What did you do with your history degree?
September 14, 2019 12:07 PM   Subscribe

I teach history at the university level. I regularly get questions from history majors, potential majors, and their parents about what in heck they can do with a BA in history. I found this recent question about what MeFites have done with their English degrees to be eye-opening and inspiring, and so I ask: if you have a history BA, could you please tell me about your employment path? How has your history degree shaped (or not) that path? Because I can't help myself, I've included some historical context for this question under the fold.

Since 2011 (or earlier), the number of history majors has declined steeply -- more than any other major. The entire field is in crisis, at the undergraduate level, the graduate level, and at the level of the professoriate. The American Historical Association is working hard to develop programs, talking points, etc. to help departments rethink how we approach the history major. I very often have students who want to major in history but don't really have any idea of what their degree might be good for, and I'm regularly frustrated by the fact that I can only offer them bland general statements about the value of critical thinking, careful reading, and oral/written communication skills. My own experience is useless -- I'm second generation professoriate (my little sister and I used to play professor, if that tells you anything), and my work experience outside of academia is nearly nil. Real stories from real people would really help, in that I could point my students toward them to give them ideas about how to think creatively about their degrees and prepare for the world beyond the classroom.
posted by pleasant_confusion to Education (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I became a research librarian and it suits me well because I like the hunt for information. My history degree really gave mea solid foundation for that type of work. It seems like a typical path though.
posted by kendrak at 12:20 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have both a BA and MA in History and I work in IT project management. My path to my present role was pretty winding and not that interesting, although one tangible way in which my degrees might have influenced my career path is that I spent a good chunk of it in the higher education space.

I would say, particularly in analyst roles, the perception of history majors as being "smart" compared to other majors (well-read, well-spoken) was a plus. (Of course, it helps that I actually have good communication and critical thinking skills, etc.)
posted by sm1tten at 12:42 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

My sister-in-law did her BA in history and then went on to law school. The intensive writing aspect of the history major helped her a lot both in her applications and in the law degree itself.
posted by number9dream at 12:48 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

My own history department had polled actual alumni with this question, which is what I would recommend here. It was quite useful to be able to connect the degree to actual people I could look up.
posted by veery at 12:48 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I work for a software company.

Most of the first decade out of college was spent in various call centers. One of them was for an insurance company, which I enjoyed. I started looking for jobs in the insurance industry, and found a tech support position at an insurance software company. Then I progressed from there into my current position, as an implementation consultant at another software company.

The degree didn’t really help me in the career, but it’s been incredible for my overall quality of life. My only regret is that I couldn’t spend more time in college studying history.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:28 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

My own history department had polled actual alumni with this question, which is what I would recommend here. It was quite useful to be able to connect the degree to actual people I could look up.

This is a useful suggestion. My department is engaged in this work, but to the best of my knowledge, we haven't been tracking people for decades and so don't have particularly deep files to work with. Things have changed since the advent of social media, but it can be difficult to keep track of people beyond a few years out from the degree. Info from those alumni can be useful, but it's also helpful to have the perspective of folks who are 10+ years into their working lives. Also, the polling of alumni for career data often bleeds into development (a polite euphemism for hitting them up for money), which is not unproblematic itself.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 1:37 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am a former history major, and I am now a project manager.

I use the skills I learned as a history major every day - close reading and writing, in particular.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:39 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

BA in business, MA in history. I oversee all research and publications at a major consulting firm. I also write and publish outside of work.

You might find the AHA's work on careers for history grads useful. Here's a high level look at the data.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 1:55 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another history major turned lawyer. Learning how to carefully read and write has been very helpful.
posted by kerf at 2:18 PM on September 14, 2019

I'm a lawyer--a litigator. This means that a huge part of the intellectual labor, at least, of my job is reconstructing imperfectly-understood events from documents and interviews with participants. Then I have to build a persuasive narrative about what happened into a broader argument about what should happen as a result. With the exception of the policy part, this is all just historians' work.
posted by praemunire at 2:29 PM on September 14, 2019 [11 favorites]

I was a history major and now I teach not-history at a private high school. Many of my classmates were heading towards law school, teaching certificates, or graduate school in public history or archival science.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 2:30 PM on September 14, 2019

History major. After I graduated I worked at an big PBS / NPR station in a really junior assistanty kind of role, then worked my way up as a TV producer for a few years at one of the 24 hour cable news channels. Got my MBA and now work on business operations in media. I’ve always thought I liked history bc it was synthesis of events and narrative and that’s still sort of a throughline of my work.

FWIW this is such a hard question to answer and I’m glad you’re surveying. When I told my mom I was switching out of pre-med to history she called me crying every night for two months, convinced my life was over. I don’t think I really DO anything with my major - it just helped me on my long way to learning more about my world and how I think and see my place in it.
posted by sestaaak at 2:59 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I started college double majoring in English and history. I had wanted to major in English since I was in second grade, but I ended up hating my school's program, so I dropped that major. My original intent was to do the dual degree program there and get an MA in history and an MLIS, but the market was oversaturated with librarians, so I eventually got a Masters in Professional Writing at a different school instead. Like my English degreed husband, I work in finance. I am known for my excellent research skills at work.
posted by Ruki at 3:07 PM on September 14, 2019

I don’t have a history degree. I used to be one of several “successful” graduates from my liberal arts program who would come back to campus and give a short panel talk and Q&A about our jobs and job hunting experiences. If you’re able to suggest such a panel at your school, I’d strongly recommend it. I liked meeting the students and talking about my work, and did more extensive mentoring/networking with a few of them.
posted by OrangeVelour at 3:09 PM on September 14, 2019

I want to second NotMyselfRightNow. The AHA has gathered lots of data on this over the years and has whole pages and pamphlets prepared to provide some answers to your students. NMRN's links are great, and there's more around there. The higher-level site is here, although some of it is pitched at PhDs and other grads.

To start with, this page, "History is not a useless major: fighting myths with data," might give you some good talking points. And this graphic on where historians work is interesting, too (seems to be for PhDs only--see the full argument here.)

I believe the pattern is similar for many liberal arts majors. It's never been the case that the majority of grads in any liberal arts major go into academia or work directly in their major field. But given the increasingly vocational orientation of many our universities--and increasing debt loads and economic anxiety--it's not understandable that our students think that there's a direct link between their college major and the job they'll get. One recent example of the hundreds of thinkpieces on the value of liberal arts studies more generally just came out in The Atlantic, and there does seem to be supporting data for even the most jobs-anxious to feel better about majoring in something like history.
posted by col_pogo at 3:41 PM on September 14, 2019

Double major, History and Economics. I cannot say I used either major directly, but I think my career and life were enhanced by or helped by both. I am an equities and derivatives trader. My first job out of college was as a clerk to a Specialist on the American Stock Exchange ( long time ago). Within a year I was living in Chicago trading on the floor of the CBOE and the CBT.

I think it is as simple as "Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it." I had a lot of free time as a floor trader in Chicago and it was either get drunk and eat free appetizers on Rush Street at 4:00 in the afternoon everyday or find something else. I became a student of the markets. Chicago has a rich history of open outcry floor trading. I learned about all the greats and the history of trading.

Economics and trading are also very related to the history of economics and trading. People look at chart patterns to discern what will happen next based on what has happened in the past with similar circumstances. Markets have certain lead indicators. If you understand monetary policy you can anticipate markets, economies and people acting in certain ways. I studied everything from the Tulip markets and their subsequent crash to 1929. For a long time, my single most profitable day trading was the crash of 1987. I was positioned short and because I had studied markets, I knew what to do. I did not panic. I did not disbelieve.

Maybe when I went to college and certainly a generation before me, you went to school to be a learned person. Learning to think, to form opinions, to write, etc was the goal. A liberal arts degree was a statement that you were a thinker, an analyzer, a well rounded thinking person. Now, and I saw it with my 3 children who are all in their low 20s, you go to college to get a job. It has almost morphed into trade school. You want to go into "business" you go to business school. You go to engineering school or law school or med school or some other specific school.

While I cannot point to anything specifically like I could if I had gone to a specialized focus school like undergraduate business school, my degree, my two majors have helped me more than I can quantify.

What would I tell a student or their parents who want to major in history? Go for it. Don't worry about what specific job you will be in right after college. Learn to think, to analyze to recognize historic patterns, learn from other's mistakes.
posted by AugustWest at 3:47 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I majored in history. I'm sorry to say that I regret it, and I wish I had majored in business or a foreign language. I floundered for a year after I graduated. It wasn't until I got my paralegal certificate that things started to open up. I made valuable professional connections through my certificate program. I felt energized with the coursework, because it had clear, real-world application to so many job skills required by employers. Once I received my certificate, I started receiving lots of callbacks from law firms.

I have now been a paralegal for 12+ years. I will always love reading and learning about history, but I wish I had put more thought into choosing my major.
posted by invisible ink at 4:02 PM on September 14, 2019

Of the alumni I know from my history BA and MA programs, we have:

-teachers, both high school and middle
-museum program coordinators
-park rangers (mostly in interpretation but a few in cultural resource management; some are in the NPS and some in state/local orgs)
-politicians (both electioneering and policy wings)
-city managers (of varying levels of authority)
-public health academics
-state government bureaucrats who have worked in multiple agencies

Most have stayed in something related to history, though obviously my sample is biased towards graduate-level studies. I usually talk to my students about the flexibility it provided and the value of interdisciplinary work: almost nobody I know from any major knew what job they'd end up with, and the key to success seemed to be weird internships and classes that became surprisingly useful later. History is an excuse to study nearly anything -- it can get you in the door with STEM-type jobs just as easily as it could an archivist position (hello, historians specializing in science and technology). Good history is interdisciplinary and overlaps with other fields so much that has a great "value added" quality; I spent a large chunk of time studying nutrition while writing my thesis, for example, and others did a lot of ecology while working on their environmental history stuff. Weird overlaps get you noticed and make you stand out in early careers, which means not having a path clearly laid out for them will work in their favor if they leverage it (and not be one of a thousand "mechanical engineering" students with the same qualifications and nothing to distinguish them). Plus, the communication ability is so useful: written and oral communication skills will help them get ahead of peers once they do have a job.

I tell my students every discipline will dump you out of school with a degree you have no idea what to do with; history is just more honest about it. Better to leave school knowing you'll have to hustle, be creative, cast your net widely, and look for weird opportunities than to discover that after an unsuccessful year on the job market.
posted by lilac girl at 4:03 PM on September 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

My partner was a history major. He was going to teach high school, got interested in a political geography class he had to take for his master's, and went on to get his MA in city and regional planning, which is what he does now. Law school at some point in the future hasn't been entirely ruled out.
posted by damayanti at 4:06 PM on September 14, 2019

Pretty much the same story as kendrak, with a brief stint in non-profit work in between. I did a history BA and half a semester of the MA, then switched coasts when partner landed a good job. I was fully prepared to go into academia and deferred to a couple doctoral programs in anthro, then the economy collapsed and I felt lucky to be employed.

I still feel like it was the right choice, despite a pretty static career.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:20 PM on September 14, 2019

I have a history b.a.

after ten years of meandering adventures that had absolutely nothing to do with history or academia i became a web developer 😕
posted by supermedusa at 4:20 PM on September 14, 2019

I work in documentary film and many colleagues were history majors. College majors don’t always dictate careers. My husband has a fancy UK degree in International Relations and he’s a chef.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:24 PM on September 14, 2019

I'm a paralegal, and was lucky enough to find an office where my lawyer boss vehemently believes history majors are the best fit for legal jobs for the reasons praemunire gives.
posted by yasaman at 6:36 PM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’m a novelist. Before that, I was a product manager for a small startup, with assorted positions before that. As noted by others, I think my history major helped hone my writing, research, and communication skills. I also agree with what lilac girl said about the interdisciplinary nature of history and useful overlaps with other fields. At the time, I definitely chose my major because I enjoyed it, not for its career prospects, which I occasionally found troubling after graduation, but it’s an opportunity I feel grateful for now, a decade later.
posted by bananacabana at 8:19 PM on September 14, 2019

Oh, if we're talking friends, one woman from my program is now a personal trainer and I doubt she uses her degree too much, but the other is a moderately well-known writer of historical romance.
posted by praemunire at 9:35 PM on September 14, 2019

Double major history & art history B.A., art history Master's. I own and operate an historical tour company with my art history B.A. husband, and we do a lot of preservation advocacy. I'd like to think I'm using the research tools I learned in school, but the growth of digital newspaper archives and genealogical data has completely transformed the type of history I do.

For an extroverted historian with an entrepreneurial bent, there are definitely opportunities in public history: interpreting local lore and landmarks through tours, publications, theatrical programs, etc.
posted by Scram at 11:08 PM on September 14, 2019

I have a BA in history. I’m a chef. Yesterday I got to tell one of my cooks about tonic water and malaria, so I can’t say I don’t use it at all.
posted by Grandysaur at 11:09 PM on September 14, 2019

UK version (as the degree system is slightly different here, all these people have single honours history degrees of some type, and are of varying ages) just people I know with history degrees and how they got to that job

Straight from university into a graduate entry programme in a large company:
- Human Resources Manager
- Non-Executive Director of a FTSE100 company

Retrained at some point after graduating (none have regrets about doing a history degree first):
- Stage Manager
- Medical doctor
- Teacher

Took jobs that were available and/or interested them in a sort of "where the wind takes me" sort of way for several years until they found their niche and flourished:
- Runs wilderness adventure holidays
- Develops products aimed at people with disabilities in a really big company

Have jobs that pay the bills that they don't care about because it's the not-work stuff that they care about:
- Admin plus freelance academic publishing (this is choice, not that they couldn't find a university job)
- Admin plus writing

I think all of them to a greater or lesser degree make use of their degree. Like, if you can understand the complicated infighting of the Wars of the Roses, Human Resources is like that but with slightly fewer mass graves.
posted by Vortisaur at 3:15 AM on September 15, 2019

History major, married to another history major. She is an archivist. I went to law school, worked in banking, and I’m now a fundraiser. My work has always focused in some way around older adults. In addition to general knowledge of events that have taken place during their lives, which has been helpful in building relationships, my ability to figure out the history of the institutions where I’ve worked has been useful, too. Longtime bank clients, for instance, were impressed that I could see myself in a continuum of bank employees who’d worked for them previously. I won’t pretend that sort of corporate or institutional history is my favorite kind of history, but it has its place. Putting things in context is a valuable skill.
posted by cheapskatebay at 5:08 AM on September 15, 2019

My son graduated with a history degree in 2016. He currently works for the state tourism department on a team that sets up events at libraries , fairs, etc. promoting the state's connection to WWI/WWII and encouraging residents to bring their letters, documents, and other artifacts from the Great Wars to be scanned and permanently archived by the state library. He also spends a bit of time cleaning up the scanned images and writing descriptions of the images.
posted by COD at 6:30 AM on September 15, 2019

Got my history degree December 2007 right as the recession was really building up steam. I’d been working in retail for almost a decade - random scheduling, anywhere from 8-45 hours a week, sometimes 7 days a week - and I was soooo tired of it. But I didn’t really have a specific history-related job I wanted and I just needed a paycheck so I thought, what has regular hours? Banks! So I got what I thought of as a temporary job as a bank teller. I wound up working my way through several jobs at the bank and now I’ve been there for 11 years. Right now I work as a senior credit analyst in the commercial real estate department. I don’t really use the specific knowledge from my degree so much as I use the skills I gained getting that degree - reading critically, the ability to reconcile different sets of facts/data, writing quickly and coherently, the ability to quickly read and pull out relevant info from texts. I am one of the only people at my company in this role with, shall we say, a words background rather than a numbers background; most of the others have business, economics, or finance degrees. Honestly for what we do, the numbers side is a lot easier to learn than the writing side, and I think my background is honestly more helpful for this specific job than theirs is.
posted by skycrashesdown at 9:10 AM on September 15, 2019

My wife's master's is in Public History, and she went into private tutoring (not for history, mostly - K-12 gen ed and math) and is now going back to school to become an arborist.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:22 AM on September 15, 2019

Historic preservation! I hold both a BS and MA in history, and knew I didn't want to teach. While looking for an archival program, I stumbled across a graduate level program in historic preservation. It's my dream work. I get to use my research and writing skills, and love of learning about history, in a practical way...my work helps to save historic buildings and landscapes. Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to be talked about much in standard history undergraduate programs as a career option (beyond public history, which is a bit different), but my background in an academic history program is what has helped me to be as successful as I have been in the field. Granted, I had to get another Master's degree to do it, but there are also certificate programs.
posted by Preserver at 1:48 PM on September 15, 2019

I graduated with a BA in History and minors in English and Library Science in 2010. After graduation, I signed up for the Americorps*VISTA program and served at an adult literacy non-profit for a year before moving to Pittsburgh and getting into web content development/management, first at a tech startup, then at a college.

My content manager role at the college morphed over time into a social media management/digital marketing role, which I think my history background actually prepared me pretty well for. Writing and planning aside, I think the single most important thing I learned as a history major was how to find the right information at the right time. Anything I didn't know about social media for businesses, I could find that info online, read it, digest it, put it into practice. Thanks, history major!

Anyway, I got burned out on social, went back to grad school for my MSLIS, and as of like three months ago, I'm now working in UX/UI design.

Overall, no regrets about the history major, although I don't think it would hurt to try to introduce some cross-training into more of the programs, especially in light of their waning popularity. I think an intro to data science or information visualization course would be a great way for history majors to learn and apply some potentially lucrative tech skills to historical data sets.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:06 AM on September 19, 2019

« Older Vacation suggestions for Shreveport, LA   |   Would it be hard to resize this dress? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments