An Interview with Jillian Slaight (Ph.D. 2017)

This summer, the Department made a post on social media about the 100th anniversary of Wisconsin’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. One of our alumni, Jillian Slaight (Ph.D. 2017), reached out to let us know that she had written a report for the Wisconsin State Legislative Reference Bureau on that very topic. We wanted to re-connect with Jillian and find out more about how she came to write reports like these for a living, and about her position as a Legislative Analyst with the state of Wisconsin.

Jillian Slaight
Jillian Slaight (Ph.D. 2017), Legislative Analyst at the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau

Q: Could you describe your position as a Legislative Analyst with the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau? What are the responsibilities of your position, and what are the things you enjoy about the work that you do?

A: The Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) is a non-partisan agency that provides bill drafting and research services to the state legislature. My principal duties are providing research to state legislators about anything and everything relating to public policy. For example, a legislative office might ask me to compile bills proposed in other states to help residents saddled with student debt. Another office might ask to know when Wisconsin laws regulating daycare were originally enacted, and how they have changed over time. In addition to preparing confidential memos to answer questions like these, I also write publications that help explain complex issues (such as “dark stores” and workers’ compensation) for general audiences. Finally, I compile information about state history, which includes conducting oral histories with outgoing legislators. Over the past year, I researched and wrote a longer article about the enactment of significant veterans’ benefits in 1919 that will be published in the 2019 Wisconsin Blue Book, a reference book published biennially by the LRB.

Q: How do you feel that your education and experience in the History Graduate Program at UW-Madison has influenced your post-grad work life and career?

A: Above all, my experiences in the History Graduate Program helped me to work independently and take initiative. In grad school, it’s up to you alone to research and pursue worthwhile opportunities; very little falls into your hands. Carrying forward this attitude into the work place has been helpful. From my interview onward, I approached my manager with ideas for new projects on which I was willing to take a leadership role, and the response was positive. Managers seem to appreciate employees who don’t need to be told what to do, and who can independently meet deadlines.

My time in the grad program also taught me how to write quickly and on a deadline. Lecture writing was especially helpful in reinforcing the message that “perfect is the enemy of good.” Today, I tend to write even more than I did in grad school, and I enjoy it.

Finally, the grad program helped me to edit written work more effectively, and to appreciate a good editor.  I learned to edit more effectively as a TA, gradually figuring out how to be time effective while communicating to students the most important takeaways for improving their writing. And I learned to appreciate a good editor from the valuable (and generously given) feedback of my advisor, Suzanne Desan. While in grad school, you forget that it’s an immense privilege for an expert to read, digest, and thoughtfully respond to your work. Today, I have the privilege of continuing to work with a team of editors who look over my work with a fine-tooth comb before it goes to the legislature. My grad school experience taught me to appreciate their important work, but it also provided a solid basis as an editor myself, and I’m often asked to revise or review my colleagues’ work.

Q: What advice would you have for other History PhD graduates who want to pursue a career outside of academia?

A: It’s useful to cultivate skills that translate to non-academic work environments, even if you don’t consciously intend to pursue a non-academic career. (After all, the job market might force that decision for you.) During the PhD, find opportunities to pursue your interests outside the department. I worked part-time at the UW Archives, which exposed me to work in an archival/library setting, familiarized me with different computer programs, and gave me the opportunity to write for various social media platforms. I also wrote freelance articles for the Grad School about notable alumni, which helped hone my writing for broader audiences. Beyond that, volunteering with the Oakhill Prison Project allowed me to experiment with teaching in non-traditional settings. All of these experiences not only bolstered my resume—they were also fun and intellectually engaging, and relieved the stress of dissertation writing.

As you approach the end of grad school, go outside your comfort zone and ask anyone and everyone you know about job opportunities. People always told me about informational interviews, and I doubted they were a real thing. But to my surprise, I did such an interview, and then landed my job from it. Another important step is looking at other people’s resumes and asking other people to review yours. At my current job, we toss a lot of resumes and cover letters because people don’t draw out the relevant connections between their past experiences and the job duties outlined in the posting. (The gist: subtlety gets you nowhere in job applications!)

Sometimes in grad school, people lead you to believe that academia is the only field where you will be challenged intellectually, but that’s not true. Strangely, one of the greatest difficulties of transitioning out of academia wasn’t accumulating the skills, but reminding myself that I am and will remain an intellectually curious person, no matter where I work.

Q: Fun question – If you could invite one historical figure to speak at the annual Department of History Merle Curti Lecture Series, who would it be and why?

I just read A House Full of Females by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. To modern women, Mormon women’s roles in the emergence of plural marriage, or polygamy, in the 1840s may seem strange and confounding.  But one of Ulrich’s strengths as a historian is her ability to cultivate empathy for her research subjects. As a reader, I reached a better understanding of why and how these women embraced Mormonism, even as it evolved in ways that fundamentally changed their intimate relationships and challenged their sense of self. Still, I wonder how much archival sources shape this story—what thoughts and feelings were obscured because women and men dared not write them down in letters and diaries? I’d like to hear from Phebe Woodruff (or Emma Smith) in person about what it was like to become a Mormon, experience the emergence of plural marriage doctrine, and eventually welcome several sister wives into her family.