Let's talk! Non-academic careers #3
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Practitioners in talk #Part 3
Many ways lead out of the BGHS. But where do pathways lead to after the doctorate? In the winter semester we talk to historians and sociologists who have chosen their profession outside the university. Hans-Walter Schmuhl talked to us about his work as a freelance historian.
Hans Walter Schmuhl at his working space.
Mr. Schmuhl, if you remember your entry into your profession as a freelance historian: How did you find your entry?
Hans-Walter Schmuhl: That was in the phase when I had completed the habilitation and was a private lecturer. Then the ox tour starts: That you apply for professorships. That's a pretty frustrating thing to start with. Because it takes quite a while until you are invited. And then you are allowed to audition. You could say casually: I lost my patience. Because it's a phase in your life: you're actually in your prime - your late thirties, early forties - and you actually want to work on the content. But basically you feel like you're in a kind of waiting room. And you don't know exactly how it will end: Which door opens? Do you get a chair or any other permanent job with pension entitlement? Or is that ultimately a dead end? And do you have to reorient yourself in the end?
And in this situation I decided - very active. The concrete background was that I had an offer to work in science. But I did not accept the offer. Because it would have been a job where it would have been only about science management. And I am a researcher: I want to do my own research. And I took that as an opportunity to realize plans I had been considering for some time and to say: Now I am going into self-employment. And I'm doing a very offensive information policy: I'm saying that to all people. That was a leap into the unknown at the time, because very few colleagues did that. Somehow there were no indications of what that was like: with the acquisition of contracts; whether that would ultimately pay off; and how to calculate. So, basically: That was a beginning with many question marks.
As a freelance historian you have been working for 20 years on behalf of various organizations. If you describe it using one of your current projects as an example: What is a typical process of such a project?
Hans-Walter Schmuhl: In the beginning there must be an interest. So, the client must come up with the idea of placing an order. A typical pattern can be seen in one of my current projects in the field of social welfare history: The occasion is a scandal. There have been press reports that in the fifties and sixties violent attacks took place in the facilities of this institution; and that at least in one case there was a drug testing which moved in a legal grey area. And this is of course a question of image for a company, also for a diaconal company, to say: Well, we commission independent researchers*. They should investigate that. At our expense. And then we face up to our responsibility.
Well, there was interest there. Then the question is: How do clients and contractors get together? And that was pretty easy in this case, because our team, in which we carry out the order: We had previously worked at another facility that had hit the headlines. We did a good job, even though the previous press coverage had created a tense atmosphere between the institution, those affected and their advocates. In the end, our findings were recognised by all sides. And then the new client said: Can you do the same for us? That's typical. Then you enter into negotiations and have to conclude the contract.
We have defined three cornerstones of good scientific practice for ourselves, which we insist on at all costs when drafting contracts: Firstly, that the client cannot give us any specifications with regard to content. Secondly, there must be unrestricted access to the client's sources. And thirdly, there must be no publication reservation. We handle this differently from some of our colleagues in the field of economic history. Companies often commission the presentation of their own history and state in the contract that they will accept the work. In these cases, the client decides whether the work is to be published or whether it is to be placed in a drawer for internal use. And that's where we made the decision: We don't do that. What we research and record in writing must also be published. This is a point where contracts sometimes fail.
However: If we wouldn't do this so well, the client wouldn't benefit from it. If at the end it says: "They found out: It was one way or another. And maybe: Some things weren't as bad as originally feared. Then it's easy to say: "But that's contract research." And the public debate continues. When we finally present our book with the findings of our independent research at a press conference, the discussion in the media usually comes to an end. And of course that's in the interest of the client. That doesn't mean that the issue is over: together with those affected, we look for ways to compensate for the suffering they have suffered; the historical findings are passed on to our staff in internal training courses; they also play a role in current model processes.
Hans-Walter Schmuhl talking during an event.
What tips do you have for historians who are considering starting their own business?
Hans-Walter Schmuhl: Well, the key is: network, network, network. On all levels. I would always advise students to write to scientists working in the field in which they are writing their thesis. In the worst case you won't get an answer. In the best case scenario, you might want to draw someone's attention to you. If you're in the doctoral phase: don't hide away. Going to conferences. Go to workshops. So, the more people you know, in very different contexts, the better. So, a schematic acquisition, according to the motto: "Well, I'm here now. Nobody knows me. But now I'm making a really great advertising brochure and I'm writing everyone up: Experience has shown that this is almost useless. This works the other way round: That your name is known and you are addressed.
Second, I would recommend not to define your own working field too narrowly. If you have a topic on which you have focused completely, and that, let's say, is still a little out of place: You can't do anything with it. Then you have to work your way laboriously into other fields. And thirdly: Yes, it is a matter of attitude. So, if you like to snoop around in the archive for your life, then write it down afterwards and give it something: Then you have the right motivation to do it. If you say: I would like to work from 9 to 17 o'clock. Then I'd like to have the evening off. And what's important to me is the weekend. Then you are out of place as a self-employed person, no matter in which industry.Mr Schmuhl, thank you for talking to us.
The interview was conducted by Ulf Ortmann.
You can find the complete conversation as PDF (german) here:
Further information about the project: