Alumni Spotlight: Sept/Oct 2017 – Dr. Shelby Callaway

Historian for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Department of History: Class of 2015

What is your area of study?

Department of History, PhD in American history with minor fields in indigenous and environmental history.

What is your current career or position title?

Historian for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) an agency of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)

What does your day to day work life look like?

The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) mission is to “help people help the land.” NRCS helps farmers, ranchers and other private landowners ensure their operations remain sustainable and productive. Because 70% of the land in the United States is privately owned, ensuring private landowners have the resources they need to be good stewards of the land is critical to ensuring healthy soil, clean and abundant water, clean air, and abundant wildlife for all Americans. The NRCS has a long history dating back to the New Deal and the Dust Bowl when Congress created NRCS’s precursor agency, the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) to tackle the problem of excessive soil erosion.

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As the historian at NRCS, I document, preserve and share the history of the agency. On an average day, I might be providing historical analysis for folks who work on the planning and administration of NRCS programs, or I might be engaged in traditional research and writing focused on telling the story of the agency, or I might be working with the National Agricultural Library on an archiving project. I also work on inter-agency teams from time to time on historical projects and presentations.  One of the great things about working for the Federal Government is that there are often opportunities to take on details in other agencies or in other parts of the organization. For example, right now I’m on detail with our Legislative Affairs Division helping answer congressional inquiries and working on the upcoming Farm Bill.

What is your favorite aspect of your job/career?

Feeling useful. I am incredibly lucky to work for a federal agency that values its history and the insights historical research can provide. NRCS employees believe in the agency’s mission and it’s a delight to work with people who are passionate about public service and about “helping people help the land.” It is incredibly satisfying for me to be able to use my historical training in such a practical, applied way.

What advice do you have for current graduate students?

Consider the non-academic market (particularly public service) and be flexible. Most employers probably don’t care about your dissertation topic, but they will care that you have the organizational, research, and writing skills to defend one. Also, avail yourself of some of the many programs that help ease recent graduates into public service at both the federal and state level – Presidential Management Fellows, Pathways Interns, etc. Keep in mind that the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, so get started several years before you graduate finding ways to get your foot in the door.