What Does a Historian Do?

An image of a historian for our FAQ on What Does a Historian Do

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 Essentially, a historian analyzes, interprets, and researches the past through the study of historical documents. While historians are foreword thinkers, they spend most of their time studying the past.

The Work of a Historian

Part of what a historian does is collect information about historical events from:

  • books
  • archives
  • artifacts

Then they analyze the data. There are many kinds of artifacts that may interest historians, ranging from government records of the past to photographs and films or old letters, diaries, and newspaper clippings.

Historians search for factors that can confirm the authenticity of historical documents, as well as data that is meaningful to understanding  history.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
  • articles in journals
  • articles in magazines and newspapers

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 businesses make important decisions about policy issues and strategic planning.

Life as a Professional Historian

A surprising number of students want to pursue the role of a historian. Due to the number of jobs available versus the number of individuals graduating from history programs, many history degree earners have trouble finding work in their field. There are only about 3,500 historians working in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the federal bureau expects jobs for historians to grow, it’s only by a slow margin.

What this means for aspiring historians is that job will competitive. Earning an advanced degree such as a master’s degree or Ph.D. can improve your job prospects. Hands-on work experience through internships and volunteer work in fundraising, collections and exhibit designs, also improve job prospects. History majors who will have the best job opportunities are those willing to fill history-related roles that don’t necessarily include “historian” in the job title. These include jobs like:

  • archivist
  • museum curator
  • cultural resource manager
  • humanities researcher

Historians find work in:

  • government agencies
  • museums
  • historical societies
  • archives
  • consulting firms
  • nonprofit organizations
  • research organizations

Most historians in the United States work for the government. Others seek employment in museums and libraries. For those working in government, historian work might include research projects that provide information on specific events or groups from the past. Historical researchers often write about history of:

  • activities
  • events
  • government agencies
  • programs

Examples are space odysseys and military operations. One example of a historian working in a research capacity is one that documents the people and events associated with Operation Desert Storm.

An image of a history student for our FAQ on What Does a Historian Do

A strong background in history is a given for historians working in historical associations. They may work as:

  • archivists
  • curators
  • museum personnel

In these roles, historians preserve artifacts and provide detailed information about the historical significance of these:

  • artifacts
  • events
  • groups
  • people

Examples of subject matter often researched and explored include:

  • battlegrounds
  • historical buildings
  • religious groups

A historian collects and examines data from the past – in all of its various forms – so that society can learn valuable lessons that might impact the future.

Educational Requirements for Historians

Most historian positions require a graduate degree, such as a master’s or doctorate. While candidates with a bachelor’s degree in history may qualify for entry-level positions, traditional historian jobs require a minimum of a master’s degree. For research positions, especially those with the federal government or jobs in academia, a Ph.D. is required. In addition to coursework taught in graduate history programs, an internship is often required by many employers. History internships offer opportunities for students to learn practical skills needed for work as a historian. These skills include creating exhibits and preserving artifacts. Internships also offer opportunities for students to apply what they learn in the classroom in a hands-on setting.

 

Competition is fierce for historian jobs, due to the limited number of available openings. Earning a master’s degree from an accredited college or university is essential.

The Work Environment of a Historian

According to BLS, historians hold approximately 3,500 jobs. This occupation is found in:

  • archives
  • historical societies
  • museums
  • research organizations

Some historians work as consultants for government and private organizations. Others are hired by consulting firms. BLS lists the largest employers for historians as the following:

Federal government – Approximately 22% of all historians are employed by the federal government, excluding the postal service. 19% work in local government, such as agencies and organizations, but excluding education and hospitals. In professional, scientific, and technical services, approximately 17% of all historians are employed. The fourth largest employer of historians, according to BLS, is state government, excluding education and hospitals. State government employs about 15% of all historians.

Historians work full time and during regular business hours. Those working independently may set their own schedules. Historians who work in archives, libraries, and museums typically work when the organization or facility is open to the public. Often, these facilities are open in the evenings and on weekends. Some historians, particularly those working with consulting firms or government, may travel to collect artifacts. Some historians conduct interviews, lead tours, or visit other facilities to better understand the culture and environment where an artifact originated.

Qualities Needed for Work as a Historian

In addition to the proper education, internships, and work experience, possessing certain qualities make your career as a historian a successful one. Below are several important qualities to have if you are considering a job as a historian.

An image of a historian for our FAQ on What Does a Historian Do

Effective Communication Skills
A historian must be able to communicate effectively through written documents and presentations. Historians:

  • collect data
  • communicate with colleagues
  • examine artifacts
  • present information
  • conduct research

All of these tasks require communication skills in some capacity. Being able to communicate clearly and concisely helps historians get their message across. Also, since most historical societies and organizations rely heavily on fundraising, historians must be able to connect with the public. In many cases, presentations are delivered at social engagements and special events.

Foreign Language Skills
Some historians may need to be called upon to review primary source materials that are not in English. Having knowledge and skills in another language can prove to be beneficial in the role of a historian. Historians may have to visit other countries to meet with experts and scholars. They may need to analyze languages in letters or archived materials. They may need to communicate with colleagues who do not speak English. The most common languages studied among aspiring historians include Arabic, Chinese, French, and Spanish, among others.

Research Skills
Historians are researchers by nature. They are inquisitive problem-solvers. In order to work successfully as a historian, one must possess solid research abilities and skills. Historians must be able to analyze and synthesize information gathered through research. They must assess historical resources, such as artifacts, documents, and images for authenticity and other measures. Historians must be able to process their findings and provide context for write-ups and presentations.

Problem-solving Skills
Historians spend most of their time answering questions about the past. They may have to answer questions about something unknown of a:

  • past event
  • idea
  • person

Historians must also be able to analyze and decipher information about the past. For example, a historian may be called upon to identify how a certain event from the past affected the present. Problem-solving skills and abilities help historians succeed in their findings.

Strong Analytical Skills
The role of a historian requires strong analytical skills, as this job requires the ability to examine various types of historical resources. Historians locate and examine resources. They must also draw logical conclusions based on their findings. Having strong analytical skills helps historians succeed in delivering concrete information to the public.

Other Important Information for Aspiring Historians

Earnings Potential
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median annual wage for historians is $63,100. The lowest paid 10% of historians see a median wage of just under $30,000 annually, while the highest paid 10% earns more than $116,000.

According to BLS, there are four high paying industries for this occupation. First, historians earn the highest annual wages working for the federal government (excluding the postal service). Historians working for the federal government earn an average wage of $102,530.

The second highest paying industry for historians is professional, scientific, and technical services. In this industry, historians earn a median annual wage of $66,750.

In state government this occupation offers a median annual wage of $51,540. State government jobs exclude those in education and hospitals for the consideration of this average.

Lastly, historians earn a median annual wage of $32,060 in local government, excluding education and hospitals.

Certain factors, such as geographic location, impact the earnings of historians. The Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics reported by BLS lists the five top paying states for historians. These states include Alaska, Virginia, Hawaii, Colorado, and Maryland. BLS reports the annual mean wage for historians working in Alaska is $101,900. Virginia is the second highest paying state for this occupation. In Virginia, historians see an annual mean wage of $92,820. Hawaii and Colorado report similar earnings for historians. In Hawaii, the occupation sees an annual mean wage of $87,650 while Colorado historians see an annual wage of $87,210. Lastly, historians working in the state of Maryland should expect to see an average wage of $84,360.

Metro areas also offer high earnings for historians. According to BLS, the highest paying metro area for this occupation is Washington, DC; Arlington, and Alexandria. Here, historians see an annual mean wage of $106,540. Other high paying metro areas offering above-average earnings for historians include:

  • Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Virginia Beach, Virginia
  • Houston-The Woodlands, Texas.

Also, the highest paying nonmetropolitan area for historians is Southwest New York. However, the average pay is nearly half the national average for this occupation.

An image of a historian for our FAQ on What Does a Historian Do

Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of historians is expected to grow 3% through 2029, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. With the limited number of job openings, historians will face very strong competition for most jobs. Also, due to the popularity of undergraduate history programs at accredited colleges and universities, the number of applicants exceeds the number of positions available. However, individuals with a master’s degree in history, or a Ph.D., should see the best job prospects.

To set yourself apart from competition, practical skills and work experience in specialized fields may help. In addition to earning an advanced degree, historians may seek internships and work experience in areas like:

  • collections
  • exhibit design
  • fundraising

These specialized areas of study can help recent graduates gain a position with a local museum or historical society. Jobseekers may also gain experience through volunteer work when job openings are limited.

History programs offer broad education and training in:

  • analytical research
  • critical thinking
  • writing

Graduates can apply these skills to various occupations. Becoming a historian is not the only pathway for a history degree. In fact, many with degrees in history pursue careers in:

  • advertising
  • campaign work
  • finance
  • fundraising
  • media and communication
  • other state and government roles

Most organizations that employ historians, including historical consulting firms and historical societies, rely on public funding and donations. As a result, public funding and donations directly impact employment growth.

BDP Staff
September 2021

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This concludes our article on what does a historian do.

Brenda Rufener
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Julie McCaulley
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Carrie Sealey-Morris
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