Becoming a Historian Careers & Salary Outlook

What Is a Historian?


The job of a historian is to find and utilize historical documents, records, newspapers, photographs, films, diaries, books, letters, and artifacts in order to describe and define the developments that occurred in the period of study over time. The historian must first gather data from a variety of sources, make hypotheses about the data gathered, and begin to form conclusions about all of these aspects of life at that particular time and place.

The study of history includes finding out about the culture, religions, belief systems, governmental, and political structures, art, ways of living, architecture, and events that occurred in a specific place and time. These findings will need to be shared or published in some manner. Publishing of historical findings may include reports, books, websites, exhibits in museums, or journals.

Steps to Becoming a Historian


A historian needs to first graduate from high school and go on to major in history at a 4-year institution. Upon receiving one's bachelor's degree, the prospective historian needs to attend a graduate program in their chosen area of specialization. Some jobs as historians require the candidate to have received a Ph.D. in their specialization within history. In such a competitive field, a historian candidate must do work in the field as they proceed through their college education to gain work experience.

Steps to Take:


  • Step 1: Become a Great Reader

  • Step 2: Search for a College and Secure Financial Aid

  • Step 3: Earn Your Bachelor's Degree

  • Step 4: Participate in Paid Work, Internships, or Volunteer Work in the Field

  • Step 5: Complete a Master's Degree Program

  • Step 6: Complete a Doctorate Program (Optional)

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Step 1: Become a Great Reader

This may seem trivial, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that historians are in a highly competitive job market. There are a lot of people competing for a smaller number of positions. Historians need to be able to read documents and records from the time period in question and thoroughly comprehend their meaning, even when the documents are written in a form of English, or other language, that is not in current usage. Historians need to read between the lines to determine the truth of what was happening at a given period of time. Struggling readers will not be up to the rigor and demands of the reading load of a historian.

Great reading is achieved by reading widely. That actually begins in elementary school. Students at all grade levels should be reading every night, choosing from a variety of types of text to read. Historians also need to read a wide variety of historical texts on a wide variety of topics in order to formulate ideas about how people lived in the past.

Students who are struggling readers need to seek tutoring or other professional reading remediation in order to be able to read at their present grade level, synthesize information from a variety of sources, and come up with new ideas. This is exactly what a historian needs to do.

Step 2: Find a College and Secure Financial Aid

Research schools and universities that have highly-regarded history departments. Find colleges that appeal to your sense of history and the proper role of historians in society. With your SAT scores in hand, apply to the colleges that you have narrowed down to be the best fit for you.

If your parents have not saved enough money to put you through a full 4-year ride at the college of your choice, you will need to secure financial aid to cover the shortfall. This begins when you fills out the FAFSA, a federal government online form that allows students to apply for financial aid through their state, their college, and other sources of scholarships, grants, loans, and financial aid. If your state has a grant program, you will need to apply to that as well. Search for other sources of scholarships and grants to cover your shortfall in financial resources to cover all of the expenses for your first four years of college.

Step 3: Earn Your Bachelor's Degree

  • Option 1
    Since there are fewer positions for historians in a highly competitive field, you will need to keep your grades up and graduate near the top of your class. If your university has any societies that you can join as a history major, be sure to be an active member and include it on your resumes for jobs. You want to come out of your program with impeccable historical research skills that you can explain clearly and lucidly in an interview.
  • Option 2
    The only exception to the guidance on progressing through one's bachelor's degree is if you have your sights on becoming a history teacher in the school system. If this is the case, you must determine in advance of beginning your bachelor's degree program. In some states, you’ll need to have history as a major and be simultaneously taking teaching methods coursework. Each state is different in this regard.

Step 4: Participate in Paid Work, Internships, or Volunteer Work in the Field

Since history is a highly competitive field, prospective historians in their bachelor's degree programs need to work in volunteer, intern, or paid positions that allow them to break into the field. Potential internships might be in museums, county historical societies, historical research organizations and even living history sites, such as the State of California Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma. It may be harder to obtain paid work, but internships and volunteer work in the field are plentiful.

Williams College has a great list of nationwide internship opportunities for historian candidates.

Step 5: Complete a Master's Degree Program

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), very few jobs for historians are available for those candidates with bachelor's degrees in history. One notable exception is becoming a museum technician. Otherwise, people with bachelor's degrees in history pursue careers in journalism, law, or business, if they do not go into public-school teaching. Most historians have a master's or doctorate in history as a minimum requirement for work in the field.

For those who choose to work as a historian at a museum, historical archives, or at a historical society, they’ll have to search for a suitable program that matches the specialization that they would like to pursue in their career, although a general master's degree in history is also available at many institutions. Specialization master's degree programs for historian candidates include programs in museum studies, preservation of historical artifacts, management of archives, and public history. Other programs that specialize focus on particular historical places or eras.

Many graduate programs will require the student to do an internship as a part of their program. It is strongly suggested that the historian candidate pursue an internship even if their program does not have this as a requirement.

Also, the American Historical Association suggests that bachelor's graduates in history ask themselves some questions to determine the focus of their graduate program. You have to determine if each potential graduate program can offer the combination of skills and information that will mean that, at the end of your program, you’ll have the skills you need in order to enter and thrive in this field. For example, some specializations of history may require you to spend time in another country learning the language to a degree of fluency.

Step 6: Complete a Doctorate Program (Optional)

Those students who choose to teach history at the college level, with the exception of junior colleges, will need a doctorate in history.

The other career path in history that requires a doctorate is historical research. Ph.D. candidates in history will specialize in an era, a field of history, or a place in the world. Internship experiences are again highly recommended at this level of education as well, due to the highly competitive nature of this field.

What Does a Historian Do?


The work of a historian depends entirely upon their specialization within the field. In general, unless they are conducting field work at a historical site, historians work indoors. They tend to work a day shift, unless they are self-employed.

Depending upon their career path, historians may be teaching history to students in a public school, community college, or university using research-based teaching methods they have learned in their classes.

Other historians are responsible for validating, maintaining, and retrieving information from historical archives. Some are responsible for examining the contents of historical archival information and making conclusions about the history of a particular place and time. Still others are responsible for setting up, creating, and maintaining museum displays of historical artifacts.

A quarter of all historians are employed by the federal government, compiling, creating, recording, and interpreting historical information for the government and the general public.

Skills to Acquire


  • A thorough, working knowledge of history and archeology
  • Reading comprehension in order to analyze historical records, documents, and artifacts
  • Writing skills in order to report one's research findings and conclusions
  • Speaking and other communication skills as another means of reporting one's findings and conclusions
  • Analytical skills in order to make hypotheses and come to conclusions about historical information and how it relates to how a society functioned in the past
  • Research skills, such as being able to find information, make hypotheses, and draw well-founded conclusions
  • Problem-solving skills in order to determine how events unfolded in a particular place and time
  • Software skills such as the ability to create presentations and websites and utilize archival databases and reference software
  • Archival skills such as the ability to keep records and artifacts from decay and information cataloging and retrieval skills

Alternative Paths


Typically archival historians have a master's in public history or management of archives, but another viable master's degree is one in library science. This teaches the students such a similar skill set and allows for work either as a librarian or as an archival historian. There are new programs at universities that are blended programs offering both public history and library science classes for archivist historian candidates.

Another viable possibility that the Organization of American Historians suggests is that students don't necessarily need a bachelor's in history to get employment in the field. They advise that even students who received their bachelor's degrees in such fields as political science, anthropology, or English can still be admitted into a master's program in history.

Another possibility is for a historian candidate to pursue and receive their bachelor's in history, become a museum technician, and work their way up the career ladder to further and higher employment in the history field in a museum. Given the highly competitive nature of the job market over so few coveted positions, though, this path is not advisable, nor is it likely to allow one employment at higher levels within the field.

Historian Career & Salary


Where Might You Work?


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One-quarter of all historians work for the federal government. Some work for public schools and colleges. They also work for historical societies, museums, research organizations, non-profit companies, or as consultants

Potential Career Paths


There is a great variety in the career paths of historians. They can focus upon education, research, archiving historical data, compiling and analyzing government data, or working in a museum.

Museum Technician
Museum technicians work under a conservator in order to maintain, restore, or prepare museum pieces for display, research, or exhibition. They also identify and catalog artifacts.

Secondary History Teacher
These educators share their love of history and a historical context with high school students.

Historian
These researchers gather information from the past in order to form hypotheses and ultimately conclusions about some aspect of life in a certain place and time. They present their findings and conclusions to further our understanding of what happened in the past.

College History Professor
Like most teachers, they are responsible for imparting information and knowledge to students, but these teachers also create future educators and historians with a huge impact on the field.

Archivist
Archivists collect, store, catalog, and retrieve historical artifacts, documents, and data.

Museum Curator
Manages and oversees the collection and exhibition of important historical displays at museums. The curator will need to be able to gather the pieces, create a theme, and oversee or create a visual presentation of the artifacts, information, photographs, videos, and documents.

Museum Conservator
Conservators ensure that the artifacts on display at a museum are recorded, preserved, and restored as needed. They ensure that displays keep artifacts from decaying or degenerating.

Museum Exhibit Designer/Content Creator
These historians put together artifacts, documents, and multi-media in order to tell a story in a museum display about a particular aspect of history.

Federal, State, and Local Historians
These historians analyze and compile historical data and trends for federal, state, and local governments.

Historic Preservation/Architectural Historians
These historians work to preserve and properly display historical buildings and other structures. They often work for historical societies or federal, state, or local governments.

Career Outlook


In general, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the occupation of historian is going to increase at a rate of 6%, which is average among occupations. The problem is that the number of jobs for historians is not as high as the number of new workers that join the labor market with the qualifications for such careers.

Some of the careers in history will be increasing at a greater pace than the rest of the field. There is more of a demand in the museum industry, since advances in technology have created more opportunity for large changes in how museums will display their collections to the public. The same is true of the archival field. There will be more growth in the archival field for archivists than in other positions for trained historians.

Find Historian Jobs Near You


Advancing from Here


Advancement within the career path of historian depends upon one's specific career within the field. Public school and junior college history teachers can advance into administration by pursuing additional credentialing through accredited programs. College professors at 4-year institutions will want to get on the tenure track in order to have the benefits full-time and dependable employment. At some institutions, this will involve engaging in research in addition to one's teaching responsibilities.

Federal historians can move up the job ladder by receiving more training in library and archival science or museum studies. This allows them to work up to higher federal job classifications with higher pay scales. Another trend is for archivists to have additional library science training as a means of moving up the job ladder.

Museum historians can work their way up the job ladder, create more job security, or improve their pay through receiving training in the new technology that is beginning to change the entire field of museum displays and interpretation.

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