Did You Major in History in College?
April 4, 2011 7:08 AM   Subscribe

What can you tell me about majoring in history in college? My son (high school junior) is planning to study history in college and make a career out of public history. Yes, he is 17 and most 17 year olds have no idea what they really want to do. However, he has had a passion for history since he could read, and has already logged some hours doing volunteer research for the National Park Service, so I really think odds are good that he will stick with that path. I'm looking for suggestions on interesting colleges that he might want to investigate. Just about every school offers a history major, which makes the narrowing down process a little harrowing.

A few pertinent details. We live in VA, and I think he'll want to stay east of the Mississippi for college, and probably in the Mid-Atlantic area. His SAT scores came in last week - a little above average in math and 96th percentile in critical reading and writing. He has no preference yet on large versus small school, suburban versus urban, etc. If you were a history major or work in history, what can you tell me? Personally, my sense is that the undergraduate school for history is not as important (for either career or grad school prospects) as internships, getting involved in research projects, etc. But I could be wrong about that! (A few schools that have captured his attention so far are Penn State, UVA, and William & Mary.)
posted by COD to Education (43 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, my sense is that the undergraduate school for history is not as important (for either career or grad school prospects) as internships, getting involved in research projects, etc.

Important for what career, for what grad school prospects? What does your son want to do with his life? What does he want to do with a History degree? It may seem like a heavy question for a seventeen year old, but it's an important one to consider when you're making choices about majors and universities. Does he want to teach? Does he want to work in a museum?

(Personal data point: every History major I've ever known either went on to teaching or law school.)
posted by litnerd at 7:22 AM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: At the moment - he is interested in public history, working for for National Park Service or a museum, researching and interpreting history, developing programs for the public, that sort of thing.
posted by COD at 7:26 AM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: Let me add one more thing. I can totally see him spending years getting a doctorate and being the world renowned expert on some obscure battle in some obscure war from whatever college he teaches at. That said, he has not expressed any desire to go that route yet.
posted by COD at 7:31 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: I went into undergrad intending to get a history degree, and it turned out that the professors who taught my area of interest were not good at all. The most boring class I took during my four years in college was the one covering the period I was (and am) most interested in. It was a real bummer, and I ended up switching to poli sci as a result. So, I would recommend that he do some research about the specific professors in his area of interest, and try to talk with them at some of his prospect schools before making a final decision.
posted by something something at 7:35 AM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

My sense is that most kids going into college don't understand the connection between what they study in college and their employability after college.

This is especially true if your son has it in his mind that he is going to go to grad school to study history.

I would encourage your son to think of college as a way to prepare him for future employability, and to keep job prospects in certain industries in mind when he chooses a major and when he has graduated.

If you trawl through college-related question here on AskMe, there is a lot of good responses about the critical notion of how one's education creates, or does not create, future job opportunities.
posted by dfriedman at 7:38 AM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

About the NPS: a good friend of mine worked for the NPS. Every year outside of the main season he was laid off. Every year he struggled for those few months, working part time jobs he was significantly overqualified for just so he could service his school debt. He gave up and headed into the private sector after 8 years. He no longer liked the idea of NPS work and he was 8 years behind in getting ahead in a different field.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:43 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was a history and philosophy double major.

My alma mater was a tiny little place--approximately 1100 students--and the History Department consisted of three faculty when I started and four when I graduated. Needless to say, there wasn't all that much opportunity to concentrate on any particular area of historical study, and to the extent that there was such an opportunity in our senior thesis, looking outside one of the professors' areas of interest was pretty tough going. So unless he knows pretty precisely what he's interested in, going to a school with a larger program is probably a good idea.

That being said, it's almost impossible to get a job that uses an undergraduate degree in history other than teaching in private schools. The degree doesn't come with any skills or even a useful knowledge base relevant to corporate America, and actually pursuing history as a career pretty much requires a graduate degree, usually a doctorate. So getting a history degree is basically asking to go into either a cube farm or graduate school of some description.

I think what he needs to do is pick a particular area of interest. "Public history" is more a methodology than a field as such: any area of historical interest can be done in a "public history" way, but you still need to pick an area of interest. At this point it's going to be pretty difficult to tell what's going to interest him, as he hasn't been exposed to all that much.

As far as working for the NPS, others above have pointed out that this isn't always a proper full-time gig. More than that, it's not always clear to me that their "historians" are actually employees. The NPS employs 28,000 people, of which 183 are historians, but has 2.5 million volunteers. They've also got almost 400 actual parks plus another few dozen heritage sites, so they're way, way below even having one historian per site. My guess is that most of the "historians" you see are people just doing it for the love of it, some professional historians, some amateur, but none of them getting paid. Which, I mean, good for them, but your son might want to reconsider that as a career path.
posted by valkyryn at 7:48 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know. I was a history major, and I ended up in a highly-rated history PhD program. I didn't think about the history department at all when I chose my college. I wanted a school with a good academic reputation, and I wanted a school where it was ok to be a nerd who studied a lot, because I was a nerd who studied a lot. If he's possibly headed to grad school, then recommendations will matter a lot, and it's easier to get good recommendations if you go to a school that offers small classes. You want a balance, though: the ideal school would be big enough to have a reasonably-big history department but small enough so that he can work closely with professors if that's what he wants to do. I would think about the big picture, rather than getting bogged down in the specifics of any particular history department.

It's very true that if you major in history and are not going to go to grad school, you need to line up internships, volunteer experiences, and other things to put on a resume. It's not true that a history degree is career suicide, but it's not going to give you any directly marketable skills, and you're going to have to figure out other ways to market yourself. He should definitely look into that stuff early-ish if he's interested in public history, both to build a resume and network of contacts and because it's the best way to figure out if he really enjoys working in the field.
posted by craichead at 7:58 AM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: That being said, it's almost impossible to get a job that uses an undergraduate degree in history other than teaching in private schools. The degree doesn't come with any skills or even a useful knowledge base relevant to corporate America, and actually pursuing history as a career pretty much requires a graduate degree, usually a doctorate. So getting a history degree is basically asking to go into either a cube farm or graduate school of some description

This is absurd. History is a liberal arts discipline. The world is filled with people who have great jobs off of a liberal arts background. I have a great job with a liberal arts undergrad, all of my co-workers have liberal arts undergrad. Actually one of my co-workers was a history major as an undergrad and went to work for McKinsey right out of school. I mean I totally understand that becoming a management consultant isn't everyones idea of a fun job, but its hard to make an argument that it is an easy job to get.

My advice for kids who want to study something like hsitory is always - go to the school with the best general acadmic reputation that you can get into, that appeals to you socially, and that you and your family can afford. 18-22 is a lot of growing up and learning about yourself. Making a decision based on what you think you want to do with the rest of your life when you are still learning a million things about yourself is really a sub-opitmal way to approach things.
posted by JPD at 7:58 AM on April 4, 2011 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, actually the volunteer research has does is directed by the Chief Historian of the local battlefield parks, He is a real historian, with a college degree in history, several books published, etc. There are 4 historians on staff here, I think? But we live in maybe the richest place in America for Civil War History, so this is clearly the exception, not the rule. As an aside, he and my son co-published an article this year based on something that my son found while researching. So my son already has a publishing credit. It's in a very narrow, local interest history journal with a circulation of only a couple of thousand, but it's one more publishing credit than I have!

I'm aware that a history degree is not the easy road to financial security. That said, we've always encouraged our kids to follow their passions, so I'm not about to start advising him to shelve the love of history and learn C# or Java because it'll probably pay better.
posted by COD at 8:01 AM on April 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I double-majored in English and History in college and now work as a software developer. I haven't ever regretted my choice of majors and find that the skills I developed have been very valuable in my career.

That said, I had to develop them, and other skills, myself. A degree in accounting or a professional degree (such as engineering or law) provides one with credentials which make it easier to get a job.

I am not enamored of dfriedman's approach of college as preparation for employment; it's a valid approach, but it was not an approach that would have worked for me. It's ideal if your goal is "to become employable", but that isn't everyone's goal.

Anecdotally, I have a friend whose father insisted that she major in accounting. She complied with his wishes and was miserable for four years of college and came out of it trained to get a job that she would be miserable doing. She wasn't happy until she changed fields. Her father always says that she has accounting to fall back on, which is true.

Studying history, like studying anything in college, can only teach you as much as you let it. It is possible to get a crappy education at a first-class university and an excellent one at a mediocre school. The latter takes effort, the former does not. Large schools make it possible to get lost in the crowd, but small schools may not have the breadth of classes to cover his interests. It's all trade-offs, and what he's willing to work to do is what will determine how well he gets educated.

JPD's last paragraph is probably the best advice I've seen on the subject.
posted by Mad_Carew at 8:03 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your son sounds like a really good student! The best thing he can do now is prepare to take history AP exams- ideally all three, but absolutely World history. If he can, he should also think about the English Language AP exam (to get out of 'freshman comp') and about starting (or continuing) a foreign language to the point where he can place out of year 1. The idea that you can't take AP exams without 'AP classes' is a myth, and he isn't shut out from prepping for and registering for the exams. The only barrier is preparation time and the exam fee (unfortunately). Even if he takes the tests the spring before he starts college, the scores will still help him when he registers in the fall.

AP exams are very useful as they will keep him out of demoralising first-year classes full of people who don't share his interest in history or his writing skills. The world history AP exam also covers enough to give him a sense of his options as a history student. This is important because without a world history grounding, many people end up defaulting to college classes in the only history subjects they had in high school - US history, or sometimes British or French - and ignoring the history classes that are likely to actually get them funded for further study or employed later on if they move away from academia. A degree in Asian history with Korean language or African history with French or Medieval European History with Polish or South American history with Spanish will be of far more value later on than a British or US history focus with no language or basic Spanish.

I majored in an unusual modern foreign language and minored in history and history of art related to the region in question. I have never regretted it, and I have never had a single job interview where my language and history study wasn't mentioned in a positive light. My 'relevant' professional graduate degree is of much less value to me in the job market than the undergraduate work I did in a totally unrelated field. If he goes off the beaten path, a humanities degree can stand your son in very good stead.
posted by Wylla at 8:03 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Kind of in line with what something something said: the problem with history as a major is that it's apt to be a very small department, without a lot of room if your interests change or something. Some colleges deal with this by incorporating history into interdisciplinary programs. Other colleges encourage double majors or very strong minors. If you're planning on majoring in history, you should definitely read up on the programs and make sure you have room to grow in the four years.

That said, I think history is a wonderful discipline which unfortunately fell on hard times in US academic culture. And no, it may not directly prepare you for much, but that's true of most majors in the humanities.
posted by BibiRose at 8:04 AM on April 4, 2011

This is a tough one. I would (strongly) encourage him to double-major with something practical. I would also encourage him to look for schools that send their humanities kids to the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. I would tell him he needs to be ready and eager to learn at least two foreign languages, and one will probably be German or French. I would have him subscribe to a couple of journals. I would tell him the most important thing is going to be networking and the next most important thing is to keep up his credit score, and that odds are he'll be working for a government of some kind after taking on piles of debt. He should be keeping close tabs on teacher certification standards in every state he can accept living in, and accept that he'll probably take the LSAT, the GRE, and possibly the GMAT when all is said and done.

Oh, and it is vital that he meet professors in his specific area at a school before he decides to go there.

(I used to be a History major, switched to Poli Sci and International Studies, and today work for government. I still read the academic journals, but that's about it.)
posted by SMPA at 8:05 AM on April 4, 2011

Oh! I thought of something. You mentioned that he might some day research a single battle in a war. Does that mean that his interest is in military history? Because if so, that changes things a bit. Military history is kind of out of fashion at the moment, and a lot of colleges don't employ a military historian. Also, non-military-historians may not be very sympathetic to traditional military history. (They may, though, be interested in things like the social history of the military.) If he mostly wants to study military history, then my previous advice is wrong, and he might consider seeking out a school where that's a particular strength of the department.
posted by craichead at 8:08 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: I'm ABD for a Phd in a Public History program, so my first response is "GO Your Son!" Public history is a field that's really starting to take off and there's a multitude of options out there.
Our university doesn't offer a public history undergrad, but I'm not 100% sure he would need that. Most jobs will require at least a Master's and the shift from history to public history is fairly painless.

My biggest piece of advice to him, other than getting every feasible internship he can, is to make a decision right now about what is important to him. Does he want to focus on only one area of history (Civil War Battlefields in Va for example) or is he more interested in being able to adapt his skills of interpretation and research to any number of subject areas?

I ask this because I have seen a number of younger grad students who come to our university because it is in a good location, for a good price, and has a fairly good rep without realizing that their specific area of focus is vastly underrepresented by the faculty.

Not to speak ill of my institution or my classmates, but a little research will let you know that Middle Tennessee State University is not going to be a hotbed of Ancient Greek history and you're really not going to get a faculty member whose focus is that. Instead, they find themselves forced into the subject areas that our faculty members excel at and are frustrated by the limitation.

If he really wants to do a specific area, he should try to find a school that will focus on that area, regardless of all the other factors. But he is 17, so his interests may change. If it were me, I would suggest he attend an undergrad that was cheap (keep that overall bill down) but had a good foundation and a possible grad program that he can get his feet wet.

Memail me if you need further info, or if he's interested in going to a Tennessee school.
posted by teleri025 at 8:14 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, he does like military history, but as he explained it me once, it's kind of hard to study history without involving the military. For better or worse, many of the significant events in the history of our planet have revolved around military actions. The Civil War is definitely his favorite period in US History. Then again, he has grown up in VA and our backyard was a campground for Confederate forces the night before the Battle of Salem Church. So he's been surrounded by the Civil War, which he has taken advantage of by going deep into, so to speak.
posted by COD at 8:15 AM on April 4, 2011

I have a BA and MA in history. Worry about overall strength of the school. Then get into a public history or historical preservation master's program. I ended up getting one on top of my masters and many of the people in my program got jobs.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:16 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Note, that my MA involved the nexus between changes in military tactics and tactical doctrine in the German Army in the First World War and officer-enlisted reconciliation that made possible the later rise of the Freikorps, right-wing quasi-militias in early Weimar Germany. So social history is the way to go for military historians. The battles have been covered.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:20 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a datapoint, I have a bunch of friends here in DC who majored in history, and are currently doing work relevant to their degree for the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, and other government agencies. None of them have PhDs, and all of them make a decent living.

Failing that, I've always thought that teaching High School history would be a pretty sweet gig to have. There are much worse things to end up with than a History major.

Like a few others in this thread, though, I have heard a few NPS horror stories. It's sort of an open secret that the NPS is mismanaged, underfunded, and increasingly incompetent, largely due to the mission creep that's been forced upon it. These days, they actually manage more miles of road than the Department of Transportation, and are somehow responsible for policing and collecting garbage from a number of bizarrely-located pockets in Washington, DC.

I'm not too sure about how "in vogue" military history is, although that actually seems like one subject where there might be too many qualified enthusiasts crowding the field. Especially for Civil War stuff. I'm not an expert though, so don't quote me here.

I went to William & Mary, and can answer any questions you have about that school. Our history department is great, and very popular among students, but is possibly becoming a victim of its own success. Their student load is becoming a bit too heavy for the number of faculty they have on staff (but once you're in the department as a Major, you're fine.) A government double-major would be a great asset for a public history student, and we've got a great program for that too. All of the faculty that I interacted with in either department were top-notch.
posted by schmod at 8:22 AM on April 4, 2011

In terms of geography, especially since he's into American history, he might want to look at colleges that are in or near capital cities, because they'll have state archives that he can intern in. I was an intern at the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston one summer, and while having archive experience in general has been a big plus on my resume/CV as I'm moving along in a non-American history PhD, I could have gotten a lot more out of the internship (both academically and in terms of contacts/future work) if my interest was American history.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:24 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: I came into college with a very specific plan for my future career in a not particularly practical field (primatology, by way of anthropology). I'm almost done with my first year of graduate school in that field. It sounds like he's about as entrenched as I was in my plans, and it's totally doable!

I would encourage him to look at the faculty pages of history departments at various schools he's interested in and see what people are doing. Most professors will list the courses they teach as well as their research interests. Additionally, if there's someone doing public history or something else he finds particularly interesting, encourage him to send them an e-mail asking about the department. I did that as an over-excited high school student and got some really positive e-mails back from professors at the school I ended up attending. It's rare for high school kids to be so knowledgeable and excited about a discipline like history (or anthropology), so I'd guess that a few professors will respond.

If he's interested in a particular region, he might also check professors' interests in the associated area-studies department. I took some fantastic African history courses from African studies professors.

Finally, have him talk to the historian overseeing his volunteer work. No better source than someone who's doing exactly what he wants to do!
posted by ChuraChura at 8:28 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have an undergraduate degree in Ancient Studies, and a minor in art history. The classes I took in related fields (archaeology, religion, classical languages, comp lit, studio art, history, etc) were all enormously helpful to my education in a variety of ways. I had several friends who were happy American Studies majors who were able to combine traditional history with related classes in a variety of departments. Your son might be interested in schools with strong American Studies departments, too.

I have found that having an multidisciplinary degree gave me a lot of options and the ability to take interesting upper-level classes in a variety of departments that I really loved, some of which were only tangentially related to my major at best.

I would also suggest that he spent a summer volunteering at a historic home or site (in an archaeology lab or guiding tours or as a research assistant) to get a feel for that kind of public history. It's a little different than a NPS site, although with the way they're outsourcing business, he might be a future contractor for them and have some similar issues, and he could get a sense of what that is like at a place where fundraising and development strategy plays a bigger role.
posted by julen at 8:31 AM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: I also want to cheer him on. I work in museums and have lots of colleagues in public history; it's a passion of mine, too. "Historian" isn't even the only role for people interested in public history - there is interpretation, programming, writing, and teaching, both public and academic, just to start with.

I do think that any good liberal arts undergraduate degree will do him fine - but if he loves history, there is no reason he shouldn't study it as an undergrad. He should also be sure to start learning a useful foreign language early in his college career. I'll throw French out there as a really useful one for American historians, especially of the 18th-19th c., but his MMV. He is definitely going to need at least a masters' degree for this field, no two ways about it, so this planning is really pretty long-range. A lot of people will say "no one knows what they want to do when they're a high school senior!" but, in fact, a lot of my colleagues really did know this was exactly the path they wanted, from a pretty young age. It won't hurt to start with this idea. The undergraduate degree in history is useful in a thousand ways whether or not he goes into public history - as useful as any liberal arts degree which, in my experience, is quite useful. It's quite likely that he actually is committed to this idea and with stay with it. It's that kind of field and it draws that kind of person.

it's important to recognize that in the academy, there is a tension between "pure" academic historians and public historians, and something of a pecking order. Some academic historians despise public history and feel it's less rigorous, more distracted by issues of public understanding and access, etc. What's certainly true is that the concerns and issues of public historians, particularly about sharing their information, are quite different from those of academic historians. It's the same thing you'd find in any discipline where there's a research sector and an applied sector. Public history is applied history. This is a long way of saying that he should be sure the leading faculty in the department he chooses are interested in, and supportive of, public history as a concept.

I would immediately refer you and him to the good people of the National Council on Public History. On their Teaching and Learning page they have resources for training, graduate and undergraduate, and listings for public history programs He should get in touch with the faculty and student history clubs at the universities he's looking at, via email - he can just formulate a letter of inquiry and send it out. Also, he might benefit by doing some informational interviewing with people who are working at sites nearby where you live, specifically asking them about their training and recommendations.

And I'll throw out one suggestion I wish I were in a place to follow up on - a really cool and relatively new program at Brown University, the Masters' in Public Humanities. He's not at that point yet, of course, but if he got a history undergrad he'd have fantastic foundations for a more broadly based, interdisciplinary program which would make him even more employable in less obvious contexts than historical sites.

It really is an interesting field and, in this age of information proliferation, there will be an increasing need for public scholars. Good luck to your son!
posted by Miko at 8:34 AM on April 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

On preview - julen's suggestion to look at working with some non-NPS organizations is great. The NPS is totally unique in its organization, compensation, mission, structures, etc. Most public history jobs aren't with the NPS and it would round out his perceptions to experience a few different kinds of historical organizations.

Another great resource is the professional community AASLH, the American Association for State and Local History, which has great publications and members around the country. If your son's interested in the Civil War he could try contacting his state organizer for the sesquicentennial project with some of his questions.
posted by Miko at 8:37 AM on April 4, 2011

You just never know. My undergrad stuff led me to want a major in Philosophy but at the time the program to small to offer that as major so I ended up as English major. ...a few years later, after some jobs, went back and got PhD and taught for 27 years. My son loved history, esp. military history. Took course on history of Middle East and is now in israel, special forces My daughter, in high school loves writing, photography, art. Took a course in forensics and now wants to study forensic psychology...
My point: you just never know so go with gut feeling and follow your dream...Yes. Jobs are important, of course, but even there, things change much more rapidly than in the past.
posted by Postroad at 8:43 AM on April 4, 2011

Encourage him to study what he enjoys, as it will keep him studying and doing well in school. There are no "safe career path" majors. None. Encourage him to minor in something else he finds practical but interesting - poly sci, statistics, finance, psychology - and keep that in the vest pocket as a "fallback."

But, really. I went to school for photography, and now do computer network stuff for a living. My wife was an English major, and now does budget analysis for a military contractor. The ability and interest in learning is more important than what he's learning once it's time to find a career. To strengthen that ability and interest, encourage him to study what he's passionate about, find a good school that matches his interest and ambition, and branch out from there.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:00 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, he does like military history, but as he explained it me once, it's kind of hard to study history without involving the military. For better or worse, many of the significant events in the history of our planet have revolved around military actions.
That's true but also a little misleading. Academic historians, at least in US history, tend to be interested in different aspects of wars than many students are. Academic historians generally aren't very interested in things like battles, tactics and weapons, and instead pay attention to the political, social, economic and cultural causes and effects of wars. This often causes tension with students who are more interested in what happened on the ground.
Some academic historians despise public history and feel it's less rigorous, more distracted by issues of public understanding and access, etc. What's certainly true is that the concerns and issues of public historians, particularly about sharing their information, are quite different from those of academic historians.
I have a vague sense that there are some people in the history department at UVA who are more interested than the typical historian in speaking to a general audience. For instance, there's an NPR program about history that is hosted by current and former UVA professors. So if that's one of the OP's son's choices, that might be something to consider.
posted by craichead at 9:04 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Studying something you don't like because it's "practical" is a great way to be miserable in college, and probably helps fuel bad grades and dropping out.

I was a history major in college. I am neither a lawyer nor a teacher - I ended up being an editor. When I started college, I thought I'd want to be a biology major, but all the lower-level bio and chem classes were used to weed out people who didn't want to do the pre-med track.

We didn't have to decalre a major until halfway through our sophomore year, and at that point I'd had enough experience in different departments to realize what it was I really liked best, and that was history.
posted by rtha at 9:23 AM on April 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: My history department here at Georgia State Unv has both an undergraduate certificate and an MA program in Public History and preservation. Here is the info for the Preservation program and here is the general departmental home page where you can find a lot of great information.

A few more things:

A lot of people seem to be mistaking public history for the more general academic discipline of history - they are very different. I am working on a PhD in History, while several of my friends are working on MA's and PhD's in Public History. What they study and what I study are VERY different fields. And while it helps to have a background in history if you are going into Public History, most of them actually come from other fields than history (accounting, anthropology, sociology, marketing). There's even one graphics designer!

Secondly, yes, he's 17 - but if hes been doing this, and is really interested, there ARE jobs in Public History, by far more than there are in academic history. Museums, archives (make sure he gets some archival skills), national parks, history centers, visitor centers, etc. all need people with the public historian's skill set. It is a fairly new field as an independent discipline, but it is thriving.

Third - if you want some contact info for someone in the field who might be willing to give your son some advice, drop me a message and I'll get you in touch with him.
posted by strixus at 9:45 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I went to William and Mary and was a history minor. I didn't and still don't plan to do anything with that -- it was purely for fun! I did want to suggest the Pre-Collegiate Summer Program in Early American History at W&M for getting a taste of the college experience plus college credits. There's still time to apply for this summer if that's something he would be interested in.
posted by wsquared at 12:13 PM on April 4, 2011

I double-majored in history and English and went on to get a master's in American Studies; I'm now a book editor at an art museum, and feel that my historical research skills wound up being just as useful in working as an editor as my nuts-and-bolts language skills. My sister majored in history and went on to get her PhD and is now a professor. Some of my fellow history majors went on to teach as well; others ended up working in public policy, museums, archives/libraries, and legal fields.

Well, he does like military history, but as he explained it me once, it's kind of hard to study history without involving the military. For better or worse, many of the significant events in the history of our planet have revolved around military actions.

As others have noted, this is sort of right and sort of not: as historically significant as wars are, this doesn't automatically translate into military history being a significant academic discipline; I studied very little by way of actual military history during college and grad school even when I was studying and researching various war periods. There's social history, political history, cultural history, etc... lots of approaches that he can explore as they relate to war. FWIW, the people I knew who concentrated on the Civil War tended to do social and political history (even the ones who were military buffs who knew everything about various battles, armaments, etc. -- that side of things wound up being more of a personal hobby for them).
posted by scody at 2:47 PM on April 4, 2011

Majoring in history taught me how to tell juicy, compelling stories - to me, that's what history is! What happened, to whom, how did it all go down - it was the study of narrative. That degree took me through a first career as a journalist, and now in marketing - and I feel like I use my history degree every day even though I've totally forgotten how major battles began.

Having an excellent grasp of how to: use context carefully and cunningly, draw vivid parallels between seemingly unrelated events, and describe clearly how an idea or circumstance turns into real action with consequences will serve your son well no matter what he ends up doing after college.
posted by sestaaak at 3:40 PM on April 4, 2011

Chiming back in: I want to underscore all the advice upthread about the value of AP classes (if they're available to him) and the AP exams. My English and history AP exam results enabled me as an undergrad (Washington Univ. in St. Louis) to skip a bunch of freshman requirements and go into honors seminars and more interesting coursework in general right off the bat. Your son sounds like exactly the kind of student who would love that sort of thing. (He sounds like a pretty awesome kid in general, I must say!)
posted by scody at 4:12 PM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: He took the online preparatory AP exams for both World and US History, and projected to score 4 on the real tests, which I understand to be pretty good. He'll definitely take some AP exams next Spring. He was focused on the SAT for this Spring. AP tests are not used for admissions, do there is no hurry.

I'm all for him maximizing the number of credits he can get without me "paying" full price for them :)
posted by COD at 5:11 PM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: I am a historian, currently working in a public history job while I work on my Ph.D in history. From my experience and those of friends of mine also working in public history, your undergraduate school doesn't really matter -- it's your grad program, both its overall reputation and any specific training in public history they might offer, that matters. It's fairly difficult to get a public-history job at many institutions without at least a master's degree.

What you want for an undergrad school is a program that will give your son a solid broad education in history, in both American history and probably and other fields (ancient, European, etc.) -- this is because, as a public historian, you never know who you're going to be talking to or what kinds of projects you're going to be working on as a professional. Very few of the projects I work on at my museum job are at related, except maybe geographically, to the subject of my actual research. I find myself drawing on classes, seminars, and lectures I took or attended on other topics besides my relatively narrow specialization. I went to a small state school for undergrad, one that had a really small history program, but I feel this was to my advantage, since I ended up taking every history class they offered, more or less, because well, that was what there was to take. But I ended up being more well-rounded than some of my colleagues who went to larger programs where they were able to take more specific classes.

I attend a grad school that has no real public history program, but we still have scads of graduates that work in either public history or some sort of academic/public hybrid, depending on their job. In some grad schools, there's a real division between academic and public historians and in others, there's not -- my school has produced plenty of both. But what matters overall is that it has a strong reputation in several particular subfields (environmental history, history of the American West, etc) that are relatively important to the kinds of public history jobs you can find in our area.

One skill that I many of the public historians I know wish they had were more basic management/office skills -- budgeting, running effective meetings, being able to work in teams, mange employees, etc. So he should look into getting some of these skills along the line.
posted by heurtebise at 5:38 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another William & Mary grad here to say "Yes! William & Mary!" The College and Colonial Williamsburg do research together, and there are lots of great opportunities for undergrads. They will be excited about the publishing credit your son already has. The Colonial Historical National Park is very close to the College, with the NPS and Preservation Virginia (formerly the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) collaborating to run Historic Jamestowne. Heck, the whole area is called the Historic Triangle! There is a very wide range of historic activities going on there, and your son will have the opportunity to study theory, engage in hands-on practice, and think about how to present findings to other scholars and to the general public.

(And just as a general note about William & Mary-- it is a very strong undergrad teaching university. Professors are really dedicated to teaching and working with undergraduates, and I think someone like your son, who has such a strong passion, will thrive in that environment.)
posted by scarnato at 8:01 PM on April 4, 2011

My husband is a military historian - the battles have not been covered, not when the secondary sources are still full of basic mistakes (as a different historian was complaining to me the other day).

That said, military history is sufficiently out of fashion that if your son would like to study any military history, he should check that it is offered at the schools he applies to. He can check this by a) looking at the research interests of the faculty for someone who is a serious military historian (and not a diplimatic or political historian who covers conflict - that is a totally different thing), and b) checking out the undergraduate curriculum to see what has been offered over the last few semesters -- usually courses are repeated every other semester or something. I was quite serious about doing the history of ordinary people - aka social history - and I picked my undergraduate university by the course choices for first years - one of the courses was "Ordinary people in changing times, 1500-1900". I am now writing a PhD on ordinary people in a changing time, c1600-1730 (so I narrowed down a little, as one must).

But the future of military history is not social history - that's the future of social history. There is real and important military history to be done, about technology and tactics and communications - as well as important history to be done on war and society, war and memory, etc. But considering there still isn't a decent published history on the technological innovation (or lack thereof) of the Dreadnought, military history is not done.
posted by jb at 8:06 PM on April 4, 2011

Academic historians generally aren't very interested in things like battles, tactics and weapons, and instead pay attention to the political, social, economic and cultural causes and effects of wars. This often causes tension with students who are more interested in what happened on the ground.

There are plenty of academic historians working battles, tactics and weapons. Jon Sumida is an excellent historian of naval technology and tactics; Mark Fissel is an expert on early modern English warfare. Geoffrey Parker has done political and social history, but is still best know for his book on the military revolution (weaponry, tactics).

All this is just as important as the reaction to drainage in an early modern wetland.
posted by jb at 8:14 PM on April 4, 2011

My point is that social, cultural and political historians will tell you that they did/study very little military history, therefore military history is not important. I personally study very little political or intellectual history and only the barest bit of cultural history (when I have to), but I would never claim that they aren't important areas of study, just that they are boring (to me).

There currently is a very strong prejudice against traditional military history in the North American history community. This is partly because military history is an older form, and thus out of fashion (like Elton-esque political history or quantitative social history) by its age, but also because of the erroneous idea that military historians like war. How can anyone think that the people who actually read and study and think constantly about atrocities like them, I don't know. It's like assuming that cancer researchers like cancer.

Your son's interests may change -- and he should stretch them while he has a chance in his undergraduate. My husband's interests stayed the same -- He wanted to study navies, and how they work, and he did. And along the way, he's become one of the most informed people I know on security issues, and called the failure of the Iraq war several years before the media did. He says that the media would have understood how and why things were going wrong years earlier if they had talked to any miltary historians who studied tactics and operations.
posted by jb at 8:29 PM on April 4, 2011

There are plenty of academic historians working battles, tactics and weapons. Jon Sumida is an excellent historian of naval technology and tactics; Mark Fissel is an expert on early modern English warfare. Geoffrey Parker has done political and social history, but is still best know for his book on the military revolution (weaponry, tactics).
I didn't say that there were absolutely no academic historians doing military history, but there are very, very few of them. In most history departments, there are none. If the OP's son wants to study military history, he will have to seek it out. You may not like this fact, but it is still a fact.
posted by craichead at 8:31 PM on April 4, 2011

craichead - I am very aware of that. That's why my first answer specified that he should check out the faculty and course offerings. My university just let their only military historian go without giving her tenure.
posted by jb at 8:51 PM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: Wow. I learned a lot today from this thread, and I feel much better prepared today than I was yesterday to be a useful parent here! Thank you to everybody that contributed!
posted by COD at 6:05 AM on April 5, 2011

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