Published Date

October 21, 2018

Resource Type

AHA Resource, Booklet, Essay, For Professional Development, For the Classroom

AHA Topics

Academic Departmental Affairs, Career Paths, Professional Life, Teaching & Learning, The History Major, Undergraduate Education

This essay is part of the AHA’s Career for History Majors Booklet.

By John Fea

Tara was a history major as an undergraduate. She works now at a children’s hospital in the Republic of Malawi, in southeastern Africa, spending time with sick children, building relationships with their parents, empathizing with their struggles, and then telling their stories to Americans through a variety of media outlets.

Tara writes well, listens carefully, and tells a good story. During her job interview, Tara explained to her future employers that she spent four years of college learning to step outside her own moment in time in order to understand the hopes, dreams, struggles, and mindsets of people from another era or those with beliefs that did not conform to her own. She learned all these things as a student of history. She landed this job not in spite of the fact that she studied history in college but because of it.

Brian is the CEO of a large financial analysis company in Raleigh, North Carolina. He writes columns for Forbes magazine and the Wall Street Journal and appears regularly on the Fox Business Network and Bloomberg Television. Brian wants to hire history majors. He believes that any good and well-rounded liberal arts education provides a strong foundation for business—since his work requires the ability to write, speak, and think clearly—and describes history as “singularly the best discipline for success in business.” Brian explains, “In history, you learn and become immersed in why people and groups do things over an extended period of time. History validates that people and organizations act in clearly recognizable patterns.” It teaches, he adds, “human nature.”

Brad is a police officer in Colorado Springs with two degrees in history. At first glance, there seems little connection between the study of history and the work of a police officer. But Brad reminds us that the majority of an officer’s time consists of “documenting, recording, and preparing different cases, documents and reports, many of which end up in court.” The study of history has informed Brad’s ability to analyze a crime scene or write a report of a crime from various perspectives. He has become skilled at sifting through witness statements, which he compares to interpreting primary sources.

We live in the midst of a rapidly changing marketplace in which very few twentysomethings pursue the career they trained for in college. Many will change careers multiple times over the next two decades.

As a bedrock liberal arts discipline, history offers a host of transferable skills that will serve young people well as they navigate that volatile marketplace.

In her book You Majored in What?, liberal arts career counselor Katharine Brooks argues that the goal of finding a major that will lead to an ultimate and specific career does not conform to reality. Her research shows that art majors become lawyers, chemistry majors teach English in Korea, economics majors become veterinarians, religion majors work for MTV, and English majors become psychotherapists.

The study of history prepares one for life in a global economy. Historical thinking skills are widely marketable. Students of history learn to think contextually, to recognize change over time, to grapple with the complexity of the human experience, and to distinguish cause and effect. The practice of empathy—working to understand the needs, beliefs, and emotions of people on their own terms—is an essential skill in a host of fields, from medicine to marketing.

Students of history learn to tell stories. They take data and make meaning of it.

They can turn a spreadsheet into a compelling narrative to help sell a product or to inform people about issues relevant to their lives. They read critically and excel at research, whether in the newsroom or the law office.

While students of history accumulate knowledge that contributes to precisely the kind of cultural literacy necessary to sustaining a strong republic, they also develop the skills that lead to meaningful work. A recent study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences found that upon reaching the midpoint of their careers, history majors garnered median salaries equivalent to, if not higher than, the wages of those who pursued most other college degrees.

Students with degrees in history must be prepared to articulate how the disciplinary skills and practices they acquired in college translate into specific jobs and how their experiences off campus—through internships, study abroad, volunteer work—intersect with their scholarly training and the needs of the marketplace. Strong undergraduate history curricula will incorporate career preparation while working closely with career professionals on campus to help students understand the transferable skills they are gleaning by way of their course work and extracurricular opportunities.

Many history majors choose this field because they are passionate about it. As Brooks writes,“It’s hard to argue with that high a level of engagement in a subject— their passion will translate to better grades, better relationships with professors (for recommendations), and a better quality of life than pursuing something they aren’t interested in just because it’s ‘practical.’”

This is wonderful advice, but let’s also remember that history is practical. Majoring in history is not only a wise choice if you aim to mature intellectually, participate in a deliberative and diverse democracy, and change the world—it is also a very good economic decision.

John Fea is professor of history and chair of the history department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.