What You Need to Know About Becoming a History Major

It’s no secret that many departments use job prospects to lure undergraduates trying to pick a major. History departments in particular tend to tout their alumni’s diverse array of career paths in an attempt to answer the inevitable question: “But what will you do with that?” Among college majors, it seems, history is considered just “useful” enough to have to justify itself, but not so useful that students would flock to it anyway. Studying history, however, gives graduates tremendous flexibility in the job market. In fact, history is not merely a degree you could consider—it is the degree you would be remiss not to.

Studying history gives graduates tremendous flexibility in the job market. In fact, history is not merely a degree you could consider—it is the degree you would be remiss not to.

Learn the Intangibles To understand why, consider the NFL Combine. Scouts look at players’ speed, strength, and agility, but when it comes to offering a contract, these metrics are often pushed to the side—after all, if you’re at the combine, everyone already knows you’re good at football. Instead, the make-or-break elements are often what scouts call “intangibles”—not whether a player can run a specific play right now, but whether they have the acumen to succeed in the long run. When you graduate from college, you’ll already be at the combine. A history degree will give you the intangibles.

Though I graduated just two years ago, my own career path is already proof. I currently work in communications for a foundation that makes grants to improve public transportation. Previously, I wrote about public policy issues for a think tank. On paper, the two jobs are quite different, but in practice they have much in common. I plan events, organize calls, talk with colleagues in the field, and I write constantly—for audiences as big as the Internet and as small as my coworkers—in ways that require thinking critically about current events. I also edit other people’s writing that seeks to do the same. I owe this set of skills less to what the history major taught me (though that’s important too) than to how the history major taught it.

Write, Write, and Write Some More When I was eight years old, I wrote to John Anderson, my favorite sports reporter, asking what I needed to do to become his successor. His response, handwritten on ESPN stationery, was concise and memorable: read all the writing you can get your hands on, and try to emulate the best of it.

History approximates this advice better than most majors in college. From reading responses to book reviews, term papers to my senior thesis, I would estimate I produced at least 400 pages of writing in my history classes alone. And it mattered—at the end of each year, I was a better writer than I had been the previous September. In later years of college, when history classes gave me more freedom to follow my own research interests, I was confident that I could independently devise a work plan that would result in a solid piece of writing.

In the working world, I cannot stress enough the importance of these twin skills—knowing what you need to write and then actually writing it well. There is an unfortunate perception that good writing skills are innate. Extraordinary writing might be innate, but no one is asking you to write like the next Faulkner (and, in the working world, a memo or blog post written like a Faulkner novel won’t get you very far anyway). Writing that is invisible—that permits readers to understand an idea or argument without noticing the syntax used to support it—is very much a learned skill. A history education trains you in exactly this kind of writing, a surprisingly rare skill in the working world that will bring immediate and enduring respect from the people with whom and for whom you work.

A Skeptical Approach History is not the only major that requires substantial amounts of writing, but it is unique in combining that writing with an equally useful attitude: skepticism. Skepticism plays a central role in learning history at the college level. History teaches you to identify the biases, shortcomings, and inaccuracies inherent in everything you learn. Nothing is taken at face value—not even the work of other historians.

Skepticism has its drawbacks (mostly, it ruins your ability to enjoy movies set in the past). Like writing, however, it’s a skill that takes you beyond the lecture hall. If you are a lawyer, it allows you to spot weaknesses in your opponents’ case. If you follow the news, it allows you to question journalists’ assumptions. In my own line of work, it is why, when I saw press releases predicting that the new Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar would be an economic boon, rather than just agreeing, I helped craft a response identifying all of the issues that were not addressed.

Of course, the facts, figures, and stories that history teaches shouldn’t be overlooked. I am glad I can describe how the Atlanta subway system was shaped by racism, understand the regional dynamics of Brazilian politics, or note that Poland once had a less-than-imposing king named Władysław the Elbow-High. (I don’t remember what he did, but you don’t forget a name like that.)

The fact is that nearly everyone can find a branch of history that is interesting to them. When you are choosing a major, however, the skills imparted by history that can be carried into virtually any line of work—good writing, thinking critically about the world around you—are less obvious. You may not sense those intangibles at the moment. But four years from now, I guarantee you the scouts will.

Jacob Anbinder is a communications assistant at TransitCenter, a New York-based grantmaking foundation that seeks to improve urban mobility. Previously, he served as a policy associate at the Century Foundation, a progressive nonpartisan think tank, where he researched transportation policy. Jacob’s writing has been published in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Real Clear Policy, US News and World Report, The Fiscal Times, and The Austin American-Statesman. He received a BA in history from Yale University and was the 2014 recipient of the AHA’s Raymond J. Cunningham Prize.

Is A History Degree Worth It?

What Can I Do with a History Major?

Like other liberal arts degrees, studying history gives students communication and critical thinking skills that can be applied to a variety of careers.

With a bachelor’s degree, history majors might work as policy analysts, editors or paralegals, to name a few possibilities. For students interested in teaching, some schools allow history majors to simultaneously pursue teacher certification. History majors can also consider graduate study in fields including law, journalism, the arts and business. Majors who go on to receive master’s or doctorate degrees in history can look for jobs at colleges, universities and museums, among other locations.

What Can You Do With a History Degree?

While earning a history degree, you might study the American Revolution, the culture of the Renaissance, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, or the history of the environmental movement. History encompasses every past era and society, from the first written words of the Sumerians through todays increasingly global world.

But most jobs dont care if you can recite the U.S. presidents in order or recall the date the Western Roman Empire fell. So what can you do with a history degree?

Heres the good news: While a history degree emphasizes knowledge about the past, it also builds skills that are useful in todays workforce. In fact, history is one of the most versatile degrees, leading to careers in a variety of industries.

Debunking Myths About History Majors

There are a lot of myths out there about history majors. According to these myths, professionals with a history degree make less money than those with different degrees and face higher unemployment rates.

But is a history degree useless?

The facts show that history majors face lower unemployment rates than economics, business management, and communication majors. In an American Community Survey (ACS) conducted between 2010-2014, the unemployment rate for history majors sat several percentage points below the national average, within half a percent of the unemployment rate for all degree-holders.

Do history majors make less than other majors? Humanities majors generally earn lower salaries than engineering or business majors. On average, history majors earn $55,000 per year, higher than the $51,000 per year for graduates with a life sciences degree and below the $60,000 per year business majors make.

However, the salaries of jobs for history majors vary greatly depending on the field. History majors in managerial positions earn $80,000 per year on average, while those in legal fields earn $100,000. Other common jobs, like education and community and social services, offer average salaries below $50,000.

In addition, a new report points out that while humanities or social sciences majors may earn less than someone with a business degree in the short term, these same majors earn around $2,000 more than individuals with professional or pre-professional degrees during peak earning ages (56-60).

FAQ

Is it a good idea to major in history?

Like any bachelor’s degree, earning a history degree is an investment — and ACS data shows it pays off. In 2017, the median income for employed history majors from ages 25-64 stood at $60,000, well above the national average. Equally importantly, a history degree prepares graduates for a wide variety of careers.

Is majoring in history hard?

History is a moderately hard major. A history degree is somewhat difficult because it requires a lot of reading, writing, and researching. However, a history major does not require any advanced technical skills or knowledge which help it from becoming too challenging. History is an information-intensive subject.

What career is right for me if I like history?

10 history degree jobs
  • Park ranger.
  • Reporter or journalist.
  • Librarian.
  • Museum archivist.
  • History professor.
  • Historian.
  • Writer or editor.
  • Researcher.

Is history the easiest major?

History majors might be considered easier than other majors because of the lack of lab work and technical writing required. You’ll spend a lot of your time as a history major analyzing older texts and writing papers on your thoughts.

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