A history major in a grad cap doing a facepalm.

32 things only history majors will understand

History is a funny program to have under your belt these days. People often ask if it’s even worth majoring in history, yet it still imparts centuries of wisdom and sharp critical thinking skills. That’s important in a world that hangs on the latest tweet from some out-of-touch billionaire.

As it happens, there’s a long list of things only history majors will understand. The world is pretty absurd, and it takes a certain background to “get it.”

This one’s for you, history grads!

1. The sheer volume of reading

Those business majors and their 12-page case studies never realized exactly how much reading you do. It could be upwards of 300 pages per week, and that’s just in undergrad. In grad school it can encompass two books and three articles per week for a single class.

2. Every viewpoint on every issue ever is already taken

“Just write something original,” your professors said. “It’s not as hard as you think,” they said. Then you did the research and realized that historians everywhere have already covered damn near everything on your topic—which is why they’re the ones with published books and you’re the one reading them.

 

A history student writing an historiography essay.

 

3. Writing your 15th historiography essay

Your professors know that most informed viewpoints have already been explored as well, so they say, “well, just evaluate the arguments from professional historians.” Before you know it your entire undergrad from second year onward has become an exercise in critiquing the work of people more qualified than you, and there’s no end in sight.

 

4. The joy of discovering the footnotes function for the first time

Most of us spent months—maybe even years—writing out footnotes manually in our essays before discovering the footnotes feature in our word processors. We don’t even want to think about how much of that time we’ll never get back. P.S. if you didn’t know about it: you’re welcome.

 

5. Cranking out a 20-page essay in a few days

Professors always say “your essay should be as long as it needs to be,” but we all know that a higher page count earns you a little something, even if it’s not your best work. That’s why we learned to crank out 20-page essays in 2-3 days. Why not leave more time? Because we procrastinate as much as everyone else.

 

Two tall stacks of textbooks.

 

6. Buying 5 course books and only using 2

Every history student knows the frustration of buying 5 or 6 books for a course, as listed on the syllabus, and only using two of them over the entire year. Your empty wallet cries out in pain and betrayal for every course that does this to you… every year.

It’s one of those freshman things only history majors will understand.

 

ALSO READ: Internships for history majors

 

7. The anxiety of going into an archive for the first time

After a few years of writing essays based on other scholars’ work, you’ll be asked to do some primary research of your own. That’s when you enter… the archives. They are vast, dusty, and they usually run on the Dewey Decimal System. Good luck finding that thing you need, kid, because the librarian can’t find it either.

 

8. Realizing you’ve read the same page three times because you drifted off

You spend all night doing the weekly readings so that you can earn your marks in seminar discussion. Despite your exhaustion, you’re still powering through it—only to realize you’ve read that same page three times already. By the third time you realize it’s time for a break and you fall asleep, waking the next morning having only read half of what you intended.

 

A post-it note beside a printer that says "paper costs money!" signed by uptight librarians.

 

9. Passive-aggressive “paper costs money” post-it notes

The science is in: writing and proofreading with a pen and paper improve retention compared to using screens. That’s why we print out so much stuff. We like to edit manually. Then, one day, you find a passive-aggressive post-it note from the librarian lecturing you about how “paper costs money” in an attempt to guilt you into using less of it.

Maybe stop spending millions on that third business building before whining to us about the cost of paper?

 

10. Some professor hoarding half the books you need for your essay

You chose this topic for your research paper in the second week of the term and you’ve set aside a ton of time to dive into the books you need… except that you can’t get all of them. Some professor booked them out of the library months ago and never bothered to return them.

No, professors don’t have to return books like the rest of us mortals. You’re just screwed.

 

11. The existential fear of unemployment after graduation

We all know that feeling—the one you get in third or fourth year when you start wondering how everything you’ve learned so far is going to pay for a roof over your head and put food on the table.

You’ve heard all the jokes from the engineering and business students (and the pre-med students, and the animal sciences students), but no one seems to have answers other than “I dunno, maybe go into teaching?”

 

A college professor shrugging when asked about career prospects.

 

12. Awkward shrugs from professors when you ask them about career options

After getting to know your professors and putting in your best work for them, you approach the one you trust the most about advice on a career with a history degree (most likely in your third or fourth year).

Starry-eyed, you expect them to tell you their war stories about crazy interviews and their big breaks… but all you get is an awkward shrug, because most professors have never worked outside of academia.

 

ALSO READ: Entry-level jobs for history majors that don’t suck

 

13. Realizing you can’t read 500-year-old handwriting.

When you finally get your hands on a facsimile of a primary source (or get into an archive), you feel like you’re about to do some real history. It’s exciting to see or even hold something from centuries past. Then you realize that none of it makes sense.

Why do they write “s” like an “f?” Why is there no standardization from 1450 to 1850? Why do some documents have a second layer of writing laid vertically over the first set of words?

Deciphering some 500-year-old administrator’s writing is truly one of those things only history majors will understand. And it sucks.

 

14. Needing glasses after using microfiche or microfilm machines

Have you ever squinted so hard that your eyes just never seemed to go back to normal? Well, check out your school’s vision benefits, because you might need them!

Microfiche and microfilm were the ground-breaking storage technologies of the 1970s and 1980s, allowing school libraries to store entire reams of newspapers in a single tiny roll of film (with proprietary machines to read them, of course). Incidentally, I had to start wearing glasses about a year after my microfiche research assignment.

The image quality is so grainy that old black-and-white TV from the 1950s starts to look like high definition afterward.

 

15. STEM kids looking down on your degree

They don’t say it outright (usually), but a lot of people think the humanities don’t have a place in the 21st century. Those people usually don’t have humanities degrees and have never had to extract a few salient details for seminar from 400 pages of weekly reading for a single class, either. It’s hard to stand your ground because professors often don’t have many reassurances when this comes up.

So let me reassure you: I’ve worked with more than a few business and STEM grads who don’t know how grammar, punctuation, or sentence structure work.

 

A college campus filled with tall buildings not for the history department.

 

16. Watching your college commission its third business or engineering building

When was the last time they constructed a new building for the humanities or the liberal arts on your campus? Yeah, I couldn’t tell you, either. You may notice that humanities classes get sidelined into progressively worse rooms over time, too.

In grad school our communal work space was moved from the third floor to the basement, where sun didn’t shine. We called it “The Dungeon.”

Congrats to the engineering and business faculty on their third shiny new building in five years, though. Must be nice.

 

17. “A history degree? What are you going to do with that?”

The one we’ve all been waiting for: that not-so-subtle jab at your choice of major. This is truly something that only history majors will understand because history itself is the poster child for a “bad choice” among the ill-informed. It’s like everybody just got exhausted making fun of the performing arts and needed a new discipline to hate.

It doesn’t help that colleges have started countering it with “anything you want,” as if you could just start coding the next big social network with your mad oral communication skills.

P.S. It’s possible to earn a great salary at a successful tech company with a history degree. I’ve done it—and you can, too.

 

ALSO READ: Famous history majors everyone should know

 

18. People think you should know every fact in existence

“But you’re in history, don’t you study this?” Oh right! I must have left my post-it note with every fact ever to have happened in human history in my other pants. Whoops!

Of course, nobody can know everything—that would be ridiculous. History majors get a broad education in the many events and trends that have shaped human civilization across time, and then they zoom in on specific events to practice the historian’s craft. 

 

A history student ruining a movie about history.

 

19. Picking apart movies

You’re not fun to watch historical fiction movies with because you call out every mistake you see. In fact, you’ve probably laughed out loud at how badly they mess up some of the details.

My girlfriend can’t even watch the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast without me going off on a tangent about how early modern French royalty were synonymous with absolutism, and therefore wouldn’t let some other “king” exist within its borders, even as a joke.

She also has a master’s degree in history, so she gets it—it’s one of those quintessential things only history majors will understand.

 

20. The smell of old books is weirdly comforting

The smell of old books seems musty and unpleasant to most. To history students, however, old books smell like peace, quiet, and knowledge lost to time (not to get too dramatic). There’s comfort in solitude among the stacks, and that’s what old books mean to many of us.

Even the smell of book stores get us thinking about curling up in front of a fire to read our latest novel It’s a nice feeling.

 

21. Smirking at other majors talking about their “difficult” 10-page essays

Plenty of programs are harder than history, no doubt there. But it just gets under our skin when other students complain about how they barely strung together 7-10 pages of writing.

7 pages? You going to make it all the way to the holidays, precious?

Meanwhile, history students start writing 20-page papers by their second year, like it’s nothing. Some of them had to cut down the paper by 5 pages to avoid going too far with it.

 

ALSO READ: The scope of an MA in history

 

22. Arguing over which century is the most important

This one is just fun. My friend thinks the 18th century is the most important time period because it cemented so much of our modern world with the French and American revolutions, the Enlightenment, and the rise of Britain as a world naval power.

I love the 16th century because it’s where the spread of Renaissance ideas really begin to accelerate, triggering the Protestant Reformation and planting the seeds that would one day become mass literacy (which underpins our entire modern world). It also fractured Western Europe along religious and political lines that are still visible today.

Everyone has their own opinion, and it’s a ton of fun to debate.

 

A history grad participating in a pub trivia night.

 

23. Being put on the spot in the pub’s trivia night

Being a slightly insufferable know-it-all at cocktail parties comes with a cost (other than not being invited again): your friends count on you to memorize stuff at pub trivia so that they can have a free beer the next time you all hang out.

Trivia only encompasses everything under the sun across 5,000 years of recorded human history. No pressure, right?

 

24. You think in decades and centuries

You probably hear talking heads on the news and people in your own life speak about “long-term consequences” in terms of 3-6 months.

Dust in the wind, my friends!

History grads spend years studying the long-term development of society. We understand that the fall of Rome was the culmination of centuries of deterioration, not just one day of being sacked by goths. Hell, Fernand Braudel coined the term “longue durée” in his work The Mediterranean, and it’s still an important work for a reason.

Fighting for long-term causes at the expense of short-term gain is one of those things only history majors will understand across the board. It’s not just about the environment—this applies to the economy, education, physical infrastructure, resource management, and even things like a local real estate market.

 

25. You hold onto your course books instead of selling them

History majors are notorious for holding on to their books. Other students toss them in dumpster fires or—more sensibly—sell them back to the campus bookstore for some extra cash.

But history grads? Nope.

They keep their books as if they hold the secrets of the world (and in some ways, they do). Aside from the need for academically credible sources in a world of misinformation, the books also represent the biggest misunderstanding about history: it’s about the insights and wisdom gained, not memorizing names and dates.

You just don’t find that stuff on Wikipedia pages.

 

ALSO READ: The average salary of a history major

 

Two history majors debating each other.

 

26. Almost anything can be argued with enough evidence

As you work through your degree you expect people to substantiate their opinions with facts, expert opinions, and related pieces of evidence, instead of simply repeating “I’m right because I say so.”

History grads learn to live up to that expectation by formulating their opinions in a structured way, and this makes debating them a nightmare. They keep pulling out new pieces of information and even case studies with similar circumstances to prove a point.

It’s exhausting for others but smugly satisfying for history grads. It’s also what makes history majors so well suited to law school.

 

27. You mock people who say “they were born in the wrong era”

People who say “I was born in the wrong era” have no idea what they’re talking about. If they did then they’d be grateful for everything available to them in this era: medicine, remote jobs, A.I.-curated playlists, video streaming, widely affordable paperback books, and so on.

Those people look at the past with rose-tinted glass. In fact, most of the time they weren’t even alive during the eras they romanticize. Most of them have no inkling what life would have been like. They forget all the advancements made in civil rights, medicine, travel, communications, and international peace.

Those people aren’t romantic—they’re naive (and oh-so-fun to mock).

 

28. The struggle not to correct people all the time is very, very real

Facts matter to people who spend so much time finding and verifying them. That’s why it irks us so much when people throw around false or half-remembered “facts” whenever it’s convenient.

It’s also why most history grads can’t stand people who perpetuate fake news. Verifying the integrity of information is part and parcel of a history degree (historiography essays, anyone?), so those people tend to lose the respect of people who hold one.

 

29. You want to throw a book at people who compare everything to Nazis

Talking heads and guests being interviewed in mainstream media love to compare everything to Nazism, often inaccurately and in poor taste. Even people who dedicate their lives to studying that time period in history wouldn’t claim to know the full gravity and horror of living through it.

That’s why it makes history students’ blood boil when some entitled idiot gets invited on to a local news station to complain about how some minor inconvenience is like being persecuted under a totalitarian regime.

The ignorance and entitlement are just appalling.

 

A wrecking ball labelled "ignorance" destroying an historic building labelled "civilization."

 

30. People who say “history is all in the past” and then wonder why things go sideways in the present

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” are some of the wisest words ever written, to the dismay of history grads everywhere. People believe in historic floods and fire raining down from the sky in biblical proportions, yet refuse to believe in rising ocean levels or the weakening of the ozone layer.

Similarly, historians point to measures taken to contain the Spanish Flu in the 1920s, yet people refuse to follow modest safety protocols in public spaces when a pandemic hits almost exactly 100 years later.

It happens all the time and it makes us want to pull our hair out.

 

31. You have a favorite historian and it’s because that person doesn’t write run-on sentences

History students spend so much time reading books by dead people that they starve for fresh perspectives and writing styles. Being a fan of the Reformation, I had to read through my share of books and articles written by old dead white protestant men from the 1800s, translated from German with those telltale run-on sentences that went for half a page (each).

It was brutal.

My favorite historian was Geoffrey Parker, who once wrote about archaeological expeditions underwater to explore why the Spanish Armada failed. He did it using proper sentences that ended after a line or so, too.

It’s good stuff. Everyone has that one historian who made reading a pleasure instead of a chore.

 

32. That dark sense of humor

“Always look on the bright side of life” is the funniest song in cinema if you understand the context.

 

 

Historians spend so much time reading about bloody battles, politicized executions, and the spread of diseases throughout the ages that they come to accept the shadow of death hanging over everything—including civilizations themselves.

 

The dark side of human history is an ever-present counterpoint to humanity’s greatest achievements. It’s one of the greatest things only history majors will understand because it teaches us to laugh at that darkness instead of giving in to it.

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Founder of the Employed Historian, Andrew entered the working world with two history degrees and zero technical knowledge. Then he worked on those technical skills and discovered something profound about the liberal arts. By day he's a professional search engine optimization specialist and content marketer at Webb Content.

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