CAREER PATHWAYS

Looking for the perfect job?
Explore our Career Guides!

Read More

How to Become a Historian

By Lace Brunsden

Published:

Embarking on a journey to become a historian is akin to unlocking the secrets of time, a thrilling pursuit that involves unraveling the tapestry of our collective past. In this guide, we’ll explore the essential steps and skills needed to dive into the world of history, ultimately paving the way to a rewarding career in uncovering and interpreting the narratives that have shaped our world. So, grab your metaphorical time-traveling hat; it’s time to delve into the captivating realm of history!

Career Summary

Historian Salary

Historian Salary

It is important to consider the average historian salary when considering it as a career path. This can vary depending on where you live and the type of historian that you are, but according to Glassdoor, the average historian salary in the USA can be broken down as follows:

  • Entry-Level (US$ 73,000)
  • Median (US$ 98,000)
  • Senior (US$ 136,000)

The Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) estimates the average salary across more than 800 occupations to be around US$ 61,900. Compared to this, the average historian salary is very high.

What is a historian?

A historian is a professional who studies and interprets the past. Their primary goal is to understand and explain historical events, developments, and processes. 

What do historians do?

Historians use a variety of methods and sources to gather information about the past, including written documents, oral accounts, artifacts, and other historical records. Overall, historians play a crucial role in preserving, interpreting, and communicating the lessons and experiences of the past, contributing to our understanding of human societies and their development over time.

Historian Career Progression

  • Historical Research Assistant (Entry Level): Begin your journey supporting seasoned historians, mastering archival work, document analysis, and data collection.
  • Archivist or Museum Technician: Transition to preserving and cataloging historical documents or artifacts, deepening your understanding of historical preservation and material culture.
  • Assistant Historian or Junior Researcher: Take on an active role in research projects, collaborating with senior historians, presenting findings, and refining analytical skills.
  • Historian or Researcher: Conduct independent studies, publish articles, and specialize in particular periods, themes, or regions, establishing expertise.
  • Curator or Exhibition Specialist: Move to curating exhibits in museums or cultural institutions, translating historical narratives into engaging displays for the public.
  • College or University Lecturer: Enter academia, teaching courses, mentoring students, and contributing to research while shaping the next generation of historians.
  • Department Chair or Program Director: Take on administrative roles overseeing historical studies, managing faculty, and shaping academic environments.
  • Renowned Historian or Thought Leader: Achieve recognition for contributions to the field, with widely published work and invitations for keynotes, interviews, and collaborations on major historical projects.

Best Aspects of Working as a Historian

  • Uncovering Hidden Narratives
  • Continuous Intellectual Growth
  • Preservation of Cultural Heritage
  • Diverse Career Paths
  • Contribution to Understanding Humanity

Worst Aspects of Working as a Historian

  • Limited Job Opportunities
  • Uncertain Funding for Research
  • Time-Intensive Research Process
  • Academic Pressures and Publish-or-Perish Culture
  • Difficulty in Making Historical Impact Accessible to the General Public

Useful Skills to Have as a Historian

  • Research and Analytical Skills
  • Effective Communication
  • Critical Thinking
  • Attention to Detail
  • Adaptability

Popular Historian Specialties

  • Military History
  • Social History
  • Cultural History
  • Economic History
  • Political History

How to Become a Historian

Historian 4 Steps to Career

Step 1: Start with a Bachelor’s Degree in History or a Related Field

Begin your journey by enrolling in a bachelor’s program, laying the groundwork for a comprehensive understanding of historical concepts.

Do I Need a Degree to Become a Historian?

While a degree is not strictly required to have a deep interest in history or to engage in historical research as a hobby, a formal education is typically essential for a professional career as a historian. Most historians hold at least a bachelor’s degree in history or a related field.

However, alternative paths, such as gaining practical experience and conducting independent research, can also contribute to a career in history. The level of education required may depend on the specific career goals within the field of history.

Why is it Important to Get a Degree in History?

Getting a degree in history is important for several reasons:

  • Specialized Knowledge: A formal education in history provides a structured and comprehensive understanding of historical events, theories, and methodologies, allowing individuals to delve deeply into specific periods or themes.
  • Critical Thinking Skills: History programs emphasize critical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to assess and interpret various sources of information, which are valuable in many professional contexts.
  • Research Abilities: A degree in history equips individuals with research skills, including the ability to gather, analyze, and synthesize information from diverse sources—a crucial skill for historians and professionals in various fields.
  • Communication and Writing Skills: Historians often need to convey complex ideas clearly. A history degree hones communication and writing skills, enabling individuals to articulate their thoughts effectively.
  • Cultural and Global Awareness: History programs often explore diverse cultures and global perspectives, fostering a broader understanding of the world and its interconnected histories.
  • Foundation for Advanced Study: For those interested in pursuing advanced degrees (master’s or Ph.D.) and engaging in original research, a bachelor’s degree in history serves as a foundational step in their academic journey.
  • Teaching Opportunities: A degree in history is a common prerequisite for those aspiring to teach history at the secondary or postsecondary levels, contributing to the education of future generations.
  • Professional Opportunities: Beyond academia, a history degree opens doors to various professions, including archival work, museum curation, public history, journalism, law, and more, where research and analytical skills are highly valued.
  • Historical Context in Other Fields: Even in non-history-related careers, understanding historical context is beneficial. History degrees provide individuals with a broader perspective that can be applied to fields such as business, politics, and public administration.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Degree in History?

The time it takes to earn a degree in history can vary depending on the level of the degree and the educational institution you are in.

Here are general timelines for different levels of history degrees:

  • Bachelor’s Degree (B.A. or B.S.): Typically takes about four years of full-time study, with students completing a certain number of credit hours in history courses and fulfilling general education requirements.
  • Master’s Degree (M.A.): Usually requires an additional two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Some programs may offer accelerated options.
  • Doctoral Degree (Ph.D.): Completing a Ph.D. in history can take approximately five to seven years beyond the bachelor’s degree. This includes coursework, comprehensive exams, original research, and dissertation writing.

How Much Does it Cost to Study History at University?

The cost of studying history at university can vary widely depending on factors such as the specific university, and whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student. Additionally, tuition costs can differ based on whether you attend a public or private institution.

According to CollegeTuition.com, you can expect to pay roughly US$ 11,166 for in-state undergraduate tuition, and US$ 32,968 for out-of-state. Similarly, in-state graduate tuition will cost roughly US$ 10,425 as opposed to out-of-state tuition being around US$ 25,143

Can I Become a Historian Through Online Education?

Yes, it is possible to become a historian through online education. Many universities and institutions offer history degrees at various levels through online programs. Online education provides flexibility, allowing you to pursue your studies from anywhere with an internet connection. 

Step 2: Develop Essential Skills

Hone your research and writing abilities through coursework and hands-on projects, essential tools for any aspiring historian.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Historian?

  • Research Skills: Develop your ability to conduct thorough and effective research, utilizing a variety of sources like archives, libraries, and online databases.
  • Critical Thinking: Sharpen your skill to critically evaluate and analyze historical evidence, arguments, and interpretations, enabling you to form well-reasoned conclusions.
  • Analytical Skills: Cultivate your capacity to break down complex historical events, patterns, and structures into manageable components for insightful analysis.
  • Communication Skills: Hone your talent for expressing historical ideas and findings clearly and persuasively, both in written and oral forms, adjusting your communication style for different audiences.
  • Writing Proficiency: Enhance your ability to write effectively, crafting well-organized and articulate essays, reports, articles, and other scholarly works.
  • Attention to Detail: Develop a keen attention to detail, vital for accurately interpreting historical documents and preventing errors in your analysis.
  • Time Management: Learn to efficiently manage your time, balancing research, writing, and other responsibilities, particularly when working on long-term projects like a thesis or dissertation.
  • Adaptability: Cultivate your capacity to adapt to different historical periods, methodologies, and research approaches, allowing you to tackle a wide range of topics and challenges.
  • Interdisciplinary Knowledge: Broaden your understanding of various disciplines, as history often intersects with fields like sociology, anthropology, geography, and political science.
  • Digital Literacy: Utilize digital tools for research, data analysis, and communication, gaining proficiency in digital archives, databases, and mapping tools.
  • Public Speaking: Boost your confidence and proficiency in presenting historical findings through lectures, presentations, and conference talks.
  • Collaboration: Develop your collaborative skills, working effectively with other historians, researchers, and professionals, sharing insights and contributing to collaborative projects.
  • Archival and Preservation Skills: Acquire knowledge of archival practices, preservation techniques, and the management of historical documents and artifacts.
  • Teaching and Education Skills: Enhance your ability to teach historical concepts effectively, whether in a classroom setting or through educational programs.
  • Ethical Awareness: Cultivate your awareness of ethical considerations in handling historical evidence, respecting diverse perspectives, and addressing issues of bias and representation in historical narratives.

Step 3: Gain Practical Experience with Internships

Dive into the field with internships or entry-level positions at historical institutions, applying your knowledge in real-world scenarios.

What Are Internship Opportunities for a Historian?

Internship opportunities for historians can vary widely based on interests, specialization, and career goals.

Here are several types of internship opportunities that historians might consider:

  • Museum Internships: Work in museums, historical sites, or cultural institutions to gain experience in curation, exhibition design, and public history.
  • Archives and Libraries: Intern at archives or libraries to learn about cataloging, preservation, and archival research methodologies.
  • Historical Societies and Organizations: Join historical societies or organizations offering internships that involve research, event planning, or educational outreach.
  • Government Agencies: Intern with government agencies involved in preserving historical records, such as state archives or the National Archives.
  • Research Institutions: Intern at research institutions that focus on specific historical topics or time periods to engage in specialized research projects.
  • Digital Humanities Projects: Contribute to digital humanities projects that use technology for historical research, data visualization, or online exhibitions.
  • Cultural Heritage Preservation: Intern with organizations dedicated to cultural heritage preservation, learning about conservation and restoration of historical artifacts.
  • Educational Programs: Collaborate with educational programs or historical education initiatives to develop curriculum materials, lesson plans, or educational resources.
  • Media and Publishing: Intern with publishers, historical magazines, or media outlets to gain experience in writing, editing, and publishing historical content.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Intern with nonprofits working on historical preservation, social justice, or community development projects.
  • Historical Preservation and Restoration: Work with organizations involved in preserving and restoring historical buildings or landmarks.
  • International Opportunities: Explore international internship opportunities, working with global organizations or participating in archaeological digs abroad.
  • Teaching and Education Programs: Intern in educational settings, such as schools or educational programs, to gain experience in teaching history.

Step 4: Stay Informed on Current Trends

Keep abreast of evolving trends and developments in historical studies, ensuring your knowledge remains current and relevant.

Useful Resources for Historians

Here are some resources to help you stay informed as a historian:

  • Primary Source Collections: Explore online repositories of primary sources, such as the Library of Congress, the National Archives, or specialized archives related to your areas of interest.
  • Historical Journals and Publications: Read articles in academic journals to understand the latest research and methodologies in historical studies.
  • Museums and Exhibitions: Visit museums and historical exhibitions to gain insights into material culture and different historical narratives.
  • Digital Humanities Tools: Explore digital tools used in the field of digital humanities for data visualization, mapping, and analysis.
  • Research Workshops and Seminars: Attend workshops or seminars on historical research methods and techniques. Many universities and historical organizations offer such events.
  • Historical Societies and Associations: Join historical societies and associations such as the American Historical Association, to connect with professionals in the field and stay informed about current trends and research.

What’s the Career Outlook of a Historian?

The demand for historians varies, with academic positions often being competitive, while opportunities in public history, government, and the private sector may depend on specific industry needs and geographic locations.

However, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the general outlook of historians in the United States is generally positive at around 3%. This is about as fast as the average.

Historian Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Historian?

As a historian, your skill set opens doors to diverse career opportunities beyond traditional academic paths.

Consider roles such as:

  • Archivist or Curator: Manage and preserve historical documents, artifacts, or exhibits in museums, archives, or cultural institutions.
  • Historical Consultant: Provide expertise on historical matters for businesses, government agencies, or media productions.
  • Educator or Academic Researcher: Teach history at the high school or university level, conducting research and contributing to academic scholarship.
  • Government Historian: Work for government agencies, contributing to policy research, archival management, or historical analysis.
  • Public Historian: Engage with the public through exhibits, walking tours, or other initiatives to make history accessible to a broader audience.
  • Historical Writer or Journalist: Contribute to historical publications, write books, or work as a journalist specializing in historical topics.
  • Digital Historian: Use digital tools for historical research, data visualization, or online exhibits, contributing to the field of digital humanities.
  • Policy Analyst: Apply historical perspectives to analyze and inform policy decisions in areas such as government, international relations, or advocacy.
  • Historic Preservationist: Work to preserve and protect historical buildings, landscapes, and cultural heritage sites.
  • Documentary Filmmaker: Create historical documentaries, combining storytelling and visual elements to bring history to a wider audience.
  • Genealogist: Assist individuals in tracing their family history, conducting research into genealogical records and archives.
  • Historical Editor or Researcher: Contribute to the editing and research process of historical publications, books, or documentaries.
  • Policy Researcher: Conduct research on historical trends and events to inform policy decisions in think tanks, research organizations, or government agencies.

What Type of Organizations Hire a Historian?

As a historian, numerous companies across various industries may recognize and value your unique skill set.

Consider exploring opportunities with:

  • Museums and Cultural Institutions: Join museums, historical societies, or cultural organizations to contribute to exhibits, preservation efforts, and public engagement.
  • Archives and Libraries: Work with institutions focused on archival management, preserving historical records, and providing access to valuable resources.
  • Government Agencies: Explore roles with government bodies involved in historical research, policy analysis, and cultural heritage preservation.
  • Educational Institutions: Teach history at high schools, colleges, or universities, combining research with educational impact.
  • Research Organizations: Join think tanks or research organizations where your historical expertise can contribute to policy research and analysis.
  • Media and Publishing Companies: Contribute to historical publications, write for magazines, newspapers, or work in the production of historical documentaries.
  • Consulting Firms: Offer your historical insights as a consultant to firms specializing in historical analysis, heritage assessments, or cultural resource management.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Work with nonprofits focused on historical preservation, social justice, or community development projects.
  • Archaeological Companies: Join firms specializing in archaeological research and excavation to uncover and analyze historical artifacts.
  • Policy and Advocacy Groups: Contribute to policy discussions and advocacy efforts by applying historical perspectives to current issues.
  • Technology and Digital Humanities Companies: Explore opportunities with companies involved in digital humanities, utilizing technology for historical research, data analysis, and digital preservation.
  • Historical Preservation Organizations: Join organizations dedicated to preserving historical buildings, landmarks, and cultural heritage sites.
  • Tourism and Heritage Industries: Work in roles that involve historical interpretation, guiding tours, or developing historical tourism initiatives.
  • Documentary Production Companies: Contribute to the creation of historical documentaries, combining storytelling with visual elements.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Historian?

Your work-life balance as a historian can vary depending on factors such as your specific role, whether you’re in academia, public history, or another field. In academia, you may find yourself balancing research, teaching, and administrative duties. Expect periods of intense focus, especially when working on research projects, writing papers, or preparing for lectures. While flexibility is often a perk, the demands of meeting deadlines, conducting thorough research, and staying abreast of new developments in your field may require dedicated time and effort.

In the public or private sector, you might be involved in different projects, such as curating exhibits, working with historical archives, or contributing to policy research. The pace can vary, with busy periods and times when your workload is more manageable.

Overall, as a historian, you may have the flexibility to structure your time, but it’s crucial to balance your passion for historical inquiry with self-care. Prioritize time for personal interests, hobbies, and relaxation to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Remember, the ability to set boundaries and manage your time effectively will contribute to a more fulfilling and sustainable career in history.

Should I Become a Historian?

In contemplating the path of becoming a historian, the richness of this field unfolds as a journey of discovery, insight, and impact. Your decision to become a historian extends beyond a career choice—it is a commitment to unraveling the intricate tapestry of our shared human narrative. As a historian, you are not merely an observer of the past; you become a storyteller, a guardian of cultural heritage, and a critical thinker who navigates the complexities of historical interpretation.

While the road ahead may present challenges, the prospect of contributing to our understanding of the past and shaping the narratives of the future is undeniably rewarding. The skills you acquire as a historian—research acumen, critical thinking, effective communication—are not just tools for the profession but assets that transcend disciplines and empower you to navigate a world hungry for historical context.

So, should you become a historian? If the allure of uncovering hidden stories, preserving cultural legacies, and contributing to the collective wisdom of humanity beckons you, then the answer is a resounding yes. Embrace the journey, be prepared for a tapestry woven with threads of curiosity and dedication, and embark on a path that not only deepens your understanding of the past but also enriches the present and shapes the future. In the realm of history, you are not merely a witness to time; you are an architect of enduring narratives.

Careers Related to Historian


Lace Brunsden

About the Author

Read more articles by Lace Brunsden