Career Guide for History Majors
What Can One Do with a History Major?
Most individuals assume that history majors are destined to teach grade school and high school and that a few who get advanced degrees teach at colleges and universities. In reality, historians practice their craft in museums, libraries, archives, consulting firms, and various branches of the federal government, including the military. A large number of history majors find employment outside the profession, where they use their writing, research, and analytical skills in business and social services. (For two historians' view on this matter that mirrors mine, click here and here. For information about the disconnect between the mix of broad and specific skills that employers want and the perception graduates have about meeting employers' needs, click here. For details about employment for historians with doctorates, click here.) Many use history as a stepping stone to professional graduate programs, such as law. To help students who are interested in a history major but who are unsure about how they will survive in the workplace, I have created a downloadable and printable map titled "Career Options for History Majors."
Developing an Exit Strategy
Many students discover, unfortunately after abysmal performance in a few classes, that they lack the interest or aptitude for a particular major. They may switch their major from history to business, journalism, or the sciences. Other students have come from those majors to history after deciding to pursue the course of study they loved the most. Only a few select history because they find it the simplest path for them to get a diploma. Like similar students in other majors, they find it easy to meet the minimum requirements because they have the aptitude to think like historians, and they would excel were they to apply themselves. As a result, like any major, within the cohort of those studying history are a variety of individuals: long-term devotees, new arrivals to the field, ambivalent individuals who are considering other alternatives, and a few slackers.
There always are some students in every field of study who complete a degree and come to regret their major. A number of graduates cannot find employment in their field, or if they do, they decide afterward that they do not like their profession. I have met a few graduates who received their BA in history only to enter professional programs in completely unrelated fields, such as medicine, architecture, and fine art, as opposed to the more common destinations of post-baccalaureate programs in law, business, and education. A United States Census Bureau study in 2014 also determined that approximately half of those with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors do not find employment in their respective fields after graduation (a posting about the study appears on this website here). Furthermore, individuals make dramatic shifts in their careers well after graduating from college. I have encountered many over the years: a marine engineer who became successful in construction sales; a history teacher who now owns a thriving masonry restoration firm; a veterinarian turned artist; a successful career diplomat who received a doctorate in history; a chief structural engineer for a Fortune 500 corporation who left his job to devote all his time to his lucrative Amway consumer products distribution business; a tenured English professor who became an electrical contractor; a banker who bought a concrete ready-mix company; and a chef who became a banker before moving into outside sales. There also are a number of students in graduate classes with careers in other fields but who have begun pursuing their interest in history.
There also are students in every discipline who have minors or even double majors for one of two reasons. First, some wish to gain another perspective on their chosen field of study (history and political science is a popular combination as is English and drama or biology and chemistry) to better prepare them for graduate studies and their chosen career. Second, others want to hedge their bets should they decide to abandon the pursuit of their preferred profession in order to enter the employment market. These students select as a minor or second major a field that promises greater prospects for employment, such as business, journalism, marketing, or computer science. Those who have double majors may not have the luxury of exploring a number of disciplines as those who have minors and room for additional electives, but a 2012 study by professors at Vanderbilt University available here suggests that double majors have more of the critical thinking and integrative thinking skills that employers desire.
A study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that baby boomers changed jobs 11 times between the ages of 18 and 44. The trend likely will remain the same for Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z, baby boomlets, and future generations. Furthermore, many claim that Americans change careers from three to seven times, but proof is lacking. The BLS does not track careers because they are so hard to define. According to an article by Carl Bialik in the Wall Street Journal titled “Seven Careers in a Lifetime? Think Twice, Researchers Say,” researchers are convinced that seven times is too frequent. Nevertheless, the consensus of employment professionals and the majority of Americans is clear: career change is reality. That simple fact provides more evidence that students should not view colleges and universities as vocational schools.
A minor or a double major that provides one with what one might consider a practical or marketable skill is one alternative, but there is evidence suggesting that one or two courses, even informal ones, like MOOKs, or fairly simple on-the-job training, in certain areas, may expand the job opportunities and salary expectations of someone with a social sciences or humanities degree. After evaluating nearly 955,000 employment advertisements, throughout the entire United States, for 2012-2013, Burning Glass Technologies, a job market analytics firm, determined that employers look for social science and humanities majors with one or more specific skills: IT networking and support, sales, general business, data analysis and management, social media, computer programming, graphic design, or marketing. With one or a combination of these skills, an individual with a liberal arts degree can increase the number of potential jobs by an additional 862,000. Furthermore, the practical skills bring recent graduates a boost in salary–$6,000 on the average. Some, like computer programming, bring more, and only sales offers no additional premium.
In the event that one must change his or her major or profession, it is essential to become informed about career alternatives. One of the best ways to learn about employment in other fields is to talk to people about what they do for a living and what preparation they had not only to land their job but to excel at it. As a part of one’s day-to-day conversation, asking those one meets about their jobs can result in an individual amassing a great deal of information. After all, people love to talk about themselves. Combine this informal research with information gleaned from the seemingly infinite number of career guides. Additional sources of information come from the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, which each year releases the Occupational Outlook Handbook and the Career Guide to Industries. These publications explain the training, working conditions, advancement, earnings, and job prospects for specific professions. For information about how much various majors can expect to earn in different types of professions, consider the information the United States Census Bureau released in 2012 that is available here. One of the resources on the USCB web page uses infographics to illustrate what majors typically earn in various fields of employment. Career centers at colleges and universities offer advice to students and often have web pages with valuable information. An excellent web site is "Researching Careers and Majors" at Glendale Community College. Another important source of information about careers is at Wall Street Journal, "Careers."
Recognizing that a college education sharpens one’s critical thinking ability and that each major provides students with a particular set of skills is essential for anyone leaving their major or profession. Another key to a successful and stress-free transition to a new field, whether it is while an individual is in college or already has a degree, is to be aware of career alternatives that are not only profitable but also are enjoyable, challenging, and commensurate with one’s talents.
How Much Do Historians Earn, Even in Alternate Career Paths?
In 2011, a significant study emerged from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce titled What’s It Worth: The Value of College Majors that contains crucial information for those majoring in history.
Engineers as a category are the highest paid professionals, receiving an average salary of $75,000 per year with bachelor’s degrees and $99,000 with graduate degrees. Of all engineers, the best salaries are those of petroleum engineers, who command $120,000 per year. Those who finish their undergraduate degrees as historians make $57,000 if they are American historians and $50,000 if they have other specialties. There are no statistics for historians with graduate degrees, although the study reports that 46 percent of those who study history go on to obtain a post-baccalaureate degree. The study placed historians in the broad category of liberal arts and humanities, and historians with bachelor’s degrees do better than the average for that category, which is $47,000. Those who receive graduate degrees in the liberal arts and humanities can expect an average salary of $65,000.
The study provides evidence about what historians do with their majors, information that will cause students in history classes as well as the professors who teach them to give serious consideration to the particular mix of skills historians develop. While most assume that history majors end up in education, that is true for a mere 15 percent of graduates. The other top four fields are finance (14 percent), retail (10 percent), public administration (10 percent), and professional services (9 percent). There is no information about the professions of the remaining roughly 42 percent of the graduates or whether they use their degrees in history as a basis for entering graduate and professional programs in other fields. As far as occupations are concerned, 18 percent are in management, 16 percent are in sales, 15 percent are in office work, 11 percent are in education, and 6 percent are in business.
The hard numbers of the study are encouraging to history majors who are at a loss to say what they will do with their degree, although it is disappointing to see the premium society places on technology and those careers that produce tangible profits. History majors also can be relieved that their salary is not at the bottom of the heap, where one finds community services and counseling as well as early childhood education. Ironically, those professions with the lowest pay are areas which, given higher salaries that would attract an even greater number of talented individuals, could do the most for society. The study also does not measure job satisfaction and does not ask such questions as how many engineers would have preferred to study history or music but felt compelled to select a major that would provide them with lucrative employment.
Information about the study, along with links to the report and a summary are at:
The complete report is at:
The summary is at:
Additional information on the earnings of history majors comes from the Humanities Indicators of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ (AAAS), based on the 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) from the US Census Bureau that became available in 2014. It determined that male US history undergraduate majors earned a higher salary ($62,000 per year) than those who had other majors in the humanities, but those who studied other fields of history made less ($52,000 per year). Women’s salaries were lower than those of their male counterparts, and the gap was greater in history than in other fields of the humanities.
The AAAS study found that a graduate degree, especially a general master’s degree (as opposed to one, for example, in area studies), commanded a much greater salary. Nevertheless, those with a master’s degree in history can expect a top salary of $84,000 in 34 years.
Using the same ACS data, a study from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project concluded that those with undergraduate degrees in history made less than those with degrees in other fields of the humanities. The seemingly contradictory findings likely resulted from the fact that the Hamilton Project study did not differentiate between American and non-American concentrations. The salaries of those with history majors peaked at about 22 years into their careers (those with other majors peaked about five years later), but those who studied history made about $10,000 less than others.
Allen Mikaelian, the editor of Perspectives on History, from the American Historical Association, concluded that:
Mikaelian’s article that describes the AAAS and Brooking’s Institution studies is available at http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2014/the-earnings-potential-of-history-majors.
In its statistics that cover 2013-2014, the website PayScale, which builds its data from information that millions of individuals supply about themselves, ranks history at 60 out of 129, in a tie with business administration. Those studying business have a slightly higher salary in the beginning of their careers, but they are tied at $71,000 in mid-career. Those majoring in English actually have a slightly higher mid-career salary. See http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report-2014/majors-that-pay-you-back.
More Information on Unemployment Rates and Earnings of Graduates in History and the Social Sciences
Two recent studies about the job market provide important information for those considering a history major. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in early 2012 reported on the earning potential and unemployment rates of college graduates. Although the study focused on the period of 2009-2010, when there was high unemployment in all fields, there are important conclusions to draw with respect to the humanities and liberal arts as well as the social sciences. The three fields with the highest earnings for those who had graduate degrees were engineering, computing and mathematics, and sciences. Those with the highest earning potential with bachelors degrees and some experience were in engineering, computers and mathematics, and architecture. Those recent graduates earning the largest salaries studied engineering, computers and mathematics, and business. The lowest unemployment rates were in education and health, but education was one of the lowest paid fields along with the arts. With the stagnant economy at the time of the survey, it is not surprising that architecture had the highest unemployment rates–worse than inexperienced graduates in education, health, communication, psychology and social work, business, and engineering.
The study included history in the humanities and liberal arts. The unemployment rate for recent college graduates with history degrees was 10.2 percent, which was higher than the 9.4 percent average in the humanities and liberal arts. With experience, however, the rate dropped to 5.8 percent, which was better than the 6.1 percent rate in the category as a whole. Those with graduate degrees in history had an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, which was the same as the average for all majors in the humanities and liberal arts. A recent graduate with a history degree expected to make $32,000, which was $1,000 more than the average starting salary in the humanities and liberal arts. A history major with experience made approximately $54,000 per year, which was typical for someone in the humanities and liberal arts. Finally, a graduate degree in history earned $75,000, which was $10,000 more than what those with graduate degrees in the humanities and liberal arts expected to earn.
Those majoring in the social sciences faced an 8.9 percent unemployment rate, which fell to 5.7 percent if they had experience and 4.1 percent if they had a graduate degree. A recent graduate in the social sciences expected to make $37,000 per year, while someone with experience made $60,000 on the average. Those with graduate degrees expected an average salary of $85,000.
For students interested in history and social sciences, the news that their earning potential was on a par with other fields, like education, psychology and social work, recreation, and arts is reassuring. Similarly, it is helpful to know that humanities and liberal arts as well as social sciences had better employment rates than the arts and architecture, thanks to the poor economic climate, and were competitive with most other fields. Links to the study and to the Center for Employment and the Workforce appear below, and readers can draw their own conclusions from the 17-page study.
The web page of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University is at:
The full report is at:
The second study, which the American Historical Association commissioned in 2013, was a survey of history doctoral students who completed their studies between 1998 and 2009. Approximately 53 percent of those with doctorate degrees had tenure-track positions in community colleges and in four-year institutions, while 17 percent were teaching in higher education without tenure, a percentage that includes adjunct instructors, whose salary is notoriously poor. Just over 24 percent found employment in other areas. That last category includes primary and high school teachers, librarians, public historians, researchers, government employees, academic administrators, independent scholars, and those working for non-profits and in the field of publishing and editing. Also in this category is the relatively small group of 3 percent who found work in the business world.
Constructing a Resume
Whether a student is interested in gaining admission to a graduate school, entering a professional program, or seeking employment after graduation, a resume is an essential item. Even if a position does not require a resume, having one prepared can facilitate the process of completing forms or writing application letters. There is an entire business built around helping people to construct convincing resumes, and much of the advice these so-called professionals provide is useless or even harmful to the interests of the person who needs the resume (always check the credentials and references of professionals). Certainly, a trained historian, whose training involves considering the career trajectories of famous and not-so-famous individuals of the past, can be sufficiently introspective and objective to write an effective resume without the assistance of a professional.
The first thing to remember is that nobody can write a good resume in a short period of time. As a result, it is best to construct one gradually over the course of weeks, months, or even longer. This way, one can think about how to format the information on the page, how to present specific items, and how to make the reader notice the resume. Create one resume that is extremely detailed and lists all one’s accomplishments, and draw from that resume to craft shorter ones that target specific employers or academic programs.
There are some things that should never appear on a resume and a few things that are not advisable. Do not use fancy type faces, clip art, brightly color paper, or colored ink. No resume should contain personal information, such as a birth date, social security number, religious affiliation, race, ethnicity, political party, marital status, or sexual orientation. Do not invest any time into drafting career goal statements, most of which are simplistic, self-evident, or posses some other trait to make the reader snicker. Avoid numbers and bullets, both of which clutter the page and distract the reader.
When planning the layout of the resume, think traditionally. Use one-inch margins and a standard type face, such as Times New Roman. Keep the point size for content at 12 point, but 14-point type or bold type will make subheadings easy to see. Use a 25lb cotton fiber paper that is bright white, although a soft, neutral pastel may be appropriate. Construct a heading that contains all of the necessary coordinates, including one’s preferred e-mail address and mobile phone. Indent the content one-half inch to the left of any subheading, and consider using hanging indents where appropriate. These sorts of formatting techniques demonstrate one’s mastery of a word-processing program. Do not be concerned about a resume that goes beyond one page or even slightly more, but be careful about providing too much extraneous information. Decision makers spend only seconds on their first review of a resume and will find unnecessary detail annoying. If the resume extends on more than one page, staple it in the upper left-hand corner. Do not print on both sides of the paper.
Determining what should be in a resume is not as simple as one might expect. The education section that appears after the heading should contain information about one’s high school and university, including degrees, graduation dates, honors, and awards as well as majors, minors, certificates, and the like. Include the names of institutions attended, even if they only account for one or two courses toward a degree. Be sure to list any noncredit courses, special training that led to certificates, and badges from on-line courses. A resume that accompanies an application to a graduate program might include a list of courses taken each semester and the title of any research papers associated with a course. The complete names for courses can assist a reviewer who sees a series of abbreviations on a transcript that are not always clear or may not convey the content of a particular course, such as “Overseas Studies,” “ECE before 1815,” or “Dir. Read.” Include school-related activities along with the length of time one was involved in an organization. The employment history should be in reverse chronology and contain the complete name and address of employers, contact names, dates of employment, titles of positions, and brief descriptions of each position’s responsibilities. List any publications with a full citation using the Chicago Manual of Style. Add any foreign language abilities and a self-assessment of the level of proficiency (see “Studying Foreign Languages” on this web site). Include any foreign travel, provide the length of time one was abroad, and state the purpose of the journey. One might consider adding any extensive travel in the United States. Volunteer work can give a potential employer or an admissions committee an understanding of the commitment of an individual and their sense of responsibility, so add any significant volunteer activity using a format that mirrors the employment section. Specify memberships in any professional or other types of organizations (it may be appropriate to combine the membership and volunteer lists). Identify one’s favorite hobbies to give the reader a glimpse into an individual’s personality. Furthermore, one item on the list may strike a sympathetic chord with the reader. Hobbies are not essential for a resume, but they likely will do no harm and may result in one’s resume being pulled from the bottom of the pile. Finally, some resumes contain the names and contacts for three or four references. For academic applications, provide the names of professors who know and respect your work, who have taught courses in your field of interest, and who have earned the respect of their peers. For nonacademic applications, use a mix of academic and employment contacts. Always request permission from an individual to use their name as a reference.
Proofread with care. Use a word processing program’s spell and grammar checker, but never let the computer make automatic corrections. Print out the final product and proofread the printed version. Give copies to others for them to proofread and to provide additional suggestions.
Think carefully about the delivery of any printed application materials. Never send a resume without a well-written cover letter, and always print the cover letter on the same paper stock as the resume. Never fold the cover letter and resume because the creased paper is irritating to the reader. When placing the material in the mail, use a 9" X 12" envelope, which does not need to match the resume paper.
Selecting a major is the process of finding the intersection of one’s skills, interests, and lifestyle goals as well as the demands of the market. It is not an easy task to complete, especially given the constant pressure on college students to “do something practical,” as many say. When I sought employment after completing a master’s degree in the middle of the 1970s in history, my mother-in-law encouraged me to consider returning to school to get “a trade to fall back on” after having explored what she had considered a non-profitable major. She was sincere in offering her advice and was not in the least condescending, and for a while, I thought she might be right. In the end, I discovered that the seemingly useless major of history served me extremely well in the business world. Nearly forty years later, perceptions about majors have changed little, with the current push being on the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. An article by the writer Virginia Postrel for Bloomberg.com puts the issue of majors into perspective and offers encouragement to those who are inclined to study the social sciences and humanities. She notes from her own experience that “Whether you learn how to learn is more a question of how fundamental and rigorous your education is than of what specific subject you study.”
Virginia Postrel’s article, “How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy,” is available at: