History PhDs Outside the Academy: A Conversation with Cody Ferguson


Cody Ferguson’s experience as an activist informed his dissertation, which became his first book, This is Our Land: Grassroots Environmentalism in the Late Twentieth Century (Rutgers University Press, 2015). He notes that the book has been used by activists as well as those teaching the history of the environmental movement.

Erstwhile contributing editor Anna Kramer talked with Cody Ferguson about having a history PhD and working outside of the academy. Ferguson received his master’s degree in history from Northern Arizona University in 2007 and his PhD in history from Arizona State University in 2012. His first book, This is Our Land: Grassroots Environmentalism in the Late Twentieth Century, came out with Rutgers University Press in 2015. At the time of their conversation, Ferguson was the Legislative Director for the Northern Plains Resource Council. He has since left that role and taken a new position as Community Planning Program Manager with the Montana Department of Commerce. What follows are excerpts from a lengthy phone conversation, edited for clarity.

Anna Kramer (AK): Would you mind giving us an overview of your grad school experiences and talking about what your career plans were at that time?

Cody Ferguson (CF): For my undergrad, I went to a small school in Helena called Carroll College, and I was a history and political science major. I always felt like I wanted to teach, I wanted to be a history professor, but I also had this interest in environmental issues, so I got involved as an activist while I was in college. I also worked in conservation: I did trail-building and some hands-on conservation work during the summers.

My advisor at Carroll told me to go out and get some real-world experience, and then come back in a couple of years and he would help me figure out how to get into grad school, if that’s what I wanted to do. So I was really dissuaded from jumping right into grad school. I think it was important to take time off and develop some real-world skills, and build out the network of people doing the kind of work that I was interested in. That was vital in terms of creating options should I not end up working in academia, and it also really informed my research.

When I went to graduate school, I went to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and I did my work there on the 1984 Arizona Wilderness Act. This was one of the two wilderness acts that came out of the eighties, and I focused on regionally-specific ideas about wilderness and how those were written into law. It drew on both sides of my intellectual self at the time, coming from a practical background as an activist, but also being informed by the great new wilderness debate.

That brought me into contact with Paul Hirt at Arizona State; he had been an activist on the Arizona Wilderness Act and his work, A Conspiracy of Optimism [1994], had really influenced me in choosing environmental history. It made a lot of sense for me to go to Arizona State for my PhD, and it was a time in which Arizona State was, and I think still is, a pretty cutting-edge place in terms of promoting interdisciplinary work. I did a traditional history PhD with a bunch of other stuff thrown in, cultural geography, creative writing, but also a lot of borderlands because I was in Arizona. I thought I was going to do a borderlands topic that would be something similar to what I had done with my wilderness master’s thesis, looking at how different groups of people had constructed the Arizona-Sonora border over time and what that had to do with management issues, etc.

But over a couple of years of talking this project through with Paul Hirt, it just became pretty clear that my heart was still in studying activism, plus I had this great experience working for the Northern Plains Resource Council that could be at least part of a dissertation. So I switched dissertation topics after about a year and a half of heading down a different track and decided that the story of groups like Northern Plains needed to be told. There is a big gap in historiography of the environmental movement, in terms of the role of self-interest and how people understand self-interest. One of the key findings that I was working with was that people don’t think globally and act locally; they think locally and act locally, and if we’re lucky, some of them also think globally. Within the historiography, there’s this split between environmental justice and what we think of as mainstream environmentalism, but Paul Hirt and I were in agreement that oftentimes that divide was pretty academic and you really have to look at tactics and structure. There was a lot of work to be done to expose similarities between grassroots, citizen-based environmentalism and environmental justice.

My dissertation was eventually published by Rutgers, and in it I looked at three grassroots environmental groups from 1970 to 2000: the Northern Plains Resource Council in Montana, a group in southern Arizona called the Southwest Environmental Service, and Save Our Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee. I looked at each one in a different decade to understand what they have in common, how they formed, what participation looked like, how their members changed over time, their goals, and how the changing regulatory structure, the changing economy, and the changing political landscape influenced how they changed. I’m fairly happy with it, and it’s had a certain amount of utility both for activists and for folks teaching the history of the environmental movement.

AK: What did you do after you finished your PhD?

CF: I was really fortunate to land a two-year post-doc at ASU that let me gain a bunch of experience in public history. They also encouraged me to find new collaborative projects with the different schools at ASU or different institutions within the community. I had to teach one class a year, although I ended up teaching more, and there was an expectation that I would turn my dissertation into a book, but everything else was kind of up to me. I had the opportunity to write some grants, and I ended up getting, along with Paul Hirt, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for a public humanities project looking at the intersection of nature, history and culture on the Arizona-Sonora border. It was a great experience, but unfortunately after we got the planning grant, we didn’t get the implementation grant in the first round, which is really common, but neither of us had the time nor the bandwidth to try to resubmit. But a lot of capacity was built for the program: all these cultural institutions along the border, folks involved in community economic development, public health, all talking to each other for the first time.

Then I worked with our public history director at the time, Mark Tebeau, to learn a bunch of digital history skills, which I went on to apply to a variety of projects, both in my own teaching but also as a contractor, in one case for setting up a whole digital history program for a museum in Washington.

After the post-doc, all of my success in getting academic jobs came from the fact that I had experience in public and digital history. The first job that I landed was at a little Catholic college in San Antonio, and they hired me so I could do digital history. It turned out to be great, but I didn’t do a lot of environmental history; any environmental history I did was blended with digital history projects that I incorporated into American history survey classes or more localized environmental justice projects in the west side of San Antonio. After a couple of years there, I was lucky enough to get hired at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. They hired me mostly because of my experience in public and digital history, but the fact that I was an environmental historian and could teach both environmental history and in the environmental studies program was the other attractive thing.

Fort Lewis was great, but after two years this opportunity came up to come back to Montana and work for the Northern Plains Resource Council as the legislative director. We had a lot of friends in Helena, Montana and my wife could also find a job there. Moving back to Helena opened a lot of doors for our family, but it meant leaving academia.

AK: What has it been like to work outside of academia with a history PhD?

CF: What I’ve found is that—this is going to sound really depressing—but you know, academia is really self-referential, and so we all know what a PhD means and we all know what having a book published means. And the minute you get outside of that, nobody cares. It can be infuriating when you’re in a committee or you’re lobbying and you are an expert on what you’re talking about but you’re treated like you’re not. People ask me all the time, “why don’t you introduce yourself as Dr. Ferguson to legislative committees?” Or “why isn’t it on your business cards?” It’s strange, it’s not a comfortable thing. It’s not something that, at least in Montana politics in the current climate, is really valued, and that was a big wake up call for me. I had these aspirations, like, “I’m going to move back and I will be an expert. People will listen to me and all these people in the environmental community will want to know what I have to say. I’ll write some articles for popular consumption that blend the two worlds…” But the reality that I’ve experienced is just very different. In my case, having a PhD did result in me making a lot more money than I used to make as an activist. But even among my colleagues, you know, they appreciate what I might have to contribute as a historian, but it’s few and far between when you actually get an opportunity to engage that part of your background and experience. It is actually fairly hard to make that connection.

I was the chair of the American Society for Environmental History’s Advisory Board for Professional Development and Public Engagement for a couple of years. We talked a lot about alt-ac jobs and how we could prepare graduate students for jobs outside of the academy. There’s always the option of working for the government. I think that’s an option for folks coming right out of grad school, but what I’ve found is that my experience gained from working on public-facing projects, which required collaboration and supervising teams of people, combined with being an expert in elements of policy as a result of my academic and activist experience made me much more competitive for government positions than I anticipated. I’ve seen positions that I probably wouldn’t have applied for right out of graduate school—I would have read the description and thought well, a historian doesn’t fit that, so I’m not going to apply for that. But now as an activist, who also has a PhD, I feel as though I could be much better able to apply and also spin my experience as a professor. I could argue my teaching experience as supervising experience, and I could spin a lot of my public history work as project management.

While in the activist world I don’t know that the PhD does me any favors, in the government world, it seems as though people respect that a lot more. I think there’s an understanding that you’ve completed a huge project, you can manage your time well, and you are expert in at least one field, if not several.

My experience is pretty unique, and while I’ve come to recognize that there might be elements of my experience that could help guide a graduate student thinking about their options, my experience has been unique enough, and Montana’s such a small place. I feel like I was really successful as an academic doing what I did, but my success in Montana, I think, has been very dependent on the fact that Montana is a small state, and it’s easy to be a big fish in a small state. Our joke here in Helena is that it is certainly not what you know, but who you know. This is a tight-knit community. Everybody knows somebody on the hiring committee, so getting your foot in the door is pretty easy. But I do think that the most valuable thing has been developing those networks, keeping those networks fresh, and developing expertise and skills that have some kind of practical application outside of academia. I think public history and digital history are really good ways to do that. And if you’re not going to go public or digital, do collaborative projects that get you out there working with people in the field, who maybe work for an agency that you might want to work for, or organizations you want to work for, you know. My research involved interviewing activists and other people, and that was a huge way to stay current in my network.

AK: That’s really helpful to hear about all the different ways you’ve thought about your path and leveraged your experience. We graduate students have to learn not just how to pitch the skills that we do gain from our PhD program, but also how to gain skills that, frankly, we won’t learn during many of our programs unless we put in the extra effort and time.

CF: At one point, Paul Hirt said in one of my letters of recommendation that I was entrepreneurial. That’s not a word that I typically think of, but that’s what I find myself telling students pretty often these days. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to advocate for yourself and think creatively about how to be entrepreneurial, how to pitch yourself and sell yourself.

We have this conversation about how to prepare students for jobs outside of the academy over and over again, and it’s not working. I really think we have to challenge those doing graduate training to think differently about how they’re training students. I don’t think you can just brush up your resume. We need to be having more honest conversations with students about what the prospects look like for getting a job in the academy. Maybe you take a year off from your PhD to go do something tangible and related, something that gets you a bunch of experience and gets you in those networks.

AK: How does historical thinking inform your work as the legislative director for Northern Plains?

CF: One of the ways history informs my work is really practical: just knowing how particular policies have evolved in relation to major events, and this is why x is possible and this is why y is impossible. Of course, anybody who has had thirty years of experience lobbying in Montana could probably do that just as well. But the fact that I had to sit down, study it, write about it, understand it—I feel like that compressed those thirty years of experience down into three years. In terms of our organization, it’s been super valuable, because I don’t just work for this organization, I also spent a couple of years studying it. I have an understanding of the kinds of trajectories the organization has taken on certain issues, how things work, etc.

Something that’s been really valuable, and this is perhaps more personal, but you know, when you’re twenty-two or so, and an activist, and you’re charging the capital fighting some bill or you’re charging the capital trying to pass some bill, it’s really hard not to get heartbroken, right? Part of this is just age and experience, but part of it is just that I know how long it takes to pass legislation. I know that legislation doesn’t necessarily do what it’s intended to do, and that change comes from a lot of different directions and that over time things do change, but it’s oftentimes incremental. The historical perspective, I think, has kept me sane, and I think it makes me a really effective leader on our staff, for the younger people on our staff and among our members, in terms of helping them think through long-term strategy on making change and movement building. Again, I probably could have gained that later in my career had I done this work for several decades, but I feel like studying all this, writing about it, really wrestling with it has made me more well equipped to do the job.

AK: Do you have any other advice for graduate students?

CF: One thing I forgot to mention, in terms of self-promoting, is to work on your digital identity. That sounds dumb and practical, but, you know, create a website. Link your Twitter account to it, link your Twitter account to your Facebook account, and promote your professional work. Make yourself look awesome. It’s really easy to do. You learn a little bit of skills for website building. When I was applying for jobs, it helped that I was easily Google-able and I looked good. It makes a difference.

I’ve also noticed, in terms of looking for work, that while I’ve never had any desire to go to Washington, D.C., but for historians, there are a lot of jobs in D.C. They pay well and they’re probably great transition jobs if you’re willing to give up a couple of years to go to D.C. You could work for the Library of Congress as a legislative analyst or in some other position with one of the agencies. I think they’re really great ways to broaden your resume and to transition to something else. I really do feel like the federal government is probably the most obvious place for history PhDs to look. Don’t beat your head against the wall trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole, but you might just have to adjust where you’re willing to be for a few years and get some more experience. Also, I never fell into the adjunct trap. I decided when I ran out of funding, I could make the same amount of money as a backpacking guide in the Grand Canyon as I could otherwise. The job market was stressful, I won’t lie about that. I think the only thing that kept me from falling into deep pits of despair was that I knew I wouldn’t be broke. I knew I had something I could do that wasn’t adjuncting. Not that there’s anything wrong with adjuncting but I just think it’s a total bottomless pit right now.

I also considered museum work. But you know, I was competing with people who had degrees in museum studies. Most of the people I know who have gotten good museum jobs and do really like their work, they came out of public history programs. They had the benefit of internships and then classes on things like cultural resource management. Some of this stuff feels so rudimentary and almost too practical, but these things are actually way more important when you try to get those jobs than a PhD.

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