Why Study History?
Why study history? What can I do with a degree in history? These are questions that students often ask.
Professional historians have often pondered the questions and suggested answers. The American Historical Association has published two essays by eminent historians on the subject, written during different periods:
- William H. McNeill, Why Study History? (1985)
- Peter Stearns, Why Study History? (1998)
Using a larger pamphlet entitled History. But What Do I Do With It?, prepared by the Department of History at Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with the support of Theta Omega chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, Derek Rotty, 2004-2005 president of Epsilon Nu chapter of Phi Alpha Theta at The University of Memphis, gave the following answer to the question “What can I do with a degree in history?”
His brief remarks parallel those of the American Historical Association in its more extensive article entitled Careers for Students of History. The AHA site also has articles about Careers for History Majors and Resources for Job Candidates and Search Committees that have extensive information about careers in classroom teaching; museums; editing and publishing; archives; historic preservation; federal, state, and local history; consulting and contracting; researching; commmunicating; information management; legal advocacy; and business and associations . See also our page on Employment as a Historian.
You might not believe that there are many possibilities open to you with a degree in history. In fact, just the opposite is true. Academic training in history can lead to many options for future careers.What can I do with a degree in History?
The first and most obvious career is teaching. There are many different levels of teaching, each of which has particular requirements and offers different challenges. Options include teaching at secondary schools, small undergraduate schools, or large research institutions. You will have to decide which one of these might fit you best, and then achieve the requirements accordingly.
You might say, “Teaching is not for me.” Well, there are still plenty of paths you can choose. History museums and historical landmarks play a key role in how the public views history. Archivists, though usually specialized in a theme or geographical area, are also important figures. Both of these professions may involve some special education or training, but they are things to think about.
Many young men and women who are interested in law school choose history as their undergraduate major. Law schools do not accept people based on their major. They just want to be sure that you are good at whatever your major is. So, history is as good as any other major. And, you might even gain an advantage over some other students if you focus on legal/constitutional history.
So, neither teaching or the legal profession are for you? A career in writing, in some form or another, is also a possibility. Academic training in history might prepare you well for authoring historical novels, and advanced degrees, such as a Master of Arts or a Ph.D., would prepare you to publish academic books. While book contracts are hard to come by, and free-lance work may be feast or famine, there are plenty of people who have been successful in this way. Magazines and news media are other places to look. News broadcasts and publications are concerned with historical background when dealing with historical or current events. Newspapers and magazines print “back-up,” or research, articles that deal with current events, especially in the realm of politics. “These publications, in short, need writers and reporters who possess a fairly deep acquaintance with one or another facet of history or are trained to acquire such an acquaintance. . .” [quoting the Moravian College pamphlet].
In recent decades, historical documentaries have blossomed into a respectable business. The directors of these films are usually trained in film making, not history. Therefore, they have to employ people who can analyze these films for historical content and accuracy before they are finished. Ken Burns did not produce his 20-hour documentary on the Civil War all by himself.
The largest employer in the United States of America is the government, or governments — federal, state, local. Many positions, at all levels of government, require “no particular undergraduate specialty” [quoting the Moravian College pamphlet]. Like going to law school, history will work as well as English, Political Science, Business, or any other major for that matter. When it comes to seeking employment with a government, you should find out what jobs are available and check out the jobs that sound interesting to you. Your academic training in history may come in handy.
If none of this is appealing to you, that is okay. Plenty of people who majored in history have gone into family business or a totally unrelated field (although there are not too many fields that are not related in some way). Many employers, just like law schools or the government, simply want to know that you are dedicated to something and can complete what has been started. The ideas above are a few things to think about as you decide on a major or you approach graduation and you have no idea what to do with your degree in history. Any further searching and information is up to you.