October 17, 2017
One is an archivist at a presidential library. Another is a historic preservation compliance officer. A third is the vice president of a consulting firm. All of them have degrees in history, teach college-level history and say that jobs for history majors span more than the expected titles like professor or historian.
Rob Denning, lead faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's history program, interviewed a number of history instructors on his Filibustering History podcast, discussing the full range of positions historians fill once they've earned their degree. "We want to demonstrate that a lot of the skills students are learning in a history program ... are applicable in a whole range of careers," Denning said while speaking with SNHU instructor and consulting firm vice president Bob Irvine. "There are a whole lot of opportunities available to people outside of strictly teaching."
Irvine earned his bachelor degree in geology and a master's in business management before studying American history for a Ph.D. Now he works for Parc Resources in Oregon, often with local governments, nonprofits and Native American tribes on a variety of projects. "Part of why I like consulting so much is I get to dive deeply into a variety of topics, but I get to leave before the institutional politics becomes kind of overwhelming," he said. Recent examples included a tribe that wanted him to evaluate the impact of a grocery store on the tribe's reservation; another project involved ways to rehabilitate the sage grouse population. "So I get to dive deeply into the sage grouse for six months or nine months ... and then we're gone," Irvine said.
Denning said many of the skills he developed studying history are directly transferable to his work now, mainly writing, analysis, oral presentations and critical thinking. "I think the discipline of history and the skills one develops earning a master's degree or a Ph.D. are the skills that translate more broadly and more widely than maybe people think at first blush," he said. "The ability to think critically, to read, to analyze and to communicate clearly is something that is in great demand."
Dr. Stephanie Averill said she was in a traditional tenure-track teaching position for about five years "before I became a nomad as an Army wife." Now she calls herself a "jack-of-all-trades historian," and spends her time researching, volunteering and working as a freelance writer. Many of the soft skills inherent in a history degree are transferable to virtually any subject, she said.
"I think we don't entirely realize how much history teaches us how to tell a story, how to get through to people, how to make something both rigorous and interesting at the same time. History does all that, and you take that with you wherever you go," Averill said. "There's no field that history doesn't go into ... It's easier for us to make connections in the contemporary world."
Denning said exploring and explaining the various ways a history degree is useful in many careers is a significant part of this job. Colleges and universities are increasingly turning to adjunct faculty instead of employing full-time professors as a cost-cutting measure. That means there are far more PhDs than there are tenure-track positions at colleges, particularly in the humanities, he said. It's therefore important that the utility of a history degree in other professions is highlighted.
"So what I want to do with this project is demonstrate to students that there are other options out there," he said. "We're hoping students, when it's getting close to graduation, can look at this big, long list of career outcomes and maybe they get some inspiration from it."
Jen Bryant, another history program instructor, also works as a compliance manager for the Colorado Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. There she reviews projects proposed by federal agencies to evaluate possible impacts on historic resources. Before the government post, Bryant worked at a number of museums, including George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Virginia. She said she likes being able to investigate the natural and archaeological resources in the state and helping to protect them as much as possible from the impact of modern projects. Studying other interests, like geology or archaeology can pay dividends for history majors, he said.
"Don't close yourself off. Be open to any opportunity," Bryant said. "Don't limit yourself. Really think widely."
Lara Hall, a history instructor, has also found herself in a position she didn't expect when she began studying history. Instead of working in museums and handling collections, she's an archivist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, where she catalogs the tens of millions of papers, letters, audio recordings and other materials connected to Johnson's administration. She also helps researchers and academics find documents and other resources in the library's extensive collection.
Hall ended up working at the library following an internship there. When the term ended, she stayed as a volunteer to finish a project and eventually applied for the full-time archivist position. She said volunteering and telling people in the field her professional goals were two keys to finding the position she's in now.
"Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer. Anywhere you can. Hands-on experience is what most employers are looking for," Hall said. "Just being familiar with what the job is and the issues that will come up is just huge. It really helps to build your skill set. Don't be afraid to talk to people and tell people what you want to do."
Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.
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