College graduate holding a paper history degree.

Should I major in history?

Should you major in history? This field gets a bad rap as a college degree these days. Only Anthropology, English, and Philosophy get made fun of more than history, truthfully—but it is unjustified. The data says that history majors do struggle with underemployment in their early careers, but then they find meaningful employment with solid pay several years later.

History grads don’t remain baristas forever. Check out this data from Statistics Canada about where humanities and social sciences graduates are employed (humanities are in orange).

 

 

They work in these industries:

  • Business
  • Finance
  • Administration
  • Education
  • Law
  • Government
  • Sales
  • Service industries
  • Management
  • Arts and culture

Pro tip: Looking for work right now? Check out these entry-level jobs for history majors.

 

Why major in history?

The short-term answer is that pursuing a history degree will empower you to develop these core skills and soft skills:

  • Deep writing ability
  • Thorough research
  • Oral communication (highly underrated)
  • The ability to lead group discussions
  • Moderate public speaking skills
  • Investigative and analytical skills
  • Information literacy (learning abstract concepts)
  • A moderate background in a wide range of topics

Those skills are important to understand because they will be critical to your middle and late career, but they often come across as hollow if you list them on an entry-level resume. Part of the problem is proving that you have those skills, because everyone and their mother claims the same thing.

The difference is that most entry-level roles are task-oriented. Success in most people’s early careers correlates to their hard skills, professional certificates, and ground-level metrics. That’s why professional degrees and “job-ready” diplomas from two-year programs have the short-term advantage.

Here’s the long-term advantage: as you grow into mid-level and high-level roles, your success will begin to include more ambiguous (but important) things like these:

  • Leadership skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Cross-functional productivity
  • Performance of larger projects and initiatives
  • Reduced costs or increased revenue metrics

Professional growth means building relationships, managing other people, and mastering communication skills to engage with introverted techies, extroverted managers, stone-faced executives, and obsessed entrepreneurs.

If you want to learn how the world works at a high level and then put those skills to work within an organization, then history might actually be a good choice.

 

Is majoring in history a good idea in 2022?

History attendance has dropped in North America more or less in line with other disciplines from the humanities and liberal arts. It’s no wonder, either—students want to know they’ll be employable after investing four years and tens of thousands of dollars into a degree, and it’s a common belief that history degrees don’t offer that anymore.

The data paints a more complex picture. It turns out that history grads actually do a good job of finding employment immediately after graduation, but they struggle with underemployment for several years afterward.

Here are the graphs that show that data.

 

Bar graph showing underemployment by degree in 2016-2017.

 

History grads sit in third place on that list, with 53.1% of recent graduates being underemployed.

Remember that “skills trade-off” we covered earlier? That’s why they struggle in their early careers. While vocational disciplines like nursing and computer sciences teach specific skills to match a specific industry (and little else), history doesn’t. History programs tend to produce generalists who can see the big picture and adopt a certain level of fluency in other fields.

Beyond that, the data is pretty consistent. The average salary of a history major is about $68,000 USD or $57,000 CAD. That’s consistent with broader data from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which found that liberal arts grads make around $65,000 – $70,000 at the peaks of their careers.

 

Bar graph comparing salaries at graduation and peak careers between graduates of the liberal arts, professional programs, and STEM programs.

 

This means that pursuing a history degree will not result in barista jobs forever. History grads pursue all kinds of meaningful and lucrative careers. It frequently falls to those grads to figure out how to make that happen, though.

A history degree is really about education, not job preparation. It’s more than fair to say that every degree needs to cater to some degree of career prep—people need to pay for food and housing, obviously—but the discipline’s strength comes from its range, not its focus on one thing.

It’s about understanding the world through past events and the kaleidoscope of human diversity. Studying history is about seeing large-scale patterns and forces of change while building an intellectual toolbox that also lets you investigate complex (and even short-term) events.

It’s rife with foundational and transferable skills, but those need to be adapted and developed. Developing timeless skills also means you need to adapt them to today’s job market.

 

Is history a hard major?

History isn’t known as a difficult program, but it certainly rewards certain behaviours and personality traits. Here’s what you need to know about the difficulty level:

    • There is a lot of reading. Expect hundreds of pages of reading per week—sometimes per class. You need to retain a lot of it for discussion and exams, so take copious notes.
    • History isn’t just about knowledge retention. You’ll be expected to form opinions and arguments for or against certain stances in various exercises.
    • You need to become comfortable with ambiguity. Beyond a second-year level, you’ll be expected to form your own thesis based on your research or prior interest in a topic.
    • Don’t expect marks in the 90% range. My favorite professor once said: “To get higher than 89%, you’d probably have to write a paper better than I could.”
    • Evidence is everything. You’re expected to back up your statements and stances with evidence (which is kind of the whole point!). If you don’t, you’ll be held accountable in lectures, tutorials, exams, or essays.
  • Most schools don’t teach a formal research process. This means that you’ll need to figure it out on your own, to an extent. You’ll learn about synthesizing secondary sources via “historiography” but you’ll need to find your own sources and create your own high-level research process.

Done right, history is a more difficult major than it seems. It’s not for people who need a “correct answer” for everything, or for those who thrive on checking off boxes in a to-do list. The work is qualitative and the boundaries of the course material can become ambiguous. No one holds your hand through the research process either, and that underpins the entire discipline.

If you thrive on solo work and producing great work instead of finding a precise answer, then history won’t seem like a hard major. It might just be for you!

 

Is it really worth it to major in history?

It certainly can be, especially if you want to learn about the world and to nurture skills in research, writing, and communication. Many famous history majors built careers with those skills.

 

 

Check out these names.

  1. Susan Wojcicki majored in history and now serves as the CEO of YouTube.
  2. Lloyd Blankfein majored in history and has served as the CEO of Goldman Sachs.
  3. Ken Chenault majored in history and became the CEO of American Express.
  4. Carly Fiorina majored in history before becoming the CEO of HP Computers (Hewlett-Packard).
  5. Steve Ells majored in history before attending a culinary school and founding Chipotle.
  6. Alexa Hirschfield majored in classics before founding Paperless Post.
  7. Chris Hughes finished his history degree after co-founding Facebook, where he was a driving force in product development for many years.
  8. Donna Dubinsky, the CEO of Palm Inc. (it made the Palm Pilot).
  9. Martha Stewart studied history before becoming a TV host.
  10. Sir Howard Stringer majored in history and later became the CEO of Sony.
  11. Samuel Palmisano majored in history before serving as the CEO of IBM.
  12. Charles Sennot majored in history before co-founding Global News.
  13. Ben SIlverman majored in history before becoming an Executive Producer for The Office and The Tudors.

More than a few successful people hold degrees in history—and at very, very healthy companies. This list doesn’t even include anyone in government careers, where history grads tend to be overrepresented.

 

Career paths for history majors

A history degree won’t set you up for success in a specific role, though it does provide a strong background for a fairly wide range of industries. Grads can excel in these areas:

Marketing

Website pages used by marketers.

 

Good positions for history majors:

  • Content Writer: $48,000 average salary
  • Content Manager: $60,119 average salary
  • Digital Strategist: $62,082 average salary
  • Account Manager: $55,893 average salary

 

This field is about researching the right audience, then developing effective messaging strategies and experiences that will convince that audience to trust a given brand. It makes excellent use of research and writing skills, especially in copywriting and content writing. That ability to lead discussions and to grapple with technical concepts is ideal for account managers, which are common in the marketing industry..

Historians’ notoriously dark sense of humor can become a powerful X-factor as well, especially for copywriters. Biting wit can go very, very far in the marketing industry—something it seems only history majors understand.

Combining that with refined written skills and the ability to lead group discussions makes this field a hidden gem among the more traditional ones, like education and journalism.

There is also no shortage of internships for history majors in the marketing industry.

 

Journalism

A reporter, a news website on a mobile phone, and a press hat.

 

Good positions for history majors:

  • Broadcast Journalist: $36,577 average salary
  • Journalist: $42,602 average salary
  • News Producer: $44,475 average salary
  • Reporter: $47,769 average salary 
  • Copy Editor: $50,615 average salary

The classic industry for history grads, journalism puts a premium on research skills, writing, and—just as importantly—the ability to see large patterns at work. Studying history gives you all of those skills in spades, which is what makes the field such an immediately clear match for history grads.

Even beyond the skills, however, is the underlying reason for journalism: to make an informed and civic contribution to society. Plenty of history grads go into government. Journalism is an excellent alternative to that.

The one drawback here is that the news industry doesn’t offer particularly high salaries compared to other industries. 

 

Law

A law textbook and scales of justice.

 

Good positions for history majors:

  • Paralegal: $49,354 average salary
  • Legal Secretary: $56,173 average salary
  • Prosecutor: $67,853 average salary
  • Associate Attorney: $82,306 average salary
  • Law Firm Partner: $186,904 average salary

Law can be dry, but it sure pays well—and history grads have the perfect skill set for it. At every stage of your career in law, you’ll find that the same skills help you do your job well:

  • Research
  • Pattern recognition
  • Critical thinking
  • Argumentation
  • Written communication
  • Oral communication and argumentation

You can start as a paralegal or a legal secretary to support lawyers with case research or with administrative tasks. To become a prosecutor, an associate, or a partner, however, you’ll need to go to law school and earn a juris doctor degree (JD).

Be warned: the legal field is competitive. Even getting into law school is difficult, not to mention the LSAT test and passing the Bar exam after that. You won’t be a full-fledged lawyer immediately after law school, either—you’ll spend a year “articling” for an established law firm before being hired as an associate. Getting hired where you’ve been articling isn’t guaranteed, wither.

After that, it involves a lot of late nights. It’s a lucrative field but that comes with a high price on your personal time and energy.

 

ALSO READ: History writing jobs you actually want

 

Government

A political candidate and the Capitol Hill building.

 

Good positions for history majors:

  • City Clerk: $49,191 average salary
  • City Planner: $57,284 average salary
  • City Administrator: $74,265 average salary
  • City Manager: $91,681 average salary

It can be difficult to land a job in government, since everything appears so formal and rigid. That’s frustrating in your early career, but you can still get your foot in the door by involving yourself in local associations, programs, and initiatives.

Many roles within government and their agencies can benefit from the historian’s skill set—such as public speaking and writing proposals—but a working knowledge of history and how public institutions work is an asset. Political science grads will be most qualified in this field, but history grads do quite well for themselves here too.

There are a wide range of roles in government outside of city clerks, planners, and administrators, too. You can become involved in many aspects of how cities, states, and the country are run.

See if you might be interested in any of these areas:

  • Urban planning
  • Economic development (attracting and nurturing companies)
  • Housing and community development
  • Policy development
  • Law enforcement
  • Transportation
  • Environmental protection
  • Libraries and community centers
  • Public safety
  • Medical administration

There is a lot of administration in government roles. On the other hand, there are also many opportunities to have a direct impact on your community.

 

Non-profit

A donation box and email donor form used by the non-profit sector.

 

Good positions for history majors:

  • Program Coordinator: $44,780 average salary
  • Outreach Coordinator: $45,710 average salary
  • Grant Writer: $49,458 average salary
  • Program Director: $58,302 average salary
  • Director of Development: $66,715 average salary
  • Executive Director: $68,056 average salary

As the name implies, the non-profit sector doesn’t turn much of a profit compared to other industries—that’s intentional. However, the entry-level and mid-level salaries in this sector are pretty good when compared to similar roles in for-profit industries. You’ll probably start earning in the mid-to-high $30K range, then quickly make your way into the $40K range.

Why are history grads suited to this work, though?

This sector exists to champion causes and to preserve public assets (like parks and heritage buildings). History grads are well equipped to do that for these key reasons.

  1. They understand the long-term value of these causes and public assets.
  2. They can communicate that value to large audiences

The good news is that there are also a lot of marketing opportunities within this sector—remember, non-profits exist to raise money for causes. Convincing people to donate money in exchange for next to nothing involves a lot of marketing. With those skills you can transition to the marketing department in for-profit industries or just join an agency (which would be an excellent growth opportunity!).

 

Education

A schoolhouse and a teacher presenting with an easel.

 

Good positions for history majors:

  • Teacher: $49,761 average salary
  • Curriculum Specialist: $58,538 average salary
  • Curriculum Director: $73,580 average salary
  • Assistant Principal: $74,231 average salary
  • Principal: $84,700 average salary
  • Superintendent: $120,315 average salary

Education is one of the classic fields for history majors. You can certainly become a teacher, but that’s not the only option in this field. The education system is large, and it takes all kinds of roles to support it.

Administrators and curriculum developers also contribute to education. If you’d rather focus on running or improving the system then you can explore those roles as well.

Public history

Museums and artifacts standing on a globe.

 

Positions for history majors:

  • Museum Educator: $36,609 average salary
  • Archivist: $41,086 average salary
  • Museum Curator: $46,809 average salary (this may be skewed downward)
  • Exhibit Designer: $47,752 average salary
  • Museum Director: $70,000 average salary

Public history is a direct application of your degree as a history grad, but the roles can be harder to land than you’d think. The demand for museum educators and curators isn’t nearly as high as that of marketing or business roles, so this industry has a fairly small pool of jobs available.

Public history jobs don’t pay very well compared to other industries, either. If it’s what you really want to do than absolutely go for it… but if you’ve been considering other fields anyway, then I’d recommend you start with those.

 

Publishing

Books and a printer used by publishers.

 

Good positions for history majors:

  • Editorial Assistant: $37,217 average salary
  • Publicist: $50,408 average salary
  • Writer/Author: $51,235 average salary
  • Editor: $54,458 average salary
  • Senior Editor: $70,744 average salary
  • Associate Publisher: $78,619 average salary

History grads do well in publishing alongside English and political science grads. This field really puts the discipline’s academic knowledge to use because it focuses on the formal elements of writing:

  • Spelling and grammar
  • Style guidelines
  • Revisions and proofreading

Editing murder mysteries or fantasy fiction doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

 

Business

Business development professionals beside a spreadsheet with graphs.

 

Good positions for history majors:

  • Data Analyst: $61,901 average salary
  • Business Development Associate: $53,973 average salary
  • Business Manager: $63,670 average salary
  • National Sales Manager: $84,414 average salary
  • VP of Business Development: $135,647 average salary

Plenty of students go to college for business degrees for the obvious reason that it claims to prepare them for the working world better than any other kind of program—and with higher salaries, to boot.

I’ve known more than a few business grads who have found about as much success as the “liberal arts barista” trope that business department recruiters use to attract new students, and there are some valid points there. You do want good job prospects upon graduation, after all.

The key skills to know here are a) spreadsheet management and b) data analysis. If you’re a history major then you’ll probably have no problem with business writing or 

Having said all of that, it’s worth noting that most successful business professionals either find their way to the top through internal drive or through a Master’s of Business Administration (MBA), and neither of those things are exclusive to business undergrads.

I’ve known business grads who lived in their parents’ basements for two years, and I’ve known history grads who became business analysts almost straight out of college. If you want to get into business then you most certainly can—just invest in yourself with the right skills.

 

So, should you major in history? It’s not the only option, but it would be a good choice if you enjoy or excel at understanding the big picture, learning about other cultures, researching, fact-finding, and debating—and, of course, it’s a good fit if you want to know “how we got to now.”

It’s important to understand that history is about education rather than career preparation. There won’t be a single, clear career path with open doors once you graduate. However, the training to see the big picture, the lateral thinking skills, and the communication skills will kick into high gear once you rise above entry-level roles.

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb is on a mission to show humanities graduates how to land jobs and build careers. He turned a history degree and a 9-month stretch of unemployment into a fulfilling career in digital marketing and technology, then founded the Employed Historian blog to show humanities grads how to build their careers, too.

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