History graduate students at West Virginia University have new outlets for professional development beyond the traditional academic career path.
With funding from the American Historical Association, the Department of History’s Career Diversity Initiative offers innovative activities and programs to support graduate students as they seek to secure non-academic jobs.
One of those activities is an internship with the Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The secretary has a team of in-house experts who produce short- and long-term historical analyses of current defense issues, write books, support speechwriting, host talks by foreign policy experts and more.
WVU entered into a contract with the Department of Defense in 2019 to provide three interns to the Historical Office, one per year in 2019-2020, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. The interns serve at the Pentagon for 12 months as graduate research assistants. They receive a tuition waiver and stipend from WVU.
“This internship provides excellent experience as to what government and military historians do. The interns develop skills in researching and organizing information in a coherent way and presenting it both in written and oral forms,” said Associate Professor of History James Siekmeier , coordinator of the internship program. “These skills will be applicable in many fields and work settings.”
This year’s intern is PhD student Scott Thompson, a native of Santa Ana, California. His responsibilities so far have included digitizing photographs and documents and editing historical manuscripts that will eventually be published by the Department of Defense.
“I wasn’t expecting the sheer variety of skills I would develop working here – editing, writing, event planning, digital history,” Thompson said. “Beyond the scholarly research, I am doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work that supports the office. It is incredibly rewarding when you finish a project.”
His favorite project so far was finding an archival home for a collection of documents
about military spouses dating back to the 1940s.
“They were running out of space, so they gave their archive to us,” he said. “We helped find a home for the collection at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. I spent about a week reviewing all of the materials, assessed their historical significance and wrote up my findings. I then had to research various archives to determine an appropriate place for the materials.”
The internship has expanded Thompson’s research interests in U.S. military history.
“I’ve always been interested in the experiences of individual soldiers and their motivations – my dissertation studies acts of mutiny and why oppressed individuals fight for their lives, for themselves and for their families,” he said. “I am most interested in African American military service members and how they used acts of protest and rebellious actions to promote their vision of what their emancipation and civil rights were supposed to be.”
Thompson hopes this internship experience will lead to a career in the federal government following graduation from WVU later this year.
“Scott’s internship is providing him with important information and experience as to what government historians do and the wide variety of government positions he could obtain should he seek employment as a government historian,” said Siekmeier, who worked in the federal government before coming to WVU. “Until someone actually works in an institution, it is often difficult to know what opportunities are available for individuals with excellent researching, analyzing and writing skills.”