What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Historian?

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Historians are fascinated with days, years, and centuries gone by. And as the world is constantly evolving, they must synthesize records and events. History is among the top 20 degrees for intellectuals, allowing you to put your interest in the past to work in:

  • archives
  • historical societies
  • nonprofits
  • research organizations

Even commercial industries need the work of historians. The occupation can be highly rewarding, both educationally and financially. To start preparing for a career researching and sharing historical knowledge, you will need to be appropriately educated. Below is the best degree path to becoming a historian and other relevant topics associated with this unique career.

Undergraduate History Degrees

The first step to become a historian is to earn a bachelor’s degree in history, or a closely related niche discipline. During the first four years of full-time study, history students cover coursework in national, international, and regional history. Course topics range from ancient civilizations to modern research methods. Students usually round out their academic careers with general education courses and electives.

A bachelor’s degree in history may be enough to attain entry-level historian positions in museums and historical societies. It helps if you have real-world experience working, interning or volunteering with a:

  • historical society
  • museum
  • nonprofit organization
  • government agency

According to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) most often candidates with only an undergraduate degree put their historical knowledge to work in fields like:

  • education
  • law
  • journalism
  • business

To become a historian, you must develop skills that enable you to:

  • gather data
  • publish research
  • test hypotheses

As an undergraduate student, you will conduct research through classes and independent projects. Most bachelor’s in history degree programs offer courses that explore topics in:

  • American national government
  • slavery in the Americas
  • studies in European history
  • United States history
  • world civilizations

Some programs require a capstone while others may have certain senior seminar requirements. These requirements usually emphasize current issues and challenges faced in the study of history. This culminates in a final project. While programs vary by institution, most capstone experiences take place during your senior year.

To help set you apart from others with a general history degree, you might consider earning a concentration. A concentration is a good way to gain deeper knowledge in an area of interest. Concentrations may cover broad categories of history, such as:

  • business
  • economics
  • gender and sexuality
  • medicine
  • race

Some of the most popular concentrations for history majors are listed below.

Gender and Sexuality

A concentration in gender and sexuality teaches you about the analysis of power, liberationist movements, and players who took part in gender and sexuality demonstrations. Students take classes that cover feminism, gender, and sexuality.

Public History

Learning how the public produces and consumes history is covered in a public history concentration. You study the influence history has on cultures and institutions around the world. You learn about the role of:

  • historiography
  • memory
  • museums
  • other historical institutions

Race and Ethnicity

In a race and ethnicity concentration, you explore different cultural and social movements throughout history. Movements may include colonialism and the abolishment of slavery. Courses focus on how cultures and different populations have used race and ethnicity as tools for power and development.

Science and Technology

Science, technology, and medicine make up a concentration often sought after by history majors. The concentration may be split among two or three categories or included as one broad category. In this concentration, you explore the evolution of modern medicine and how medicine, science, and technology have impacted civilizations and cultures over time.

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Comparing Graduate and Doctoral History Degrees

If you’re serious about becoming a historian, an advanced degree is a better educational path than acquiring only an undergraduate degree. Whether to earn a master’s degree or a Ph.D. depends on your ultimate career goals.

For a job at a museum, historical society, or archives, a master’s degree is often the right choice. Graduate students can study history generally, or they may choose more specialized programs in:

  • public history
  • archival management
  • museum studies,
  • historical preservation

Concentrations or specializations offered in master’s in history programs are often more niche. Internship experiences are also recommended and, in many programs, required for graduation.

If a research position, particularly one with the federal government, is of more interest to you, then it makes more sense to pursue a doctoral degree. Earning a Ph.D. in history will give you the opportunity to specialize in the history of a certain place, time period, or field. For Ph.D. students, like graduate students, an internship or other opportunity to gain hands-on experience working in the field of history is important for preparing you for a career.

Importance of Accredited History Degrees

Prospective history students, no matter which degree level is being pursued, should only enroll in accredited institutions. Accreditation status matters. Accreditation is the stamp of approval of an outside authority or governing body. It ensures a school and its programs meet certain standards of quality and rigor. Legitimate programs are fully accredited.

Colleges in the United States receive accreditation from agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The accreditation process involves an extensive review of an institution’s student services and educational programs. When a school is not accredited, credit transferability, eligibility for financial aid, and other important criteria are impacted. It is important to choose a school and history program that’s fully accredited and in good standing.

Important Qualities for Historians

Some skills cannot be gained from the classroom. They are qualities and characteristics that are developed over time. Some refer to these qualities as soft skills or core skills. Soft skills are traits and qualities highly sought after by employers. They enable employees to navigate their work environment in a healthy and successful manner. These skills may include:

    • how you communicate with colleagues
    • how you work with others
    • how you perform on the job

Important qualities for historians may be honed over time. Some of these important characteristics are detailed below.

  • Analytical Skills
    The role of a historian is an analytical one. Days are spent examining historical resources and drawing logical conclusions based on findings. Having strong analytical skills helps you succeed in this role.
  • Communication Skills
    As in all occupations, communication skills are essential for success. Historians must communicate effectively when:
    • collaborating with colleagues
    • collecting information and data
    • presenting research

Historians may also be called upon to present information to the public or private organizations.

  • Knowledge of a Foreign Language
    While this quality may be learned in the classroom, it is not necessary for all historian roles. However, some historians may need to know a foreign language, especially those traveling to other countries and communicating with those who do not speak English. Popular foreign languages for history majors include:
    • Chinese
    • French
    • German
    • Italian
    • Korean
    • Spanish
  • Research Skills
    The ability to research is crucial for the role of a historian, especially those working in academia. Historians must be able to gather and process information from :
    • historical documents
    • images
    • other resources

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Professional Associations for History Majors

You don’t have to wait until graduation and landing your first job to join a professional association. In fact, history majors have access to professional history associations and organizations. Members may take advantage of the many benefits these organizations offer, including:

  • annual conferences and seminars
  • job boards
  • newsletters, and more

Popular professional associations for history majors are detailed below.

American Association for State and Local History (AASLH)

The AASLH is a national association of history that accepts students to take part in the many membership benefits offered. The association provides leadership and support for those preserving and interpreting history on local and state levels. The organization connects its members by offering annual meetings and conferences. In addition to networking opportunities, advocacy and initiative funding in the field of history are available to active members. Members may also take advantage of many subscriptions and publications offered through the AASLH.

American Historical Association (AHA)

The American Historical Association (AHA) is recognized as the largest professional organizations serving historians today. AHA members gain access to online networking opportunities with fellow historians and may attend an annual conference. Awards and grants are also offered for excellence in research, teaching, and mentoring.

American Society for Environmental History (ASEH)

The ASEH offers members a quarterly journal subscription to Environmental History. Members also enjoy discounts at the association’s annual conference and access to an online membership directory. The organization promotes research and teaching, as well as public outreach and advocacy.

Earnings Potential for Historians

If you have a true passion for the past, researching, analyzing, and sharing historical data is a rewarding calling. While the number of job opportunities available to historians is relatively small, the median annual salary of $63,100 is well above the median wage for all industries. You can still make a good living doing something you love.

According to the BLS, the highest 10 percent of earners working as historians see an average annual wage of $116,340. However, high paying roles often call for years of experience in addition to adequate education and training. BLS reports four top paying industries for this occupation. These industries include:

  • federal government
  • professional, scientific, and technical services
  • state government
  • local government

Historians working in federal government, excluding postal service, see a median annual wage of $102,530. In professional, scientific, and technical services, historians see a median annual wage of $66,750. BLS reports that historians working in state government see a median annual wage of $51,540. In local government, excluding education and hospitals, historians earn a median annual wage of $32,060.

State and local data published by BLS show additional information about the earnings of historians. Certain states and geographic locations pay higher wages than other parts of the United States. According to the most recent data published, historians working in Alaska, Virginia, Hawaii, Colorado, and Maryland earn higher wages than those working in other parts of the country. In fact, historians in Alaska earn an annual mean wage of $101,900. In Virginia, historians earn $92,820 and in Hawaii earn $87,650, on average.

An image of a historian for our FAQ on What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Historian

Certain metropolitan areas pay higher wages for historians. The highest paying location is the Washington, D.C., Arlington, and Alexandria metro area. In this location, historians earn an annual mean wage of $106,540.

Other high paying metro areas include:

  • urban Honolulu
  • Virginia Beach
  • Houston, Texas

Historians working in urban Honolulu earn an annual mean wage of $88,640, much higher than the average pay for this occupation. In Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Newport, historians see average earnings of $80,880. Houston historians also earn a higher than average annual wage. In Houston, The Woodlands, and Sugar Land, Texas, historians see an average annual wage of $80,200. The above data was collected by the Occupational Employment Wage Statistics published by the BLS.

Summary of the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Historian

Graduates with  history degrees have many career options. They are eligible for work in:

  • historical organizations
  • museums
  • small and large associations

They have skills needed to pursue roles as:

  • educators
  • museum technicians
  • reporters and correspondents
  • writers

It is not uncommon for a historian to provide consulting services or work as a reporter for a magazine or news station. Historians are viewed as experts in their field. The skills gained in a history program, especially undergraduate history programs, may be applicable to other careers. Some of these careers include:

  • high school history teachers
  • media coordinators
  • museum archivists
  • news analysts
  • writers.

BDP Staff
September 2021

Related articles:

5 High Paying Careers For Someone With A History Degree
15 Creative Jobs for History Majors
30 Best History Degree Online Programs (Bachelor’s)
Ultimate Guide to Liberal Arts Degrees and Careers
What Jobs Can You Get With a History Degree?
What Skills Do I Need to Succeed in the Study of History?

This concludes our article on the best degree path to becoming a historian.

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris