Published Date

October 21, 2018

Resource Type

AHA Resource, Booklet, Essay, For Departments, 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 Sarah Shurts

In a society where the cost of higher education continues to rise and the prospect of a job after college becomes less certain, it is no wonder that students show increasing interest in the marketability of the degree they choose.

The question “what can you do with a history degree?” reflects a realistic concern about preparation for life after college rather than disinterest in the intrinsic value of a liberal education. For many students, the selection of a major is not purely about pursuing their intellectual passion; it is also about developing the skills needed for a career.

What skills do employers look for, and how does a degree in history prepare students to meet those expectations? According to a professor of business at Rutgers University, focus groups indicate that many employers believe “technical skills can be taught” and are often “firm specific.” This makes the so-called soft skills— from interpersonal communication to decision making—the kind that set certain applicants apart and help them win jobs. An information technology (IT) employer at Novartis echoes this view, explaining that even in IT, “employers do value that outside thinking and analytical reasoning that history majors have.” If these soft skills can help a student stand out in the job market, then what specialized skills do history majors develop, and how can they convey what they have learned to potential employers?

At the most fundamental level, history majors are taught to ask broad questions, search for specific answers, and craft narratives to make those answers clear and compelling to readers and listeners. In formulating the right questions and hunting for answers—pursuing leads into places both predictable and surprising—a history major finds, reads, and critiques a tremendous amount of material. History majors must learn to recognize reliable sources, to move beyond established sources for elusive information, and to gather evidence systematically, comprehensively, and carefully. Reading this way is good training for handling dense information in any job, but reading for a history major is not just a way to accumulate information— it is also a way to hear many and differing voices on a particular question. It encourages students to consider multiple perspectives, opinions, approaches, and arguments, and to weigh and challenge what they learn.

Historians learn to recognize and consider author biases, personal backgrounds, social context, and buried motives.

Even after accumulating, reading, and synthesizing a variety of perspectives, historians are taught to consider what these sources cannot provide and to recognize the lack of absolute truth in answer to any one question. Learning to approach questions, research, and reading in this way makes history students critical consumers of information. They are exacting; they recognize an argument’s weaknesses and its strengths; and they are quick to challenge inaccuracy, unreliability, or insufficient evidence.

Historians don’t stop at gathering and critiquing information; they also shape it into an engaging and convincing narrative. Because history students are asked to write constantly, they learn to communicate ideas with speed, clarity, and elegance. They must organize their thoughts and their materials; understand others’ arguments and structure their own; develop engaging narratives; and communicate in a way that speaks to a variety of audiences. Employers are quite aware that those who can approach information with a critical eye, consider diverse perspectives, structure an argument, and translate it successfully to a range of audiences are assets to any business or organization.

Perhaps what makes history unique among the liberal arts is the teaching of change and continuity over time. Governments, technology, international relationships, workforces and demographics, styles, wealth, markets, and resources all undergo constant change. Historians know how change happens; they have identified it in the past and can gauge its occurrence in the present. Employers appreciate employees who can prepare for, identify, and react well to change and who can help prepare a business or institution to weather and benefit from it. Handling change well in the future derives in part from knowing what happened in the past and how changes were handled. What was successful and what failed? Historians do not end their assessment there. They can identify business trends and political patterns—citing past precedent to help guide present decisions— but they also know the importance of context and contingency. Historians are valuable to businesses, organizations, and employers not only for their knowledge of the past but also because they know not to view the past as a blueprint for the future. They see historical precedent as a lesson, not a litmus test, for present decisions.

A degree in history requires study of many regions, Western and non-Western, and encourages students to think beyond themselves and their own experience to broader communities across time and place. The appreciation students gain for the larger world teaches them to find common ground with others but also to value and respect what is different.

History majors learn to privilege exchange, collaboration, and diversity over isolation, insularity, or parochialism.

A study of the past also teaches students that people—and their behaviors, laws and customs, structures of power, and values and beliefs—are products of their collective history and cannot always be easily altered or replaced. Businesses and organizations need employees who appreciate cultural differences, value exchange and growth, and understand the innumerable ways that a community’s past can influence its present.

In general, history students are versatile learners who value other disciplines that help inform their work. Historians regularly move outside their own disciplines to study foreign languages, statistics, economics, politics, cultural studies, international business, the arts and humanities, and even science, technology, and medicine in order to better understand the historical context of their topic. Because they familiarize themselves with disciplines not their own, they are better able to draw on diverse sources when initiating conversations or developing solutions to problems. This eclectic knowledge base and the ability to synthesize ideas culled from it are valuable assets for employers who need out-of- the-box thinking and innovative approaches.

History graduates are well positioned for a broad variety of career paths, something employers will recognize as students learn to translate their skills into a language that employers understand. History is neither an indulgence of the elite nor a frivolous distraction from career preparation. A degree in history promotes intellectual contemplation and civic responsibility, but it also teaches essential skills to help students stand out in a challenging market and contribute to their world through their chosen career.

Sarah Shurts is associate professor of history at Bergen Community College in New Jersey and the author of Resentment and the Right: French Intellectual Identity Reimagined, 1898–2000 (2017). She has worked with the AHA as a member of the Tuning the History Discipline project, the James Harvey Robinson Prize Committee, and the 2020 Program Committee, and is also co-editor of the Journal of the Western Society for French History.