Careers for Students of History: Introduction

“What can I do with a major in history?” Career counselors, job fairs, and even college faculty are full of advice about the many careers open to students who are contemplating or have completed an undergraduate major in history. While all that advice can be valuable, it does not address or answer a quite different question that many students who have chosen history as a major or minor may ask: what careers are open to me if I want to be an historian? Such students see the study of history not as part of a general education preparing them to be something else, but as a discipline and a profession with interests, skills, and methods in which they wish to be engaged. This booklet is for those who want to do history. We hope that it will provide you with guidance to help you reach that goal.

In the following chapters, we try to demonstrate the range of jobs in which you might enter the historical profession as an ongoing career. You can apply your history degree in a variety of workplaces and under a variety of job titles, including educator, researcher, writer, editor, information manager, advocate, businessperson, or simply as a history professional. Professional historians need diverse skills because they often carry out multiple historical activities in any particular workplace. Historians in museums manage and interpret collections of objects but are also called upon to serve as researchers, writers, editors, and educators. Similarly, archivists trained as historians will process and protect collections of historical source materials, but also need to research, educate, write, edit, and provide advocacy information. We examine careers for historians in a variety of workplaces, briefly describe some of the varied activities you might be called upon to perform, and assess the type of training and preparation you will need for a successful career in the field.

Skills of the Professional Historian

Historians possess a number of skills that help to define them as members of the profession. Some are unique to historians while others are shared with or similar to those practiced in other disciplines that study the past, such as archaeology, art history, literature, historical geography, and folklore. Increasingly, historians find themselves working across disciplines, either as part of a team of people drawn from many fields or by adapting methods drawn from other disciplines for their individual research. So what is it that professional historians do that makes them historians? What are the skills they bring into the varied workplaces that hire them as historians? Fundamentally, historians attempt to answer important questions about past human activity and experience, to share the answers they discover and develop with others, and to explain the relevance of those findings for the benefit of contemporary society.

The historical method—a systematic approach to solving the problems of the past—is central to the historian’s skills. This process involves several key steps, the first of which is phrasing the questions or describing the problem in historical terms.
A museum curator asks not only, “What is this object, and of what material is it made?” but “When and where was it made? Who made it? How was it used? What other objects were associated with this one, or could be used for the same purpose? How important is this object, or others associated with it, as a record of values or relationships from the past? What can it tell us about a culture or a time different from our own? How is knowledge of that difference useful to us in the present?”
A consultant hired to write the celebratory centennial history of a religious congregation asks not only, “When was this church or synagogue founded and when was the building built?” but “Who built it? What motivated them to begin this institution? What were their initial goals and purposes? How did they organize to achieve them, and how have those goals and the organization changed over time? What obstacles and disagreements did they encounter, and how did they overcome or solve them? How was this church or synagogue or mosque part of a larger pattern of religious thought, organization, or development in its time and place?”

A corporate historian asks not only, “Who founded this company, and what were its products or policies fifty years ago?” but “How was the organization structured in order to develop policies or products? To whom were these marketed and how successful was the campaign? Who were the company’s principal competitors? How did it enter into competition against them? How have its successful products changed over time, and what technologies or decision-making processes were used to make those changes? What was the internal or external economic or political climate which enabled those changes to succeed, or caused them to fail?”

In answering such questions or solving specific historical problems, the second critical skill historians bring to the study of the past is the understanding that any historical problem or question has a larger context. Historians are concerned with two types of context. The historical context addresses how a particular event or issue from the past was part of a chain of events, or how it fit into a web of connected issues specific to the time or place under consideration. The historiographical context refers to the way earlier historians framed a problem or question about the past. History is produced by study and interpretation, so we can learn from the questions asked by our predecessors and by considering how the answers they provided shifted and changed over time.

As a result of their interest in other nations, peoples, cultures, and times, historians spend a considerable amount of time reading accounts of the past written by others. Often they come to be experts on the history of particular places and periods. As a result, all professional historians have learned how to use traditional information sources such as library reference tools and specialized bibliographies to search secondary sources—the vast literature of monographs, journal articles, and technical reports. These tools allow them to identify sources that provide the basic contexts for a particular historical problem. Lately, historians are also using Internet sources and electronic databases. Their general and specific knowledge of the past gives them the critical skills to evaluate the usefulness and reliability of these sources, and to select those most relevant to the historical puzzle they are seeking to solve. However, most historical problems require more information than one can gain from existing historical studies.

Historians utilize a third general skill to move from framing the questions and contexts to identifying, finding, and using primary sources. These documents, or other materials produced by historical actors at the time in question, provide the raw materials that constitute the historical record. Guided by the questions posed and the contexts gathered from secondary sources, historians use their skills to select relevant information from an undifferentiated mass of primary source material and critically evaluate its reliability, accuracy, point of view, and possible connection to other information already gathered.

Traditionally, historians have been adept at the identification and use of written or textual primary sources, such as letters, diaries, government documents, and periodicals. They have learned how to use the complex tools or finding aids developed by librarians and archivists to locate the specific archival or manuscript collections whose undigested and often vast contents are most likely to have useful information relevant to the questions being raised. Increasingly, historians are able to integrate written sources with information from other types of primary historical sources. They can locate, read, and analyze appropriate visual materials (maps, paintings, engravings, and photographs), and they understand that landscapes and cityscapes are the result of human activity and thus have historical import. Historians can also evaluate material culture, whether it is of buildings and structures or of small objects such as household goods, medical instruments, or clothing, as historical evidence about human activity.

However, historians do not simply gather information and evidence from the past. The fourth essential skill of a professional historian is the ability to organize and communicate their insights to others in a convincing and accessible way. Some historians share research through traditional written formats, such as books, articles, reports, and essays that require competency in writing a historical narrative or analysis. But for many other historians, the final product might be quite different. It might be the script for a film or video documentary, the syllabus and assignments for a course, an oral argument about the significance of a historic place, the design for a museum exhibition, or a finding aid for a complex collection of modern political papers. Into all of these products, historians infuse their cumulative understanding of historical contexts to the particular information at hand to communicate answers to historical questions.

In addition to these general skills, historians may need to develop other skills specific to the institutions in which they work. Some skills, like the practice of oral history, are relevant to a variety of workplaces. Archivists and local historical societies may carry out oral history projects to create new source materials for use by others consulting their collections. Museums may initiate an oral history project to engage their community with the issues, process, and purpose of a new exhibition. Similarly, understanding of the special research and interpretive skills needed to evaluate visual materials, or material culture, will be useful to historians in educational institutions, museums, cultural resource management careers, and local or regional historical societies.

Other skills are more specific to the historian’s workplace or field of specialization. Historians working in consulting firms or government agencies that deal with environmental issues may need knowledge of, and skills in, interpreting historic preservation laws and the technical ability to work with geographic information systems. Historians working in archives and museums may need knowledge and skills related to the special preservation and conservation needs of the objects under their care. Those teaching history in the public schools or in universities may need special pedagogical skills.

In a parallel fashion, historians specializing in the study of ancient, classical, or medieval history will need a mastery of Greek and Latin as well as special skills such as paleography (the study of ancient writing and documents), numismatics (the study of coins or medals), or sigillography (the study of seals). Similarly, historians at community-based historical agencies and projects connected with communities in which English is or was not the predominant language will need to be fluent in the written and spoken languages of the people with whom they will work. Such special language skills might even be useful for historians of the United States. Knowing, for example, Spanish in areas of the Southeast and Southwest; Japanese, Chinese, or Vietnamese in urban areas of the Far West; or Lithuanian, German, Italian, or Swedish in older ethnic immigrant communities in the Midwest and the East Coast would be an invaluable asset.

All historical careers require general historical skills and methodologies. This booklet will point out where special knowledge or skills above and beyond these must be acquired for particular kinds of historical careers.

The Importance of Professional Associations

All historians are defined to an extent by their continued contact with other historians and their service to the discipline through professional associations. Such associations exist at almost every level, from informal seminars at a local museum to national historical associations with journals and regular meetings. Regardless of the level, these associations serve an essential function in the profession.

Information about job availability and reports on the most recent developments in the profession are regularly distributed through the historical associations. Newsletters and journals (many now available to members online as well as in hard copy) keep members up-to-date on issues relevant to their fields, report on activities of friends and colleagues in other places, and publish or review the most recent scholarship. Annual meetings give historians a chance to meet others working in the same or related fields, report on their own scholarly work, hear papers and discussions of the work of others, and network with other historians.

These organizations also provide a vital service to the profession as a whole. They keep track of and report on public issues that affect historians, such as funding for historical scholarship, restrictions on access to historical documentation, and debates on the content of historical education in the public schools. They also raise and debate issues about professional ethical behavior and set standards for their field or subfield.

All historical professional organizations rely heavily on the volunteer activities of members, even the larger national associations with a professional staff. These activities can include serving on committees, reviewing material submitted for publication, writing articles or book reviews, or assisting with local arrangements when a meeting is held nearby. It is important for a student considering a career as a historian to seek out opportunities to participate in a professional association. The experience will provide crucial contacts and insights into a career in the profession.

For many would-be historians, the opportunity to participate in such organizations begins with membership in their local chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society. With more than 240,000 members active in 780 chapters, it is a good way for students to experience professional activity. Many college or university history departments also have local history clubs or graduate history associations. Most professional associations offer reduced rates for students and many encourage student participation by offering special scholarships or other opportunities to attend their annual meetings. The AHA, for instance, includes all of the types of historians that will be discussed in the following chapters—academic, public, and independent historians; graduate and undergraduate history students; archivists, curators, and editors; and history teachers at all levels—while the NCPH represents the interests of historians who aspire to extend the knowledge of the past to a broadly defined range of public audiences. Public historians reach these audiences through an equally broad spectrum of professional positions outside the academic world of schools, colleges, and universities.

While the largest of the many national professional associations may have professional staff to carry out some of their business, the smaller ones do not, and almost all historical professional organizations rely heavily on the volunteer activities of members. These activities can include service on committees, willingness to serve as reviewers of material submitted for publication, or even participation in making “local arrangements” when a professional meeting is held in a nearby community. If you are considering a career as a historian, it is important to seek out opportunities to participate in a professional association. What you see is an essential part of what you will be doing when you become a member of the profession. To help you get started, names, web sites, and other contact information for specific professional historical associations are included throughout this publication, and in the section on “Resources for Further Exploration” at the end of this book.

The Structure of this Publication

In order to make it easier for you to compare different professional opportunities within history, we have tried to follow a consistent format and organization within each of the chapters that follow.

Overview of the Field provides a broad description of the historical work typical of a general category of historical workplaces.

Scope of Training describes the special skills that are required and how to acquire them.

Types of Jobs and Recent Trends in the Job Market assess the career opportunities presently available within those career tracks.

Each of the chapters has another feature that we hope will bring the career paths they describe to life. We have asked historians from a wide range of institutions and jobs to describe how they became a historian, what they do in their day-to-day work, and why that work is meaningful to them and to others. The Professional Profiles in each chapter merely hint at the variety of opportunities a career in that field can offer, but we hope that collectively they offer a representative picture of the many ways in which a diverse group of men and women have been able to create satisfactory careers based on their interest in the past.

The pamphlet concludes with a section on Resources for Further Exploration, which brings together publications and web sites where students and others interested in a particular career path can find out more on their own.