Alumni Spotlight – March 2020: Dr. Sarah Bell

Development Officer at the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas.

What is your area of study?

I got two degrees from KU, an MA in Museum Studies and a PhD in History. My area of study was 19th century U.S. history, with subfields in women and gender studies and public history. My dissertation looked at the intersection of women’s political activities with a cultural movement called the Chautauqua.

What is your current career or position title?

I currently work as the Development Officer at the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas. The Watkins Museum preserves the heritage of Douglas County and encourages civic engagement by sharing stories of the people and events that have shaped our communities. I am also a member of the Speakers Bureau for Humanities Kansas, which promotes programming, grants, and partnerships that share stories and draw people together.

Tell us what you do!

I entered graduate school with the goal of pursuing a career in public history. I feel fortunate to work in a history museum, as it ties directly to both of my degrees. As a Development Officer I am responsible for fundraising, running our membership program, planning events, cultivating relationships with potential and current donors, grant writing, and communicating with our donors. However, working at a small institution like the Watkins Museum means that everyone gets to do a little bit of everything. Some days that means I am giving a history presentation at a local women’s club or writing text for an upcoming exhibit. I love that my job has so much variety, and I have learned how to be adaptable because many days bring unexpected and interesting challenges.

While I did not learn how to be a fundraiser in grad school, many of the skills I gained through graduate school have helped me to be successful in my position. My graduate degrees taught me how to be an effective communicator, which has been especially helpful with writing grants and the many different communications I send to our donors: newsletters, membership letters, donor appeals, etc. Graduate school also taught me how to take a big project (i.e. a dissertation) and break it into manageable steps. I have found this skill particularly helpful with fundraising, which can feel like an overwhelming job unless it is broken down into concrete tasks.

In addition to my work at the Watkins Museum, I have gotten the chance to practice being a public historian in another way. In 2018 I joined the Speakers Bureau at Humanities Kansas. Organizations across Kansas can request that I come give a talk to their community. My presentation is an adaptation of my dissertation research, and I have really enjoyed visiting communities all over Kansas and getting to talk about my research to many different audiences.

What is your favorite aspect of your current position?

As a Development Officer, I enjoy building relationships with members and donors who are also passionate about history and raising the profile of the museum in the Lawrence and Douglas County community. My favorite part of this job is that I get to be creative on how I build those relationships and raise awareness of our museum. Last fall I organized a fundraiser that celebrated the “Power of the Past.” With that event I got to bring together many different stakeholders, including owners of some of Lawrence’s historic businesses, to highlight the impact of local history. As a member of the Speakers Bureau, it is gratifying to communicate the research I spent many years working on to so many different audiences. I always learn something new from an audience member’s question, and I love to share my passion for history with others.

What advice do you have for current graduate students?

My advice for graduate students, especially those who are interested in pursuing a career outside of the academy, is to be open to new or different opportunities. I made the decision to work in different nonprofit organizations while I was in graduate school so I could get experience in a nonacademic setting. One of these positions was as the Digital Inclusion Fellow at an adult literacy nonprofit. This work seemingly had nothing to do with history or museums, but from this experience I learned how to develop a program and manage volunteers, in addition to the knowledge I gained about digital literacy. Working outside the academy also gave me the chance to find mentors and contacts from different industries. This has been a great way to build up my network, which has led to opportunities and experiences I might not otherwise have found.