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Historian Job Description, Career as a Historian, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Doctoral degree

Salary: Median—$44,490 per year

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Historians study events, ideas, institutions, and individuals of the past. They may research and interpret events that occurred in the earliest periods of recorded time or ones that people can remember. Unlike archaeologists, who work chiefly with physical objects, historians rely mostly on written records for evidence to support their claims. However, historians sometimes use physical objects, such as photographs, costumes, and tools, to shed light on past lifestyles. Historians often try to relate knowledge of the past to present-day situations or problems.

History is a very broad field, and historians usually specialize in a particular time period, country, or region. For example, a historian may specialize in U.S. history with a more specific focus on the Great Depression. Another historian may focus on medieval history and concentrate on the German-speaking areas of Europe. Historians also specialize in certain kinds of history, such as the history of ideas, the history of immigration, the history of women, or the history of science. Sometimes historians specialize in a particular field, such as economic, social, or political history. Although historians are encouraged to specialize, they also need general knowledge to relate their findings to the broad patterns of change and continuity traced throughout the past.

About 70 percent of all historians are employed by colleges and universities. Although some have administrative duties, they generally teach, write, and do research. Some historians, known as archivists, collect historical documents and other objects for museums, special libraries, historical societies, and other organizations. Archivists prepare exhibits and organize historical materials for people who do historical research. Archivists work in places called archives where records, historic documents, and other materials are collected and preserved. Some historians working for government agencies or historical societies are involved in the preservation of historic buildings. Other historians work for publishing firms where they edit history textbooks, magazines, and other materials. Some historians serve as consultants for radio, television, and film producers, A historian examines a weathered volume. (© SETBOUN/Corbis.) checking for the accurate depiction of past events, styles, and portrayals of people. A few historians are self-employed researchers who write about historic events or people of the past.

Although their jobs may differ, almost all historians do some historical research. This research involves reading a great deal about a subject. For example, to study the history of a particular city, historians use original resource materials, such as old maps, pictures and photographs, election returns, tax lists, census records, and city directories that list the businesses and residents of a given period. They may read many issues of old newspapers and interview people who lived in the city during the period they are studying. They may listen to tape-recorded interviews of visitors and city residents or view films of city events. They may read letters or diaries of individuals who wrote in or about the city. Their research may involve looking at the records of the city's churches and temples. Historians are trained to analyze this mass of information and sometimes make use of statistical methods and computerized data. Historians piece the information together into a picture of what the city was like during an event or an era of the past. They usually compile their findings in books or articles. They may also present them to students, groups of historians, or other people in the form of lectures.

Education and Training Requirements

You need an advanced degree to become a historian. If you have a bachelor's degree in history, you may find a job in historical research, but advancement opportunities will be limited. Most graduates with bachelor's degrees in history have jobs that are not directly related to history. Many find that their training in history is a good background for graduate study in journalism, law, business administration, and other fields. If you continue your education for one or two years after receiving a bachelor's degree and earn a master's degree in history, you will be qualified for jobs as a teacher, researcher, or archivist. In some cases you will be expected to continue studying for a doctoral degree. As early as possible, you should take courses in the language and literature of the area and period in which you plan to specialize. You may also want to take courses in statistics.

Most positions in administration and many teaching jobs in universities require a doctoral degree. It usually takes an additional two or three years of study after receiving a master's degree to obtain a doctoral degree. Historians must continue reading and studying throughout their careers so that they can keep up with new scholarship.

Getting the Job

Your professors and the placement office at your college or university can give you information about getting a job in the field of history. Openings are sometimes listed in professional journals. You can also apply directly to colleges and universities, archives, government agencies, publishing firms, and other employers that are likely to employ historians. To obtain a government job, you may have to apply through a civil service office.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Historians who have a doctoral degree can become full professors in colleges or universities. They can also move into jobs as administrators in colleges, universities, archives, or government agencies. Most historians advance by increasing their skills and publishing books and articles to win the recognition of other scholars. Some historians write books that have broad appeal to those outside their profession. The authors of such books are often in demand as lecturers.

Historians are social scientists, and employment opportunities for social scientists are expected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2014. Many qualified graduates who have a doctoral degree in history are expected to be seeking jobs. Most openings will be to replace historians who leave the field. Historians will likely face competition for academic positions, but find opportunities with historic preservation societies as public interest in preserving and restoring historical sites increases.

Working Conditions

Historians spend most of their time in pleasant offices, classrooms, and libraries. While their hours are flexible, they often total more than forty hours per week. At times historians may visit archives or historic sites or buildings as they do research. They sometimes travel to distant cities or countries to examine evidence. They need the patience to work long hours tracking down elusive facts. They must have the ability to arrange many details into a convincing and coherent picture of the past. Historians must be able to work independently and be willing to spend long hours reading and studying. They must also be able to work well with other historians, students, and the public. Historians must have excellent communication skills.

Where to Go for More Information

American Historical Association
400 A St. SE
Washington, DC 20003-3889
(202) 544-2422

Organization of American Historians
112 North Bryan Ave.
Bloomington, IN 47408-5457
(812) 855-7311

Society of American Archivists
527 South Wells St., 5th Fl.
Chicago, IL 60607-3922
(312) 922-0140

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings depend on the education and experience of the historian and the kind of job. In May 2004 the annual median income of historians was $44,490. Those employed by private companies generally earn higher salaries. Many historians add to their income through writing, lecturing, or consulting projects. Benefits include paid holidays and vacations, insurance, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesEngineering, Science, Technology, and Social Sciences