If you’re a history buff, not knowing exactly what a historian does could be the only thing holding you back from pursuing your passion in college. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies historian as an occupation in the social sciences. Essentially, what a historian does is study and interpret historical documents to learn about – and teach others about – the past.
The Work of a Historian
Part of what a historian does is collect information about historical events from books, archives and artifacts so they can analyze that data. There are many kinds of artifacts that may interest historians, ranging from government records of days gone by to past photographs and films and even old letters, diaries and newspaper clippings.
Historians are looking for factors that can confirm the authenticity of historical documents as well as data that is meaningful to our understanding of history. The main purpose of historical research is to expand public knowledge of past cultures and events. A historian’s findings are conveyed through written articles, reports and books.
What do historians do with their research? That depends on their role. Some historians use what they have learned to educate the public through presentations. They may work at historic sites or in museums, preserving historical artifacts in environments that allow the public to learn from these documents. Sometimes historians use their research and interpretations of data to help government entities, nonprofit organizations and even businesses make important decisions about policy issues and strategic planning.
Life as a Professional Historian
A surprising number of students want to do what a historian does – so many, in fact, that some history majors have trouble finding work in their field. There are only about 3,500 historians working in the United States, according to the BLS. While the federal bureau expects jobs for historians to grow, it’s only by about two percent – a slower than average growth rate.
What this means for aspiring historians is that job competition will be strong. Earning an advanced degree such as a master’s degree or Ph.D. can improve your job prospects. So can cultivating hands-on work experience through internships and volunteer work in fundraising, collections and exhibit designs, according to the BLS. Finally, history majors who are willing to fill history-related roles that don’t necessarily include “historian” in the job title – like archivist, museum curator, cultural resource manager and humanities researcher – will have the most job opportunities.
Historians find work in government agencies, museums, historical societies, archives, consulting firms, nonprofit organizations and research organizations. Most historians in the United States work for the government, with 39 percent employed by state and local governments and another 22 percent working for the federal government, the BLS reported. It’s not unusual for a historian to travel the world during their career in order to gather artifacts and accounts of events as well as immerse themselves in the culture of historical sites.
Ultimately, what a historian does is collect and examine data from the past – in all of its various forms – so that society can learn valuable lessons from it.