Exploring the Skills of an Historian

Historian giving a tour to a group of people in a museum

When you think about studying history, do you imagine memorizing thousands of facts, dates and details? While studying history can certainly give you a leg up playing Trivial Pursuit, becoming an historian involves a great deal more than memorization. History is not merely a collection of self-evident truths. The past is an intricate tapestry woven from countless details, perspectives and interpretations, often handed down to us in incomplete or biased form. To transform this raw material into history, historians carefully select, arrange and interpret these details, creating interpretations and narratives that are as far as possible significant and true. 

At its core, history is about understanding change over time, discerning patterns, and exploring the development of all facets of human society, including political, cultural, social, economic, scientific, intellectual, religious, military, medical, legal and so many others. It’s about breathing life into the past and applying its lessons to navigate present challenges and shape a better future. While we all dabble a bit in history by engaging with our personal and collective pasts, the pursuit of history as a discipline requires honing a unique set of skills and intellectual habits. You may be wondering, what are the skills of an historian? In this blog, we’ll explore and answer that question about the role and skills historians have.

In This Article:

Historical Thinking Skills

Thinking historically is not an innate skill; it is cultivated by mastering core concepts that shape the historian’s approach to truth-seeking and interpretation.

These concepts include:

  1. Continuity and change: Historians learn to discern enduring themes across time and cultures, while also studying each situation as unique and distinctive, allowing for human agency in history. Recognizing the dynamic interplay between persistent patterns and constant change over time, historians can glean insights into the past’s impact on the present and its potential to shape the future. 
  2. Causality: With the knowledge that historical events are the complex products of multiple causes and influences, historian skills are used to explore the consequences of actions and decisions while acknowledging there is no one single accurate explanation of the past. They gain the ability to evaluate differing perspectives and to join the conversation with their own evidence-based interpretations.
  3. Context: Always seeking context to fully understand any issue, historians must approach the past with humility, recognizing the foreignness of past times and places.
  4. Complexity: History as a discipline prefers complexity to simplicity, because reality is complex. Historians commit to rigorously analyzing the intricate nature of historical phenomena to gain deeper insights and more nuanced understanding.
  5. Contingency: Rejecting the idea of history as a predetermined story, historians appreciate the fluidity and uncertainty of historical processes. Historical perspective encourages active citizenship, because contingency keeps the student of history aware that their own actions in the present matter in shaping the future.1  

The Historian’s Toolkit

So, what are the skills of an historian? Beyond these foundational concepts, historians wield a toolkit of skills they must continue to practice and refine throughout their careers:

  1. Research and inquiry: A historian is essentially an investigator of the past. Aspiring historians learn how to ask probing and significant questions and to hunt for answers in creative ways. They systematically gather evidence, critically evaluate their sources, and find imaginative ways to address the inevitable gaps and contradictions in the record.
  2. Critical thinking and analysis: Through continuous inquiry and research, historians develop sharp critical thinking and analytical skills. Reading a vast amount of material trains historians to quickly comprehend information, identify key concepts and ideas, and grasp the main argument offered. Critically evaluating sources involves constant questioning of assumptions and biases, awareness of differing perspectives, and assessment of the logic and coherence of an argument. Historians then synthesize the complex and often contradictory information, which requires the skill of identifying patterns, trends and themes, then integrating insights into a coherent interpretation and communicating it effectively. This skill also allows historians to engage in predictive analysis and out-of-the-box thinking. They draw on a wealth of wisdom beyond their own time and experience to understand how change happens and how to identify it, prepare for it and react to it well.
  3. Argumentation: There is a reason history programs have a reputation for producing highly qualified law school candidates.2 Similar to building a legal case, historians must gather evidence, construct convincing arguments and present them persuasively, adhering to a high burden of proof. History is always up for debate, so historians become adept at examining evidence and arguments for fallacies and weaknesses, thoroughly documenting and defending their own interpretations, and anticipating counterarguments.
  4. Communication: History that isn’t communicated effectively is dead. One of the most valuable skills that an historian possesses is the ability to synthesize large amounts of complex information into accessible and engaging formats. Historians are writers and public speakers with a flair for storytelling. Historians who work in government or business communicate the relevance of history to current challenges and policies. History teachers must engage students to communicate the relevance of history to their lives. Public historians find ways to make history come alive with visual storytelling, interactive museum exhibits, monuments, films, art and other mediums.

Essential Skills for Successful Historians

Through the study and practice of history, historians can both naturally and intentionally develop essential skills that contribute to their long-term success in their field.

The essential skills of an historian may also include:

  1. Collaboration: While historians often work independently on their own research projects, the complexity of historical research means that their work also relies on engagement with previous scholarship, relevant expertise from other scholars, and support from numerous organizations and communities. They must balance self-motivation and confidence with effective collaboration and communication to innovatively problem solve in pursuit of historical truth.
  2. Active listening: Historians are also in a collaborative dialogue with the past itself. It is a heavy responsibility to act as a voice for other human beings and their experiences, demanding empathy, patience and respect. Historians cultivate the virtue of listening to others by studying primary sources, or accounts from those involved in the events they are trying to understand.3  This powerful skill extends beyond historical research to fostering positive relationships, communicating and problem-solving in any context. 
  3. Planning and organization: Historical research is complex and often difficult, requiring efficient management of time, energy and resources. Historians excel at project planning and management to effectively accomplish a variety of tasks. They need strong organizational skills to ensure attention to detail, accuracy and relevance throughout the research process, in accordance with professional ethics and standards.
  4. Adaptability: In a dynamic field like history, adaptability is an essential skill. History touches on every other discipline, so historians must become comfortable with interdisciplinary studies. Historians also often find themselves in diverse careers and facing fresh questions. Shifts in global perspectives and the advent of new technology open new research methods and opportunities. As the study of history naturally cultivates comfort with complexity and change, historians can embrace innovation to tackle new challenges and evolving research and career needs. They learn new languages, familiarize themselves with new technology and research methods, and study numerous topics, such as government, economics, anthropology, business, science, medicine, law, psychology and mathematics. They draw on these diverse areas of knowledge to create solutions to diverse problems.

Developing the Skills Needed To Be an Historian

As a bonus, any subject that the historian enjoys can be pursued productively, adding further depth to their understanding of history. Interested in political science? Add a government minor and be taught the theoretical and practical knowledge to study political history, as well as possibly gain additional career opportunities in public service, government work, law and military leadership. Interested in psychology? Add a psychology minor and work to develop a fresh perspective on human behavior in past, as well as career opportunities in social services and non-governmental organizations. Interested in literature? Add a literature minor to work to gain a better understanding and appreciation of cultural history, as well as career opportunities in journalism and secondary education. Interested in different cultures? Add a cultural studies or language minor, where you will have the opportunity to explore a specialized area of knowledge in your historical research, as well as further skills in cultural competence and language.  

At the heart of every historian’s journey lies a deep passion for uncovering the truths of the past. Historians are driven by a profound curiosity about the human experience, relentless pursuit of knowledge, and dedication to the preservation of collective memory. As a discipline, historians are committed to ensuring that the past remains alive, informing and guiding the present so that we can create a better future. The breadth of skills and knowledge that Grand Canyon University history graduates can develop grants them the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to their communities as historians and to pursue diverse career paths and opportunities.

Earn Your Bachelor's in History From GCU

If you’re interested in developing these historian skills, check out GCU’s Bachelor of Arts in History program. If you’re interested in becoming a history teacher or professor and inspiring the next generation with the examples and lessons of the past, check out our Bachelor of Arts in History for Secondary Education and Master of Arts in History: Education Emphasis programs. To learn more about these and other programs offered by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, fill out the form on this page to get started.

1 Andrews, T. & Burke, F. (2007). What does it mean to think historically? American Historical Association. Retrieved on June 14, 2024.

2 American Bar Association. (n.d.) Pre-law: Preparing for law school. Retrieved on June 14, 2024. 

3 Gorman, J. L. (2019). Why study history? Virtue via dialogue. Fides et Historia, 51 (2), 157. Retrieved on June 14, 2024.

Approved by faculty for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on June 16, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.