So, you majored in history, huh?
I am sure you are intimately familiar with many things pertaining to your craft already. But I am also sure you are familiar with the weird stigmas that go along with a degree that is dubbed a “Liberal Arts” degree. I get it. We’ve all been there. While I’ve posted many things on this site in the past, one of the things I haven’t ever addressed is some of the challenges I also faced as a history major and the skills that I was taught that many others surprisingly are not.
So, this post will be a dialogue. No citation. No green grass. No filter. Let’s be real for a second, my new budding historian friend (or perhaps, fellow historian friend)!
Let’s start with the stigma portion of the field, since it is the one you are undoubtedly tired of hearing about.
That irritating “Are you going to teach?” assumption that people give you when you tell them your field.
First and foremost, like many stereotypes, there is some small kernel of truth to the assumption. As a historian, you are, by definition, in the job of teaching. This may be direct or indirect, but it does not mean that your job is solely married to the mission of teaching a younger generation. The individual who assumes that you must only be capable of teaching as a history major is not adequately familiar with all the nuances and necessities that the field or profession demand from you. You could just as easily make this argument about any field that isn’t an applied art, applied science, or other applied profession.
More accurately, as a historian your primary job is to know things. They should be relatively within your purview to whatever job or mission you dedicate yourself to. For example, an individual who wants to be a historian and has a love for music may find themselves working for a record label, museum, or other music industry job as a historian. It would be prudent for that individual to know musical history. Likewise, it would be prudent for an individual who wants to work for the military to have a grasp of the military profession and history. That does not mean your survey courses are worthless or useless - quite the contrary in fact - but we will get to that later.
The bottom-line-up-front answer here is simply that – no. I do not necessarily intend to be a teacher as my primary profession as a history major. I can be a historian in many fields. I could also pursue other jobs such as a lawyer, librarian, land operations, provisional aid for site surveys, politics, curating, archiving, and a good hundred other jobs. Remember: there is history in everything, and a historian is employed to tell that history and keep that history.
The audacity of the “Liberal Arts Degrees are useless in the real world” commentary.
I have heard this with increasing frequency lately, and it is alarmingly concerning. While it is true that one could argue the oversaturation of degrees in the field, what is not true is that your liberal arts degree in a history field is useless. In fact, a good student that is aware of their own skillset being developed within their history program is much more likely to succeed. What is true, however, is that now more than ever it is important to carry two primary foci. In the real world, we call this being a dual major, and in most institutions the best approach is to find two programs that amplify the skills of the other. A good example of this, which I can share from personal experiences, is adding an Art History major to a History major.
The inclusion of an additional major broadens your ability to tackle various forms of tasks, while also understanding a much wider array of methods that might be used. Not all history requires its own subset, but many different forms of history may have their own methodology that is important to learn. This also looks appealing on potential job applications for perspective employers.
Realistically speaking, there’s nothing useless about a Liberal Arts degree, so long as it has a skillset that is usable and functional. We’ll get into some of those functional skillsets in a bit, so you know what to look for. This does not mean that there are some Liberal Art degrees that are not redundant, shallow, or lacking, but it does mean that core-competency Liberal Arts disciplines are not wasteful nor useless in real world applications. The exact opposite is true, in fact.
The ignorance of the “You don’t need multiple similar fields” remarks just because a person doesn’t understand differences in operation and methodology.
Within the history field, I have noticed this argument that takes direct aim mainly at two specific schools of specialty: military and art histories. One of these is much more subtly an issue than the other, but the issue remains the same between the two. Military history is not sampled, collected, nor composed in the same form as traditional history. Likewise, you do not view subject matter and scrutinize it in the same way in other forms of history as you might through the lens of art history. The discipline and applications may be similar, but the methodology and action of reaching conclusions is fundamentally different.
It is because of these differences that there are similar programs and fields for various forms of history, and likewise there are various courses that are designed to hone an individual’s skills to meet the needs of that program. Using art history methodology may not work quite so well when writing about Bacon’s Rebellion. Likewise, using military history methods would result in quite a few critical pieces of information and assessment to be missing when writing on Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin.
For this reason, I liken history largely to various professions of law. You wouldn’t expect a lawyer that handles divorces to handle a case the same way a criminal justice lawyer would. Likewise, a corporate lawyer may not be best suited for handling law for wills or loss.
“Why do we need historians? Everything is online now anyway.”
By far, this is one of my most favorite arguments that has absolutely no water. I frequently query individuals that stake this claim with a simple question: “who tends to that information?” The answer, by and large, is either someone with intimate knowledge of that specific topic, a digital curator, or a historian. In addition, where do you think new ideas and new research comes from? It comes from study within a specific field. The field of history is vast, and as much as we’d like to cover it all, we never will. New connections are being made every day. New pieces of history are being composed and presented every day. This will continue forever, simply because of the nature of history; to reach into eternity. A simple reminder is that history is the study of the past for application and presentation in the present to benefit the future. It is a three-dimensional field, whether you like it or not.
At the end of the day, it takes a human to extrapolate, aggregate, and compose information in a useable form for other humans to then consume. Therein lies one of history’s follies: bias. However, that is also why multiple humans are necessary to compose a historiography and anthology of historical events to compose a whole. History is never finished on any subject, and for that reason the information that you might see “online” will always be incomplete regardless of how comprehensive and detailed it may seem. Short of you living in the moment, and even then, there are gaps in an individual’s memory and an individual is limited by experience, you can not accurately and definitively establish a completed historical anthology.
As previously mentioned, history is three-dimensional. That means that it provides a service to the present by relaying the information of the past. We use this information to plot out our decision making in the future. An example of this is how some organizations and even nations utilized what history said about previous infectious disease outbreaks to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. These are called “historical analogues”, and they are imperatively important in all fields of study, business, and life. You use a historical analogue every day, whether you realize it or not. It defines what you do and what you do not do. It can also help you know your lanes when making first moves towards something new. History is in your everyday life.
A Bit of Q & A
The next section is a list of questions that I’ve received over the years. Some of these are from students, others from people who have watched me stream. Regardless, I thought they were good questions, so I’m including them here.
Q: I want a job, but it says experience is required. I don’t have any experience. Why do employers do this?
A: It may surprise you to know that you probably do have experience, you just aren’t aware of it because of how the question was worded on the application or in the job announcement. It is very rare that a student that has gone through a four-year program does not have experience. In most cases this amounts for individual research topics in your courses, capstone research projects, and internships. Some institutions allow you the choice of capstone research or internships; I believe this is a recipe for failure and encourage students to do both.
The reason for this is largely due to the amount of experience you gain by doing so. In most situations, the internship will be unpaid. If you are in school, you should expect this. You really are getting paid in experience so long as you are aware of what that experience is. For example, you shouldn’t probably continue an internship where you’re an errand boy. But if you are spending time doing research or honing your skillset, then that is an internship that is indeed paying you in experience. As for capstone research, this allows you to apply a real-world dry run of your skills that you have gathered as a student in your profession. It’s a chance for you to demonstrate what you have learned. Do both; your resume will thank you for it.
As for how you display this experience on a resume, you should include pertinent class information and research cases that you have completed. You should include any piece of classwork that may seem relevant. For example, if you are applying for a job that requires knowledge of how to do in-depth primary source research, then you should highlight an instance in your academic career where you did something similar and include your methodology. Remember; you have experience. Use it to your advantage.
Q: You talk about skillset, but what skillset do I actually have?
A: It is understandable that you might think of yourself as not having a particular skillset before or after graduation. However, in a general sense, your entire academic career has been building a set of skills for you to use in the real world. It doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to your own field either. Most fields will require a basic understanding of reading, writing, researching, and organization. These are skills that are taught in just about every field. However, some are more robust than others. For example, historians and lawyers may be more apt to researching historical data and information. You might be better at abridging history than composing new as well.
You will generally need to know how to write information in a proper format for presentation and review. You will also need to know how to stay somewhat organized. The system must be able to be explained. You will learn skills of how to think critically by knowing how to do ample research and looking beyond just what is in the mainstream or in a textbook. These are all valuable skills that you can use in a multitude of fields – and most fields will demand these skills as a necessity. Therein lies one of your trump cards to remember that you are not bound simply by the need of education and teaching.
Q: My resume keeps getting kicked back, and I don’t know what to do about it.
A: I hear this a lot, and one of the things that I’m not sure academic institutions do well is emphasize how important it is to have multiple resumes. It's important to cater your resume to the job that you’re seeking. A hiring manager at a plumbing company hiring a pipefitter probably doesn’t care that you know how to carry out complex computations or determine an azimuth in an open field. He probably does care about whether you know how to measure, understand the relationship between what PSI limits are and various piping, and that you know how to convert imperial measurements to the metric system.
Changing your resume up and doctoring it for the job you want is not a dishonest practice so long as you aren’t lying on the resume. Think about your skills and think about how they would benefit the job you’re applying on. Market yourself to the company or organization. Make sure you read the job announcement and job description carefully and reuse terminology that is in the announcement. This demonstrates that you have read and understand what the job entails while also making your resume stand out. You might just find that you’re qualified for more jobs than you previously thought.
Q: Why do I have to do all of these survey courses? What’s the point?
A: Your survey courses function in much the same way that your general education course requirements do. Survey courses enable you to see history in different areas and think of things in a broader context from where you may be coming from. Likewise, it helps you step out of your comfort zone a bit to see how history is applied elsewhere. Sometimes survey courses overlap with your own interests, and in these instances, you should use them as an opportunity to see where your interests fit in the larger and grander scheme of history.
If it helps you at all, I structure course loads into four different categories:
- General Education: These are the courses that everyone must take and make up the foundation of education overall. You might hate them (I did), but they’re part of the basic knowledge you need as you press onward and upward in the world.
- Survey: These are your course that cover your subject matter in a comprehensive manner. These are designed to give you a basic understanding of the subject matter and can provide context in a larger scheme of things for the individual taking the course.
- Competency & Disciplinary: These are the courses that explicitly are catered to your subject matter. In most cases, these are your 300-level courses that include specialty topics. An example of this would be “The U.S. in Vietnam” or “20th Century Art & Architecture.” These are what you will use to determine what your capstone will be, and possibly even your concentration in graduate school.
- Concentration & Foci: These are courses that you will take in your graduate program should you choose to do so. These focus explicitly on a specific type of subject matter within your profession and ultimately will lead you to your thesis and dissertation.
Q: What should I expect if I do get a job in the field?
A: You should expect to do more things besides history, and you should embrace those opportunities as they make themselves known. This piece, as most of the others mentioned here, is not exclusive to history. They exist in all professions and fields. Do not limit yourself to your specific field once you’re “on the job.” You will be asked to do things beyond your profession. That’s okay, and you should do it. It builds a better resume, better character, and a better person by expanding your skillset beyond what you had come in with.
Do not be beneath work either. The best leaders are those who do not have problems getting their hands dirty and “embracing the suck.” This can be taken advantage of, but don’t allow this. Instead, use it as leverage when handling more difficult situations with your work. Understand that you will always have politics in your job - you will always have something that you want to change or something that isn’t right. Some things will not go your way. Use your skills that you learn to create leverage for yourself into negotiating bigger and better things for yourself. When you do that, don’t forget to pass on your own work rhetoric and acumen to your subordinates. A strong leader in the slot – you – can make the difference for the workforce around you.
Q: You say work isn’t beneath me, but surely there’s a limit, right?
A: Absolutely. Whatever is ethically sound to request of an employee is perfectly within the limits of the duties you should perform. Sometimes that means you might be asked to dust, sometimes that means you might be put in charge of a big task. Other times it means just doing what your job is. At the end of the day, so long as it does not infringe upon your individuality and is ethical, it should be within the scope of you being able to accept it as a task. It should be okay for you to refuse a task that is outside of your job description. You should not feel required to oblige an employer for a job that is outside of your position description. Rather, you should feel inclined to oblige and step out of your comfort zone a bit.
This does not mean, however, that you are to put yourself in a compromising, demoralizing, or hostile situation. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s reasonable to ask you to clean; it’s unreasonable to ask you something that would be seen as bribery or harassment – as an example. If one of the following is true on a fundamental level, then you should be willing to step out of your comfort zone: 1) Is it beneficial to the team? and 2) is there an important skill that could be learned? If the answer to one or both is true and it is an ethical request, then you should probably move on it.
I will probably do another one of these text-versions of our not-so-fire-side chats at some future point. We have covered these things and more on our Historic Affairs streams on Twitch. You can find a listing of those on our On Air page, along with some reruns of past streams. If you have a question that you want me to tackle, you can always submit it via the contact form as well.
Good luck, my fellow historians. May you find history in every day.