By Rob Townsend
As tuition and student debt rise, questions from students, parents, and administrators about the future value of a history major have become more pointed. Thankfully, the Internet provides a host of data sources that can help orient you and your students in thinking about their potential careers and financial prospects.
Before you dive into the sources, it helps to have a clear notion of the questions you want to answer. Are you trying to provide career advice for an individual student, or a presentation for parents or administrators demonstrating the long-term benefits of the major? Some sources can provide the starting point for a good one-on-one conversation about career options, but have dubious statistical value, while others can provide solid numbers for a presentation but require careful unpacking. With those potential uses in mind, consider the following:
Earnings: The prevailing question from students and parents these days seems to be about how salaries for history majors compare to other fields. A new report from the Humanities Indicators finds median annual earnings were $55,000 for workers who majored in US history and $50,000 for those who majored in another area of history (with only a bachelor’s degree). Both numbers compare favorably to $42,000 for the average American aged 25 to 64 (including all those who have not earned degrees), but lag a bit behind the average for graduates from all fields ($57,000). Those numbers can provide a baseline for general discussions with parents and administrators.
For a one-on-one conversation with a student, however, PayScale offers a nice visualization of history’s relationship to other degrees. The visualization is very accessible for the average reader, but needs to be read with caution, since it relies only on self-reported data.
Regardless of any concerns about the specific dollar values shown, the PayScale data highlight two important factors for the long-term career prospects of students—the benefits of experience and additional study. The PayScale numbers and nationally representative surveys agree that the earnings gap between the humanities and other fields generally narrow with experience. And for advising a student about life after the baccalaureate degree, note that earning an advanced degree boosts average earnings by over 45% for history majors.
Employment: One of the other questions that often pose a challenge for undergraduates is “what can I do with a history major?” The web provides a substantial number of resources that can at least help students visualize the career options. Linkedin and PayScale provide lists of current jobs and employers for history majors. As with the earnings numbers, both sites are a bit flawed, since they rely on self-reported information from people unusually engaged in professional social media. But they do offer the sort of clear and specific examples of history majors in jobs that can help ground a conversation with a student. As a handy follow-up, you might point students to the Department of Labor’s Occupation Outlook Handbook, which provides helpful overviews of particular job types, fills in some details about the types of work that fit under those labels, and offers some solid numbers on the employment prospects for each occupation.
In my experience talking to students and parents, their first concern is simply trying to see over the horizon of their degree. Fortunately, the tools are readily available for anyone trying to help them down the road.
AHA Today is publishing a series of posts on the kinds of careers available to history BAs, the skills history majors gain, and general information about the job search. Check out our What to Do with a BA in History series.