Becoming a practicing historian, be it in academia or elsewhere, requires a rigorous academic foundation. From a university’s history professors to the archivists at the Library of Congress, all of these people studied history in some academic capacity and now dedicate themselves to better understanding the past, its preservation, and our relationship to it.
Beyond positions actively and directly related to the academic discipline, a degree in history offers an especially dynamic range of career options. Reading, writing, and research skills are honed, making the history graduate particularly suited for careers ranging from teaching to law. The following guide highlights the required steps for becoming a historian while also providing helpful resources.
A degree in history, whether bachelor’s or advanced, prepares graduates for a multitude of careers. As research and writing skills are required for many professional paths, the historian’s skills span industries. Beyond the role of educator or archivist, individuals with this degree are just as much in demand in politics, law, libraries and the literary world. While these skills are essential, this expansive set of career possibilities can be a bit daunting, making the choice of a career path difficult. This guide aims to offer a focused look into career opportunities for the potential historian.
Although associate degrees in history are available, it is uncommon for the professional historian to hold less than a bachelor’s degree. Undergraduate degrees allow for history-specific career options while also laying the academic foundation for graduate pursuits. A bachelor’s in history opens the door for those seeking to be educators, while also preparing the historian for work in archives, historical preservation and museums. While a bachelor’s degree opens the door to more historically-focused roles, graduate-level coursework is common for those pursuing specialized history careers. For those individuals who wish to work in academia, a PhD is the standard course of study.
Because an undergraduate degree in history provides numerous career options, it’s worth focusing on a specific career related to history to better understand the value of this area of study. The following section highlights the role of an archivist, academic requirements, and the characteristics that make it a fascinating and valuable career. Though they may not be constantly in the spotlight, archivists are an invaluable asset to the field of history, historians, and society as as a whole. The Society of American Archivists proudly states that the selection, preservation and organization of archival materials not only protects the documentation of our social and cultural history, but establishes a catalog of information through which our government, individuals, and business can be held accountable. As a result, archivists have a seemingly quiet, though essential role in a functioning democracy.
The federal government has a long history of employing historians as well as those in related fields. In fact, the BLS reported that the federal government employed almost a quarter of all U.S. historians in 2012. However, this leaves the history-related jobs at the mercy of government funding, which might explain the slow growth of many jobs in this field. Organizations that are not dependent upon government funds or donations might see higher demand for historians, librarians, and those in related fields.
There are more history graduates than there are positions for those in directly related fields. Therefore, those interested in this field may have to take advantage of their wide breadth of education and branch out. Below is a list of states with the highest anticipated job growth for different history professions.
Careers in history are varied, and you’ll learn about several later on in this guide. Here, we’re featuring a career as an archivist with a degree in history, and we’ll show you the steps to get there.
While undergraduate history degrees provide a foundation for a career in archival work, it’s becoming more and more common for institutions to require a master’s degree from their archival staff. As a result, rigorous work in an undergraduate degree is critical in gaining admittance into a graduate program.
A four-year undergraduate history degree supplies students with the academic underpinning to pursue the necessary graduate work leading to a career in the archives. The majority of history programs include both general coursework and research, giving students direct experience of what archives can offer. Upon completion of an undergraduate degree, students should then begin looking for a master’s degree program well-suited to their goals.
According to the American Historical Association, master’s degrees in history have become the generally accepted standard for professional archival work and there are two ways of ticking this box. The first path is a master’s degree in history. Students electing to follow the first route enroll in an American history program with a concentration in public history. Within the study of public history, graduate students can focus their energies on the theoretical and practical elements of archival studies. The second route is a master’s degree in library and information science. While libraries are sometimes viewed as dusty and archaic, a graduate degree in library science is on the cutting edge of archival studies. The AHA explains that a master’s in library science will teach the nuts and bolts of archival work while simultaneously incorporating the technological advancements of the 21st century.
The Society of American Archivists lays out clear expectations for graduate programs and what they should provide an aspiring archivist. The list below is a thoughtful guide that can act as a measuring stick for graduate programs:
Hands-on, experiential learning is beneficial in many educational environments, but this is especially true for students in the archives. Learning how to handle, maintain and preserve historical documents—both paper and digital—is the archivist’s job. NYU offers a widely praised master’s in archives and public history with an internship component, and universities across the country have robust networks for students to find internships that can prove critical when entering the workforce.
Experience gained during an internship is often elemental in securing the first job in the field. Being involved in activities and with organizations/groups is a great way to network and meet people in the archival and history worlds. Just as an internship provides hands-on experience, introducing yourself to people in the archival arena could be valuable when it comes time to applying for your first job. Both the Society of American Archivists and the Academy of Certified Archivists have active job boards.
While there are no certifications or continuing education mandates on historians, keeping sharp archival skills will help individuals stand out when seeking a promotion or moving to a new job. The American Library Association offers a variety of continuing education options.
|Career Goals and/or Educational Needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s/PhD||Online|
|History has always fascinated me and I know the degree’s focus on critical thinking, reading and writing could serve me well in the future. The prospect of a full-time, on-campus schedule isn’t really an option at the moment, but I certainly want to keep moving forward academically.|
|I have a knack for writing and have always loved my history classes in the past. I know I want to build on my writing skills while also being challenged with rigorous reading and research. Law school has also always been on my radar and studying history would hone the tools that I’d use in the future.|
|Having enjoyed my undergraduate degree in history, I’m interested in continuing my education and either pursuing a master’s in public history or library and information science with the goal of becoming an archivist.|
|I like history, but there are a lot of options out there. I know that a history course or two will be a required when I transfer to a four-year college, and I’ve always fared well in classes that focus on reading and writing.|
Degrees in history provide both theoretical and concrete knowledge at every level, though a students understanding of each are deepened as they move further into higher education. Because history reaches far back into our collective past and covers every civilization, there are also many different concentrations available. Keep reading to learn more.
An associate degree in history provides students with a basic inventory of historical knowledge in considerably less time than a bachelor’s degree. While shorter in credit hours, this degree still challenges the student to consider social, political, economic and cultural histories and how each relates to our understanding of current domestic and world climates. Completion of this degree prepares students for admission into four-year institutions and acts as an introduction into related career fields.
Exams economic, political and social developments in the country, ranging from Colonial America until the Civil War.
Acquaints students with America’s history after the Civil War through to present day, with focus on World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam war, among others.
Traces the rise of early civilizations, ranging from Japan and India to China and Europe. Students will gain a clearer understanding of the context for later events in world history.
Introduces students to the main developments and central themes throughout world civilizations from the 16th century until present, with focus on areas of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
A bachelor’s degree in history provides students with skills in critical thinking, research and writing that are necessary for a career or graduate work. Augmented by other liberal arts coursework, students graduate with a well-rounded set of intellectual tools to investigate the past with a keen and critical eye. Students study histories, domestic and abroad, recent and ancient, and develop research and writing skills that may eventually result in substantial, original historical research. An undergraduate degree in history can lead to careers ranging from archival work to freelance writing while also laying the groundwork for graduate degrees ranging from history to law.
Provides students with necessary tools for analyzing original texts and producing thoughtful historical writing. Students are introduced to historiography and varied historical theories while also learning about research methods and source evaluation.
Introduces students to the craft of historical research and writing and builds a toolbox for framing original research. Students also continue honing their research skills and learn about writing styles specific to the craft of history.
Explores topics related to the Civil War, including the causes and consequences. Students are asked to consider how a transformative event in history has lasting effects.
Investigates two major revolutions taking place in the Russian Empire in 1905 and 1917. Students are asked to dig into the political, social, economic, and cultural issues at work and focus on a particular component to create an extended essay.
This is typically a two-year program focusing on a more specific area of history and providing graduates with specialized expertise in their area of study. Advanced courses challenge the student to perform intellectually at an especially high level and in many cases produce a thesis of publishable quality and academic heft. A master’s degree in history can also act as preparation and as a prerequisite for admittance into a PhD program. As mentioned at above, a master’s in public history is generally required for professional work in archives.
Focuses on the historical profession, providing students with concrete approaches and frameworks necessary to produce sound, properly researched historical documents.
Typically taught at all levels of a history degree; at the graduate level, this course takes a deeper look at the different fields of study, theories, and methodologies at work within the discipline.
Welcomes students to the wonderful world of archival management, highlighting common tasks and manuscript collections. Other topics may include copyright and usage rights, referencing, and disaster planning.
Method and Theory. Teaches students about the methodological and theoretical frameworks surrounding the study of public history. These courses tend to be interactive and include opportunities for fieldwork, site visits, projects and workshops.
The most demanding and advanced study of history, obtaining a PhD requires years of discipline, patience, and work of the highest intellectual and academic quality. In most cases, this degree prepares the student for a professional life dedicated to scholarship and teaching. Although securing tenured positions as a history professor has become considerably more difficult in recent years, history will always be taught, and there will always be a need for history professors. Following the coursework required for this degree, the PhD candidate will submit a dissertation of publishable quality, effectively rendering them an expert on the topic they’ve written about. The following classes are examples of what PhD students might encounter in their studies.
Challenges students to consider how historians have approached and written about American history throughout time, be it related to scientific discovery, religious influence, or social relations.
Explores topics related to world systems and civilizational approaches. Students compare historical accounts, study migration patterns, and consider cross-cultural dialogues related to international accounts of history.
Covers the 1450’s until the 1750’s and asks students to reflect on how individuals of Jewish descent have interacted in non-Jewish communities. Special emphasis is placed on understanding how their society and culture, along with religious practices, have influenced – or been influenced by – other cultures.
Focuses not on the research students are reading, but rather on how historians used their research to craft a narrative, and on the methodologies and theories employed to develop historical arguments and theses.
History majors are found in almost every profession. In fact, a survey of history graduates from Vanderbilt University found that 30 percent went on to careers in business, 24 percent went into law, 17 percent turned to education, seven percent went into the military, and 12 percent went into other professions such as journalism, archival research and management, consulting, counseling, museum administration, and legislative work. Another eight percent went on to graduate school to study something other than law, such as psychology or business administration.
However, despite the versatility of a history education, there are some jobs that put the degree to more literal use, such as those in libraries or museums. Here are a few of the interesting history careers available:
Curators are responsible for handling museums’ collections. They often oversee the collections from acquisition to exhibit, and sometimes even handle the sale of certain items. In addition to authenticating, evaluating, categorizing and properly displaying museum treasures, curators might also raise funds for the museum, conduct research on museum pieces, promote events or collections, and write grant proposals.
Also known as registrars, museum technicians directly assist curators by preparing museum items for display and caring for items when they are on the museum floor or in storage. They might help curators evaluate and authenticate collections. They often speak with the public about the various collections and might lead museum tours.
Archivists focus on historical documents, especially those from a particular time period. Job duties might include authenticating rare or recently unearthed documents, carefully preserving documents that are thought to be of historical value, researching items that could be added to a collection, and providing educational or public outreach, such as guiding tours or dealing with the media. In addition to documents, archivists might also work with electronic records, photographs, maps, sound recordings and even websites.
The history degree often serves as a great foundation for librarians, whose work consists of helping others locate the books, documents and other information they need, whether for work or pleasure. Librarians might work directly with the public or in administrative services; they can be found in schools, academic libraries and public libraries.
Those who love history might enjoy teaching it to others, whether at the K-12 or postsecondary level. History teachers bring history to life in the classroom with interactive educational experiences, lectures, reading assignments, creative homework requirements and the like. They might also produce original research.
These experts are keepers of the past. They study and collect historical documents and memorabilia; conduct research on items, places, people and times of interest; and present their findings to colleagues, organizations, museums, schools and others. Historians might work to preserve items or places, develop theories for research, publish their findings or engage with the public.
Although there are numerous career paths in the history field, the skills that students learn along the way will hold them in good stead for a variety of non-history-related jobs. These are some of the most sought-after skills that come naturally to many history grads:
The very nature of history requires research into the past, and that skill carries over to almost any career field. The ability to examine information and draw logical conclusions from it is an integral part of historical study and benefits anyone — from financial analysts to consultants to professors.
Historical accuracy requires strict attention to detail; the wrong date entered in a research paper or incorrect information when establishing authenticity of an antique can make a huge, possibly career-ending difference. Attention to detail is a fantastic advantage in any profession, from the businessman closing a deal to the writer on a deadline.
History often presents interesting problems, such as how to determine the particular date of a document or how historical events unfolded. The ability to solve problems is an excellent skill for anyone from lawyers to politicians to CEOs.
Communication skills are honed for history majors through public speaking, research papers and roundtable discussions. Being able to speak intelligently about research findings, create a list of key points in a presentation and communicate through every medium are important parts of any career.
From writing grant proposals to finding the perfect phrasing to describe a museum exhibit, writing skills are an absolute must. This skill carries over to almost any other profession, especially those that require constant communications in written form, such as attorneys or teachers.
Those with an interest in history quickly learn the value of analyzing large amounts of historical data to find the truth of a matter. This is essential for anyone who works in a job that requires him or her to sift through information and get down to the key points, such as an attorney, human resource professional or manager.
Those who work in the history field use a variety of tools and technology, depending on the specific career. These might include computer programs such as Adobe Systems, Web Scrapbook, and Microsoft Word. But there are others that are more specialized, including:
Additional tools may also be needed, such as scanners and copiers, microfiche or microfilm machines and assistive listening devices.
The salaries for history careers can vary widely, depending on the profession. Below is a list of history salaries for the most common careers pursued by history graduates.
In addition to the careers that go hand-in-hand with a history degree, there are numerous other options available to those who have studied history. Take a look at the related career paths that history grads can pursue, as well as potential earnings for each:
Looking to branch out even further in the world of communications? These jobs make good use of the skills and knowledge typically required:
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics
As a group of archivists, the Academy has essentially created uniform expectations the practice of archiving. Their website provides substantial information for archivists and prospective archivists.
This is the main organization for American historians, and their website is an excellent tool for individuals interested in pursuing history in any academic capacity.
Another resource for those interested in a career in the archives, ALA has an extensive database for researching master’s degree programs in library science and information.
Working to build a community for public historians, this is a useful group to engage with if thinking about a degree in public history. The site has a job board and a calendar of interesting events.
An incredible site for archivists and those interested in the field, this website has endless resources ranging from educational materials to a career/job board. For those interested in the field, consider becoming a member.