grounded into the floor now it’s a piece of pulp and I’m really happy.”

 So that kind of made an impression on my high school mind and I’ve always looked to start with a quote. This is another unconventional thing because people don’t usually start storytelling. When you’re in the archive and when you are in immersed in something, I think there’s a tendency to want to find the information and not to look for the color look for what makes something beautiful or interesting or leap off the page. And I kind of build my writing around quotes. A lot of times I want every word to do something.

If you got to find screenwriting tutorials on something, they’ll tell you about how to plot a 10 episode series for Netflix, but I always start with details and I build out from there. Remember, just like the idea that you only use 10% of your research in your dissertation is true, you only use 10% of the interesting stuff in your story. But find that juicy detail, like the bug being smashed and ground into bits and the floor of the locker and work from there.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity

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