History ---> Cash
July 29, 2008 1:35 AM   Subscribe

1) Get BA in beloved liberal arts field 2) ??? 3) Profit? Help me balance my desire for a degree in History with my desire to earn a decent living for myself.

This spring I begin my Junior year of college -- working towards a BA in History. I love History and I consider it to be one of my passions. Probably my "main" passion. It's difficult to describe to someone who hasn't felt the "history bug", but I am "that one kid" who spends his lunch hour reading up on John XXII and the political intrigues of the Avignon Papacy. There really isn't much that I enjoy more -- intellectually speaking -- than history.

So, naturally, I went for a degree in History. My struggle right now is finding an algorithm that will result in "History --> Cash".

Grad school is a definite possibility (I have a 4.0 -- that should help me to get in, right?), although my parents are bankrupt and I'm poor, so financing might be tricky. But what should I study there? I really have no desire to teach high school. I suppose I could do it if the alternative were starvation, but I never liked high school and, frankly, I don't like kids that much. My parents have been encouraging me to head into law school after I graduate, but the
idea of having $100,000+ in debt is too scary for me to even contemplate. Also, lawyering doesn't thrill me either.

I've considered teaching at a college level, although when I ask my professors about it, their responses are usually shades of "don't bother". Apparently, a glut of humanities professors and deep cuts in state and Federal education budgets makes it very hard to get onboard a faculty without somebody dying first. Math and Science professors are much more in demand -- and while I enjoy science and am competent at math, I just don't see an academic career for myself in either.

I've also considered "Government" (a vague term if there ever was one) and a Masters in Public Administration, although I'm not even completely sure what I could do with that. I'm probably too much of a humanitarian to get a job with the FBI, CIA or just about any political campaign.

This is also difficult because I'm trying to figure out exactly how much money would be enough for me to be comfortable living on. 40,000/yr? 50? 60? I've never made more than 16,000/yr in my whole life. I'd like to make more, of course, but I have no absolute goals for how much money I feel that I need to earn. I guess you could say I'm still exploring my values in this regard.

On a more practical note: This fall I will be taking an EMT course to improve my near-term employment prospects. Entry-level EMT's can make $25-30,000/yr, which is pretty good from my current $9/hour vantage point.

So should I try to get a job that relates to my History degree somehow, or should I get it just for the enrichment and pursue a more practical route to financial success? Am I missing something here?
posted by Avenger to Work & Money (33 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Fellow history buff here, who has since lapsed.

History is a lot of fun, you're right. But in today's economy, it just isn't a practical degree.

English, history, anthropology, sociology, etc... all these people come out of these majors and compete for the same low level jobs... program assistant, research assistant, etc. And there is a lot of competition.

Yes, grad school is a possibility, but once you're done with a PhD (and, btw, don't worry about debt and grad school, as long as you get good enough GRE scores and have a good GPA, at the PhD level at least, you are a TA or an RA and that covers your tuition, fees, and some living expenses, so as long as you're frugal, you won't add too much onto your debt), the history professor job market isn't too great. But if you really like history as much as you say that you do, maybe academia isn't as bad as you think. And, once you get that PhD, as bad as the job market can be, you'll be in a quite different position to get a job than you are now.

If you're serious about grad school, you need to ramp it up right now. Take a practice GRE soon, to see how you're doing and if you're going to need to study for them and how much time that will take. Also start narrowing down your focus to a particular historical topic and get a research assistantship with a professor or 2 in that field so that they can write you letters of recommendation next year. Also, start reading A LOT in that particular historical topic and write down scholars' names. You'll need to figure out where the schools are that have a good department for your topic. And a senior/honors thesis is a definite plus.

If you don't want to go the grad school route, my personal suggestion, if you can do it, is to do another major with something a bit more practical - economics, business (accounting), a science, or, (perhaps better paired with history) a regional focus with a language skill. I'd go with a regional focus/language skill - the rarer the better, or whichever region your university has the best reputation for. Then at least when you graduate you can have a language skill and some regional expertise going for you when you're competing with everyone else for the same entry level jobs. With the other major, at least you'll (hopefully) have a skill or two.

Also, if you're looking to be competitive, you NEED TO DO AN INTERNSHIP. The internship company/organization might just hire you when you're done with school, but at least there will be evidence that you can sit at a desk all day and stare at a computer without being a brat.

And finally, you could go into the real world for a year or two and go back, but to be honest with you, getting your stuff together for graduate school while you're still an undergrad is a lot easier.
posted by k8t at 2:41 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

PS, the nice thing about history is that is does make for an excellent hobby!
posted by k8t at 2:46 AM on July 29, 2008

Don't bother going to grad school unless you are certain what you'd want to do with the graduate degree.

BA degrees really don't matter outside of technical fields. They really, really don't. Many, many people in high paying careers have college degrees; I'd guess a sizable percentage don't have degrees matching their field.

You can love a topic and not have it be your career. Nothing is stopping you from finding a job that you are good at, doing that job 9-5, and then reading some really great history books or volunteering/participating in history organizations. If having a career that isn't in history is okay with you, I would strongly recommend going that route, because career options in history specifically are scarce and not well paid.

I'd normally defer to k8t in topics such as these, but I totally disagree that language specialization would be a good choice unless you already have a good language under your belt (most Western European languages don't count, since they're widely known). If you only have two years to study a language, that's really not enough time to gain proficiency in the language to the point where you could be hired for that language skill (unless you are brilliant at picking up languages).

Similarly, I'm not certain whether it makes sense to change majors in your junior year, for two reasons. First, if you choose another major that is more specialized, then there really will be more pressure to stay in that topic as a career. If you end up not liking the career at all, then the skills you acquired, while interesting, are no more useful than a history degree. Second, unless you've already covered a variety of topics in your freshman and sophomore years, there are probably going to be loads of required classes that you'd need to take to switch degrees.

And while it may be harder to go back to get a graduate degree, it really isn't that much harder. It's probably more difficult to get financial support like fellowships set up, but realistically you should only go to grad school either to move into academia or to build on professional knowledge in your existing career.

Internships are useful for some but not all careers.

One thing that comes up from the mention of EMT...if you like the idea of helping sick or injured people, you should seriously consider becoming a nurse. As far as I can see demand for nurses is just going to skyrocket. It doesn't pay as much as being a doctor obviously, but a decent nurse can make a really healthy salary.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:02 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh yeah, and if the idea of lawyering doesn't appeal to you do not under any circumstances go to law school. I have a friend who liked law but hated being a lawyer and for a long time racked up an unbelievable debt load from law school. I think he's finally found a decent-paying job that is law-related but I'm not sure whether he's ever going to be able to pay off his debts in full.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:06 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As far as comfortable salaries: it really, really depends on what you're used to having. 16k/year, if you've been living with your parents and eating their food, is a lot because rent and food take a huge chunk out of your budget. I'd say 25-30k is about right for living comfortably assuming you don't want to live someplace expensive like NYC. 30k+ means you can eat out on a regular basis (1-2 times a week at inexpensive restaurants), buy decent quality clothing, and have a nice amount for recreation. Once you start thinking about things like a family and a house, 40-50k will make that a lot easier.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:10 AM on July 29, 2008

PS, I meant double major. He should be almost done with history by now, so tacking on a region wouldn't hurt and he does have 2 years left. In my experience with a lot of internationally focused organizations, a major in Middle Eastern Studies or whatever does give someone an edge, even if they only have a rudimentary knowledge of the language. An American staff person isn't required to translate, rather just follow along, in my experience.
posted by k8t at 4:01 AM on July 29, 2008

I was a history major. I have had a very successful career in a variety of communications fields, including PR and technical writing. There's a lot you can do, you just need to get out there and do it! MeFi mail me if you want more info about what I've done. (I graduated in 1995).
posted by miss tea at 4:14 AM on July 29, 2008

If you aim your gradschooling at getting a Masters in Library Science, you can transition that into working at a college library where you can get deep discounts on further classes in history. I know people that have stopped over at being a librarian to help pay the academic bills for theirs intellectual pursuits.

If you are very cunning, you can even get a job as a library assistant at a university where you'll also receive deep discounts towards your library degree. That's what I did and I now have relatively little student loan debt.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:27 AM on July 29, 2008

Best answer: This is also difficult because I'm trying to figure out exactly how much money would be enough for me to be comfortable living on. 40,000/yr? 50? 60? I've never made more than 16,000/yr in my whole life. I'd like to make more, of course, but I have no absolute goals for how much money I feel that I need to earn. I guess you could say I'm still exploring my values in this regard.

I just graduated so I've been trying to figure this stuff out too. I think it all depends on where you live, and what standard of living you expect to have. Right now I also maybe $9/hr (so that's what, about $18,000/year before taxes?). I'm in a small and cheap city. (Although according to this site Houston is even cheaper!) I eat out maybe once or twice a month - my roommates and I have learned to cook many of our favorite restaurant meals at home for a fraction of the price. I tend to see movies at on "Bargain Tuesdays" or at matinee times. I take the bus and walk instead of having a car. But in general, life is a lot more comfortable than I would have expected. I live in a spacious 3 bedroom apartment with my friends, I can walk to work, and I love my job. From my vantage point, $30,000/year looks very comfortable for someone like me, especially in a city that isn't drastically more expensive than Providence.

On the other hand, I am extremely lucky and don't have any loans to pay off. Another friend who majored in Political Theory took a paralegal job at a fancy law firm in NYC for somewhere in the $50k range, primarily so he can pay off loans. This seems like a good option if making more money is important to you.

I think being a nurse might be less lucrative at first, but would be a lot more fulfilling. (And if you go on to be a Nurse Practitioner You get wear pajamas all day! And help people feel better. And you aren't confined to a desk.

So yeah - get the degree for the enrichment (I say this as a philosophy major) and think of something else that you wouldn't mind doing for a living.
posted by puffin at 4:35 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am definitely interested in the answers to this question, given that I'm going into my junior year of a history BA.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 4:41 AM on July 29, 2008

Best answer: My degree is in history (concentration in medieval renaissance) and I'm 16 years out of school. I did go to grad school, which helped, but the fact that I had a degree from a good school helped as did the fact I could communicate effectively. You may want to work for a while and then decide on a grad program - find a field that interests you and go in on the ground floor, perhaps. Government jobs may be good, too.

I don't regret my BA in History at all.

I've worked in a few different fields, MeFi me if you want to chat more.
posted by pointystick at 5:08 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

duh. should have been (late) medieval & renaissance. Also, the Avignon Papacy is fascinating. Fie on those who say otherwise!
posted by pointystick at 5:19 AM on July 29, 2008

Add this to the rash of questions that could have been me. I have a history degree. The mistake I made was that by the time I graduated, I did not know what I was good at outside of that I knew a ton about Medieval art, architecture, history, and literature, and I could recite most of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales after a few shots of tequila. So, my advice to you if you choose to NOT pursue a masters or PhD, is to figure out what your SKILLS are. That is what people are interested. Fast learner? Everyone is or claims to be. Show that you've taught yourself how to do something (web design, HTML, whatever, hopefully something related to the business you are looking at). Are you an organizer? A project manager? What kind of environment do you want to work in? These are all things you need to know about yourself before getting a job. I made the mistake to think that if I could do it well, then it must mean that it was a good job for me, and I spent three years miserable in finance. Finally someone basically told me that I was prime PM material, and it's been downhill from there. Be ye not so stupid, as Dooce would say.

Also, on preview, pointystick has it right. I do not regret my history degree. The entire process taught me how to think, communicate, and organize, and frankly, I think it taught me to do it better than a lot of people I work with (and right now, I'm a Software PM and I get to make toys . . . it's not corporate, but it does pay the bills).
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:26 AM on July 29, 2008

1. Degree in History
2. Teaching Ceritication
3. Teach for 5 years
4. Get a job in Assessment or another NCLB related field.
5. Profit! (off the tax money intended to educate our children!)
posted by Seamus at 5:50 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, this plan leaves you a fall back job in education and the potential to get other jobs in the publishing or educational consulting fields.
posted by Seamus at 5:51 AM on July 29, 2008

BA and MA in history here. History, IMHO, is the ideal degree to get if you want to be an attorney. My father? BA in history, a lawyer for over 40 years. My cousin, same, now a law professor.

The law itself is history. Your skills relating to understanding change over time help you understand the rationale of the rule of decision to be applied to a case--something very helpful.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:52 AM on July 29, 2008

Just adding a couple data points for your reference. My stepsister --> BA in History --> secretary/grants officer at a community college. My former roommate --> BA in History --> vet tech. My girlfriend -->BA in Humanities --> manages retail. I got my BA in Classics --> office assistant --> law school. We all graduated within the last 4 years. Turns out, our fortunes depended more on the job market than our prior studies.
posted by ailouros08 at 6:03 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

First, if doing history floats your boat, then keep with it at least through the BA. As has been said, BA specialties don't mean much in the US, with some exceptions.

But, do it the right way -- take it seriously, learn to write (really -- it is one of the most writing-centric disciplines, and there is little sadder than a history major who never learned to write well), and keep lots of doors open.

I would strongly agree with K8t about picking up a regional and language competency. You probably won't get fluent in two years, but even basic competency makes you an unusual job candidate. I'd suggest being a little bit strategic -- perhaps don't study a language like German that is commonly studied in the US but is spoken by people in only one or two countries. Instead, go for a language/region like Spanish or French that are first or second languages in huge swathes of the globe, or a language like Mandarin, Farsi, or Urdu that is studied by very few Americans but is spoken by a fair number of people in rather important parts of the world.

Doing that helps opens you up to the possibility of choosing an overseas career track -- perhaps international development (in which case you might want to start by applying to the Peace Corps or similar), or Foreign Service, or working for a company overseas.

Or, having listened to me two paragraphs above and learned to write, you have the option of becoming a journalist/writer. That's a field with tons and tons of history majors in it, because it values the same skills of reading, digging for a story, synthesizing, and writing clearly. Ditto librarians, and other similar careers.

The job market for newly-minted history professors is brutal, with intense competition. However, if you are willing to consider working for an archive, or in some other capacity with your new history phd, that job market gets a lot better. Still, it's something to take on only if you are really, really sure, deep in your gut, that this is the path for you.

Lastly, how much you "need" to earn has everything to do with your values and expectations, and where you live, and very little to do with what other people will say is needed. One way to get a sense of what is "normal" is to consider that the median household income in the US is about $48,000 (for those households headed by a person with a BA, it goes up to about $69,000). That's not necessarily predictive, in that you may put yourself on a low-earning track and stay there, or you may go out and earn twice as much your first year on the job market.
posted by Forktine at 6:15 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Like miss tea and the others above, I too was a history major and have had a fun career in politics, government, and working for a public relations agency specializing in crisis, corporate, and new media communications.

Being a history major teaches you how: to research, to write, to think strategically, and to have above-average understanding of the world around you (past, present and future). All very useful in pretty much any career.

I had the same fears as you when I graduated from college. I was pleasantly surprised, however -- most companies know history majors are generally useful folk and can do almost anything.

Over the years, I've sort of developed a short "the past as prelude to the future" speech that is very useful in job interviews when I inevitably get the furrowed brow and the, "So... why did you study history?" question. You might start working on your own answer to that question. Definitely not insurmountable and my degree has actually work to my advantage a few times.

This conversation should be less about what you can do, and more about what you want to do. Before you jump into academia or law -- be very sure that's what you want to do. (I know many unhappy lawyers and several under-employed teachers).
posted by LakesideOrion at 6:22 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have a BA and MA in history; I don't regret the former at all, but do regret the latter as it has proven to be largely a waste of time. Generally, a history Phd is not going to equal big bucks, and can definitely lead you to a painful cycle of adjunct positions. Even if you get hired, it can be difficult to land a tenure track job. That said, the situation can vary tremendously depending on your field and your academic background. If you want to do European or American history, don't even consider it. There is too much competition, and this is coupled with the fact that many universities are simply not refilling positions when professors retire. Fields that are hiring now would be in areas like Asian, African, and Middle Eastern history (and even then, you'd want to make sure you were in an area that actually needs work).
The Chronicle has had a few articles detailing this situation -- it is a pay site, but your university would have a subscription:

I see you are in Houston - are you at Rice? If so, you would probably have a better chance than many of getting into a first-tier program. If you could get funding for a top rated program in one of the above areas, it might be worthwhile if you are really committed to this idea (you must be funded at a top program for your field to be successful, however).

There are many things that you can do with a history degree, however, so don't head down the path of a Phd just because that seems like the next logical step. I know many people who have gone into law, business, urban planning, community development, nursing, public policy, international relations...as others have stated, when applying to grad school, it very seldom matters what your BA was in, particularly if you go into a social science field. I'd advise you to talk with your career services center since they can usually give you a list of what other alumni have done with their degrees in addition to more general information. They can also usually provide contact information for the alumni themselves, and this can be a very powerful networking tool. Do it sooner rather than later, it would be ideal if you could set up an internship for next summer in a field you are interested in.
posted by susanvance at 6:41 AM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As others have noted, a BA degree doesn't mean that you have to work "with" or "in" that field in any way.

A BA degree in history means, from the point of view of an employer, that:

*You can be trained
*You can digest information
*You can communicate
*You can work on long-term projects with little immediate reward

What you want to do is talk to your university's career center or whatever they call it. There are people there who are adept at turning BAs into employment.

Other notes:

Grad school is a definite possibility ... financing might be tricky.

It won't be. With your grades, either you'll have a free ride and stipend, or you shouldn't go at all.

If you aim your gradschooling at getting a Masters in Library Science, you can transition that into working at a college library where you can get deep discounts on further classes in history.

I think this is bad advice. Go with a stipend to a top-end department as a full-time PhD student, or don't go.

I've also considered "Government" (a vague term if there ever was one) and a Masters in Public Administration, although I'm not even completely sure what I could do with that.

Do you mean a government BA? No different than a history BA or literature BA.

Do you mean working for the government? That doesn't mean cracking skulls for the FBI. That means doing corporate cubicle work, except that you have trouble explaining to people who've never worked for the federal government exactly what it is you do. From your point of view, it means "Some sort of information processing that I don't understand now, but can be trained to do, just like intro corporate jobs." It also means somewhat less pay but better benefits than the private sector.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:11 AM on July 29, 2008 [5 favorites]

What an awesome thread. I have really enjoyed reading all the responses.
Great question Avenger. Good luck.
posted by a3matrix at 7:24 AM on July 29, 2008

Best answer: Major in history.

Too many people think of college as preparation for a job. College should be preparation for the hours of your life when you are not working. You love history. That love is going to stay with you the rest of your life. It's up to you if you are going to be educated and informed in that subject matter, or if you're instead going to spend a lifetime of picking up history in tantalizing snippets.

I say this as someone who picked a "practical" major in college, hated it, and ended up earning a living in a field that had absolutely nothing to do with that major. There are many stories like mine.
posted by profwhat at 7:30 AM on July 29, 2008 [9 favorites]

Assuming you're a U.S. citizen with no criminal record, not too much debt, and no history of drug dependence, there are lots of jobs you could get in the public sector, working for the government. USA Jobs is the "official" place to look for them and submit your resume, although it's been my experience that nobody actually gets hired without some sort of connection, so use your school's careeer office and alumni network.

Most government jobs, or jobs working for a contractor working for the government, will not really use your diploma for anything besides "a diploma". They'll care that you have it, but that's really about it. Your real "skills" are your trainability, computer literacy, and ability to survive a basic background check and potentially get a security clearance. Chances are, you'll end up spending most of your time in MS Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, and all your training will be on-the-job. The pay won't be great and you'll have to spend a lot of time working with time-servers and people obsessed with their little fiefdoms, and you'll become cynical and bitter about the sausage factory that is government, but the benefits are pretty nice and it's better than starvation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:24 AM on July 29, 2008

Profwhat is right please stay with history as your B.A. degree.

Do what you love now and get a job later. It probably won't be doing historical analysis, but almost nobody does what's on their diploma (unless you major in engineering...). You can get jobs in lots of fields with a 4.0 gpa from a good school. No hiring managers will care in what exactly you did this degree, just that you excelled, are excited about learning things, and are a good person (history, philosophy, and other degrees help you to become a better person, not to get a j-o-b).
posted by zpousman at 8:46 AM on July 29, 2008

History major here. Actually, I was even more "hopeless," I double-majored in Women's Studies and History. According to pop culture cliches, I was qualified to work my way up to manager at the local Borders. But I think any liberal arts BA can serve you well if you do it right. Others have pointed out that, unless you have a very specific career path in mind, exactly which Liberal Arts field you do doesn't matter much.

Several people have pointed out the communications skills you get from a liberal arts degree. Really, it was shocking once I got out into the "real world" how much writing and analytical skills can matter. Don't discount these. They won't necessarily get you the job, but they'll help you thrive once you start working. I wound up working in political advocacy, which is quite rewarding and reasonably lucrative (you won't get rich, but you'll do ok). You say you have a humanitarian bent, so this might be good for you. You might want to look into communications, which is the area I work in. Lots of research and writing, and quite analytical.

Three more things:

- Whoever suggested an internship is right. See if you can get course credit and do one this semester. You can work for the local historical society, or really whatever. I think the main point is that employers will be more likely to hire you if they can see that you have work experience outside of flipping burgers or making espressos.
- Your twenties are for learning, your thirties are for earning. Don't worry too much about money when you first graduate. The best thing you can do right out of school is take a job where you will learn a lot. Even if it's just learning how to work in an office, or learning what you don't like. Obviously, you want to be able to pay your bills, and have some fun, but when you're 22 and have no dependents (even if you're planning on helping out your parents), you can live cheaply.
- For god's sake, don't go to law school. There's a major glut of lawyers in this country, partly because people think of it as a sort of default profession and get pushed into it by their parents.

Hope this helps. Good luck! You'll be fine.

On preview: also, don't freak out too much about choosing one profession for the rest of your life. People change professions all the time these days.
posted by lunasol at 9:46 AM on July 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

Nthing k8t.

Why don't you get a degree in something useful and then do a BA in History on the side online for fun?

If money doesn't matter now, it will definitely matter later. You will be envious of your friends who are going to be making more money than you are and saving more money.

Also, if you're an intellectual person, you're going to be bored in client service type roles later and, if you're not attractive and charismatic, you won't get very far in the soft jobs, like PR and advertising. You need skills to leverage yourself and few employers really value liberal arts degrees. Anybody with a college degree can argue that they're critical thinkers. Few, in my experience, really are, unless they've majored in math or engineering. It's just what lib arts grads want to believe about themselves and want to believe others believe about them.

Also, there's nothing wrong with going to law school. Just don't count on wanting to after you finish your degree. You can go to law school with just about any degree, anyway.
posted by onepapertiger at 10:14 AM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

My wife just received her PhD in History. It is a difficult job market but it is not impossible. My wife received 7 tenure track offers this year and received a post-doc appointment. The job that she accepted will be paying her in the high 60's. A lot of your success as a prof depends on where you graduate from, who you work with, how hot your subfield is, how interesting/innovative your research is and how well you impress people at interviews. Do not let people discourage you from teaching at the college level because they say that there are no jobs. A lot of that means that they could not find jobs.

That being said, do not pursue a Phd unless that is exactly what you want to do. It is a long and hard process that requires an enormous amount of commitment. This is not something to pursue on a whim.
posted by anansi at 11:02 AM on July 29, 2008

I majored in fine arts (sculpture) and ended up editing at a magazine (with a bunch of journalism majors). I have been just as successful as my co-workers with "relevant" degrees. I did it by starting with an entry-level position and doing really well at it. I'd imagine that a history major would have been more attractive to my employers than my "hey look what I can do with plaster" degree. Luckily, after working as a temp for them, I was hired at an entry level and happened to do really well at it, and I'm now making a comfortable living. I'll never be a millionaire this way but I'm happy. You really can do almost anything with your degree.
posted by chowflap at 11:03 AM on July 29, 2008

Why don't you get a degree in something useful and then do a BA in History on the side online for fun?

If money doesn't matter now, it will definitely matter later. You will be envious of your friends who are going to be making more money than you are and saving more money.

I respectfully disagree to both points.

First, a degree in history now is still perfectly useful for any number of careers. In high school I remember a newspaper editor telling us that he preferred hiring people who didn't have journalism degrees. Pretty much any liberal arts degree (including history) will give you the skills of critical thinking and analysis. The benefit of getting an education in a physical college is that you interact with students and teachers and are able to absorb some of the academic culture. An online course in history is kind of pointless since it will basically mean, "read a lot of history books" which you could probably do in your spare time anyway. Aside from open courseware, online courses aren't significantly cheaper than in person courses because there is still the matter of earning the degree. A second BA degree is pretty worthless professionally, so there's no point in taking that route. Also, if your money is limited it's the last thing you want to do right now.

Second, money is important to some people but not everyone. Basically, when it comes to money you can be frugal, a saver, or a spender. Frugal people don't make that much comparatively speaking but they don't spend that much either. Savers make a lot of money but hoard it all. Spenders make a lot of money but they spend it. (There's a fourth option, of course: debtors, who make little but spend beyond their means...but you want to avoid that at all costs). If you want to be in the last two groups, maybe a "useful" degree is still going to make a huge difference but I doubt it. There are plenty of cases of resourceful people making a lot of money without completing college or even going to college at all. If you want to make a lot of money and are willing to push for it, it is possible "even" with a history degree.

I notice occasionally that I am envious of people who are well off (rarely friends). In my experience, however, this not that big of a deal and I don't think of it that often. As I said above, if you are making at least 25-30k a year you should live fairly comfortably. The only snag I guess will be saving up for your house, if you intend to buy one, so setting up a savings account now and working in a savings plan is a very good idea.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:34 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anybody with a college degree can argue that they're critical thinkers. Few, in my experience, really are, unless they've majored in math or engineering.

Also, this is bull. I've known critical thinkers who are scientists, and critical thinkers who are not scientists. I've all seen plenty of people from both groups who aren't critical thinkers. In fact, hands down the worst programmers (of those who get paid to do it for a living) I've ever run into are ones who have a degree in Computer Science. Now, obviously, many of the best programmers will be computer scientists (many with PhDs, no less) but a lot of people enter the CS field because it pays well and you actually don't have to be that extraordinary in order to be paid well. A lot of people who choose history degrees do so because they love learning, love reading, and love to explore in depth. These all are really positive indicators.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:48 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Double major BA in history and art history, continued on with a Master's in art history, did the curatorial thing until I couldn't stomach the politics anymore and then started writing historical music books. My love of offbeat social history flared up with a blog about true crime in 1940s LA, and now I write and lead bus tours to local crime scenes.

So if for some insane reason you want to be me in a few years: work on your writing, research skills, public speaking, map-reading and A/V basics--and if you want to become the go-to person for guided trips into papal history, your French and Italian.

There's also never been a better time for pitching mass market books about niche historical topics, particularly if you can eat them (eg. Salt, Potatoes, Spice, Cod, Oysters, etc. etc. etc.).
posted by Scram at 7:50 PM on July 29, 2008

I have a BA in history from many years ago (I am now in my early fifties). I can still remember the professor (who happened to be my advisor) making her case for the humanities to one of her classes. It went something like this:

You will spend many, many years of your life focused on salaries, financial concerns, and the responsibilities that come with adult life. While you are in college, you have an opportunity that you will never have again to just *learn* about the world in a focused, intellectual environment.

She was right. I'm glad that I did my history degree and my religous studies minor. I'm grateful for the ability to digest large amounts of complex reading material. I'm glad that I learned how to listen, learn, analyze, and write. Along the way I also learned enough about myself to understand that the "teaching degree as backup" would have been a terrible fit, because I personally never flourished as a student until I left behind the rigid, passive-aggressive atmosphere of compulsory public schools.

I graduated with zero debt, and a year later, obtained a master's degree in library science. Over the years I have worked in a variety of IT-related support positions (technical writer, configuration management, quality assurance). In addition to my day job, I now teach religious studies part-time at a community college [after obtaining a second masters], and I love it.

Nothing is ever wasted.

Complete that BA in history and then go exploring.
posted by apartment dweller at 12:59 PM on July 31, 2008

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