Editor’s note: This is the twelfth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Jackie M.M. Gonzales, a Historian with Historical Research Associates, Inc. in Albany, New York.
Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position/career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?
I was never sure that I wanted to be a professor, but after I started graduate school and saw many of my colleagues stuck in adjuncting traps, I knew for certain that it wasn’t for me. In summers during grad school, I worked as a seasonal interpreter at several U.S. National Park Service (NPS) sites, including Cape Cod National Seashore, a coastal site that was a case study in my dissertation and where I could spend time at the archives on weekends. During the school year, I worked at environmental policy non-profit organizations in Albany, New York, where I lived, and where there’s a lot of policy to make, since it’s the capital of New York State.
Despite this non-academic work experience, I struggled to find a long-term job after graduate school. I applied to hundreds of jobs—government, non-profit, corporate, and even some teaching positions—but without any luck. I ended up taking an AmeriCorps VISTA position, a volunteer position where you are paid with a minimal stipend—basically domestic PEACE Corps. Then I returned to Albany to help one of the environmental organizations at which I had previously interned to launch a grants program. The role was mostly administrative and there weren’t many options for growth, so I continued to apply for other jobs and ended up with a seasonal gig at Manzanar National Historic Site in California. I drove out there by myself, leaving my husband back in Albany. That move was scary, since I didn’t know what would happen after the season ended. I continued to apply for long-term jobs, including one with Historical Research Associates (HRA), a historical research consulting firm.
Backstory: A professor on my dissertation committee had mentioned HRA in grad school, and that they might be a good fit with my environmental history background and policy experience. I had applied for an opening they had a year before but didn’t get interviewed. The spring after the first application, I signed up for the ASEH mentoring program. They matched me up with someone from HRA, and since ASEH was in Seattle that year, this mentor introduced me to historians in the Seattle office. When they had another opening that summer, one of the Seattle historians gave me a heads-up. I applied, and this time, I got the job.
After a few years working in Seattle, my husband got a new job and needed to be back in Albany for work. HRA has a lot of work in the northeast, so our management decided to open up an Albany office. I now work at our only office in the northeastern U.S., and I can access archives in the northeast easily and network with clients in the area.
To make a long story short, there were a lot of setbacks. Things are good and stable now, but there were many difficult years leading to that.
What do you like most about your current position/career? What things would you change about it, if you could?
I love the variety of topics we work on. Our history division specializes in litigation support for environmental, water rights, and tribal litigation; administrative and corporate histories; interpretative planning and exhibit developments; land use histories; and oral history. You can check out some of our past projects here. At any given point, we have dozens of ongoing projects across the division, and we are often juggling tasks based on who has time and capacity. In a given month, I might be writing chapters for an NPS administrative history (here’s one we just finished on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail), researching in archives for environmental litigation cases, and curating an interpretive exhibit (here’s the online version of the one pictured below). It’s also team-based research and writing, which was difficult at first, after having researched and written almost solely on an individual basis during grad school. But teamwork ends up being rewarding, professionally and interpersonally. It’s nice to not always have the weight of a whole project on only your shoulders, and I learn so much from my colleagues’ processes.
One thing that can be difficult is working in a billable environment, where we track what projects we spent our hours on and have to meet annual billability goals. That means that even slow periods can be stressful, because if you don’t have enough work, you’re tanking your billability percentage. On the flipside, if I work more than eight hours one day, I can take off early the next, so that flexibility is nice.
Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position/career?
Interdisciplinary training: in grad school, I studied with historians, planners, and ecologists to complete my dissertation on a U.S. Department of the Interior coastal conservation initiative in the 1950s and 1960s. (For more on the background to that initiative, see my 2017 article in Forest History). That ability to move between disciplines has been helpful when I need to understand the science behind a case for context, or need to write about why land managers changed their strategy based on science, or things like that. Also, the ability to read quickly and get the gist of a large amount of data in a short time is essential in my job—that’s more general to graduate training in history, but central to my work and worth mentioning.
What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?
At HRA, we keep detailed and standardized research logs in the archives. In grad school, I had a basic system for keeping track of my research, but it wasn’t nearly as organized as our system at HRA, where a colleague—not you—will probably be the one who goes through the images you took in the archive. Your notes and images need to be meticulously organized and thorough to make sense to them. Examples of this include a standardized format for a research log; standardized naming conventions for files, starting with dates, to make it easy to go back and search for the document you need; and a “Previous Versions” subfolder in every folder so that there isn’t confusion as to which version is the most recent, which is especially useful if several people are taking turns working in the same document.
I wish that someone had sat down and shown me examples of this level of organization for logging research and organizing image files and other documents while I was still in graduate school. It makes post-archival processing and writing much faster.
What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?
I think it’s important for history graduate students to learn how to market themselves, both to find work for themselves, and for the profession as a whole—to ensure historians are valued for our skills and paid living wages. What valuable skills do we have, and how and why might professionals in other fields need those skills?
We process large amounts of complex, difficult-to-decipher data quickly and make sense of it. We understand complexities around events and why it’s important to put things into context. We are storytellers, an important skill for communications and public relations in any arena. We are detectives, able to find information that had previously been lost to collective memory, and then to connect disparate pieces to reform the puzzle. Environmental historians have skills that employees in many fields need! We just need to figure out how to communicate our value.
Looking back, I think I learned how to do this by working for several organizations that ostensibly had nothing to do with history or academia, and then demonstrating to those employers how my skills that I learned while training as an historian enabled me to succeed in their arenas.
Latest posts by Jackie M. M. Gonzales (see all)
- Rhizomes: An Interview with Jackie M.M. Gonzales - December 5, 2019
- Hot Dog Stands and “Overcivilized Beaches” - October 22, 2014
- Aftermath of the storm: How Sandy resurrected a fifty year-old erosion control plan (again) - November 14, 2013