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USask alumna has advice for students seeking careers in history

When she was a student at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), Dr. Alice Glaze (PhD) never envisioned a career in the historical research industry.

Now, as research director for the Ottawa office of the Canadian historical services firm Know History, the College of Arts and Science alumna (BA’07, MA’09) has found her passion in an unexpected place.

During her undergraduate and graduate studies in the Department of History, Glaze worked as a research assistant to faculty in the department and the Historical GIS Lab. She accepted her first job in the historical research industry in 2010 and later pursued a PhD in Scottish history at the University of Guelph, where she was awarded the Women's History Scotland Leah Leneman Essay Prize (2014) and the Scottish History Society Rosebery Prize (2014).

Glaze began working for Know History shortly before completing her PhD, and accepted her current role as research director in 2019.

The College of Arts and Science spoke to Glaze by email about her career path and her advice for students considering a career in history.


 

Arts and Science: For anyone not familiar, what does a historical research company do?

Glaze: We do a lot! Historical research companies often offer a broad range of services. We provide historical research and report writing for a variety of audiences, including government bodies, Indigenous organizations, corporations, community groups and individuals. These projects can be fairly small—taking one researcher only a couple of afternoons at the archives plus some writing time—or they can be complicated, multi-pronged undertakings, with a large team of researchers spending months identifying, collecting, reviewing, analyzing and presenting information from archival and published sources.

Some historical research companies may offer specializations in oral history, Traditional Knowledge and land use studies, corporate histories, cultural heritage projects, community histories, genealogy or research specifically for litigation purposes. Historical research firms can also help present historical information in different formats, like writing interpretive texts for museum exhibitions, or providing content for documentaries. The research firm I work for does all of these things! We also specialize in digital history/digital humanities tools and methods, like social network analysis, historical mapping (GIS) and analyzing big data.

What many people don’t realize is just how collaborative historical research often is. When I tell people I do historical research, they picture someone slowly sifting through huge, bound manuscripts in a dusty archive all alone. I’m not saying I haven’t done that (and it was great) but most of my work life is spent in conversation with other researchers, whether organizing research plans, helping each other puzzle through documents and their meanings, or figuring out the clearest way to present the information we’re finding. It’s a supportive and very social work environment.

 

Arts and Science: Was this what you had in mind as a career path when you were studying history? What appealed to you about the historical research industry?

Glaze: It was not at all what I had in mind, but I’m very glad I ended up here! I did my BA and MA back-to-back at the University of Saskatchewan and after that I needed a break to clear my head; I decided to move to Victoria and worked in a used bookstore there for a while as I sorted out my next steps.

I applied for some jobs “out east” (specifically in Ontario, although I guess most of Canada is “out east” from Victoria) and got my first historical research job at a firm in Ottawa called Contentworks, where I worked for a few years. That was a fantastic experience—I worked on some incredible projects and got to work with amazing people. After a while, though, I started to think back on my MA thesis topic (17th-century Scottish history) and realized there was more in that area of history that I wanted to explore, and I wanted to really sink my teeth into a big solo project, so I left Ottawa and did my PhD at the University of Guelph. After my PhD, I returned to Ottawa to work for Know History, another historical research firm, where I’m now the research director for the Ottawa office. (We also have an office in Calgary). Looking back, it might seem like I was always going to stay in history, but after my MA and during my PhD I thought about pursuing various career paths, from law to NGO work to art conservation to professional conflict resolution and negotiation, and if I hadn’t gotten the jobs I did I might be in one of those fields. It feels like the luck of the draw (but a very lucky draw!) that I am where I am today.

What I appreciate the most about a career in historical research is how it allows me to use the skills I developed in my BA, MA and PhD. We talk a lot in the humanities about the importance of transferrable skills, and those are important, but I really love that I didn’t end up having to transfer very far, and that I didn’t have to say goodbye to dusty archives! (I shouldn’t keep calling them dusty—archives are almost always incredibly clean). I also am very grateful that I’m able to work in a field that I’m passionate about. History is so important, and I feel privileged to be able to spend my time researching and presenting history with and for other people.

 

Arts and Science: Are there any favourite research projects you have worked on during your time in the industry?

Glaze: There are so many! I can’t talk about all of them in detail (historical researchers need to sign confidentiality agreements more frequently than you might think), but during my time with Contentworks I was able to help with a history of the Alaska Highway, and I actually got to drive a section of the highway as part of the research collection phase, which was phenomenal. At my work with Know History, I have been able to work on a variety of projects exploring Métis history, which has opened up a whole new world for me and which has helped me grow a lot as a researcher. I love learning more with each project about this complicated, fascinating part of Canadian history. I’m grateful that my career path has allowed me to delve into that history more!

 

Arts and Science: What skills gained from your undergraduate and graduate studies at USask have you found most relevant to your career?

Glaze: I would say that the skills I appreciate the most, and the ones I use the most frequently, revolve around communication. It’s so useful to know how to write and present information for different audiences, whether it’s for your English prof versus your history prof, or for a legal team versus a community group. Critical thinking, and asking questions about your sources of information—those are incredibly important skills to develop for any career, but definitely including historical research.

I would say that my education in the humanities also helped me learn how to deal with the absence of information, of certainty, of knowledge—what do we do when we just don’t know something, and actually can’t know it? How do we structure an argument in order to include doubt and nuance? These are things that professors across the humanities hammer home in the comments of every undergrad paper, and I may not have always appreciated them then but I sure do now!

Beyond that, my undergrad and graduate studies helped me develop some of the technical skills that I use in my work, like historical GIS, which I learned at the (USask) Historical GIS Lab as a research assistant, and which has come in handy often—not only in being able to present historical information through maps, but as a broader reminder that there are many different ways to present historical data.

 

Arts and Science: Do you have any advice for students pursuing a degree in history?

Glaze: First of all, I want to acknowledge that it can be really tough to visualize your path from history degree to career. I would advise history students to keep an open mind about what jobs might be a good fit—think outside the box in terms of normal career options. Many people aren’t aware that historical research companies even exist; think of what else might be out there for you! (But also remember that historical research firms exist!)

Recognize that some options might involve more specific training or formal education. If you want to go that route, getting a graduate degree can provide you with a lot of useful skills, inside and outside academia: it can help you gain experience in project management, and hone your critical thinking, writing and oral communication skills, all of which are valuable in the job market. Finally, if you’re interested in history, try to stay involved in it somehow, even if your first (or second or third) job out of university isn’t a typical history job. Join a community group, volunteer at a heritage centre, attend local history events—you never know what opportunities could come your way, and even if they don’t blossom into a career, you are helping to keep history alive and are doing something you love, and that’s so important no matter what path your career takes.

Originally published on https://artsandscience.usask.ca/news/.

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