Wondering if you can get an MBA with a history degree? You’re in the right place, because I interviewed someone who did—and she has a ton of insights to share about the entire experience.
Alexandra Maxwell did her undergraduate degree in history at Newcastle University before graduating with a master’s of business administration from the Lazaridis School of Business. She has carved her own path through her MBA program and into the business world.
Here’s what she had to say about her experience.
ALSO READ: The scope of an MA in history
Getting into an MBA program is the biggest hurdle
“The hardest thing is getting in.”
It turns out you need to write a GMAT test (graduate management admission test) to gain admission to most MBA programs. It contains a fair bit of math, which can make it difficult for graduates in history and the humanities (literary disciplines) to adapt to more mathematical and structure-first thinking
“I had a writer’s brain, which was geared toward a more prosaic thought process. I didn’t think in the same structured way that business school teaches.”
As a history major with a marketing background, Alex was used to thinking like a communicator, always thinking about her target audience and how to persuade them. Getting into the MBA program required her to start thinking about the numbers and business strategy before that.
Business schools approach analytics and finances in a fundamentally different way than what Alex had encountered before—even with exposure to marketing analytics and budgeting discussions in her leadership positions. Adapting to that different thought process was challenging, but necessary to succeed.
That left me wondering: can you get an MBA with a history degree if you aren’t comfortable with numbers?
Alex’s advice: Don’t go straight into an MBA after college. First, it’s too expensive to attempt without a game plan. Second, there are so many different kinds of MBAs that you won’t succeed unless you know which one you want. Choosing the right type of MBA can dramatically affect what you get out of the program.
For reference, there are dozens of different MBA programs out there, such as:
- Full Time MBA (typically 1 year)
- Part-Time MBA (with flexible study around work or other commitments) – what Alex chose
- Accelerated MBA
- Online MBA / In-Person MBA
- Executive MBA
- MBA CFA
- MBA CPA Stream
- MBA MFin
Those programs are tailored to various areas of focus, and you won’t know which one suits you best until you’ve gained real-world experience and figured out what you want to do with your career. Layering on top of these options are different MBA specialties within a program (such as finance, marketing, strategy, HR), which would typically match the career path you want to follow. While most people choose their major during their study, it’s important to think about this early so you can secure the right amount of credits in the subject you want.
ALSO READ: Internships for history majors
When did you know you wanted to do an MBA?
Okay, so fresh graduates shouldn’t pursue an MBA before figuring out their lives and careers.
When did Alex know that she wanted to do an MBA, then?
“Honestly, I’d been thinking about an MBA before I finished undergrad, but I didn’t really understand what pursuing an MBA meant at the time. I applied for 250 jobs and only heard back from one. I kept wondering if an MBA might be the answer.”
There’s a familiar story here for most history grads, myself included. It’s tough to get your foot in the door when your degree doesn’t teach you entry-level technical skills.
Alex didn’t do her MBA right after her undergrad, though. She built a career in marketing first, then realized that she was much more interested in improving businesses at the operational level.
“After a while I felt like I wasn’t moving—like I was getting stagnant. That’s when I thought about an MBA again.”
Alex enjoyed marketing—and still does— but it became clear that it wasn’t going to give her the wider business perspective that she needed to land senior leadership roles.
“That’s what finally pushed me to the MBA.”
Pro tip: don’t get an MBA just “to tick a box.” It’s challenging and a big commitment in its own right, with a fairly high drop-out rate. Can you get an MBA with a history degree? Yes, but be prepared to learn.
“Nobody should do an MBA if they want to be comfortable.”
ALSO READ: Entry-level jobs for history majors
Did your background in history provide an advantage during your MBA?
A lot about Alex’s MBA program was challenging—like the financial and analytics side, as you’d expect—but she found that her background in history actually provided a strong foundation for completing the coursework itself.
Specifically, she says that these skills helped her thrive:
- The ability to absorb and synthesize information (information literacy)
- Written and verbal communication skills
- Interpersonal skills
- Pattern recognition and analysis
You already know that studying history trains people to spot patterns, to understand mechanisms of change, and to analyze the connections between them. It turns out that case studies—the most common assignment in MBA programs—are quite similar to this.
“MBAs and humanities degrees aren’t as different as you think. You just need to reframe what you already think about in history.”
The key difference? Case studies usually give you all of the research up-front and ask you to analyze the information to spot a future trend instead of a past trend. This means you can gain an advantage as a history grad by shifting your emphasis from information gathering to analysis and argumentation.
“The bulk of the MBA is focused on case study analysis, so those skills from undergrad were handy. Instead of framing your argument by culture or politics, you frame it through business.”
It bears repeating that the emphasis sits on analysis instead of research. Historians do both, but some history programs focus heavily on research—and that may require a conscious effort to switch to analytical, future-tense thinking to excel with case studies.
That wasn’t the only advantage coming from a history background, either.
“As an historian you always understand the impact of people. Businesses are made up of people—they’re not machines. Does a business have the right leaders to make the right decisions? Students from other disciplines didn’t always see that.”
That’s pretty important, considering that labor is usually the largest cost for most businesses. Salaries need to be paid, training requires investment, equipment needs to be purchased for those people, and working spaces need to be leased to house them (aside from the recent trend of working from home).
ALSO READ: Famous history majors everyone should know
Can you get an MBA with a history degree but without math-related skills?
Yes, but it takes a lot of work to learn quantitative skills.Alex wasn’t too surprised that she had to work harder in the math-related classes of her MBA, like finance, accounting, and analytics.
She still faced doubt after graduating from the program despite receiving the same training as everybody else, too.
The good news is that each class accounted for beginners. The professors made sure everyone learned the fundamentals in finance, and data analysis from the ground up. They made sure students weren’t left without the tools to succeed.
She hasn’t met the same accommodation everywhere in the business world, though.
“I would be in interviews and the other person would say, ‘oh, you have a history degree.’ I found myself explaining why instead of just pushing forward.”
That kind of microaggression is pretty common. A lot of people—including the upper echelons of the business world—don’t seem to understand what goes into a history degree, or what comes out of it.
There’s a widely held view that humanities degrees aren’t useful anymore. There’s a strong argument to be made that these programs need more of a quantitative and mathematical grounding, but that doesn’t mean the degrees are useless by any stretch, either.
“I wish people understood the transferable skills of history more than they do.”
Yet Alex uses so many of those skills and experiences on a daily basis, including:
- Pattern recognition
- Qualitative analysis
- Qualitative research
- Clear writing skills
- Verbal presentation skills
- The ability to lead group discussions and efforts
These are all highly valuable skills that don’t see much development in finance, business, or engineering programs. This isn’t a contest over who has the best skills, of course, but it does mean that you can earn an MBA with a history degree and emerge with a valuable skill set to lead businesses in the future.
ALSO READ: The average salary of a history major
And that prejudice we talked about? It might be shifting over the long run, too.
“I would say about 40%-50% of my classes were filled with so-called ‘spreadsheet jockeys.’ The rest were quite a diverse bunch, though. There were teachers, social workers, doctors, journalists, and entrepreneurs—all types, really.”
Regardless, Alex has the confidence and training to engage with executives, challenge their opinions in their own board rooms, and even win them over with everything she has learned from her MBA—but many of the skills she uses came to her during her history degree first.
“Having the confidence to challenge executive opinions—because you understand their viewpoints and reasoning—is incredibly powerful.”
What would you tell other history grads looking at MBA programs?
Good news: I asked Alex to pass on her best advice for those wondering if you can get an MBA with a history major, and she had quite a bit to say!
- MBAs seem way scarier from the outside. Don’t be afraid to apply.
- No one should do an MBA if they want to be comfortable.
- Don’t get an MBA just to “tick a box” on your resume.
- Develop a mindset that doesn’t require a grade of 97% to be successful.
- The people in your program want you to succeed. It isn’t like law school.
- Voluntary dropout rates are fairly high, but failing out is quite rare.
- MBAs usually teach you all the skills you need from the ground up, so don’t worry about being unqualified for lack of exposure to mathematics or spreadsheets.
One last pro tip: If you do find yourself doing an MBA, then make friends with people in finance and HR. The finance people can help you with the math-related stuff, and the HR people usually have backgrounds in labor regulations, which have a huge impact on business in general. In return, you can help them with interpreting research, big-picture thinking, and—of course—argumentation and crisp writing.
It’s clear from chatting with Alex Maxwell that you can totally do an MBA with a history degree if you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone, work hard, and learn the hard skills of the business world.
Just remember to give yourself experience and perspective, first.