What Does it Mean to Study History?
Historians study, analyze, and interpret the facts and timelines of the past. They use any recorded source of information to perform this task, including government records, newspaper articles, photographs, institutional records, articles from periodicals, interviews, films, personal diaries, and letters.
Most historians have a specialty. This specialty could include a particular state or country, a certain time, or a particular person or group of persons (such as a presidential historian). A historian may also specialize in a less tangible field such as intellectual, cultural, political, or diplomatic history.
Types of History Degrees
The Internet has made a degree in history more accessible than ever before. Busy professionals or parents can enroll in online history degree programs that allow them to perform research from any computer connected to the World Wide Web.
Diplomas, Certificates, and Associate Degrees
Many schools offer certificate programs in highly specialized areas as an opportunity for people who share an interest in a specific era to sample the kinds of courses involved in a traditional degree program. Professionals who earned their undergraduate degree in a field other than history can begin a career change by completing an associate degree in history.
Earning a bachelor’s degree in history usually involves a curriculum of core courses such as mathematics, English, literature, science and fine arts. A history degree program also requires degree-specific classes such as the history of civilization, premodern history, non-western history, Russian Studies, Latin Studies, or American History. When selecting a history degree program, make sure that your prospective college or university offers a concentration in the historical period or subject that interests you the most.
What Can You Do With a History Degree?
While many who study history strive to be historians, a plethora of additional career opportunities exist for these students. History students should consider their ultimate career goals before enrolling in a degree program to ensure the appropriate coursework is available.
A number of history majors have put their strong interpersonal communication skills to work as advisors to corporate leaders. Executive coaches help their clients weigh important decisions in the context of past successes and failures. Coaches must also use their interviewing and research skills to quickly assess the truth of a situation before offering guidance.
Some history majors thrive in academia so well, that they make perfect candidates to train tomorrow’s generation of historians. Tenured history professors don’t just recite copy from old textbooks, however. Many faculty members spend most of their time writing about history and culture while leading research teams that investigate new leads about specialized subjects. By uncovering new information and reaching new insights, history professors help refine the stories we tell about past civilizations while helping us write a better story for ourselves.
History professionals with a passion for the law may enjoy becoming clerks in a variety of court settings. In America’s highly litigious culture, clerks must combine their ability to look up information in online databases with their skills for hunting down obscure references in the stacks of law libraries. By relating their court cases to previous precedents, clerks can speed decision-making and keep the wheels of justice moving swiftly.
Attention to detail and keen insight into the effects of legislation can help history majors to advise lawmakers, lobbyists and nonprofit organizations as legislative analysts. These professionals work to predict the outcomes of government spending programs and other legislative initiatives, foreseeing problems and coming up with solutions before they’ve even happened. They can also use their interviewing skills to lead teams of market researchers. Through personal interviews, polls, and focus groups, legislative analysts can discover effective ways to convey information about programs and initiatives to concerned voters.
Though novels are works of fiction, audiences crave authenticity in their entertainment. Many history majors who share a love of writing can put their knowledge of historical periods to use by crafting clear visions of days gone by. Because history majors spend so much time learning to decipher the causes and effects of major world events, they can craft elaborate scenarios that keep readers engaged from cover to cover. By couching their tales in accurate settings, historians can open up their favorite worlds to new audiences. Many readers pick up a historian’s love of an era or of a character, while enjoying an entertaining story.
History majors that enter the political arena often enjoy significant advantages against competitors who lack the insight into world events and the ability to communicate ideas effectively. Many politicians with history degrees can develop innovative new policies and strategies by emulating some of the world’s most admired leaders. They can identify potential trouble more easily by matching up other legislators’ ideas with historical precedent. Most importantly, they can approach their positions with the long view of history on their side. By envisioning positive results, they can effectively break down their goals into actionable steps that appeal to voters.
History majors can use their understanding of cultural cycles to predict market swings. By timing sales and promotions to match larger trends, sales analysts help their firm to maximize profits during boom times and preserve revenues during lean periods. By applying their research skills to the study of short-term and medium-term sales, history majors working as sales analysts can suggest strategy shifts to help their employers compete more effectively in the open market.
Many historians have jumped at the opportunity to tell stories about their favorite eras on networks like The History Channel or The Discovery Channel. Other history majors have used film and television to tell new stories about past eras.
Skills of Successful History-Related Professionals
Whether it is your goal to be a historian or an educator specializing in history, there are a few personal and professional characteristics that help foster success:
- Understanding of history and development as it applies to nations and groups of people. History majors don’t just study world events for the sake of trivia. By truly understanding the causes and effects of major shifts in politics and culture, historians can help us prevent future catastrophes by preventing us from repeating past mistakes. Revealing cyclical patterns in history can help politicians and economists understand the ebb and flow of power and trade, while assuring citizens of the world that life goes on through even the darkest hours.
- Efficiency in oral and written presentation skills. Historians must tell the stories of people who cannot speak for themselves. Therefore, the best historians develop powerful storytelling skills that allow them to relate history to a variety of audiences. Historians working in primarily academic fields must be able to present papers and presentations under the scrutiny of their peers. Corporate historians create informational reports for company officials; authors and journalists use language to make history come alive on the printed page or on the big screen.
- Detailed research skills. Historians must learn how to dig deep for facts that their predecessors may have overlooked. With advances in technology, historians enjoy unprecedented access to previously unavailable texts and artifacts that shed new light on ancient cultures. On the other hand, that means they must wade through an overabundance of data to glean the most compelling threads.
- Proficient interview skills and techniques. To tell stories of human events, historians must develop powerful abilities to ask questions that bring new information to light without influencing interview subjects. By probing interviewees correctly, historians can uncover compelling new pieces of data that can radically alter our understanding of past actions. Historians with direct access to major historical figures may spend their entire careers chronicling decisions and policies for the benefit of future generations. Specialists in ancient cultures use the same interviewing techniques to question their predecessors and peers, to refine and improve the stories we tell to our children and their children.
- Proper and accurate record keeping skills. Even minor errors in recording interview data or research findings can warp our perception of events. History majors learn traditions and techniques that help them record an accurate depiction of the past. Stringent peer review programs combined with an eager fact-checking culture prevent historians from making unethical or inaccurate claims to support controversial views or policy decisions.
- Critical thinking skills. Besides cataloging the people and the events of the past, history majors learn how to see hidden patterns in time that can profoundly influence our future. To the layperson, it might seem that many of the world’s stories have already been told. History majors develop the ability to look at tired tales in fresh new ways, so they can show us the relevance of past events to our current lives.
- Strong interpersonal communications skills. Throughout their careers, history majors will rely on the powerful abilities to speak person-to-person that they develop during their degree programs. Whether gently coercing an interview subject to reveal a previously secret piece of information or defending themselves in an academic debate, historians must apply the most effective communication skills to fit a variety of situations.
History Certification and Licensure
No specific state or federal governments require historians to hold specific licenses or certifications. Instead, many potential employers rely on the peer review and publishing process to determine the long-term authenticity of a historian’s work. Therefore, most history degree programs encourage students to pursue publication of their research in academic journals. Likewise, many degree programs teach students how to showcase their work as oral presentations at conferences.