History majors study the rise and fall of civilizations, political systems, and people from around the world. But contrary to the misguided notion that historians simply memorize obscure historical events, a quality history program helps students develop their critical thinking faculties. Given hundreds of pages of reading per week and tasked with completing several exploratory and analytical essays per term, students leave school with sharp analytical, research, and written communication skills.
Naturally, those abilities qualify you for jobs in a variety of industries. Whether you are interested in marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), journalism, or something entirely different, the critical thinking skills you develop will help you adapt seamlessly to the field of your choice. And while the mathematically-inclined may wonder how you can get a job with a liberal arts degree, the numbers suggest history majors are doing just fine: A 2015 report from Georgetown University notes that professionals holding a bachelor’s degree in history earn an annual median income of approximately $54,000.
What is a History Degree?
Most four-year colleges and universities offer a history degree, and many also award a minor in the discipline. Courses cover social, political, economic, and geographic history from around the globe; in some programs, you can specialize in a location or an era of your choice. History helps students understand our current world through a detailed examination of the past while also preparing graduates for the working world by helping them develop strong analytical, writing, research, and critical thinking skills.
The B.A. in History
A student completing a bachelor’s degree in history develops an understanding of the historical factors that have contributed to the development of human society. Students may choose to pursue an area of specialization, ranging from science and technology to gender and women’s history. Students may also be required to complete a thesis.
History is a broad discipline, and students typically focus most of their studies on a particular time period or region of the world. While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some of the most common specializations or concentrations that history majors choose to pursue.
Generally, history majors that choose a specialization (or write a thesis) pick a particular region of the world to focus on. These can be broad (sub-Saharan Africa) or narrow (the state of Washington) depending on which part of the world interests you, and the amount of resources available at your school in your field of interest.
- Time Period
Another common specialization category is a time period. Some history majors focus on World War II, for example, or cover a country or society over a range of years. Regardless of whether you want to study deep history, the medieval period, or the onset of the industrialization era, you have the opportunity to focus on a period of history that piques your interest.
Some branches of history are best examined outside the constructs of time and place. Broad social and political movements like Marxism, or topical subjects — such as the history of the environment — are not confined to eras or regions. These specializations are less common, but most large schools will offer enough courses (and have enough faculty members with relevant expertise) to allow you to pursue a concentration or write a thesis on a thematic subject.
While art history or history of science are often offered as separate majors in many schools, the tools and analytical methods used are very similar to what students employ in a traditional history program. If you’re interested in both history and art history, for example, you may be able to double major or take a number of classes in both departments.
Meet a History Major
Brendan Gawlowski Author, Baseball Prospectus
Please give us a brief background of your academic and professional experience.
I graduated with a degree in honor’s history from the University of Washington. I picked history because I was good at it in high school and it didn’t have any calculus, which isn’t really the smartest reason to choose a major, but here we are.
Once I got out of school, I started my career as a freelance editor. From there I edited a book, took a position in marketing, and eventually came back to writing and editing. Today, I work as a content editor and a baseball writer on the side. I couldn’t have done either without writing a ton of essays as an undergrad, and getting tremendous feedback from professors and peers.
What do you find most fulfilling about your career?
I like editing and writing because of the dynamic challenge inherent in making a piece convey information succinctly and engagingly. You’re always striving for perfection when you’re working on an article, and while you can’t really obtain that, you can still feel very satisfied after you’ve worked hard on something.
What types of people excel in this field?
Critical thinking skills are important, as is some command of the language. To write or edit well, you have to be able to look at bad writing and not only poke holes in it, but also find a way to make the piece better while keeping the author’s original message intact. That’s not easy to do at first, and the challenge is greater if you need to look at a thesaurus regularly. It sounds too obvious to be valuable advice, but it’s very hard to work as a content writer, journalist, or editor if you struggle writing college essays.
What was the job search process like after earning your degree?
My biggest initial challenge was in identifying how my skills best translated to the working world. There aren’t “history jobs” in the same way that there are electrical engineering or finance positions; you have to get creative. My strongest skill was my writing, so I started by pursuing jobs as a freelance writer and freelance editor. As I worked as an editor and a writer, I sharpened those skills further and became qualified to do more substantive work over time. The thing with a history degree is that you build so many skills: critical thinking, analytical, writing, research, etc. You could just as easily end up in marketing or data research and do very well in those fields with the skills you develop in a history program.
What challenges do you face at work on any given day?
Spending part of my time writing, and part of my time editing, I get to see the viewpoints of the editor and the writer from both vantages. Inevitably, there’s tension in the editorial process, and navigating that is always challenging.
What additional advice would you give to a history student looking to start their career?
Learn what you can about SEO before you graduate and apply for jobs. Anybody that says “you can’t get a job with a liberal arts degree” doesn’t know what that acronym means, and there are plenty of jobs available in the industry for someone who can write. You don’t have to go down that path, but becoming proficient in SEO can help you get your foot in the door in writing, editing, marketing, sales, and a few other fields where you can launch a career.
Job Skills Developed within a History DegreeHistory degree students graduate with a strong liberal arts background and an employable skill set. Below are some of the most broadly applicable skills you will develop in a history program.
- Critical Analysis
Critical analysis is necessary for strategizing, problem-solving, and troubleshooting. Students engaged in historical study develop a well-rounded intellect that is conducive to critical analysis. In today’s information- and technology-saturated world, employers want workers who are able to quickly discern and communicate information and ideas.
- Cultural Literacy and Sensitivity
Understanding the history, perspectives, and contributions of various cultural groups is an important part of working well with others professionally. Students with a history degree have been exposed to various cultures, and are prepared to work well with people from diverse backgrounds.
- Effective Writing and Communication
Strong writing and communication skills are important in any field, and the amount of reading and writing that history majors do is conducive to sharpening those abilities.
- Research Skills
To write effective papers, history students must learn to be good researchers. Whether they are poring over books and microfilm in the library, or deep-diving through internet-based databases, history majors are adept at finding information quickly and efficiently. These skills translate well to positions as librarians, market researchers, or policy analysts.
What are the Best Careers for History Majors?
With such a range of adaptable skills, History majors are qualified for careers in a variety of fields. Regardless of what you want to do, history majors should have no trouble finding a job after graduation.
Common Career Paths
The following are some traditional careers options for history majors:
Most historians need at least a master’s degree, and they specialize in areas such as historical preservation, archival management, and museum studies. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 2% growth in employment opportunities for historians over the next decade.
- Information Science and Research
Information science and research is a traditional history degree job path for graduates with well-honed research, information-gathering, and analytical skills. These positions require professionals to archive, appraise, document, and catalog records and information for historically important items/artwork. Most workers entering these positions can do so with a bachelor’s degree. Experts project the field to grow by 7% through 2024.
It’s not at all uncommon for history majors to attend law school. Fordham University even notes that “a substantial percentage of Fordham Law School students have an undergraduate major in history.” Writing, critical thinking, information-gathering, sorting, and analyzing skills are emphasized in a history program and necessary in law. History majors can also pursue other legal careers, including working as a paralegal or as legislative staff in the government. BLS notes that the projected employment growth rate for lawyers is 6% through 2024, and 5% for other legal jobs.
Teaching opportunities aren’t limited to educating students in a traditional school environment. History majors may go on to teach or work as docents at historic sites and museums, as well. History majors can impart their knowledge in careers as consultants, archivists, writers, and more. Depending on the organization and grade level, majors can often tailor their degrees or pursue continuing education opportunities to fit certain positions.
- Writing and Editing
History majors are accustomed to conducting research, verifying sources, interpreting information, and thinking creatively, all of which are crucial skills in journalism or editing. History majors may also pursue careers as content writers and editors, where they use their communication skills to generate enormous amounts of content efficiently.
Outside-the-Box Career Paths
Like any liberal arts degree, a history major leaves school with the tools to find work in nearly any industry. While none of the career paths below are traditionally associated with history, many graduates with the degree eventually wind up in the following fields.
The ability to conduct research, develop reports, and analyze information is at the heart of any successful business, and history graduates are well-prepared for introductory business positions requiring those skills. Common jobs for history majors in business include market research analysts, business operations specialists, and financial planners
Similar to writing and editing, a career in communications may be a good fit for history majors. Many history majors become public relations specialists. PR specialists handle media inquiries for people and brands, and help shape a positive image for their clients. The BLS projects a 6% increase in public relations specialist positions through 2024.
The communication skills and analytical abilities you’ll develop in history lend themselves well to working in a non-profit environment. Since many history majors specialize in a certain region or demographic, expertise can also be leveraged in community-level grassroots NGOs at a national and international level.
- Politics and Government
Politics and government make a great arena for history majors for the same reason that law does. Their writing, critical thinking, information-gathering, sorting, and analytical skills, as well as their informed world view, make them great candidates to be civil servants, serve on campaigns, work as legislative aides in state and federal government, or to work as researchers.
Seemingly an unnatural fit, many prominent tech engineers and business owners (most notably Steve Jobs) majored in history. If you want to work in tech, you’ll need to learn how to code, but whether you develop those skills in school or on your own, the soft skills you hone as a history major dovetail nicely with coding ability.
- American Historical Association: The AHA has developed a blog devoted to preparing history degree majors in their search for jobs by empowering them with information, including articles written by successful history majors, and relevant news.
- National Council on Public History: Headquartered at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the National Council on Public History is a repository of information for the public history professional and those seeking history major jobs, including job listings across the country, numerous internships, publications, and conferences.
- Organization of American Historians: This organization is the largest professional society devoted to educators and students of American history; it has a number of publications and programs that could benefit history majors and recent graduates.
- The Columbia Undergraduate Journal of History (CUJH): Papers written by undergraduates majoring in history at universities across the country are published by CUJH, which gives the student recognition useful to enter graduate school and in job-seeking.
- History News Network: As the name states, HNN, housed at George Mason University, is a repository of news from around the world. They regularly offer internship and submission opportunities to get you started as a writer.
- Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC): An American institution, the Smithsonian provides paid and unpaid internships opportunities with various branches within the system. These include summer internships at the Air and Space Museum, year-round internships at the National Museum of American History, and a number of virtual internships conducted with guidance from a Smithsonian mentor.
- State Department (Washington, D.C., or overseas): If you want to work for the government or enter politics, an internship at the State Department is an excellent opportunity to get started. Paid and unpaid internships are available year-round for students at different levels (high school, college, graduate) in areas such as the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs; the Economic, Energy and Business Affairs Bureau; the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; the Bureau of Intelligence and Research; and the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
- Society for professional Journalists: This organization, known as SPJ, is supported by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and is a professional organization where journalists can meet others through state chapters, access career training resources, and participate in awards contests. Those seeking history degree jobs related to journalism may find this to be a helpful resource.
- You Majored in What?: This book by Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., provides a roadmap to help recent graduates learn to reframe their skills to market their abilities to employers.