“I love history, but what can I do with a history degree?” This is a common question, and it’s understandable that students ask it with a fair degree of anxiety. After all, history majors are as ambitious as students in other fields. Their interest in learning about the past doesn’t diminish their concern for their own futures. Very often, however, students’ anxiety grows out of the mistaken assumption that careers for the history major are quite limited. With so much emphasis in higher education on tracking and vocational training, it’s no wonder that many students assume that their major will set them on a narrow and rigid career path, and they have a hard time imagining where the history major might lead. In truth, studying history opens more doors than it closes. By teaching students to read intensively, to think abstractly and imaginatively, to write carefully reasoned and argued papers, and to stand up for their own ideas in small classes, the history major prepares a student for a wide range of career opportunities. The strongest majors graduate with an intellectual depth and versatility unmatched by the best students on campus.
So, what can you do with a history degree? The quick answer is … more things than you can probably imagine. In the short term, right out of college, some history majors land jobs in areas that relate closely to the study of history. They teach history in schools, they supervise documents in historical archives, they work in historical preservation, and, increasingly, they serve as historical consultants to a variety of private and public organizations. Most history majors, however, work in areas that employ all kinds of ambitious college graduates. They join business fields, such as banking, real estate, marketing, advertising, and public relations. They land positions in public affairs, or in state and federal government, such as those that support the U.S. Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Department of Defense. Others go into the fields of journalism, the mass media, and the arts, working for newspapers, museums, publishing houses, and production companies. In fact, graduates with history degrees work in almost every kind of for-profit and non-profit organization you can think of. Studying history obviously cannot confer direct advantages for success in highly technical fields, such as engineering or computer programming. But the more general sorts of skills learned in a history course are very attractive to an array of employers, most of whom are looking for bright, creative, and intellectually polished graduates. Similarly, over the longer term, many history majors follow the same paths taken by other top-notch college graduates. Opting for more schooling, they join advanced degree programs and prepare for specialized and often highly lucrative careers. Thus, history majors end up working as lawyers, doctors, teachers, investment bankers, accountants, and architects, – in short, in the nation’s most elite professions.
A small number of history majors opt to pursue an advanced degree in history itself. They do so for a variety of reasons. Students who seek a master’s degree (MA) are typically looking to gain a more specialized knowledge of an historical field that will serve them in a separate career, such as teaching, journalism, or in a museum curatorship. Those who continue on to the doctoral level (PhD) generally aspire to careers as professional historians, often in college or university settings. Their aim is to learn the specialized craft of researching and writing about the past. The most important step PhD aspirants can take while still in college is to share their interests with one or more faculty members. Having devoted their professional lives to the study of history, faculty are the best source for learning the ins and outs of getting a PhD.
Graduate instruction in history
A number of history majors decide to continue their studies in graduate school. This can be done at two levels.
M.A. level—A master’s degree in history, where significant emphasis is placed on research skills and critical thinking, can enhance your employability as a teacher at the secondary level or in the field of public history. Students often combine their MA work in history with accreditation for secondary school teaching, a certificate in museum studies or internships in museums, libraries or archives. It is also often possible to earn a double degree with library science, archival management and museum studies.
Ph.D. level—Advanced training at this level is primarily geared toward a teaching and research career at a university or college. From the challenges and rewards of teaching and research to one of the most flexible working schedules of any profession, this is a very attractive career option for many. There are, however, significant drawbacks as well. Earning a Ph.D. takes a long time. The average Ph.D. candidate spends close to ten years in graduate school. It is also a very competitive marketplace. Not all are able to find regular academic positions. Finally, the monetary rewards are not commensurate with the time spent earning the degree.
Preparing and applying for a Ph.D. program in history
Preparation starts with a solid undergraduate record. Entrance to top graduate schools is highly competitive. For those working outside American history, knowledge of foreign languages is essential, and this training must begin as an undergraduate. Undergraduates should also put significant energy into their own original research. Papers produced in seminars or through independent studies, as well as senior theses, will help potential graduate students prepare for the demanding nature of primary-source research, the heart of the historical profession. When students identify the specific field of history in which they want to work in graduate school, they should consult with faculty members at UF regarding the appropriate programs to which they should apply. Potential advisors at these institutions should be identified and contacted as early as the spring semester of the junior year.
The actual application process begins the fall of senior year although a growing number of students wisely decide to take time off before entering graduate school. Many programs request a writing sample. Select your best piece of work, and perhaps submit a copy to a professor with whom you have worked for his/her advice. You will also need at least three letters of recommendation. Approach these faculty members early with a resume, personal statement, and any other appropriate information they may need. They may also be of assistance in helping you shape the personal statement that you will be submitting as part of your application packet. Finally, there is the Graduate Record Exam or GRE. As with the SAT, one needs special skills to score well on this standardized test. You might want to consider enrolling in a course run by a professional test preparation service (Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc) or purchasing a study guide for the examination. Though the hurdles for graduate school entrance may seem high, you have a number of resources available through the History Department to help you in this process. Please do not hesitate to speak to the Undergraduate Coordinator or any department member for that matter to answer questions, give advice or for that extra word of encouragement.