Notes From The Workfront: Eric Criss (FSU History Ph.D. 2015)

Fri, 01/05/24
Criss profile

I began my career in political campaigns, working mostly in Washington, DC in the nineties. I later worked as a campaign consultant and eventually moved into corporate and trade association work. More recently, I was president of the Beer Industry of Florida in Tallahassee from 2007 to 2019. It was during that period when I became interested in the History program at Florida State. But I must confess that I loved history even as a child. The first “big book” I ever read was “We Were There At Pearl Harbor.” I found it on eBay and bought it for my daughter when she was in elementary school.

After a conversation with the late Neil Jumonville, who was a professor in the department at the time, I decided to apply for admission to the program. My undergraduate degree was in political science, and I had an M.A. in government, so history was a pretty good fit. Neil explained the program’s flexibility and how I could shape the degree around my interest in government and politics. I started the program in the spring of 2011.

One factor that steered my graduate studies was my work in the alcohol industry. I became interested in the causes of alcohol prohibition at the state and federal levels. This ultimately led to my focus on early twentieth century U.S. politics. Neil Jumonville, Michael Creswell, Nathan Stoltzfus, and the late Ed Gray were all on my dissertation committee. They were incredibly helpful from beginning to end. With their support, I finished in December of 2015.

How did your career unfold after your Ph.D. dissertation defense?

I was already a lobbyist in Tallahassee when I earned my Ph.D., but my real interest was in converting my dissertation into a book. The lobbying work paid the bills for our family so that I could pursue my passion. I began working on converting my dissertation into a book immediately after my defense and worked on it for about six years off and on. Then, in 2021, I accepted my current position with GE Appliances. It was during the pandemic, and everything seemed to stall, including the book.

Work kept going, however, and I am very happy in my current job. At GE Appliances, I serve as Director of Government Affairs. In this position, I monitor legislation in all fifty states and manage a portfolio of state, federal, and international issues that includes PFAS (forever chemicals), Right to Repair, and Extended Producer Responsibility. The position suits me well. I really enjoy keeping up with current events and reporting to our government affairs team on policy issues that impact the business. I am a big picture person by nature, so the attention to detail required for legislative and regulatory analysis did not come naturally to me. While I still struggle in that area, the Ph.D. program at Florida State was incredibly helpful in refining those skills.

How did the skills you acquired in the Ph.D. program help you in your career?

My research and writing skills were significantly improved in the Ph.D. program. Both are more technical skills than the average person understands. The History department helped me improve in those areas more than any other. There are other, more intangible skills that improved throughout the process, such as discipline and perseverance.

What advice would you give to others who are interested in pursuing a similar career?

I would encourage anyone who is seriously interested in history, political science, or government to pursue an advanced degree in history. It’s a significant commitment but very rewarding because it touches on all areas, and you can tailor the degree to make it what you want. You get to pick your areas of focus.

What advice would you give yourself now - if you could go back in time?

I began the Ph.D. program when I was forty years old. If I could go back, I would start earlier—maybe work for only four or five years before starting a graduate program.

I would also encourage anyone who is interested in publishing their Ph.D. dissertation as a book to go for it. It requires perseverance and humility, but it is a goal you can reach. After the move to GE Appliances which meant settling the family in Atlanta, I reached back out to my editor at the LSU Press to see if he wanted to continue the process of editing my book. I wasn’t sure how he felt about the manuscript anymore because we had gone through several re-writes. Fortunately, he still wanted to move forward. The book is called “Boss of New Orleans: Martin Behrman and Machine Politics in the Crescent City.” It’s a kind of prequel to the Huey Long era and a biography of New Orleans political boss Martin Behrman. More generally, it’s a kind of microhistory of that time period in the United States.