Alumni Spotlight: Jonah Bea-Taylor, Historian at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Name: Jonah Bea-Taylor
Graduation year: 2018
Degree(s): Ph.D in the History and Sociology of technology and Science (HSTS).
Company and location: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Headquarters, Office of History, Alexandria, VA.
1. What do you do?
I’m a historian for the federal government, and my job involves collecting, preserving, and interpreting the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The Corps of Engineers was part of the Continental Army at its founding in 1775, and they have been instrumental in exploring and building the nation ever since.
Today the USACE office of history collects personal papers from retired civilian and military personnel, conducts oral history interviews, produces books on aspects of the Corps’ history, and prepares displays of artifacts from our historical collections.
2. What’s the coolest part of your job?
It’s exciting to get access to documents that the public may not see for decades. My hope is that my work as a government historian preserving these materials will in some way contribute to broader histories undertaken in an independent, academic setting.
3. Why are you passionate about this work?
The more time I’ve spent with the Corps of Engineers, the more impressed I am with the willingness of its civilian employees to volunteer to respond to all kinds of disasters, even when conditions are really challenging.
I’ve felt a connection to those who volunteer through conducting oral history interviews. The interviewees’ passion for helping fellow citizens at their moment of greatest need spills over into my own work as a historian.
4. How did you find your job/what’s the best resource for jobs or networking you’ve found?
I was lucky enough to get a Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF). You are eligible for a PMF within one year of getting an advanced degree, so you can apply the year before you graduate or the year after.
It’s a backdoor into public service for the federal government, and I would strongly encourage history and sociology students to apply. The next application will open in Fall 2022 — please see https://www.pmf.gov.
5. What’s the most surprising detour you’ve taken from your career path? What did you learn from it?
I actually felt like the PMF was the detour I took from looking for a postdoc or other teaching position.
At first, I really missed teaching, and I wished that I could do research more independently, but there are a lot of benefits to working as a government historian. I learned valuable public history skills, such as oral history, archival management, curatorial skills, and even contract management, that I don’t think I would have developed in academia.
6. What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced since graduating, and how did you overcome it?
Probably the most frustrating aspect of working within a large bureaucracy is the general caution around publication or public speaking. Very few government historians have a chance to research, write, and publish independently.
Generally speaking, I am not in charge of the fate of my own work; it has to be reviewed extensively, and some of it may never be published. In many ways this is the opposite of academia, where one’s contribution is all about peer reviewed publication.
I’ve learned to accept that I am someone who can contribute to the work of future historians by preserving the data for their research, even if I am not able to publish as much as I wanted to during my own career.
7. What’s your #1 tip for students and alumni interested in your field?
USAJobs is almost never a good way to get a job in the federal government. It’s the front door, and it’s very hard to get through it.
Look for backdoor programs such as the PMF, traineeships, and other programs for recent graduates. Every agency participates in them differently, but a temporary position can more easily become permanent through these programs.
8. Can HSOC students and alum contact you if they’re interested in following in your footsteps? What are some things you can speak to and the best way for them to contact you?
Yes. I am happy to talk about the PMF program and the things I like most and least about being a historian in the federal government. My personal email is the best way to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for sharing your experience, Jonah!