Careers in history: What it takes to be a historian

Do you have a passion for history? Are you looking for an occupation that involves in-depth research and analysis? There are many careers in history that allow you to focus on specific people, places and events in extensive detail.  As a historian, you will study, interpret and write about the past. You'll investigate relevant documents, artifacts and sources. This will help you to develop clearer pictures about how civilizations and cultures have evolved over time. You'll use your abilities and detail-oriented perspective to uncover what may have influenced important moments in history. This could include anything from the formation of hunter-gatherer communities to the creation of global partnerships in the modern era. This occupation suits those who are interested in learning about key episodes in human history. It's also a good fit for those interested in teaching the public about prominent figures, occurrences and accomplishments that have shaped the modern world.

“A historian is someone who interrogates the past, someone who asks questions about how things got to where they are,” says Dr. Peter Van Cleave, clinical assistant professor of history and director of online programs at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Historians work in a range of settings that provide career advancement and personal development opportunities. For example, some experts compile their research into nonfiction books or documentaries. Other create educational programs on behalf of a cultural heritage institution. A historian’s job outlook is often tied to their area of study and their ability to engage a target audience. This means that effective communication is essential to their long-term success. This profession requires reading and writing skills, an aptitude for independent research and the ability to distill complex subjects into informative and engaging materials. Historians also work with colleagues and contacts to gain access to historical documents that may not be available to the public.

You'll need a combination of subject matter expertise and technical knowledge to succeed in this field. An online Master of Arts in history can provide you with the skills you need to excel. You'll study research methodologies, writing proficiencies and critical thinking. Unlike many other graduate degrees, an MA in History allows you to select courses that align with your interests. Most programs offer core classes in comparative history, historical methods and interpretive frameworks. In addition, you'll choose from a diverse selection of electives that explore specific time periods, events and figures. This will prepare you to contribute to ongoing discussions about human history and culture.

A historian looks at a historical genealogical tree.

A typical day in the life of a historian

Historians often investigate historical documents, analyze artifacts and read scholarly articles. However, their daily responsibilities tend to fluctuate based on their employers’ needs. For example, professionals who work at historical societies may create resources for public outreach campaigns. They may also promote fundraising events. Many careers in history involve deep research and careful examination of accepted narratives. Yet, historians must also develop their own interpretations and support their claims with evidence. They communicate their ideas using books, videos, websites, interactive exhibits and more. If you’re interested in pursuing a historian career, your day may include the following tasks:

  • Collecting information from historical sources from archives, libraries and museums.
  • Designing educational programs and presentations to engage the public.
  • Evaluating relevant information to verify authenticity and significance.
  • Providing direct guidance to third parties on historical topics.
  • Writing detailed reports, articles and press releases on new discoveries.

Although historians tend to work in self-directed environments, they need to effectively collaborate with colleagues and representatives of historical institutions. That's because some material sources can only be accessed through museums or private archives.

Established experts regularly peer review manuscripts written by other professionals. They may also attend speaking events on subjects they have extensively studied. Researching historian career information can help you learn more about your options.

The job outlook for historians

Historians typically conduct research for historical associations, nonprofits, universities, governments and other organizations. Popular history writers are often self-employed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 6% job growth for this profession between 2016 and 2026. The historian job outlook is on par with the national average for all occupations. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, there is a surging interest in black history and the struggle for civil rights. This has helped drive attendance at museums and historical sites. As the public becomes more engaged with cultural and social issues, growth in the field will likely continue.

Hiring managers often prefer candidates with a master’s degree in history, anthropology or other related subjects. They also usually look for some professional experience in the field. In addition, digital communications has had a notable impact on hiring trends over the past decade. Organizations have begun looking for tech-savvy historians who understand how to design interactive resources that will engage online audiences. Building a comprehensive portfolio that contains articles, reports and projects is one way to stay competitive in today’s labor market.

The median salary for historians stood at $61,140 in 2018, per data from the BLS, with the top 10% earning more than $110,000. Individuals who are employed by the federal government typically receive higher returns, with a median salary of around $97,840.

A historian looks for information in a public library.

How to become a historian

Historians generally possess certain core traits that help them advance their careers in history. These include research proficiency and the ability to develop unique interpretations. One of the primary goals of this occupation is to build upon public knowledge of historical events. This often requires professionals to create profiles of notable people, places, ideas and interactions that can be easily understood. This process usually calls for advanced writing abilities and verbal communication. However, it’s important to consider the other unique qualities that contribute to a historian’s long-term success, such as:

  • Attention to detail: Historians are accountable for the accuracy and relevance of their interpretations. This is why many focus on improving their reading comprehension skills. Every claim must be appropriately sourced and backed up by evidence before a historian’s work is accepted by other experts in the field.
  • Quantitative literacy: To put together a historically accurate narrative, you need to identify meaningful connections between different sources. Many of these sources often have divergent perspectives on the same topic. While most guides to historian career information mention literacy as a core trait, professionals in this field must also leverage systematic methods of analysis during their studies.
  • Critical thinking: When new ideas challenge existing interpretations, historians must use logic and reason to reconcile the discrepancies. Then, they must revise their conclusions. Part of the job is deciphering complex interrelationships and working out how the past directly affects the present.
  • Collaboration: Historians often work alongside other experts who have competing interpretations. This can make it difficult to come to a consensus about historical events. Professionals need to recognize and appreciate the value of diverse experiences and perspectives. This creates an ideal environment for problem solving and innovation.

Learn more about your potential career as a historian

The ASU Online Master of Arts in history can help you deepen your understanding of global history. ASU Online also offers a track in North American history. During your studies, you'll increase your knowledge of research methodologies. You'll learn how to apply critical methods and analytical frameworks to your studies. You'll also develop a unique perspective on how societies and cultures have evolved over time. For those interested in pursuing careers in history, the MA in History offers many opportunities. You can study interpretive trends, genealogy, comparative colonialism and more.

In today's competitive job market, it’s important to have the right technical skills, knowledge and experience. That's why a graduate education a valuable resource for advancing your career.

Sources:

ASU Online – Online Master of Arts in History

Historians by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Historians by O*Net Online

Careers for Students of History by American Historical Society

How to Get Paid to Become a Historian by Houston Chronicle

Surging Interest in Black History Gives a Lift to Museums, Tourism by Pew Charitable Trusts

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