by Dr. Robert F. Pace, Former Associate Professor of History, Longwood University
Students approach me every year with the sentiment expressed above. I imagine there are many more who ask the same question, then give themselves the discouraging answer: “I can’t do anything with a history major, I guess I’ll just major in ____________.” I understand this reasoning. In fact, I had a similar conversation with myself in 1984 when I started college. I only became a history major in my junior year (after I had majored in biology, then psychology, then religion, first). I have not regretted my decision to major in history once since I made that switch over a decade ago. I have also learned that the answer to the big question “what can I do when I graduate?” is: anything you want to do!
Let’s face it, there are people who do not enjoy the study of history. Personally, I don’t understand them, but I accept that this is the case. But there are also those who either come to college with a great love and appreciation of history, or become inspired in that first Western Civilization class (it happens) and start thinking they would like to devote a large part of their education to the discipline. There is, nevertheless, always someone (friend, family member, legislator) who says: “It’s O.K. to like history, just don’t major in it because you’ll never get a job.” Therefore, I am writing this to provide another point of view: it’s great to major in history. So, below is just a sampling of opportunities available to history majors after graduation.
This, of course, is the route that I took. But to teach at the collegiate level these days, one has to complete a doctorate in history. Personally, I recommend it, but many people would prefer to teach at the secondary level. For those of you who have this goal, what can I say? You are some of the most important people in our society. You will help to shape young minds in some of the most crucial years of adolescence, and for that, I commend you and thank you. History, of course, is a terrific major for those seeking employment as a secondary teacher.
I understand, and frankly, we don’t want you to teach unless you have a burning desire to do so. But history is still a great major for you as well. The opportunities are limitless. For instance:
Applications to law schools across the country have skyrocketed in the last couple of decades, and it certainly is a competitive career to pursue, but history is an excellent major for undergraduates who plan that route. Knowledge of history is assumed in law school. One cannot grasp the legal system without a firm historical base, so history majors have a solid preparation for legal study.
These are fast-growing fields in our country, and many history majors find employment after college in these areas. Museums, historical societies, national parks, official historic sites, and tourism bureaus all need employees with a knowledge of history. Scholarly presses hire history graduates as sales representatives, editors, copyeditors, and researchers. Libraries, archives, state and local historical societies, and government offices all hire history majors with increasing regularity. And in recent years, a real spark has been put into efforts to save historical landmarks. Historic preservation societies and organizations have sprung up all over the country and are looking for well-trained workers to help protect this country’s cultural and physical heritage.
History majors are well prepared in the art of communication. And with the communications field exploding in the past decade with the introduction of the Internet, hundreds of cable channels, and a variety of other new technologies, employment opportunities abound for those who not only know how to say something but who also have something to say. Movies, television programs, news programs, newspapers, and magazines all require people with solid communication and research skills. History majors are especially suited for these areas.
Federal, state, and local governments are the largest employers in the nation. These have positions for college graduates with and without particular degree specialties. They look for graduates skilled in critical thinking, research, communications, and an understanding of how the system works. History majors have an advantage over other applicants in that these skills are essential to the discipline.
A myth perpetrated upon our nation’s college students is that a business degree is necessary for a job in business and industry. If you love accounting, finance, or marketing, then great, major in business. But these are not required for students to enter the business world. Most corporations want independent thinkers who know how to find information and apply it to the tasks at hand. Many want people who have knowledge of other countries and other cultures. What better major than history to prepare a student for all of these opportunities? Corporations will train their employees in the nuts and bolts of how the business works—this includes business majors as well as others—so it is not absolutely necessary to have that training going in the door. History is an excellent discipline for those interested in business.
Careers for history majors are only limited by their own imaginations. I know history majors who became artists, ministers, small business owners, military officers, insurance agents, bankers, politicians, restauranteurs, lobbyists, archivists, doctors, musicians, city planners, architects, writers, newspaper editors, physical therapists, professional athletes, actors, social workers, travel agents, and retired millionaires (and I don’t know that many people, so imagine what else is out there). So the next time someone asks, “What can I do with a history major?” say to them, “You can become a leader of your society who is well educated, interesting, informed, reasonable, and employed!”