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History Majors in the Job Market

Survey of Vanderbilt History Alumni | Two Ways to Think About the Career Prospects of a History Major | Our Alumni Share Their Thoughts About Careers | Resources for Further Inquiry

Also see the American Historical Association "Careers for History Majors" web page here.

I. A Survey of Vanderbilt History Alumni

What kind of career can you pursue after graduating with a history major? How helpful has the History bachelor's degree been for our graduates as they have faced the challenges of finding employment and launching careers?

The History Department conducted a survey among its alumni in November 2001 - January 2002 to gather information about these two questions. The survey was sent out to all the 450 alumni who graduated from Vanderbilt with a history major between 1996 and 2001. We asked them to respond to the following questions:

1. When did you graduate? What career(s) have you pursued since graduation? At what kinds of jobs have you worked?

2. On balance, have you found your education, with its particular emphasis on history, to have been useful to you in your career(s)? Could you give us some examples of this?

We received 69 responses to the survey (corresponding to 15 percent of the total number of inquiry letters mailed). This was a solid response rate, considering the fact that many such surveys often receive only a 5 to 10 percent response. We have no way of knowing in what ways the respondents might constitute a self-selecting group: one could argue that those with positive feelings about the history major might be more likely to respond to such a survey, just as one could make the exact opposite argument. In the end, we have decided simply to present the results as they were returned to us, and let them speak for themselves.

The history alumni broke down according to the following occupations:

  • Business 30 percent
  • Law (or law school) 24 percent
  • Education (all levels) 17 percent
  • Graduate school (all fields except law) 8 percent
  • Military 7 percent
  • Other 12 percent
  • Unemployed 1.4 percent

Within the "Business" category (21 respondents), the breakdown was as follows:

  • Finance 38 percent
  • Analyst 28 percent
  • Sales 19 percent
  • Marketing 5 percent
  • Advertising 5 percent
  • Human Resources 5 percent

Within the "Other" category, the range of occupations as considerable, and included: museum administration, journalism, editing and publishing, volunteer coordination, archival research and management, counseling, legislative work, data management, and consulting.

In response to our second question above, we received three kinds of answers.

- Ninety percent of our alumni reported that the history major had been directly and significantly useful to them: their language tended to be highly positive and enthusiastic. (We reprint excerpts from some of these letters below.)

- Seven percent felt that the history major had not been directly useful in their careers: thus, for example, a kindergarten teacher reported that he was not explicitly using his historical knowledge in teaching his young pupils.

- Three percent of the respondents did not address this question either way.

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

It quickly becomes clear from the survey data presented above that 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.

This theme recurred like a Leitmotif in the alumni responses to our survey: 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.

III. Our Alumni Share Their Thoughts About Careers

We reprint below some excerpts from the survey responses sent back by our alumni.

1. Jessica Simmons (Class of '99), Equity Research Associate, Raymond James and Associates, St. Petersburg, Florida

I assist a senior equity analyst with building financial models, writing reports, comments, and briefs, and communicating investment ideas to our internal sales force and clients.

My education was indispensable both in being hired for this position and in performing this job well. Raymond James, at the time, specifically recruited at Vanderbilt to reach students with the skills I describe below.

Certainly the first few months held their challenges in getting up to speed with accounting, finance, and the markets, but those are knowledge-based tasks - ones that can be learned and acquired fairly quickly. Writing skills and communication skills, however, take time, experience, and practice to build, and my liberal arts degree from Vandy definitely helped.

The critical thinking skills I learned have helped me to excel here. For example, every day the stocks I follow move one way or another, and I have to explain why. The reasons could relate to the company itself, the sector, or the economy as a whole. The skills I acquired in conjunction with my major - gathering and analyzing information, making connections between seemingly disparate topics and events, and thinking at the next level (ie not just who, what, and where, but why, how and what next) have been critical to my success here.

Perhaps the skill that helped me earliest and most is my writing ability. Some writing ability is related to individual talent, but the writing practice I received, and that all students get as history majors, helped me to differentiate myself from my peers -- many of whom have business degrees and never wrote a paper that required a factual basis, clear argument, or much attention to grammar or spelling.

Beyond lengthy term papers, in some respects the writing I do today has a good deal of similarity to the essay portion of exams I took. When taking those tests, you would see a question that you'd never considered before and have to quickly, clearly, and concisely communicate a thought about it, pulling from facts, context, and intuition. I do that here every single day, whether I'm reacting to a piece of news that has hit the wire or answering a question from an investor -- the events and questions are rarely anticipated, and in the end, it all boils down to speaking and/or writing under pressure. I value the experience I had when I was in school.

My discussion classes helped to build the thought processes and confidence needed to express ideas and opinions clearly and with conviction to clients. Persuading people who are just as knowledgeable, or even more knowledgeable, to think your way requires you to know your stuff and know your audience. The seminars I took helped with those skills.

In the end, in my field the ability to think and the skills to communicate are the most crucial things to have gained in school. The accounting and finance...you can read a couple of books and catch on well enough to get by. But you can't read a book and learn how to write a clear and persuasive 2-page comment in 2 hours. You have to practice that sort of thing. I wouldn't trade my Vandy History degree for anything.

2. Brendan Troy (Class of '96), Sales Trader, Merrill Lynch, New York.

If I could say anything to incoming students or those who may be indecisive towards majoring in history, it would be: 'Enjoy your time. Don't just focus on taking the cookie cutter business courses to become a cookie cutter business student. What you will find is that companies are increasingly looking for people who are not cookie cutters! Companies want people who can think differently about common problems and who come up with inventive ways of dealing with common problems. In my experience, I have been more rewarded from learning to think than by the facts that I learned about the shape of the Fixed Income curve, because I can take someone's analysis and dissect the reasoning instead of blindly accepting it. Do I still draw on the plight of the Russian peasant in the late 19th century in my daily experience on Wall Street? The answer is obviously no, but I do remember that Professor Wcislo made me think more about root causes. Is this analysis applicable? Absolutely.

In response to the question, "What kind of jobs can I realistically hope to get with a B.A. in history?" my main answer would be just about anything. Skill sets can be easily learned, especially by people of intelligence. A Vanderbilt degree on the undergraduate level in economics does not write a ticket to the investment banking world. But an intelligent person whose desire and dedication come through, who has a degree in history, can get that investment banking job too. I would hope that your students can come to realize this during their time at Vanderbilt.

3. Andrew DeSimone (Class of '96), Attorney and Public Defender, Lexington, Kentucky.

I attended Law School at U.K. Since graduation in May of 2000, I clerked for Justice William Cooper of the Kentucky Supreme Court for one year. Currently, I am working as a public defender in Lexington Ky (since mid-August).

I still read history regularly, almost to the exclusion of all else. I need to break myself of that habit. As I remember, the History major was quite strenuous. But, for me, that was good. It helped push me further rather than just float through. Through the program, and especially the Senior Honor's program, I learned to research and write effectively and persuasively. It also enabled me to assimilate information speedily and accurately by honing reading and comprehension skills. I used the ability to write and research enormously as a law clerk to Justice Cooper. There I drafted numerous opinions for the judge and several were published in the law books with only minor variation. Were it not for the skills I learned at Vanderbilt and especially through the history program I would not have excelled as a law clerk or as an attorney.

4. Kimberly Sasser (Class of '99), Political Campaign Organizer, Nashville.

Since graduating from Vanderbilt, I have been employed in political campaigns and government. I served as a regional field director for the Gore 2000 Campaign (Al Gore's presidential campaign) during the primary season in New Hampshire and Texas. I also served as a regional field director for the Missouri Democratic Party Coordinated Campaign (Gore/ Lieberman, Mel Carnahan for Senate, Bob Holden for Governor, etc.) in Kansas City, MO. I was then employed for a while by the Tennessee House of Representatives. Currently, I am the State Field Director for the Phil Bredesen for Governor Campaign here in Tennessee.

I feel that my degree in History has certainly been useful in my career. A good working knowledge of social and political history is extremely beneficial to political operatives. It gives you a sense of voting and behavioral patterns that can be helpful. For example, one can look to history to figure out how voters and citizens react in times of national crisis as a guideline for how a campaign should proceed in light of the tragedy of September 11th. In addition, anecdotal political history is a great tool for motivation and inspiration during a campaign. Finally, I would say that a background in historical studies prepares one to examine the reasons and forces behind actions and not just the who, when, and what of history. This prepares one well for the always fluctuating mode of political campaigns.

5. Erica Beck (Class of '99), Sales, US Labs, San Diego, California

I started as a recruiter for a technical recruiting company. I have since remained in a sales position. I now sell molecular and cytogenetics testing for a cancer diagnostics company. I have been in both inside and outside sales. I help educate my clients (oncologists) about the newest forms of genetic therapy and cancer treatments for their patients. I sell testing that helps diagnose which treatments will work for individual patients. In today's biotech/healthcare industries, my company is helping bridge the gap between cancer research and patient care.

History has been great [for my career]. Because Vanderbilt's history department focuses on all aspects -- reading, writing, lectures and discussion -- I feel that I am able to take care of all aspects of my position. I can analyze and write proposals, comprehend complex intricacies of my industry, and compose insightful communication to my associates. I am also able to analyze and discuss different aspects of my company with others.

I believe that history's most important contribution has been the faculty. It is a hard major -- the difficulties I overcame with the help of professors make problems at my job seem like child's play. Vanderbilt's History program truly prepared me for the real world.

I would recommend a sales position for any history student who appreciates humanity and doesn't want to go to law school or teach themselves. It isn't the most glamorous position in society, but it sure is profitable! I really enjoy my career, and believe that being a history major helped get me where I am and where I'm going.

6. Michael Boden (MA, 1997), US Army Major, Instructor, US Military Academy at West Point.

Currently a Major in the Army, assigned as the S3 (Operations Officer) of the 1st Battalion, 77th Armored Regiment, in Schweinfurt Germany (over 500 soldiers). In February, will become the Executive Officer, or 2nd in command, of the unit, and will hold that position throughout 2002, including a rotation to Kosovo as part of the NATO peacekeeping force there from April to December.

The study of history not only forces you to think, but it forces you to think "outside the box," for yourself, without any neat and tidy equations available to assist your evaluation. Once you learn how to approach historical questions in this manner, you not only develop your personal analytical skills, but it allows you to practice your writing and speaking skills to communicate your findings.

For anybody who wants to be a leader in any organization, those skills -- the ability to think through a variety of different and difficult problems without any numeric or formulaic crutch to lean on, and then to communicate your solutions -- are prerequisites. It is one reason why so many cadets want to study history -- not for the standard answer "so that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past" (that's about as bogus as a reason for studying history as there is -- personal opinion).

7. Marshall Brown (Class of '96), formerly a stock broker, now pursuing Master's in Divinity at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi.

I have certainly found my [history] degree useful, especially in teaching history and studying theology. However, I do take umbrage with viewing education in a utilitarian manner. An education should not be about acquiring job skills -- that is what vo-tech schools are for. An education is for helping people how to think -- and there is nothing more 'useful' in the world. My education at Vanderbilt with an emphasis in History certainly fostered this. I believe it helped me to think more synthetically and to see the 'big picture' of the way things are and the way they have been. I realize this contrarian opinion might not attract many students to the history department, but somehow students need to see that education is not a means to some financial end.

8. Associate, Deutsche Bank Capital Partners.

I graduated in December of 1996 with a B.A. in American History. In February, I started working for Alex. Brown & Sons (now part of Deutsche Bank) in the Technology Investment Banking Group as a financial analyst working on initial public offerings, mergers and acquisitions and other corporate finance activities. I now work for DB Capital Partners, the private equity arm of the bank, evaluating investments in private technology companies. Alex. Brown (and investment banks in general) are looking for people who are willing to work long, long hours in exchange for a great learning/business experience. Students should feel qualified, even if they are not an Economics or Accounting major, because the investment banks train and teach you any financial and accounting skills you need, although obviously it helps to have some experience in accounting and/or math. I found the VU A&S education/experience to be helpful because, while I was a History major, I was exposed to many subjects (in some cases, whether I wanted to be or not) and gained an understanding of how to think critically, write and express myself clearly and research and understand a topic thoroughly. I would suggest that any student interested in investment banking work at least one summer before graduation in an internship with an investment bank (or consulting firm--as the hiring process/work experience is similar) and leverage that experience into a job.

9. Mark Miller (Class of '96), Attorney in corporate law, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, and Caldwell, in Nashville.

The education I received at Vanderbilt is the foundation for my career. The skills I learned as a history student, specifically the ability to analyze individual sources of information, combine these sources, and then draw conclusions based upon this research and study, is necessary in my practice. Needless to say, the amount of reading and writing one completes as a history major are also very important preparation for a career as an attorney. I am confident that my writing ability greatly developed through the many courses I took while pursuing my history major. There is no question that the skills I now have in this area are a product of the training I received through the history department at Vanderbilt.

The other benefits I gained as a history major are perhaps less tangible, but equally important. First, I believe that studying history teaches one a different perspective in viewing events, and forces one to be a very clear thinker, and not one swayed by the bias of a particular individual. These skills are very useful in my daily practice. Second, for me, studying history was something I greatly enjoyed. I learned how to combine something I am passionate about with the tasks I was to complete on a daily basis, without losing that passion for history. Likewise, I am very passionate about the law, and am fortunate to be able to spend the majority of my time pursuing this passion. My study of history showed me how to match my daily life with my true interests, something many fail to do. This makes my life much more enjoyable.

10. Brooke Reusch (Class of '98), Membership Department, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I would say that my degree in European History has been very useful in my career. Firstly, having the name of Vanderbilt University on my resume has opened up innumerable doors for me while looking for internships, at graduate school and beyond. While still a Junior at Vanderbilt I was able to intern at the White House. One key reason for my selection was my association with Vanderbilt and the fact that I was majoring in something unique, something far different than most of the applicants. These Political Science majors who applied for the same opportunity were disappointed because they were viewed as a dime a dozen and not given a slot.

Now that I am in the "working world" I have found that the skills learned at VU have helped me to get ahead in my professional life. My written work is clearer and more succinct than that of many of my colleagues, and my research and analysis skills are very sharp. I work in the Membership Department at PMA and so have absolutely no task that is remotely linked to history, but these tools have put me ahead of people with a business background in the museum management field. I do many market research projects and membership analysis reports with greater ease because of research skills learned in the History program. If I had it all to do over again, I would choose the same path that I took while at Vanderbilt.

11. Tyler Jayroe (Class of '98), Human Resources Management Specialist

I believe that I have been generally well-served by the liberal education I received at Vandy. The analytical thought process which I learned from studying history is a crucial skill for a successful career in business. In addition, my facility with written and verbal communication enabled me to obtain my first job and distinguished me from my peers throughout my three years in the consulting environment. These communication skills were honed through my studies in the history department, where I was constantly challenged to effectively articulate my views, whether it be in class or in the papers and exams I took as a history major.

I would like to qualify my statements above by saying that I did begin my career in business with a disadvantage compared to my colleagues who studied Economics or Business Administration. When I started out, I clearly lacked some fundamental knowledge and vocabulary. Despite the fact that I was able to quickly pick up on the important concepts I'd missed in school, I would definitely recommend to students interested in majoring in History who are contemplating a career in the corporate world that they would be well-served taking a minor in BA, even if it seems boring and irrelevant at the time. Majoring in Economics would, in my mind, be overkill. Econ is too theoretical to be immediately useful, and college is the one time in your life when you have the opportunity to deeply study things that aren't directly related to your vocation, so why waste this unique opportunity. Nevertheless, the courses taught in the BA minor path, such as Accounting, would be good preparation for a fledgling career in business and certainly look good on one's resume.

All in all, I have very fond memories of my undergraduate days. Never before or since have I been exposed to such mind-broadening experiences. If I had it to do over again, I would major in History in a heartbeat.

IV. Resources for Further Inquiry

A. Websites

 

B. 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 Amazon.com).