Alumni Interview with Jonathan MacDonald

Jonathan MacDonald graduated from Virginia Tech with an MA in History in 2017. He is currently a PhD student in American Studies at Brown University in Providence, RI.

Q: After graduating from Virginia Tech’s M.A. program, what have you done professionally?

I knew that I wanted to take a few years away from graduate school while I considered moving on to a PhD program, so I tried to keep my options open. The summer after I graduated, I presented material from M.A. thesis at the annual conference organized by Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral & Social Sciences. My partner and I relocated to the Washington D.C. area, where I began looking for jobs in the museum and cultural heritage field. I worked briefly as a part-time media archivist at Sirius XM, digitizing large stacks of CD-ROMS, listening to the audio, and writing descriptive metadata. After a few months, I found my way to the Folger Shakespeare Library, where I served as the Project Coordinator for the Mellon-funded interdisciplinary research project Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures [https://beforefarmtotable.folger.edu/]. As Project Coordinator, I wore a few different hats: I organized and ran conferences, public and academic-facing speaker events, administered a number of fellowships, managed budgets, edited a academic digital newsletter, and promoted events on social media. It was great way to learn new useful skills while still being immersed in a lively scholarly environment. Towards the end of this grant-funded position, I began charting my next move, and decided to return to graduate school.

Q: What is one thing that you did at Virginia Tech that aided you in your professional or academic path?

Gaining experience in organizing events and conferences was absolutely critical. I was extremely grateful that Virginia Tech afforded me a variety of experiences across my coursework and graduate assistantships. My first year, part of my assistantship hours were dedicated to helping organize Dr. Tom Ewing’s Images and Texts in Medical History Workshop. Event organizing was new to me, but I gained the confidence to head-up organizing the program’s annual Bertoti Conference in 2017. As a TA, I also participated in the early years of Dr. Ed Gitre’s American Soldier digital archive [https://americansoldierww2.org/]. More than anything, I am grateful for the supportive relationships I formed with those in my graduate cohort at Virginia Tech. I am not exaggerating when I say that we still talk every day.

Q: What advice would you give current or future students wanting to pursue a path similar to yours?

You’ve heard it before, but networking is so important. I learned about the opening at the Folger from a former undergraduate professor with whom I remained in contact. In the words of the chair of my current department, “there is no such thing as a non-professional interaction.” Keep an open mind and look for opportunities. My research at Virginia Tech had nothing to do with Early Modern European history, but the skills I developed at Virginia Tech – teamwork, conference organizing, administering projects – were critical in how I have subsequently positioned myself.

Q: What has been a major challenge you have encountered in your career? How have you dealt with it?

Finding the first job out of graduate school took time, persistence, and luck. If I could do it again, I would have spent more time planning ahead. In the initial 6 months after graduation, I strung together part-time work to keep afloat and build a resume. Start planning and applying for jobs well before you graduate. I drew on the support and guidance of my mentors, who advised me to pass on opportunities for full-time employment that did not feel like great fits. Those were very difficult decisions to make at the time but, with hindsight, were absolutely critical in getting me where I am now.

Q: What are your plans from here?

Continuing on and finishing my PhD! Beyond that, I am keeping an open mind for what comes next in my career, whether that involves a traditional university post or something along the lines of public humanities work.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

The training, comradery, and skills I developed in Virginia Tech’s History MA program prepared my extremely well for my current PhD program. I learned so much in my graduate seminars and in the process of my thesis research and writing at Virginia Tech. I really do owe my identity as a historian and a scholar to my time in this program.

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