Class of 1979: Sherry Kaiman (History/Political Science), Consultant, RESOLVE, Inc.
Current position: Consultant, RESOLVE, Inc.
First job after college: Part-time staff, U.S. Senate Post Office. The job was the result of her undergraduate internship with Senator William Proxmire (D-WI), who offered her the position; “I worked part-time during the day and went to graduate school at Georgetown at night,” Sherry says. She also continued working for Senator Proxmire in D.C. at the same time, where she compiled the daily Congressional Record Clippings File for his office.
As her position in the Senate Post Office came to a close, Sherry talked with as many different people in as many different Senate offices as possible – especially those on her daily mail delivery routes. This strategy paid off when the office manager for Senator Edward Kennedy offered her a job as a legislative correspondent for the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, where Kennedy was the Ranking Minority Member. This launched a 25-year career on Capitol Hill, including (but not limited to) positions with three other Senators and a Senate committee, a Congressman, The 1st Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic, and a Governor. Since then, Sherry has worked for a non-profit, non-partisan organization on public health, and she currently works as a senior consultant for a nonprofit that focuses on consensus-building efforts in education, workforce development, health, environment, and infrastructure.
Value of the history major: Sherry notes that the value of the history major includes learning how to research as well as how to organize facts so they can be communicated and understood through the written word and via oral presentations/conversations.
Advice to students: Marketing the research, writing, and oral communication skills that are acquired as a History major (and other majors in the College of Letters and Science) is important, Sherry says, as is highlighting internships and part-time positions that related to the full-time positions students are seeking. She also emphasized the need to build a list of contacts – not only those who can serve as references, “but who could also be connections or sounding boards for possible employment opportunities.” Finally, Sherry stresses that students should “be sure to express appreciation to all individuals (including faculty/UW career staff/UW alumni) who take the time to speak with you and help you along the way.”
Class of 1993: Josh Bycel (History), Executive Producer and Writer; founder, OneKid Oneworld
Current position: Executive Producer and Writer on comedies such as “Scrubs” and “Telenovela.” Founder of OneKid OneWorld, a non-profit organization that supports education in developing nations. Josh received the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s “Forward under 40” award in 2008 for his international work.
First job after college: Assistant at a large talent agency: “I knew within the first half-hour that I hated it. I wanted to be on the other side of the desk.” The agency later represented him.
Value of the history major: “Relaying ideas to other people is one of the intrinsic skills of the history major,” Bycel says. Learning how to communicate clearly – whether via writing or presenting – is transferrable to any field.
“I’m a storyteller,” Bycel continues. As both an executive producer and as the founder of a non-profit organization, he writes messages that appeal to his audiences: scripts that will draw in viewers and pitches that will help draw financial support for OneKid, One World.
Advice to students: Be creative and willing to try different things, but “you have to be open to failing.” All experiences (even failure!) are relevant to building a successful career, he says. “I wish someone had told me at 22 that it’s not about right away – it’s about the long play.”
Class of 2004: Erika Janik (Master of Arts), Executive Producer, “Wisconsin Life”
Current position: I am the executive producer of “Wisconsin Life” on Wisconsin Public Radio, a storytelling series about what it means to live in Wisconsin, as well as a freelance writer and the author of six books. No day is really typical, which is part of what appeals to me about this type of work. I’m in the office most days of the week looking for stories, editing scripts, interviewing guests (often this happens out in the field rather than in the studio), coaching guests on reading for radio, and editing and mixing audio for broadcast. My job allows me to meet a lot of people I might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact with all over Wisconsin. It also allows me to really follow my own interests and to explore topics and ideas in the interest of storytelling. If I’m curious about something, I’m sure our audience will be, too.
First job after college: I came straight to graduate school at the UW after college (Linfield College in McMinnville, OR) to pursue a degree in American history. I came, in part, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I don’t recommend this as a reason to go to graduate school but it did give me the time and experiences to have a better sense of what I wanted to do – or more accurately, what I didn’t want to do. I discovered that I love history but that an academic path wasn’t for me. I left after finishing my Master’s degree and worked at the Wisconsin Historical Society, a place I’d worked in a part-time capacity since moving to Madison. I led a project to help teachers teach Wisconsin history and students learn state history through primary sources and contextual essays. This was really the first time I’d written for the public, and I loved it. I loved that I could help people find something they might have been looking for and/or to learn something they didn’t know. I loved that I could share my enthusiasm for history with others. I loved that I could explore many different areas and time periods.
Value of the history major: The skills I learned as a historian are invaluable – research, writing, critical thinking, and persistence have played an integral part in my career path. I don’t think I appreciated that my ability to find historical sources and put disparate pieces of information together was actually a skill until I started working with non-historians who treat me like I’m some kind of magician! I have a solid understanding of American history that helps me develop interview questions, helps me find background information and sources, and offers perspective on current events.
My last few books have been really focused on women’s history, which is what I went to graduate school for and is something I remain passionate about. I’m always looking for the stories I didn’t learn about in school or in my history textbook. I’m always asking myself “whose voice is missing,” which is something I learned to do in earning my degrees.
Advice to students: The path to radio is not linear nor is the one to a writing career. Some of my radio coworkers went to school for broadcast journalism but many came from a different path like me. We’re united in our curiosity, desire to learn, and our ability to know what makes for a good story. Remain curious. Read (and listen) widely. Ask questions.
Class of 2008: John Vanek (History), Genetic Genealogist and Family Historian
Current position: Genetic genealogist and family historian. As such (and through the business he started), he helps clients “identify and learn about their ancestors, whether it’s adoptees searching for their biological parents or individuals wanting to learn about their heritage more generally. I also help people write family history narratives.”
First job after college: John initially took a semester-long unpaid internship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, then returned home for an unpaid internship at the Minnesota Historical Society. That led to a contract position working on an exhibit for MNHS; he also worked for the U.S. Census Bureau and at a used bookstore. While he admits that “this wasn’t the trajectory I had envisioned for myself,” John explains that he regards all these positions as “ ‘my first job after college’ because they fit together into three years of further experience-building while I also found a way to make ends meet.”
Value of the History major: John considers the “ability to absorb, arrange, interpret, and write about complex historical data in a coherent, compelling way” to be the most important and useful part of the history major. “Traditional genealogical research is just historical research by a different name,” he says. “I spend lots of time with historical documents in archives both digital and physical. Government records, church records, business personnel files, historical maps and gazetteers, newspapers, military muster rolls, and reports from private organizations: you name it, I’ve found clients’ ancestors in it.”
While the documentary research he pursues benefits from the background and methods John developed through his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, he is careful to note an additional benefit of his undergraduate education. “I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in History from UW-Madison,” he explains. “Before I chose history as my major, I thought I wanted to work in one of the hard sciences. I took courses in mathematics and chemistry. Now I use history and science in combination, and that’s what I love most about my job.”
Advice for students: “Learn as much as you can about whatever it is you love. Force yourself to find real-world work that will give you skills to succeed. Then find a way to combine your knowledge and skills into a paying position.”
John also adds, “Spend more time getting to know your professors. I wish I had.”
Class of 2009: Farha Tahir (History/Political Science), Senior Program Officer, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs
Current position: Senior Program Officer, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. “I work for an organization that advises governments all over the world on how to be more democratic and better respond to citizens’ needs,” Farha says.
First job after college: Research Intern, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Commission on Smart Power.
Value of the history major: “Whether [I am] preparing for an election, advising political parties, or facilitating greater women’s participation in politics, my history major comes in handy almost every day,” Farha notes. “To step into another country with sensitivity and credibility, one must understand its history.”
In addition, she says, “the history major prepared me for the foreign policy career I began after college. It provided a framework for how I approach each new country I work in. It contextualized the people and the governments I work with. It taught me how to think critically and strategically. And, on a more practical, operational note, reading 500 pages a week and writing thirty-page papers multiple times each semester is exactly the training I needed for briefing my bosses and preparing for my travels.”
Advice to students: “Get out there. You can study history all you want, but until you see history’s implications in a context outside your own, it’s hard to have that ‘aha’ moment.”
Class of 2011: Teague Mawer (History/Vocal Performance), Director of Budget and Planning, University of Wisconsin Colleges
Current position: Director of Budget and Planning, University of Wisconsin Colleges. “In this capacity, I manage a total budget of almost $140 million and lead strategic planning and budget development efforts across [the state’s network of 13 two-year liberal arts transfer] campuses,” Teague says.
First job after college: Budget and Policy Analyst, Wisconsin Department of Justice (for more about Teague’s work there, see this article by the LaFollette Institute)
Value of the history major: Although policy analysis was a bit of a departure from singing opera and studying colonial history, the skill set I gained during undergrad enabled me to appreciate the interdisciplinary connections along my path. My history coursework broadened my worldview, improved my critical thinking skills, and ignited a passion for sound public policy based on historical understanding.
I felt that studying history was a way to understand our common humanity and learn how to become better citizens of the world. From Professor Cohen’s engaging History 101 to my senior seminar on the history of human rights, my history major embodied the Wisconsin Idea by encouraging students to think beyond the boundaries of the university. Furthermore, my history major helped me understand the value of using my skills to serve the community in which I live and work. Recently, I have served on the Board of Directors for Madison Youth Choirs, Wisconsin Women in Government, and the League of Women Voters, and helped coach the Madison Memorial forensics team.
Advice to students: For students considering history as a major, it’s okay to be uncertain about your career path! Your undergraduate years are a great time to explore your passions and interests. Take advantage of the incredible faculty resources around you – they are eager to help you be successful. Instead of memorizing facts and dates, concentrate on the interrelationships of ideas, as well as building your analytical, research and writing skills. Getting involved in campus organizations was a wonderful way to enable both my academic and personal growth. While I was an undergraduate student, I served for two years as the Editor-in-Chief of “Archive”, which is UW-Madison’s published undergraduate history journal. Additionally, I was an active student leader in many student organizations and held part time jobs in the State Capitol and Department of Military Affairs. Plus, I found that the more involved I was, the better my time management skills were when it came to studying.
Class of 2011: Abby Lease (History/Classical Humanities), Teacher, St. Ambrose Academy
Hear more about Abby’s path and her interest in History and Classics in this video, “Classics Lead to Teaching,” from the College of Letters & Science Career Initiative “Badger to Badger: Steps that Matter”.
Current position: In May 2016, I finished my sixth year of teaching at a Catholic Classical academy in Madison, as a high school history and Latin teacher. Each year’s schedule is different, but is some combination of class and preparatory time (usually much less prep time than class time). Last year, one block was used for grading, lesson planning, curriculum and professional development; one shorter block for lunch/more prep; and three blocks for Latin II, IV, and V. Class periods are 80 minutes long, and the time is divided up (differently every day, depending on content) into lecture, discussion, review, reading and translating, and student work time.
First job after college: I’ve been at my current job, as a high school history and Latin teacher, since the summer after graduation. I had the great fortune of interviewing and securing the position the early spring before I walked the stage, and I then transitioned from being a student to having students of my own.
Value of the history major: Every year I am consistently referring back to the content that was taught to me by my professors and teaching assistants in the history and Classics departments. The textbooks and notebooks from each class are kept beside my other curricula materials as resources for various lessons. As my students begin to read the Iliad in their English class, I present a lecture that condenses the essential information of a semester-long Classics course on the myth and reality of Troy. When discussing the social structures of ancient Rome, I look up my notes on domestic law from History 223: Roman Women and Men. My Latin textbook, old exams, and homework exercises are regularly referred to for variety in my own students’ assessments. These are only a few examples.
In addition, throughout the years I’ve often reflected upon the effective teaching methods of not only my college instructors, but also my own high school teachers. They taught me how to teach by their examples, not only by memorable and effective lesson plans, but how they conveyed their passion for their subjects into the classroom.
Advice to students: Map out more than one path when you are planning out your career as a student. Generally, advisors and mentors want to be generally encouraging when you share with them your primary career aspiration, and they will help you down that road. But there is true value in a devil’s advocate asking the whys and what-ifs and if-nots. Be ambitious, but also be realistic, and apply that ambition to multiple career options. And then remember that different career paths do not have to be ranked above and below one another; place them side-by-side. There are many avenues that can lead to equal success and professional fulfillment.
Class of 2011: William Marx (History/Classics), Owner, Wm Chocolates
Current position: Owner and chocolatier, Wm Chocolates. Will says that as he moved among different jobs after college, “I started to care deeply about food, and then, more specifically, about chocolate. And eventually, thanks to curious, intelligent people – affiliated with UW, I might add – I made connections that allowed me to turn my obsession into a tiny but growing business. Today, I have a real shot at making chocolate for a living.”
First job after college: High school social studies teacher. Then “I started an online music business while working as a dental assistant…next I took a job testing software.”
Value of the history major: “I started college at the University of Minnesota, intending to study biochemistry. I transferred back home to UW, where it only took one survey of American history course to convince me of the discipline’s value. In short, history made the world a more meaningful place, and I knew right away that I was happier when the world had more meaning.”
Advice to students: “Until you’ve discovered what makes your life meaningful, it’s incredibly hard to visualize the path you want., make sound career choices, be happy, and all that good stuff. So give yourself some time and space to iterate toward what’s most meaningful to you.”
Class of 2013: Bryant Plano (History/History of Science), iOS Engineer at Zendesk
First job after college: Technical Support, Zendesk. I’d previously worked technical support at UW and found it to be a great fit. It was tough working at a company that – at the time – was just starting to grow here in Madison. We didn’t have access to some of the resources that our colleagues in other offices had (such as a formal HR presence). However, my team was amazing and the company continued to grow and expand, providing us new opportunities to grow and learn. My time at Zendesk has definitely been useful to my career – it helped me establish a foundation of knowledge and expand my network of friends and colleagues.
Typical day: My typical day involves writing code and attending meetings with my time. The code part is pretty self-explanatory: fixing bugs, creating new features or refactoring old code. My daily meetings involve checking in with the team and making sure we are all on the same page regarding our work for the day or week.
Value of the history major: There’s actually a lot of relevance to my job that comes from my history major. The most relevant part overall is definitely communication. Being able to document work, present information to customers/colleagues or simply send an email to someone is the basis of many jobs. The history major prepares you very well for that with papers and presentations.
I also find that the ability to recall information is extremely useful. Most history majors have a method of retaining information (detailed notes, listening to lectures a second time, reading material multiple times) that can translate directly to the workplace. I take notes daily on my work which is useful when I have meetings with my manager, because I know exactly what I’ve been working on and can easily demonstrate what I’ve been doing.
Advice to students: I can’t say enough about the support network students have available to them – between professors, the career advisors, other students and the various networking events on campus, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved and comfortable with the job search before you graduate. Make use of all that is available to you.
Expect the job search process to take awhile, and start searching well before graduation. I applied for a job in March of my Senior year, was brought into the interview process in April, and didn’t hear back until August! The HR process at most places takes a long time, so the sooner you have everything ready to go (resume, cover letter, interview outfit, etc.) the sooner you’ll be ready to hit “Apply” on those job applications.
In general, for those beginning to plan their careers, focus on opportunities that can help you net that first job. My path was pretty straightforward, which among my colleagues is pretty rare. For example, one of my roommates from college (also a history major) works a full time job, but also volunteers some nights/most weekends doing what he loves. His volunteering has opened new doors for him, providing him the opportunity to network with people in his desired working field. He was recently recommended for a new position at one of his volunteering places. It took a few years, but he’s extremely excited and his hard work has paid off.
Since the first history class at UW-Madison more than 100 years ago, alumni and friends have helped us fulfull our educational mission. For more information about making a gift to support the department, please see Supporting Excellence.