How A Major in History Gives You the Intangible Edge

By Jacob Anbinder

It’s no secret that many departments use job prospects to lure undergraduates trying to pick a major. History departments in particular tend to tout their alumni’s diverse array of career paths in an attempt to answer the inevitable question: “But what will you do with that?” Among college majors, it seems, history is considered just “useful” enough to have to justify itself, but not so useful that students would flock to it anyway. Studying history, however, gives graduates tremendous flexibility in the job market. In fact, history is not merely a degree you could consider—it is the degree you would be remiss not to.

Studying history gives graduates tremendous flexibility in the job market. In fact, history is not merely a degree you could consider—it is the degree you would be remiss not to.

Learn the Intangibles
To understand why, consider the NFL Combine. Scouts look at players’ speed, strength, and agility, but when it comes to offering a contract, these metrics are often pushed to the side—after all, if you’re at the combine, everyone already knows you’re good at football. Instead, the make-or-break elements are often what scouts call “intangibles”—not whether a player can run a specific play right now, but whether they have the acumen to succeed in the long run. When you graduate from college, you’ll already be at the combine. A history degree will give you the intangibles.

Though I graduated just two years ago, my own career path is already proof. I currently work in communications for a foundation that makes grants to improve public transportation. Previously, I wrote about public policy issues for a think tank. On paper, the two jobs are quite different, but in practice they have much in common. I plan events, organize calls, talk with colleagues in the field, and I write constantly—for audiences as big as the Internet and as small as my coworkers—in ways that require thinking critically about current events. I also edit other people’s writing that seeks to do the same. I owe this set of skills less to what the history major taught me (though that’s important too) than to how the history major taught it.

Write, Write, and Write Some More
When I was eight years old, I wrote to John Anderson, my favorite sports reporter, asking what I needed to do to become his successor. His response, handwritten on ESPN stationery, was concise and memorable: read all the writing you can get your hands on, and try to emulate the best of it.

History approximates this advice better than most majors in college. From reading responses to book reviews, term papers to my senior thesis, I would estimate I produced at least 400 pages of writing in my history classes alone. And it mattered—at the end of each year, I was a better writer than I had been the previous September. In later years of college, when history classes gave me more freedom to follow my own research interests, I was confident that I could independently devise a work plan that would result in a solid piece of writing.

In the working world, I cannot stress enough the importance of these twin skills—knowing what you need to write and then actually writing it well. There is an unfortunate perception that good writing skills are innate. Extraordinary writing might be innate, but no one is asking you to write like the next Faulkner (and, in the working world, a memo or blog post written like a Faulkner novel won’t get you very far anyway). Writing that is invisible—that permits readers to understand an idea or argument without noticing the syntax used to support it—is very much a learned skill. A history education trains you in exactly this kind of writing, a surprisingly rare skill in the working world that will bring immediate and enduring respect from the people with whom and for whom you work.

A Skeptical Approach
History is not the only major that requires substantial amounts of writing, but it is unique in combining that writing with an equally useful attitude: skepticism. Skepticism plays a central role in learning history at the college level. History teaches you to identify the biases, shortcomings, and inaccuracies inherent in everything you learn. Nothing is taken at face value—not even the work of other historians.

Skepticism has its drawbacks (mostly, it ruins your ability to enjoy movies set in the past). Like writing, however, it’s a skill that takes you beyond the lecture hall. If you are a lawyer, it allows you to spot weaknesses in your opponents’ case. If you follow the news, it allows you to question journalists’ assumptions. In my own line of work, it is why, when I saw press releases predicting that the new Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar would be an economic boon, rather than just agreeing, I helped craft a response identifying all of the issues that were not addressed.

Of course, the facts, figures, and stories that history teaches shouldn’t be overlooked. I am glad I can describe how the Atlanta subway system was shaped by racism, understand the regional dynamics of Brazilian politics, or note that Poland once had a less-than-imposing king named Władysław the Elbow-High. (I don’t remember what he did, but you don’t forget a name like that.)

The fact is that nearly everyone can find a branch of history that is interesting to them. When you are choosing a major, however, the skills imparted by history that can be carried into virtually any line of work—good writing, thinking critically about the world around you—are less obvious. You may not sense those intangibles at the moment. But four years from now, I guarantee you the scouts will.

Jake_AnbinderJacob Anbinder is a communications assistant at TransitCenter, a New York-based grantmaking foundation that seeks to improve urban mobility. Previously, he served as a policy associate at the Century Foundation, a progressive nonpartisan think tank, where he researched transportation policy. Jacob’s writing has been published in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Real Clear Policy, US News and World Report, The Fiscal Times, and The Austin American-Statesman. He received a BA in history from Yale University and was the 2014 recipient of the AHA’s Raymond J. Cunningham Prize.

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  1. Linda Wright

    I recently graduated last May with a BS in History, yes BS it was under social sciences. Could you please send me a list of these jobs? Thank you.

    1. Kritika Agarwal

      Hi Linda, You are welcome to explore the AHA Career Center here:

      You might also be interested in reading the other posts in our What to Do with a BA in History series,, as well as our guide on Careers for Students of History:

  2. Robert Tester

    Thank you Jacob for a great article, I both a BA and MA in history, i believed that having these two degrees would set me up for a better career. I had a long career in business before i returned to school at age 40 to complete my education. It has been eight years now and honestly the degrees haven’t worked at all. Let me begin by telling you what i was told on a most recent business interview. The interviewer told me that a history degree is a worthless piece of paper that no one is interested in. The degree is gateway to low income clerical labor, and that no company or business is interested in hiring history majors. This isn’t just one employer I have heard this from, but several hundred over the course of my struggle to find meaningful and least mid level pay, meaning at least 40,000 a year. The further along i have tried to find executive positions i have been told by executive recruiters to get an MBA or a JD and at least they would start discussing opportunities. If I had to do it all over again i would have probably stayed with my lonely high school education at least i was making a better salary doing boring work instead of bouncing from one low salary part time gig after another. So in the real world application according to many employers and recruiters a history degree is nothing but a piece of paper to frame and cover your wall and nothing else.

  3. Jeremy

    Jacob, I am very tempted to agree with much of what you have said, particularly as a recent (2012) English major with a minor in history. However, while I have certainly reaped some rewards from those “intangibles” you’ve mentioned, I must offer that every employer and prospective employer I have come across so far has been much more interested in where I went to school. Yale is one heck of a “brand” to be associated with, and you are indeed a very skilled writer. But I would urge caution to any undergrad electing to major in the humanities, unless they couple that degree with graduate education, a state certification, vocational training, etc. Will excellent writing skills help any employee? Yes. Will the ability to present a complex idea concisely? You bet. The problem will be getting the interview in the first place.

  4. Stephanie Oppenheim

    Great article. As someone who sat next to your Dad in many wonderful history classes at Wesleyan – I totally agree and appreciate your position. Of all of my undergraduate and post-graduate work, I was most challenged to question and debate issues in our seminar classes.

  5. Alex

    Great article. Saved this a while back and finally got to reading it. I have a BA in History and worked as a Sales and Marketing Rep. in the Music Industry for over 10 years. All that reading, writing, and time-management really helped me in a fast paced business environment. Most people I talk to feel all you can do with a degree in History is teach, but are unaware of all the skills one develops over 4 years that transfer well into different career fields. Thanks for pointing this out in your article.