Navigating the History of the Navy

By Rachel Wallach

What to do with a PhD in classical studies when you realize you don’t want to enter academia? As it turns out, you have more options than you might think.

Such was the discovery of Kristina Giannotta ’03 (PhD), now branch head of histories for the Histories and Archives Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command. It’s a role that marries research and culture with management, and Giannotta says her graduate studies at Johns Hopkins prepared her surprisingly well for this government career. Now in the position of hiring and managing historians, she makes a point of recommending that current grad students take advantage of every opportunity—travel, fellowships, new languages—to grow outside of academia as she did, saying those skills make all the difference in a potential employee.

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Kristina Giannotta at the National Museum of the United States Navy

“When you’re looking at 70 PhDs, how do you pick? How do I know you can think creatively?” she asks. “That’s one thing Hopkins did for me: I had to do a lot on my own, and it gave me courage to go out there and try something different.”

While earning her doctorate, Giannotta attended the American School of Classical Studies at Athens on a Fulbright, studied in Florence for a summer, learned several languages, earned a master’s in archaeology in Glasgow, and studied at the Goethe Institute in Bonn. When she completed her degree, she moved to Munich to work on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the largest Latin thesaurus in the world, and then to Hawaii for an ORISE fellowship from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. The fellowship morphed into a federal job with what is now the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, where she searched for the remains of soldiers missing from World War II in order to provide their families with an accounting of what happened to them. It was there, she says, that she began to appreciate just what her academic background brought to the table of government work.

“I knew German, French, and Italian, so I could read all the documents; I had research methodology and skills from Hopkins; and I had traveled abroad, so I knew the cultural skills that were needed,” she says.

In 2013, Giannotta moved to her current position in Washington, D.C. Her division serves as a kind of institutional memory for the Navy, she says; her staff of 22 employees analyzes documents from various periods in American history, producing books and histories for an audience that includes the public, Navy leadership, and members of Congress. More of a manager now than a researcher, she delights in leading her team and solving organizational and research problems.

“The way you approach problems and perceive problems and address problems—that, in management, is a skill set,” Giannotta says. “You have to read materials quickly and ascertain what are the fundamental issues here, what needs to be dealt with and what doesn’t, and not a lot of people are trained to think like that. It’s a different way of thinking that helps you grow into real-life problems and real-life management.”