If history was your favorite class in high school, you may have considered a career as an historian. For those who fall into this category, earning a history degree would almost certainly be a worthwhile endeavor.
Historians play a vital role in preserving, interpreting and disseminating knowledge about the past, providing valuable insights into human societies, cultures and experiences throughout history. Their work helps us understand the present by studying and learning from the past. So, what is an historian? What do historians do? What’s the process for how to become an historian? Read on to learn the answers to these common questions.
In This Article:
What Do Historians Do?
Historians examine historical sources, such as written documents, artifacts, oral accounts and visual materials to understand events, societies, cultures and individuals from earlier periods. They analyze and evaluate these sources critically to construct accurate narratives and explanations of the past.
Historians engage in research, which involves gathering information, conducting archival work and analyzing primary and secondary sources. They aim to uncover new insights, challenge existing interpretations and contribute to the body of historical knowledge. Historians also use various methodologies, theories and interdisciplinary approaches to interpret historical data and develop explanations for historical phenomena.
Furthermore, historians communicate their findings through various means, including scholarly articles, books, presentations and public lectures. They contribute to academic discussions and debates, sharing their research and insights with other historians and scholars. These professionals also play a crucial role in education, teaching history at educational institutions and helping students to develop:
- Critical thinking skills
- An understanding of the past
- An appreciation for historical context
Steps To Becoming an Historian
Now that you know the answer to the questions, What is an historian? and What do historians do? it’s time to explore how to become an historian. An aspiring historian must cultivate critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. They also need excellent research and communication skills. Foreign language skills are often important as well, depending on the historian’s area of specialization.
You can work on cultivating all of these skills and traits as you proceed along your career pathway. However, there is no universal path toward becoming an historian. Indeed, the path you follow will depend largely on your specific career preferences.
However, to become a professional historian (someone who works in academia and research), it’s necessary to earn a master’s degree.1 Postsecondary teaching positions generally require a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Take a closer look at how to become an historian below.
Step 1: Earn Your Undergraduate History Degree
The first step toward becoming an historian is to earn your Bachelor of Arts in History. But first, before you choose a specific program, consider your career goals. If you think you would enjoy teaching, look for a history program that emphasizes secondary education and leads to initial teacher licensure. Note that the licensing requirements for secondary education teachers can vary from one state to the next. Be sure to check the requirements for the state where you plan to teach.
Regardless of the specific history degree you choose, you can generally expect to explore the major time periods throughout history, including significant conflicts, ideologies and societal trends. However, a college-level history program involves much more than simply memorizing facts, dates and names. Of course, it will be necessary to know those facts as well, but a college-level curriculum focuses on developing critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills alongside strong verbal and written communication skills.
These skills are readily transferable to virtually all industries and professions. In addition, you will be taught best practices in historical research, including methods of exploring and interpreting raw historical data.
Step 2: Complete an Internship Experience
As you study for your bachelor’s degree in history, you may want to consider an internship. Internships can help give you an idea of the types of positions you may be interested in. They can also provide valuable experience and help you establish professional connections within the field. When choosing an internship opportunity, consider your career interests first. For instance, any of the following organizations may offer internship opportunities:
- Museums and archives
- Publishing companies
- Documentary/filmmaking companies
- Public history organizations
- Community organizations
Step 3: Pursue Your Graduate-Level History Degree
There are entry-level job opportunities for graduates with a bachelor’s degree. However, if you want to become an historian or pursue a higher-level career, you will need to earn at least a master’s degree.1 If you aspire to become a history professor, you should plan on earning a doctoral degree in history. Certain other positions may also require a doctoral degree, such as high-level academic research positions.
At the graduate level, you will have the opportunity to conduct in-depth explorations into historical periods, themes and topics using primary source material. It is customary that a master’s degree program requires students to complete an ambitious capstone project as a demonstration of the skills they have learned. Similarly, at the doctoral level, students are expected to conduct original research that makes a positive academic contribution to the field.
Exploring Job Opportunities in History
A history degree is a versatile credential that can help power careers across a variety of fields and industries. History majors can work in publishing or in the classroom. They may also decide to become public servants. Another potential path is to go on to law school and become an attorney. Additional possibilities include marketing, copywriting, public relations, editing and social services.2
Other careers that are more closely focused on the field of history include the following:
- Public historian
- Museum curator
- Middle or high school history teacher
- History tutor
- History textbook writer
Take a more in-depth look at some of the career possibilities below.
The American Historical Association (AHA) reports that about 18% of history degree graduates go on to work in the education sector.3 With a solid background in historical research and writing, you may choose to pursue a career as an elementary or high school teacher. If you opt to earn a graduate degree, you can teach at higher education institutions.
In addition to taking on a role as an instructor, history graduates can reach a broader audience by writing textbooks or non-academic history books. Historical nonfiction is a major market in the book publishing industry. According to an article published in EPJ Data Science, 33% of Americans identify historical nonfiction as their favorite nonfiction genre.4
Earning a history degree involves an intensive regimen of reading and writing. Students can expect to do a great deal of research, fact organization and academic writing. These skills can lend themselves to a career in journalism. Furthermore, students of history are taught that accuracy is important above all else. This pursuit of the truth is a natural precursor to a career in journalism. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has established a code of ethics for the profession,5 which requires journalists to:
- Verify information prior to release
- Provide context to avoid misrepresentation
- Avoid the deliberate distortion of facts or context
- Encourage a civil dialogue while supporting the open exchange of views
Journalism is a highly varied career path. Some journalists work at the local level, contributing to small newspapers and other local publications. Others work for nationally distributed publications, including digital productions. Furthermore, some journalists specialize in reporting on a particular sector, such as agricultural, health or political news. If you pursue a career in journalism, you can forge a path that best fits your own interests.
Students who study history may choose to pursue writing-intensive careers. Copywriters are professionals who write informational or entertaining material intended to encourage sales by presenting the client’s products or services in a positive light. An understanding of political trends and history of business practices may help copywriters create content that resonates with a diverse audience of readers. It is important to write in a way that is inclusive of people with varying viewpoints and from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, history majors may be suitable for a career in copywriting.
Copywriting can also be an excellent choice for people who enjoy doing something new or different every day. Many copywriters work for marketing agencies, rather than within one company — which means they may write for multiple industries.
Some students enrolled in a history degree program may apply to law school. A background in history can provide a foundation in the legal field, as students develop their research, writing and oral communication skills. History students are also taught about political thought and movements, which can provide a strong basis for deeper explorations into constitutional law and the Bill of Rights. If you graduate from law school and pass the Uniform Bar Exam, you may choose to become an attorney who represents plaintiffs or defendants in civil law or criminal cases.
However, there are other career possibilities in the legal field that do not all require going to law school. Instead, you might decide to pursue a career as a law librarian or paralegal. Law librarians manage legal information and research, working for entities such as municipal or federal courts, law school libraries or major corporations. Alternatively, paralegals provide research and other support services to lawyers, working on cases behind the scenes.
Pursue your passion and prepare for a career in history by earning your degree at Grand Canyon University. We offer several degree programs for students who love history, including the Bachelor of Arts in History, Bachelor of Arts in History for Secondary Education (which leads to initial teacher licensure) and the Master of Arts in History with an Emphasis in Education. Complete the form on this page to explore our learning community.
1 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, September 8). Occupational Outlook Handbook, Historians. Retrieved June 8, 2023
2 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, September 8). What Historians Do? Retrieved June 8, 2023.
3 Sturtevant, P. (n.d.). What can you do with that history degree? American Historical Association. Retrieved May 11, 2023.
4 Yucesoy, B., Wang, X., Huang, J. & Barabási, A. (2018, April 6). Success in books: a big data approach to bestsellers. EPJ Data Science. Retrieved May 11, 2023.
5 Society of Professional Journalists. (2014, September 6). SPJ Code of Ethics. Retrieved May 11, 2023.
Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Science on July 7, 2023..
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.