Guide to History Degrees
Resources on this page
Discover the different ways you can get your history degree and find out which type of program is right for you.
Review the character traits of other history students and decide whether you have what it takes to succeed in this challenging field.
Research what degree you need to work as a historian and which courses you may take as you pursue your degree.
Find out how you can leverage your history degree to land a job in a related field.
Understand Your Options for Studying History
You will choose from three approaches to earning a degree in history:
- Pursue a degree at a traditional brick-and-mortar college.
- Pursue an online history degree.
- Pursue a partially online history degree, which combines online classes with on-campus courses and learning experiences.
It is acceptable to study history online, but you should only pursue an online history degree if brick-and-mortar study is not possible for you. Online students are typically those who either work full-time, do not live near a college campus, or have other commitments, like family, that make attending a regular on-campus schedule impossible. Many elements of history are not learned experientially, as opposed to a subject like chemistry, where students must spend significant time in the lab, so it is not crucial to be present in a classroom to study history.
A significant drawback to online study is the lack of interpersonal communication with peers and professors that you will experience, which would otherwise enhance your understanding of history. Even so, online history programs are popular due to the solitary nature of the field, which makes it a reasonable candidate for online study at the undergraduate level, since interaction with professors is not as important as it would be at the graduate level.
Online history programs offer the same types of classes as traditional programs, so the difference between these options is mainly in the delivery of the courses. While both programs are likely to require a significant amount of reading, brick-and-mortar programs usually follow readings with an in-class lecture and discussion. Online programs deliver material differently; for instance, some schools offer audio or video lectures to supplement the reading, some hold online discussion forums where students are required to post their thoughts each week, and others present material via text only. Keep in mind that the people who succeed in online school are highly motivated individuals who manage their time well. If that does not describe you, you may be better off in a traditional program where your professors will keep a closer eye on your progress and remind you about assignments.
If you choose to attend online history degree programs, the American Historical Association recommends you use the following guidelines as you choose a school to make sure you are getting a quality education:
- Choose a regionally or nationally accredited school, no matter what level of education you are pursuing.
- Investigate the qualifications of the faculty in your department. They should hold graduate degrees and have experience in the field.
- Seek out online colleges that provide opportunities for hands-on study. Online history schools that offer applied study internships at libraries, archives, historic sites, and government institutions are serious about teaching you to be a well-rounded historian.
- Look for online schools that also have brick-and-mortar campuses, as this usually indicates the university has been established for some time.
- Research reviews of the schools you are considering from other students in the history department. Their insight will give you a truthful picture of what it’s like to study history online at a given school.
Although the online classes still allow students to study at their own pace and convenience, the on-campus sessions can help students foster personal connection with faculty and other students. For that reason, students looking for the convenience of online history master’s programs and the one-on-one interaction with an adviser may find hybrid programs to be the best option. These programs offer the benefits of the traditional classroom experience, like networking and collaboration, but on a reduced scale compared to fully traditional degrees. And for history students, these in-person sessions allow time to practice crucial research methods and to utilize information in libraries that is not available digitally.
Discover What a History Degree Entails
At its simplest, history is the study of the past, particularly as it relates to the human experience. Students of history seek to understand how the events of the past relate to one another and how they define and influence the present.
Although it is possible to earn degrees in general history, the field is usually broken down into specialized areas of study known as concentrations. Concentrations can be as broad as ancient history or as narrow as Civil War history, but you should be prepared to choose a concentration whether you study at the undergraduate or graduate level.
Prepare Yourself for a Graduate Education
You need to commit many years to studying history if you want to become a career historian. A master’s degree is considered entry-level education in this field, in which your success will be based largely on your ability to conduct thorough academic research and interpret your findings. Even though most bachelor’s-degree holders will not work as historians, the skills and knowledge gained in an undergraduate history program can prepare you to work in related fields like education, historic preservation, entertainment, and communication.
See if You Fit Profile of a History Student
The broad subject matter of history means there is something of interest for almost everyone in this field. In addition to a passion for the past, you should have certain personality traits and inclinations if you want to succeed in a college-level history program. Before deciding to pursue a degree in history, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I comfortable working independently?
- Am I a strong academic writer?
- Am I a good reader?
- Do I pay close attention to detail?
- Do I enjoy conducting research?
- Am I persistent?
- Am I open-minded about other cultures and lifestyles?
- Do I tend to think analytically, by taking a step-by-step approach to completing tasks?
If you answered yes to the majority of these questions, you are likely to be a good fit for a history program.
In contrast, students who dislike research, reading and writing will not enjoy studying history. Although there are hands-on aspects to studying history, students who prefer hands-on learning are more likely to enjoy degree programs that require more experiential work, like the labs required by the sciences. Likewise, if you are not detail-oriented, you may miss small clues that would help you develop your historical research. If you prefer collaborative work to solitary pursuits you will likely find that history requires more independence than you like.
Consider Your Options for Earning a History Degree
The following history degree levels are available to students pursuing a degree:
Associate’s degrees in history are rarely offered because introductory history classes in areas like Western civilization or American history are usually included as part of the general education offered at community colleges. The few schools that do offer an associate’s degree in history offer two-year degrees intended for students who want to transfer to bachelor’s degree programs after graduation, and they do not prepare students for typical history careers.
Learn to love the library
Conducting academic research is a major part of any history program. No matter what time period or theme you study, you will need to be comfortable employing established historical research methods to gain insight into your concentration. You will conduct research in libraries, archives, and on the Internet.
The Internet has immense capacity for information, but it is still generally not acceptable as a scholarly resource, with the exception of digital copies of published documents. While it can be a very useful search tool, all sources found online should be treated skeptically. Furthermore, only a fraction of the historical material pertinent to any topic has been uploaded into digital archives. That means, as a history student, you will need to understand how to conduct research the old-fashioned way: with books and manuscripts.
In addition to libraries, archives are another excellent place to locate primary sources. Archives are like libraries, except they specialize in research materials that do not circulate to the public. The materials they contain often come in the form of manuscripts that can be both rare and fragile, so you will have to exercise caution when handling these resources.
Choose a History Concentration
Because history is such a broad field, it is impossible to thoroughly study the history of the entire world in detail. Instead, historians and educators collapse the subject into areas of study called concentrations. Usually concentrations are defined according to time period, theme, or geographical area. For instance, some common concentrations in history departments are medieval history, military history, and American history. If you choose to earn a degree in history, you will study the field generally for a few years before choosing a history concentrations that especially interests you.
If you only intend to earn a bachelor’s degree in history, your concentration will not affect your future career very much because it is unlikely that you will work in a traditional history position. However, if you intend to study at the graduate level in order to prepare for work as a historian, specializing in a concentration in history often determines the type of work you will pursue in the rest of your academic and professional career. This is true whether you decide to pursue your master’s degree in history online or through traditional means.
Most universities offer four to five concentrations from which students can choose to study. Your chances of admission to master’s and doctoral programs in history are greater if you apply to schools that offer the concentration you’ve studied at the bachelor’s level. Similarly, becoming specialized in a particular historical concentration makes you a stronger candidate for jobs with specific requirements, like academic posts at universities or consultant jobs for filmmakers and publications.
See which courses and classes you’ll take
No two schools’ history curricula are exactly the same. Especially at the upper-division level, colleges vary their course offerings depending on the expertise of their professors as well as the academic focus and mission of their history departments. Below is a representative list of courses that bachelor’s degree-level history students can expect to take no matter what school they attend:
In addition to the history courses offered above, you are likely to take a sampling of other courses that are useful to historians while pursuing your degree. Although curricula vary by university, you may be required to take courses in foreign language, statistics, ethics, and political science. Additionally, you will get to choose several history electives according to your interests.
Some schools also offer students a chance to participate in history internships. If your school offers an internship, you should take advantage of the opportunity. In an internship, you can learn hands-on skills like interviewing eyewitnesses, conducting research in historical or government archives, creating displays for public education, and physically preserving historical sites. Check with your school for internship opportunities or check out some of the history internships available through these national organizations.
The Job Outlook for History Graduates
Jobs as historians are extremely competitive, and you will not be able to find a job in the field without at least a master’s degree. The field portends an 18% increase in employment through 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is consistent with the trends for all occupations. However, that rise only accounts for only 700 new jobs, with a total of 4,700 practicing historians predicted in the coming decade. Of those historians, 57% will work for local, state, and federal government agencies. Others work for historical societies, consulting firms and research organizations. The average salary for historians is $53,520 as of 2010.
Because of the strong job competition, most history students will work in related fields like teaching. Secondary teachers who instruct middle and high school students can expect to make about $53,000 as well, with about 72,000 new jobs available. However, it should be noted that only a fraction of the total teaching jobs available are for history teachers. (BLS does not currently have data available about history teachers specifically at this time.) History teachers need a bachelor’s degree to earn teaching certification, but in many states they will earn raises if they have a graduate education, such as a history master’s degree online.
Some history degree graduates also work for museums as curators, museum technicians, and conservators. These staff members oversee historic collections and create informational displays and presentations for the public. The average salary for these positions is about $42,310, and the profession will see a 16% rise in employment in the next decade with about 8,400 new jobs available. A bachelor’s degree is minimum education for these careers, but most applicants have master’s degrees.