How to Become a Historian: Look to the Past to Build Your Future
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Historians are an essential part of chronicling human existence. Not only do they act as shepherds of our collective memory for future generations, but they exist as a conduit to the past, offering insight and expertise on how previous civilizations have lived. Historians study in the hope that we can glean some lessons from people who lived decades, centuries or even millennia ago.
It’s the job of historians to discover new ways of looking at the past. There’s certainly not one collective truth, and as the years change our perceptions, historians can sift through the detritus of the past and offer new perspectives on something we may have overlooked in the past. Ultimately, it’s up to historians to represent the diverse population and experiences of humanity, while working to uncover mysteries, stir debates and discover new ways of looking at things.
Of course, becoming a historian can take on many different forms. There are countless specialties and areas of focus — colonial history, ancient history, Renaissance history and much more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, historians typically have at least a master’s degree, with some positions requiring a doctoral degree. However, those with bachelor’s degrees can also find rewarding careers that put their love of history to good use. They usually find jobs in fields such as communications, advertising, government work and fundraising. If you are interested in becoming a historian, it’s important to gain a firm understanding of what historians can do, what degrees are best for historians, the benefits of a history degree and what careers are open to historians.
What Does a Historian Do?
Few disciplines are as broad and encompassing as history. Not only does it cover the entirety of human existence, but it’s always changing. In addition to the shifting sands of history, the job itself has changed over time. Rather than chronicling events as they happen or relaying previous events to current generations, historians are more equipped than ever to offer their own analyses and insight into the events of the past. It’s this ever-changing nature of history that makes it such an attractive field, according to the American Historical Association.
“Individuals from all backgrounds have a stake in how the past is interpreted, for it cuts to the very heart of their identities and world views,” the AHA writes in its Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. “This is why history can evoke such passion and controversy in the public realm. All manner of people can and do produce good history. Professional historians are wise to remember that they will never have a monopoly on their own discipline and that this is much more a strength than a weakness.”
What does this mean in practice? Historians exist in many different professional areas ranging from the classroom to museums to publishing. Regardless of which career path they choose to pursue, professional historians each have a diverse skill set, but according to the AHA, what they all possess is a strong understanding of the historical method — “a systematic approach to solving the problems of the past.” There are several steps to the historical method, which are key to unlocking exactly what historians do, regardless of where they work. Here’s a closer look:
Apply a Historical Lens to the Question
Historians must think about everything in a different way. Whether it’s a piece of writing, a work of art or an exhibit at the museum, they go beyond surface-level investigations to extract and understand the meaning, motivation and importance of history. According to the AHA, a museum curator would go beyond simply the “what” of a specific object and instead ask questions about who it was made by, how it was used and what it can tell us about the culture or time it came from.
Look for the Context
The second component of the historical method is considering the context of what questions are being asked. History does not exist in a vacuum, so it’s important for historians to understand both the events surrounding the particular moment in question and also the way that earlier historians may have viewed the particular moment throughout time.
According to the National Council on Public History, it’s this act that gives pieces of history their meaning.“The materials historians use are often very fragmentary — a diary, a collection of posters, a set of deeds for a property. What turns these into credible evidence is the key skill of contextualizing many bits of information by weighing and comparing them,” the NCPH writes.
Identifying and Using Primary Sources
While context is important, it’s even more crucial for historians to be adept at identifying and using primary sources to contextualize. Primary sources can be a wide range of materials, but they’re often documents and other records that offer some insight into the events of a particular time. According to the AHA, they can include “letters, diaries, government documents and periodicals.”
Primary sources also include material that can be integrated to build a stronger case of historical context and insights. For example, visual materials such as maps and photographs can provide further clarity when explaining historical importance.
After historians have asked the right questions, contextualized the piece of history they are investigating and found primary sources to provide more insight, the final step of the historical method is to communicate their findings. This can be done in a variety of ways depending on where they work — they can deliver them during a lecture, in a publication or in a documentary, but what’s most important is that they are well-supported and easily accessible to the public.
Communicating one’s findings is an essential part of the historical method because it lays the foundation for future generations of historians to better understand the current moment. It also provides the public at large with a wider lens with which to view the past and, in so doing, how they may perceive future events as well.
Skills Possessed by Historians
There are concrete steps to follow when you are considering how to become a historian, such as applying to a specific university or degree program, but there are other important parts of the journey as well. While there is no one-size-fits-all mold for historians, they often possess many of the same qualities and skills that make them uniquely suited for the profession and the area of study.
If you are interested in pursuing a career in history, it’s important to develop and nurture these skills. According to the BLS, there are certain skills that are of particular interest to prospective historians: analytical, communication, foreign language, problem-solving and research skills. In addition, historians should also have a curious and open mind, the ability to manage time and strong knowledge of group facilitation and collaboration with others in order to put these skills to good use.
The ability to assess and analyze complex periods in history rests at the heart of what historians do. Not only do they chronicle what happened during a particular period or moment in time, but they need to understand and communicate why it was important and what it means both in context and to future generations.
Historical analysis also encompasses more than offering one’s own assessment of a particular piece of history, it includes analyzing the opinions of other historians and determining whether their arguments are sound, research is comprehensive and conclusions are convincing.
Analysis needs to be clearly communicated to be effective, and strong communication skills are an essential part of becoming a historian. Sharpening your communication skills can be done over time and tailored to fit your personal strengths — perhaps you’re more adept at writing well-researched articles and essays than you are at delivering lectures or leading museum tours — each is a vital part of the profession.
Foreign Language Skills
While not a requirement, foreign language and linguistics skills can be an important part of being a historian, especially for students pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in History. Primary documents and other key pieces of information and research are often in languages other than English, so having the ability to translate is critical to completing your analysis and communicating your findings.
Understanding history also requires you to have a sharp eye for solving logistical problems. Historians are often trying to take all the facts into account — not just events but people, places, ideas and more — and answering difficult questions about who we are and where we’ve been.
Perhaps most importantly, historians need to have strong research skills. Their analysis, communication and problem-solving abilities are all improved when they have a wealth of historical resources on which they base their findings. These materials can include documents, images, artwork and many other artifacts.
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Degrees in History Open More Doors Than You May Think
The history field is very broad. Not only are there many different areas of history you can specialize in depending on your interests, but there are many opportunities to apply that knowledge and expertise into a meaningful and intentional career path. Whether your focus is on art history, world history, political history, or anywhere in between, there’s likely a way for you to find a career to put your skills to work.
Careers in Government
According to the BLS, the majority of historians in the U.S. work for the government in some capacity, whether at the federal, state or local level. Government historians work in a variety of settings.
For instance, if you take a trip to the Alamo, a National Park, or the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. you’re certain to interact with historians. Beyond that, these teams are essential to researching and curating exhibits and displays to inform the public about historical events and artifacts.
Historians can also serve as consultants and researchers. The AHA says that the historical consulting field is growing and everyone from local and state agencies to private companies to individuals requires the skills of historians. They are often requested for projects such as historic preservation, archaeology, architectural history and historical architecture.
Careers in Education
Historians commonly have careers in education as well. In fact, the public perception of historians is often that of a university professor imparting his knowledge to a lecture hall full of students. While that is certainly true, there are historians in the teaching profession at all levels, ranging from primary and secondary education to the Ph.D. level.
For example, historians can work in education by becoming teachers at private or public schools in grades ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade. These jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree, and depending on the grade, the curriculums can include everything from social studies and civics to anthropology and sociology.
Higher education also presents a number of job opportunities for historians depending on their credentials and background. Community and two-year colleges are ideal for historians whose main focus is teaching, while undergraduate and graduate colleges also provide opportunities for historians to conduct research and seek out publication.
Careers in Editing and Publishing
If you are pursuing a career as a historian, you can also find opportunities in the editing and publishing fields. Specifically, historians are needed for the writing and editing of items like college textbooks, trade magazines and journals and materials for museums. Documentary editing is also an essential skill that can have a significant impact on the way the public consumes and learns about history.
Working in the editing and publishing fields as a historian serves a critical need. Whether it’s documentaries, textbooks, journals or magazines, ensuring that history is properly documented helps ensure that future generations have access to vital information. According to the AHA, historians in editing and publishing also work to consolidate primary sources so that future researchers can easily view them. In short, they help democratize the use of primary historical sources.
Similarly, historians who work in public and school libraries serve a vital purpose by being a go-to resource for students and other historians who need assistance finding historical documents.
Steps to Becoming a Historian
The path to becoming a historian requires you to build skills and experience, but how do you get there? In addition to having a deep interest in the past and an innate thirst for knowledge, there are some specific steps you can take to pursue a career in history.
The first step is to earn an undergraduate degree like the B.S. or B.A. in history degree from Eastern Oregon University. This online program provides a well-rounded curriculum and provides students with the opportunity to learn from published faculty members. It equips graduates with writing, research, foreign language and analysis skills and will lay the foundation for graduate studies.
The next step is to gain experience, typically in the form of an internship. This is a vital step in the process that will not only make you a more attractive job candidate but also provide valuable insight into your skills and what you’re most interested in.
The career opportunities with a history degree are as varied as history itself, and whether you are drawn to the classroom, writing, government or anything in between, there is a path for you.