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History Majors in the Job Market

Two Ways to Think About the Career Prospects of a History Major

A graduating history major possesses a vast number of career options. Many of these options, moreover, do not have any obvious or direct connection to the subject matter of history itself; rather, they involve lines of work that make use of the broader underlying skills and habits of mind that the Vanderbilt history curriculum helps to cultivate and hone.

Thus, there are two basic ways to think about the career prospects of a history major: the narrow and the wide. Both are equally valid, but they differ considerably in their assumptions and practical consequences.

The narrow conception is defined by the assumption that, in one’s job, one will somehow be directly applying the knowledge learned in one’s history classes. This assumption leads one to consider primarily those lines of work that bear a fairly close connection with history as an academic field: teaching, museum work, historic preservation, archival, or library work.

The wide conception, by contrast, places less emphasis on the content of the history curriculum, and focuses instead on the underlying sets of analytical and verbal skills that one acquires in the process of studying history. Critical reading and reflection, synthesizing and organizing large amounts of information in preparation for exams, writing and revising research papers and essays, sharpening one’s ideas in class discussion with professors and fellow students—these form the basis for a much broader and more general conception of what one has to offer prospective employers in the job market.

The history major gives you key “foundation skills” that place you at a tremendous competitive advantage in the practice of almost any career. In a world in which many of us will have to change lines of work many times during our lives, the flexibility afforded by these foundation skills becomes all the more precious. In a professional environment characterized by rapidly evolving challenges and demands, following upon continual shifts in the nature of the global marketplace, most employers will not be seeking highly-specialized experts in narrowly-defined subjects, but rather well-rounded individuals who can think for themselves, adapt to new demands, recognize new opportunities, and chart their own paths into unfamiliar territory. These, according to our alumni, are precisely the habits of mind that the history department excels at cultivating in its majors.

Resources for Further Inquiry


Books and Pamphlets

  • Julie DeGalan and Stephen E. Lambert, Great Jobs for History Majors (McGraw-Hill, 2001).
  • Barbara J. Howe, Careers for Students of History (American Historical Association, 1989).
  • Career Choices for Students of History (available on