Historians research, analyze, interpret, and present the past by studying a variety of historical documents and sources.
Historians typically do the following:
- Gather historical data from various sources, including archives, books, and artifacts
- Analyze and interpret historical information to determine its authenticity and significance
- Trace historical developments in a particular field
- Engage with the public through educational programs and presentations
- Archive or preserve materials and artifacts in museums, visitor centers, and historic sites
- Provide advice or guidance on historical topics and preservation issues
- Write reports, articles, and books on findings and theories
Historians conduct research and analysis for governments, businesses, nonprofits, historical associations, and other organizations. They use a variety of sources in their work, including government and institutional records, newspapers, photographs, interviews, films, and unpublished manuscripts (such as personal diaries and letters). They also may process, catalog, and archive these documents and artifacts.
Many historians present and interpret history in order to shape or build upon public knowledge of past events. They often trace and build a historical profile of a particular person, area, idea, organization, or event. Once their research is complete, they present their findings through articles, books, reports, exhibits, websites, and educational programs.
In government, some historians conduct research to provide historical context for current policy issues. For example, they may research the history of Social Security as background for a new bill or upcoming funding debate. Many write about the history of a particular government agency, activity, or program, such as a military operation or the space program.
In historical associations, historians preserve artifacts and explain the historical significance of a wide variety of subjects, such as historic buildings, religious groups, and battlegrounds.
Historians who work for businesses may examine historical evidence for legal cases and regulatory matters.
Historians held about 3,800 jobs in 2012, of which 58 percent were in government. Historians also worked in museums, archives, historical societies, research organizations, and nonprofits. Some worked as consultants for these organizations while being employed by consulting firms, and some worked as independent consultants.
The industries that employed the most historians in 2012 were as follows:
|State and local government, excluding education and hospitals||36%|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||22|
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||20|
Most historians work full time during regular business hours. Some, including those who are self-employed, work independently and are able to set their own schedules. Historians who work in museums or other institutions open to the public may work evenings or weekends. Some historians travel to conduct practical work in different environments, which may involve collecting artifacts, going to sources, conducting interviews, or visiting an area to better understand its culture and environment.
Although most historian positions require a master’s degree, some research positions require a doctoral degree. Candidates with a bachelor’s degree may qualify for some entry-level positions, but most will not be traditional historian jobs.
Historians need a master’s degree or Ph.D. for most positions. Many historians have a master’s degree in history or public history. Others complete degrees in related fields, such as museum studies, historical preservation, or archival management. Many programs require an internship or other onsite work experience as a part of the degree program.
Research positions, including many jobs within the federal government, typically require a Ph.D. Students in history Ph.D. programs usually concentrate in a specific area of history. Possible specializations include a particular country or region, period, or field, such as social, political, or cultural history.
Candidates with a bachelor’s degree in history may qualify for entry-level positions at museums, historical associations, or other small organizations. However, most bachelor’s degree holders usually work outside of traditional historian jobs—for example, jobs in education, communications, law, business, publishing, or journalism.
Many historians benefit from previous history work, internships, or field experience when they look for positions outside of colleges and universities. Most master’s programs in public history and similar fields require an internship as part of the curriculum. Internships offer an opportunity for students to learn practical skills, such as handling and preserving artifacts and creating exhibits. They also give students an opportunity to apply their academic knowledge in a hands-on setting.
Those without internship experience can benefit from volunteering or working in an entry-level position to gain similar practical experience. Positions are often available at local museums, historical societies, government agencies, or nonprofit and other organizations.
Analytical skills. Historians must be able to examine the information and data in historical sources and draw logical conclusions from them, whether the sources are written documents, visual images, or material artifacts.
Communication skills. Communication skills are important for historians because many give presentations on their historical specialty to the public. Historians also need communication skills when they interview people to collect oral histories, consult with clients, or collaborate with colleagues in the workplace.
Problem-solving skills. Historians try to answer questions about the past. They may investigate something unknown about a past idea, event, or person; decipher historical information; or identify how the past has affected the present.
Research skills. Historians must be able to examine and process information from a large number of historical documents, texts, and other sources.
Writing skills. Writing skills are essential for historians as they often present their findings in reports, articles, and books.
The median annual wage for historians was $52,480 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,020, and the top 10 percent earned more than $97,930.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for historians in the top three industries employing historians were as follows:
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$85,640|
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||54,200|
|State and local government, excluding education
Most historians work full time during standard business hours. Some, including those who are self-employed, work independently and are able to set their own schedules.
Employment of historians is projected to grow 6 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.
Federal government, which employed nearly one-quarter of all historians in 2012, is expected decline 12 percent over the coming decade, which will limit overall employment growth for historians.
Historians will experience faster employment growth outside of the federal government in historical societies, research organizations, and historical consulting firms. However, many types of organizations that employ historians depend on donations or public funding. Thus, employment growth from 2012 to 2022 will depend largely on the amount of funding available.
Historians should face very strong competition for most jobs. Because of the popularity of history degree programs, applicants are expected to outnumber positions available. Those with practical skills or hands-on work experience in a specialized field such as collections, fundraising, or exhibit design, should have the best job prospects.
Because historians have broad training and education in writing, analytical research, and critical thinking, they can apply their skills to many different occupations—for example, as writers and authors, editors, postsecondary teachers, high school teachers, or policy analysts.
Also, there are many history-related jobs that do not have the title of historian. Workers with a background in history often look for closely related jobs, working as archivists, curators, and museum workers, social science or humanities researchers, and cultural resource managers.