What Does A Historian Do?
"I really love studying history. I’m still in high school, but I am planning to pursue history in college. The only problem is, I’m not really too sure what to do with a history degree. Ideally I think I’d like to be a historian, but I don’t really know what that entails since I’ve never actually met one. Come to think of it, I don’t even know anyone who knows a historian personally. Is it even a real job anymore? How do I get into it if so? What would I do each day if I managed it?"
asked by Bianca from Idaho Falls, ID
A career as a Historian is a real job, but it’s also a rare job, which is probably why you have never met one. And if you know anybody who is studying to be a historian, there is a good chance they are either in grad school or planning to do graduate work. There are thousands of historians at work in the world today (according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number in 2012 was 3,800), but if you think about it, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not a lot of people engaged in this field. In many job fields, there are tens of thousands of professionals, or even hundreds of thousands.
If you manage to become a real-life historian, you have found your way into a pretty elite field. To top it off, this field is growing at a rate of only 6%, which is much slower than the average for all other occupations. How many new jobs does that translate to between 2012 and 2022? Just 200. A lot of people dream of becoming a historian and spending their life delving into their passion and making exciting discoveries. But only around 200 are likely to achieve it over the coming few years!
What does it take to become one of the elite few? Almost all of them have advanced degrees in history, meaning master’s degrees or doctoral degrees. A bachelor’s degree in history alone usually won’t permit you to do much more than teach, or possibly go on to pursue another degree in history or another field (it is a common pre-law major, if that’s something that interests you). So if you want to become a historian, you pretty much have to be committed to getting a graduate degree or two.
It is also wise to start getting experience with history-related work before you graduate. This will help you to get some hands-on knowledge, and to explore what a career in history would be like. But more importantly, it will be something impressive you can put on your resume someday. In such a competitive field, this can go a long way.
Historians work in a variety of workplaces doing a variety of different tasks. Some of them work in archives, while others may be employed at colleges (teaching or otherwise). Some work in museums. Most historians are researchers, gathering information about the past, maintaining existing collections of works, and also writing histories of their own culled from their research into other documents. Historians work on pulling together resources like books, articles, and even information ascertained from artifacts and historical structures, in order to paint a picture of the past.
Here are some of the main activities that historians engage in during the course of their work:
- Pull together historical information from a wide variety of resources as discussed above. These include primary as well as secondary resources. This is only the first step in the historical research process, which includes additional steps of analysis described below.
- Analyze that information, firstly to discover it if it is authentic, and secondly, to determine what it means. Not all historical documents are valid. Among those that are, there are many factors which can influence the interpretation of the information. Not all historical sources are reliable. Every source teaches us something about the past, but it is the job of the historian to determine what the lesson is, based on cross-referencing with other materials.
- Part of this involves tracing the developments made by other historians who have been researching in the same subject area. Historians often work with each other to pool resources and draw conclusions. In many ways, studying history is like trying to piece together a puzzle with puzzle pieces scattered throughout time and space. Historians must work with one another to match their pieces in many cases.
- Educate the public. This does not necessarily mean in a teaching capacity at a school. Many historians spend their time working directly with members of the public who are interested in history. They may staff museums or historical sites, putting on presentations and giving talks. They may also travel to speak at universities or at historical societies. Historians who have strong communication skills provide a valuable function in society by helping to ignite an interest in history in others. Historians who work with the public also help to inform the public as to why it is so important to pursue a knowledge of history and preserve important documents, sites, and artifacts.
- Archive information and artifacts. Historians must not only discover information, but also make it accessible. To this end, many historians work in archives, storing information where it may be readily accessible to others who need to reference it. They may also curate artifacts and artworks in museums, visitor centers, and other sites. Preserving artifacts is a specialized area of history work which requires practical skills that you can only gain on the job. This is one area you may want to seek internship work in before you graduate for just this reason.
- Putting on exhibits. This is one special form of work with the public. Putting up exhibits is different than giving talks, since it requires hands-on work and presentation abilities in the visual medium. Look for internship work with exhibits as well.
- Write up reports on historical discoveries. Historians not only research existing documents, but also create documents of their own through their hard work. Many historians write novels about the past, as well as articles for historical journals. These books may be written for the public or for other professional historical researchers. They may share facts that they have uncovered as well as their own theories about their research and its implications about the past, present, and future.
- Conduct research on the behalf of others. Historians are sometimes contracted by other entities to conduct research. Individuals may contract with historians to delve into their genealogical roots. Historians may also work for government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations.
When many people think of historians, they envision someone bent over dusty old books, burying his or her nose in the past, but this is not always an accurate representation of what historians actually do. Do many historians spend their time researching the past for the sake of understanding the past? Yes, but many historians also conduct historical research on the behalf of organizations seeking to implement policies in the present. For example, government agencies sometimes contract historians to provide them with historical information that could help them to make current decisions impacting living people. Businesses or law firms may contract with historians to help them to uncover the context surrounding laws and regulations.
You Can Use Your History Degree As A Stepping Stone For A Teaching Career
Because there is so little demand for historians, and so many hopefuls who are vying for the few positions out there, there is a good chance that you will not be able to do all of your work in the form of historical research, even if you do end up becoming a historian. This may be the case even if you have a higher degree in history, so that is something that you should be prepared for.
Many historians split their time between research and another occupation which allows them to carry on their research, teaching being perhaps the most common choice. If you work at a university, you will probably be teaching history classes as well as conducting your research. If you work at a historical society or an archive, you might split your time between research and administrative work or work in public relations. While this may be discouraging to some, remember that you are privileged if you manage to work in this field at all, and even while you are teaching or doing administrative work, it will still be history-related. At least you will still be spending time with your passion, in some shape or form. And the rest of the time, you are free to conduct your research.
So is a dream of working as a historian achievable? It is, but you have to be ready to put in the time and money to get a higher degree, or it is not likely to happen. You also need to be prepared to split your time between actually doing the research you love and doing some other related type of work. While there is plenty out there to study and learn about, we live in a very forward-looking world, and history is not the highest priority for most businesses and governments today. If you are able to get a job as a historian, you can count yourself incredibly lucky. And even though it is a long shot, it can be incredibly rewarding if you can make it.
I recommend that you consider joining a professional society in your community or getting involved with local archives and historical societies. Start building up professional connections and looking for areas where there is need for historical professionals. If you are able to spy out these unfilled positions and areas of need, you have a much better chance of filling them yourself. Talk to the advisor at your university as well. Start thinking of a clear path to your goal, and then work toward it methodically. You will not become a historian on accident—there just is not enough demand. You will need to carefully cultivate your options and work hard to get to where you want to be.
Career Spotlight: Historian
A historian collects historical data from books, artifacts and other sources and analyze them. You will get the chance to find out if the historical information you obtain is authentic. You will be gi[...]