By Jonathan Lewis
“Why would you major in history? Does Starbucks require a BA now?” If I had a dollar for every time I heard some iteration of that question in college, I’d spend my days lounging by the heated infinity pool on the wrap-around balcony of my Fifth Avenue penthouse. No doubt you have (or will have) spent much of your time at college fielding the same snarky questions. I will be the first to admit ours is not an easy journey, but to assume that the only options available to a history major will be either low-wage work or grad school is inaccurate. The skills I developed in four years as a history major ended up being useful in both getting hired for and performing my current job.
I work as a supply-chain engineer for a large baking company. Chances are if you have purchased bagged bread, cakes, or bagels at a grocery store, I, or one of my colleagues, determined exactly how that product traveled from the production line to your hand. I majored in history with a concentration in European and American foreign relations. Going into a math-heavy career like logistics may seem like a pretty big shift from humanities, but my history degree armed me with a variety of skills that prepared me well for it. Logisticians spend a lot of time pouring over maps and negotiating with labor representatives. My love of geography and political intrigue is what motivated me to pursue a history degree in the first place, and I found an outlet for both at my job.
Of course there is a big difference between reading about something and actually doing it. I held two temp jobs with my company, and went through a months-long interview process before I was hired full-time. Proving that my history degree had equipped me for a career in logistics involved a lot of hard work and some creativity.
Selling a Degree in History on Job Applications
I approached my applications as I would a paper for class. My thesis statement was, conveniently, always the same: “I am the best candidate for this job.” My prompts? The job postings, each of which detailed exactly what the position entailed. My sources? A stack of papers, presentations, and extra-curricular projects I had completed during the course of my undergrad career. For instance, if a job posting listed Excel skills as a requirement, my body paragraph might say, “Utilizing over 20 Excel charts and graphs, I successfully defended my senior thesis on population growth of Icelandic urban centers in the 19th century.” If requirements included “works well with others” I could mention my time working as a writing tutor for ESL students. Or, if the employer sought a candidate who could “handle sensitive information,” I could point to my experience entering final grades into our university’s student portal, a sensitive task usually reserved for the tenured professors.
Depending on your area of focus, a history degree can involve developing familiarity with a wide variety of disciplines, and is limited only by your imagination. Politics, economics, statistics, and even meteorological data played big roles in my own studies. I found it useful to spend a day digging through my papers and listing on my resume specific skills I had developed while completing my assignments. When applying for my current job, one of the requirements listed was “able to manipulate data and provide graphical representation of sales trends.” In one class, I had compared the unemployment rates of weak and strong Eurozone economies, including a before and after chart to demonstrate the effect of the global recession in 2008. I brought a copy of this chart to my interview to show that I had the skills necessary to complete my work tasks. (As a supply-chain engineer, the trend graph is the most effective tool I have when proving that changes must be made to the supply chain. A sales area that shows consistent growth over a decade will need to have truck routes added to meet demand and keep drivers from being overworked.) Coming to the interview prepared and organized showed that I had the motivation and talent to learn specific job skills, and that my attitude would be a boon to the department.
History Skills on the Job
A major is not meant to lock you into a specific career path, even if this does sometimes feel like the conventional wisdom. My liberal arts degree ultimately allowed me to approach problems with a different perspective than my colleagues who were hired from sales or delivery positions.
Many of my history skills have been useful at work. All the late hours I spent on research papers pays off every time I am asked to review presentations for my colleagues, usually with a focus on editing their written slides. The baking business is also one that has much reverence for tradition. Every bakery my company owns displays prominently in the lobby an exhibit on the origins of the brand, and the transition that brand made from local delicacy to national prominence. This culture has occasionally caused negotiations with drivers and local management to stall. On one of my first projects, a major concern about the changes I had made to a supply chain was “this is not how we’ve been doing it for the last 75 years.” I learned that certain runs were passed from father to son for three or more generations. Because I had some experience conducting oral history interviews during my undergraduate career, I was able to establish a personal connection with the driving team, which helped smooth the process of labor negotiation better than any set of sales numbers could.
All considered, pursuing an undergraduate degree in history has been very rewarding. I developed a variety of skills that have proven helpful in my professional success, and I know I’m not alone in this. Friends from my history courses have gone on to careers in tech, advertising, finance, and even medicine! Skills in critical reading, research, and the presentation of ideas are applicable just about everywhere and a degree in history is, in my humble opinion, the best way to develop them.
Jonathan Lewis, Stony Brook University ’11, is a supply chain engineer for a major US baking company. In his spare time, he enjoys volunteering with the FIRST Robotics Competition and Child’s Play Charity. He lives in New York City.
Check out the rest of the series What to Do with a BA in History for more insights on the many careers those with BAs in history pursue.