History Detective Careers

By The History Detectives Team
11 January 2010
Category: Viewer Mailbag

Our hosts have enviable jobs. An 8th grade fan recently took notice of this and wrote:

I am VERY interested in finding a career in history. I would love to go around the country solving the unsolved mysteries. I don’t really want to work as a CSI, but I would love to use forensic analysis and equipment like they use on the show CSI. What is the ‘name’ for this career? What classes do I need to look into? What type of job is it in general? And where are there the most opportunities for jobs? Thanks for the help! -Anonymous

The only people we know who have the history ‘dream job’ you describe are Elyse, Gwen, Wes, Tukufu and Eduardo. The show allows them to employ the full spectrum of historical research and detective tools for the mysteries that they investigate. Any one of these tools represents an entire career unto itself.

Over the course of seven seasons we’ve encountered hundreds of historians, scientists and specialists who do amazing historical and investigative work. Here we’ve listed five people whose ‘real world’ history detective jobs we find especially interesting.

Carol Griggs 

Job title: Research Specialist and Lab Manager, Cornell Dendrochronology Lab 

The work: Gathers historical data by establishing tree-ring chronologies based on timbers found in buildings, museums and underwater. Compares the sequence of tree-ring measurements with established tree-ring databases. This involves looking into all possible sources for wood at the location of the structure at the time it was built. 

Educational requirements: Master of Arts degree is sufficient for archaeological-related tree ring dating. A Master of Science degree is required for those who wish to pursue geology and paleoecology. Most people start their career in tree-ring dating by assisting at a tree-ring lab after completing their bachelor’s degree. 

How to find the job: Dendrochronology labs exist around the world at universities and colleges. There are also a few independent labs for dating structures, most are listed here.

John Fox, Ph.D. 

Job title: FBI Historian 

The work: Conducts historical research on mysteries ranging from the location of the handgun that John Dillinger carried the night he was killed, to how intelligence has played a central role in the work of the FBI for 100 years. 

Educational requirements: A Ph.D. in American History. 

How to find the job: All government history positions are listed at usajobs.gov.

Margaret Holben Ellis 

Job title: Morgan Library Eugene Thaw Professor of Paper Conservation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and Director, Thaw Conservation Center, The Morgan Library & Museum 

The work: Examines works of art on paper to determine the materials, method of manufacture, and properties of and the causes and extent of their deterioration or alteration. Employs scientific analysis and research to identify historic and artistic methods and materials of fabrication, and to evaluate the efficacy and appropriateness of materials and procedures of conservation 

Educational requirements: A master’s degree in conservation or historic preservation or a master’s degree in a related discipline along with a certificate or diploma in conservation. Graduate programs strongly encourage students to obtain some conservation experience, which can be gained through an undergraduate introductory internship or fieldwork. 

How to find the job: Graduates of art conservation training programs are given career guidance as they progress through their course of studies. Conservation positions in museums are usually posted in on-line conservation groups and conservation publications. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC) is a good resource on conservation careers.

Michelle Ritorto Cavaliere, Ph.D. 

Job title: Senior Research Scientist at MVA Scientific Consultants. 

The work: Detects and identifies contaminants and components in polymers, coatings, and pharmaceuticals to environmental forensics including detection and identification of pollutants or toxic substances in both indoor and outdoor environments. Analysis also includes identification of pigments, corrosion, and other components from paintings, statues, or other historical artifacts. 

Educational requirements: Master of Science degree or higher. 

How to find the job: Generally, networking within the field is the best way to find a position like Michelle’s. Identify organizations that would hire a chemist with a microscopy background, and then utilize networking contacts to personally meet or speak to facility directors and pursue open positions.

Eric Blind 

Job Title: Principal Archaeologist at the Presidio of San Francisco. 

The work: Excavates historical sites, and recovers artifacts ranging from a three-foot long walrus tusk buried in the ground, to Italian POW letters stashed in the walls (both recent examples). Conducts research to determine origin, context, and historical significance of artifacts. 

Educational requirements: Masters degree in archaeology or anthropology. A doctorate degree is beneficial and necessary to get a University teaching position. However, many people get experience working on archaeological field projects (under the direction of a professional archaeologist) without a graduate degree. 

How to find the job: There are four places: universities, museums, parks, and what’s called Cultural Resource Management, composed of archaeologists who work with development and infrastructure projects (buildings, roads) where there are archaeological sites in the area that need to be identified and avoided, where possible, or excavated in advance if impacts are inevitable.

Does your job involve history detective work? Tell us about it.


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