A Student of History

February 10, 2007

But what can you do with a history major?

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 4:21 pm

 That is a not infrequent question I hear, and have heard, since my undergrad days at W&L.  Dr. Robert Pace of McMurray Univ. (TX) has an interesting essay on this at his website, and I have pasted same below.

Students approach me every year with the above sentiment. 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, so 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 first majored in biology, then psychology, then religion). I have not once regretted my decision to major in history 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 world 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 okay 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. Below is just a sampling of the 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.

But I don’t want to teach…

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:

Law school

Applications to law schools across the country have skyrocketed in the last couple of decades, and it certainly is a competitive career to pursue. 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.

Public history and historic preservation

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, copy editors, 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.

Christian ministry

A lot of people assume that if you want to go into the ministry, you need to be a religion major. But bear in mind you’ll get all the theology you need in your divinity school; some divinity schools actually prefer undergraduate study in some other discipline for the breadth of mind necessary for successful ministry. Nothing fits this billing better than history.


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 with an understanding of how the system works. History majors have an advantage over other applicants in that these skills are essential to the discipline.

Business and industry

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.

Yeah, these are great, but what else do you have?

Careers for history majors are only limited by their own imaginations. I know history majors who became artists, 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). 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!”


1 Comment »

  1. What can you do with a History Major? In that it’s Valentine’s day, maybe you can give him (or her) a kiss? 😀

    As for Business Majors: I always get a big kick out of people who have never made it in the world of commerce teaching others how to do it! If YOU can’t do it, what makes you think you can teach OTHERS to do it!

    Finally, is there TOO MUCH stress on a college education? For what it costs to GO these days (and for what you get out of it) it would be simpler, easier and more productive for parents to put that money in a Trust Fund, send Junior or the Princess out into the REAL world to get a job (and see what it means to actually EARN money) and then let the interest pile up until the kids are able to use it for something worthwhile – perhaps even a college education!

    I guarantee that the cost of college would drop by half or even more if for a couple of years there WAS no ‘incoming freshman class’ in these overpriced ivory towers. We’ve built the value of what passes for education in most institutions these days into something that has driven the price WAY up for a considerably inferior return. Now, of course, there are exceptions. But even so, the cost of a college education and all that surrounds it is inflated to the point of being ridiculous. Both my kids had them and both wound up with jobs they could have gotten straight out of high school or after a few courses in a vocational school (computer courses). What a waste of money – AND time!

    But, of course, like the SUV, college is a status symbol that simply cannot be abandoned no matter how overpriced and overvalued or what limited returns many students receive. Again, there are certainly exceptions (one wouldn’t want a physician without an education in medicine!), but many if not most of the students in college today would have been better off living in the REAL world for a couple of years and spending their OWN money, NOT Mom and Dad’s. Maybe then they would put the requisite effort into their education so as to receive something worthwhile in return. But as long as most folks consider a ‘college education’ as compulsary after high school as a graduation party, the educational establishment will continue to rip off parents, students and taxpayers alike.

    Comment by Valerie Protopapas — February 14, 2007 @ 11:16 am | Reply

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