Wondering what to do with your BA in history?

Update May 12, 2015: This blog post was published in 2010. To adapt to the changing job market, the AHA has begun a new series on searching for jobs and developing careers with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Editors Note: Jessica Pritchard has conducted interviews with historians in a variety fields for AHA Today’s “Jobs and Careers in History” series. She is now currently working on a pamphlet for the AHA called What to Do with a History Major. The content for this blog post is based on some of the research she has done for that soon to be released pamphlet.

Jobs and Careers in History

Many history students are getting ready to jump into the workforce but may be wondering what exactly to do with their undergraduate degree. There’s always graduate school, but not everyone wants to continue onward, academically speaking.

Not to worry—there are plenty of options for history majors. Historians have the ability to comprehend the bigger picture—understanding how past issues, questions, dilemmas, and triumphs fit into a bigger contemporary context—which is attractive to many employers.

To help you figure out what type of job you’d like to pursue in history, take a look at some of the following ideas. The paths listed below could lead you to a fulfilling career, given your history education.

Substitute teaching is a good way to get hands-on experience in the classroom before committing to a full time position in the field. Check out Teachers-Teachers.com, suggests Robert May, a 7th grade 20th-century history teacher at KIPP: Gaston College Preparatory in North Carolina. Teachers-Teachers.com allows you to search for teaching opportunities around the country. Also be sure to visit the county web site in the area you’d like to teach in to see the sorts of teaching opportunities available.

Public History
The public history field allows historians to bring the past to as diverse an audience as possible. Within the public history path there are a number of specific job options. Curating is a position that entails everything from overseeing research, to creating exhibits, to collecting artifacts, to getting funding, to generating publicity—curators wear many hats!

In the same family as curators are museum educators, focusing much of their energy on exhibit design.

Falling under the umbrella of public history are also conservators, who manage, tend to, preserve, treat, and document artifacts to record their significance; preservationists, who identify, evaluate, interpret, and preserve historically and culturally significant sites; and archivists, who collect, organize, preserve, and often catalogue artifacts and historic documents.

Political and Public Policies
Those historians interested in political and public policies should consider pursuing careers in foundations, granting agencies, interest groups, and professional associations, all of whom need strong researchers. Similarly, think tanks often have researching opportunities on policies—both past and present—and current affairs, as do many nonprofit organizations, which span a spectrum of special interest topics. You may want to check out the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, American Farmland Trust, Keep America Beautiful, and the National Parks Foundation.

Governments and Legal Affairs
If you’re interested in politics but don’t necessarily see yourself in advocacy, perhaps you could become a paralegal, maintaining files, liaising, drafting documents, researching, and analyzing. Or perhaps you could become part of a litigation support team, performing tasks such as documenting property lines or conducting genealogical research. In a similar vein, legislative assistants advise legislators on specific issues like taxes and the environment. They also trace voting trends, draft preliminary bills, and track current legislation.

One more path to consider if politics is your interest—local, state, and federal governments. After all, government needs to know where they’ve been to understand where they’re going. You may be interested in Victoria Hardy’s article, What do federal historians do?

Many historians, especially those with solid English skills, pursue media careers where they can write, edit, publish, or all of the above in everything from university presses, to textbook and trade houses, to professional associations and museums. You might consider documentary editing, where you collect, transcribe, and organize primary sources for print or online publication; or scholarly editing, where you find, select, evaluate, design, produce, and market manuscripts for publications.

Historians often make sound businesspersons, from performing market research, to conducting surveys, to organizing demographic studies. In addition to thorough researching and sound writing capabilities, historians know how to analyze material and draw conclusions, two selling assets from a business perspective. You might be interested in a job that deals with public relations, insurance, or even banking; however, it may be helpful to, at the very least, have an interest in more technical disciplines like statistics, economics, or even accounting. You may even want to take a few classes to better prepare yourself for these types of careers.

Another option for historians interested in taking a more business route is that of doing contract work, especially those with an entrepreneurial spirit. Contract historians provide historic services to all sorts of companies, from archaeology, to architecture, to litigation; as before, it may be helpful to have at least an interest, but preferably a background, in something outside of history. The following are businesses that specialize in historic consulting: Business History Group, The Winthrop Group, and Milestones Historical Consultants.

Remember that a little bit of creativity can go a long way, especially on your journey to finding a job that best suits you. As Ferber puts it, “No first job is a straight path to a dream job, but one job along the way, and all you need is a good starting place. From there, you can jump to where you want to be, or you may discover that you have a passion and talent for something you never expected.”

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  1. Sarah Lowengard

    “Conservator” is not a subset of public history that I would recommend as a logical choice for the history BA. In contrast to archivist, registrar and preservation generalist positions, conservators nearly always need to have undergraduate-level coursework in the sciences, plus demonstrated handwork skills. Furthermore, you usually need a graduate degree (in conservation or materials science) to find an institutional job as a conservator. Entry level positions or internships are very competitive, as grad programs often require pre-program experience in several sub-disciplines.

  2. Archivist

    Do you have any data you on the success of someone with only a B.A. in history (and one who is not planning on graduate school) finding a paid, full time job as a curator or archivist? How long ago did the historians you inquired with enter their specific field?
    As an archivist who finished grad school only 3 years ago and has done a couple job searches in that time I see very few job ads for some of the positions you mention that only require a B.A. Someone with a B.A. might be able to gain employment (but maybe only part time) at a very small museum or historical society that at present has no other professionally trained staff. But most professional archivist gigs now require at least one master’s degree if not both an MLIS and a subject MA. Curatorships tend to require the same and at the most prestigious places a Phd is desired.

  3. David Darlington, assoc. editor of Perspectives

    Thanks for the comments everybody.

    I’ve had the opportunity to read a draft of the forthcoming pamphlet, and the full text does acknowledge the concerns raised here. For example, you’re right that those interested in being conservators should also try to get experience working with cultural material in a hands-on, technical way. Science and perhaps art classes can help in that regard. Also, with regards to BAs as archivists and museum professionals, the pamphlet does in fact suggest looking at smaller, local history sites first, as larger more well known institutions do tend to require a graduate degree.

  4. Megan B.

    As a semi-reply to Archivist: more highly placed staff at a museum, or staff a very prestigious museum might need a high degree. However, many history museums hire staff with a BA in history as researchers and basic curatorial staff. We have at least 4 in curatorial department at the historic house where I currently work.

    1. Gregory Schipp

      I’ve been told differently. I worked as an intern at a museum for two months and was told a BA doesn’t cut it. Even still, people expect you to have 4-5 years experience were there aren’t any entry level jobs in museums or government careers.

  5. Greg S.

    I got my BA in History back in 2012. The problem is that most employers expect you to have an MA and 4-5 years experience. I tried desperately to get a job in the park service but couldn’t. Everyone demands years of experience. There are no entry level jobs that I could find. After two years of not finding any work, I’ve given up and started looking towards learning a trade. A liberal arts degree won’t get you anything.

    1. David

      Try having a Ph.D. in history and no employment prospects! My advice is to skip liberal arts college and learn a trade, or, god forbid, open a small business and employ people.

  6. Stephen B.

    “No first job is a straight path to a dream job, but one job along the way, and all you need is a good starting place.”

    That would work if there were any jobs at all!

      1. Ryan

        Most of these comments are directed for people in careers 99 percent of history students won’t get. Only 8 percent have a master degree. You don’t need it unless your looking for a job as a curator. You can do most jobs with a college degree. I am a park ranger. I work in the library at my park. The museum technicians have a bachelor degree. The curator has two master degrees. Have fun going in debt for a job you will never get. Other jobs you can do are library assistant, archive assistant (recent job at new York historical society) and any museum job in visitor and interpretation services. That is only the jobs related to history