What Can You Do With a Bachelor's Degree in History?
A bachelor’s degree in history prepares students to work in fields that emphasize strong research and communication skills. Whether you are choosing online degrees or on-campus study, the history degree program at National University offers students nuanced perspectives on life in the U.S. today as well as a greater understanding of our country’s past along with the history of other cultures.
Dr. Duncan Campbell, an associate professor of history and the academic program director of the Bachelor of Arts in History at National University, says that strong research and communication skills open many doors for students. “Understanding how to do research and do it properly matters a great deal, and there’s a great deal of it in any profession you choose.”
He adds, “The other thing is communicating information and explaining what’s going on.” This may sound simple, but it can be a difficult skill to master. Students who receive a bachelor’s degree in history have excellent research, writing, and communication skills and are prepared for many jobs, including teaching, the law, financial investments, nonprofit work, museum work, and journalism, to name just a few.
Dr. Campbell warns that many people finish high school with the misconception that a history course is boring and that it will focus on rote memorization. “Their experience with history was their high school teacher droning away out of the text, which was filled with facts, and it told a story — but usually badly and not in a compelling manner. People come away from it thinking all history is a collection of boring names and dates,” he says.
Behind the facts, the study of history contains compelling stories, and it’s not unusual for a work of historical research to become a bestseller. Dr. Campbell points to books like “John Adams,”by David McCullough, “which was a massive sensation a while ago.” Even “Black Hawk Down,” about recent events in Somalia“is very much a work of history. It takes primary source material and tells you what happened in a specific event in the past,” says Dr. Campbell. And if we’re talking about a history-pop culture marriage, what better example than the hit play, “Hamilton?” Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired to write the blockbuster musical after reading Ron Chernow’s defining 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton.
Dr. Campbell wants students who consider earning a bachelor’s degree in history to know that “history is not just a collection of names and dates, it’s an understanding of what happened in the past, and it reflects very much what we do in the present.”
Why Study History for Your Bachelor’s Degree?
A bachelor’s degree in history opens many doors for those who are curious about the past, want to learn better research skills, and learn critical thinking skills that can be applied to many professions. Dr. Campbell quotes L.P. Hartley, who wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Gaining an understanding of how people operated socially in the past is a fascinating adventure that sheds much light on our present time.
He gives the example of George Washington’s world, which operated on different assumptions as far as a social obligation. “If you were in the early republic in the late 18th century after George Washington finished the presidency and returned to Mount Vernon, and you were a traveler coming along on your way through northern Virginia, it was entirely expected that you could stay at George Washington’s place and he would put you up in guest quarters. You know it’s inconceivable you would do that today. But back then, it was a social obligation. It was expected.”
If studying history illuminates how our culture and customs change, it also brings with it some very practical skills:
- A Degree in History Builds Detective (AKA Research) Skills
Dr. Campbell says that understanding the past requires curiosity and persistence. He quotes Herbert Butterfield who said that “the historian is not a judge, he’s a detective.” When studying for a bachelor’s in history, students follow leads to discover new information, much as detectives do. “The detective interrogates people, he questions witnesses, and he questions suspects. The historian does the same thing, the main difference is all our suspects are dead, so we’re basically reading through their letters.”
When students study for a bachelor’s degree in history, they study the evidence they find in primary sources to reach conclusions. “We investigate what happened and try to determine as best we can with the evidence available what actually happened and why it happened. Because of this, there’s a heavy research component, that’s the detective part, the investigative process.”
Students who earn a bachelor’s degree in history are likely to become excellent communicators and storytellers because their coursework will build these skills. “You have to communicate this information effectively. All the really good historians out there are good writers. They know how to communicate, condense, and explain how things happened. The really good historians can tell a compelling story.”
- People Who Earn a Degree in History Develop High-Level Thinking Skills
Students who study history become adept at critical thinking. The more a historian analyzes the past, the more likely they are to see its relevance today. “William Faulkner’s famous line is ‘the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past,’ ” says Dr. Campbell.
Dr. Campbell emphasizes that there are fascinating stories at each juncture of history. “You take any major event in U.S. history, it doesn’t matter, the Revolution, Civil War, Vietnam, 9/11, the campaign to get women the vote, slavery, gay marriage — all these are interesting stories of cause and effect. You have to know the personalities involved on both sides of the aisle; trying to make sense of all this is hard work, but it’s an interesting story.”
When students recognize the importance of the past in today’s events, they begin to see how they are, in fact, a part of history. Dr. Campbell says, “We are in a sense, ourselves, historical figures participating in historical events. All of these events in the past affect us.”
Those who earn a bachelor’s degree in history are more likely to understand how they are part of a larger picture. If the past is prologue, studying history can give you a path to understanding what might come next. “History, buying into all of this and being deeply involved in all of this in terms of a discipline, it’s absolutely relevant to the present day because it understands what happened in the past and why it happened in the past. I’m not much good at soothsaying, unfortunately, but I can tell you what has happened, and as historians, we can point to probabilities for the future.”
- A Degree in History Trains Students to Research and Write
When someone graduates with a history degree, they have been trained to research, think critically, interpret evidence, and communicate effectively. Dr. Campbell says, “History trains you to do all sorts of jobs that people don’t consider or normally recognize as necessarily historical.”
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's Degree in History?
Teaching is a popular career choice for history graduates, so it’s no surprise that some NU graduates with a degree in history go on to become elementary and secondary school teachers.
That career choice mirrors the national trend. Overall in the U.S., teaching elementary and middle school is the career path chosen by the most graduates with a bachelor’s degree in history, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and they represent 2 percent of teachers at this level. The next most frequent occupation is managing various types of businesses, including postal services and shopping malls, followed by secondary school teachers with a bachelor’s degree in history, who represent 4 percent of high school teachers. The other most frequent occupations for graduates in history are supervisors in retail sales and, in fifth place, paralegals and legal assistants.
In California, 5.7 million people work in elementary and secondary education, according to the BLS, and National University recommends more students for teaching credentials in California than any other university in the state.
But when it comes to thinking about what can you do with a history degree, you also need to think beyond the obvious. A person with the strong research and communication skills acquired by studying history can also be successful in a variety of career fields. These include:
- Advertising, promotions, and marketing managers
Dr. Campbell says researching and writing about history “is much the same thing as doing market research and basically persuading people that this is a product they want.”
- Assistant to an anthropologist or archaeologist
Becoming an anthropologist or archaeologist requires a master’s or Ph.D. degree, but graduates with a bachelor’s degree in history can work as an assistant in the field.
- Archivists, curators, and museum workers
Historians excel at finding information. “You can work in museums and libraries. The U.S. government and state governments are always hiring people to work for parks, archives, and exhibitions,” Dr. Campbell says. As museums have more and more virtual offerings, they hire people with history degrees who can work on their virtual archives. Web training and technology know-how come into play for these jobs. “The history profession has moved on with the times and is increasingly online and interactive.”
- Media and communications
With a bachelor’s in history, “you are going to be trained at research and how to communicate effectively. That means writing well, that means explaining things,” Dr. Campbell says. “Any job in communications is going to be up your alley.” Journalists need to ask the right questions and tell compelling stories, just as historians do. If a student has studied the history of another country, such as France or Mexico, they may be able to find work reporting from that country as a foreign correspondent. In addition to news outlets, corporations, book publishers, and most businesses need someone who can write effectively and edit written work.
With strong organizational and communication skills, fundraisers often work for nonprofits or other causes to convince donors to give money. Strong research and communications skills are necessary, as is an ability to understand the big picture.
- Campaign work
Working on a political campaign involves researching issues and framing information in a way that tells a story.
- State Department and other government positions
If you have learned a second language as part of your bachelor’s degree in history, you may be able to work for the U.S. government. “Once you learn a second language, a lot of doors open to you,” says Dr. Campbell.
- Financial analyst
Investment companies often hire people with strong research skills to study investment opportunities. Dr. Campbell adds that he has known people to use their training in history to research investments for stock traders.
- Paralegal or legal assistant
Many people with bachelor’s degrees in history enter the legal profession, working as a legal assistant or a paralegal. Lawyers need people with strong research and communication skills to research materials that will be relevant to a trial or other legal matter. “Lawyers obviously need to know about past cases when they are arguing for the Supreme Court or any other judge. You need to have precedents from the past to put forward. That’s one instance where knowing how to do historical research is very useful to anyone in the legal profession,” says Dr. Campbell. “The other thing is the lawyer has to persuade the court or persuade a jury with evidence. That’s the sort of thing we historians do all the time.”
National University’s Bachelor’s Degree in History Requirements
When a student decides to pursue a major in history at National University, they take a balance of courses in U.S. and world history. In each course, the emphasis is on research skills and communication.
“There are two areas we very much pride ourselves on. Obviously, U.S. history, because we’re in the United States, but we also focus a lot on world history at National University, and that’s basically global history and global studies,” Dr. Campbell says. “We’re very much committed to giving a broad view of the wider world.”
Courses include offerings on modern world migration, which includes immigration and refugee situations, the Middle East, the global economy, political history, and modern history. Required courses include the ancient and classical worlds as well as the modern world from 1500 to the present. In American History, there’s a course on the American colonial experience, the making of the Union, the Civil War and Reconstruction, up to the Gilded Age.
The Capstone Project
All students who earn a bachelor’s degree in history at National University do a capstone research project. All of their other coursework leads up to this research project and paper which is written on a topic of the student’s choice, approved by the course instructor. The capstone is much like an academic article and includes the use of primary source material. In the paper, a substantial piece of research, the student demonstrates a familiarity with the literature on the topic.
Dr. Campbell says that by the time candidates for the bachelor’s in history research a capstone project, they should have a sense of the big picture of U.S. and world history as well as smaller topics, such as colonial America. When students write this final paper, they “have actually done essentially what professional historians do.”
How the Research in Your History Program Builds Job Skills
The history program at National University offers courses that other students in other programs take as well. Whether students major in history or just take one course, the program emphasizes teaching students how to do proper research. “It’s a lot more than just clicking online into Wikipedia and copying down what you see. Honest-to-goodness research means tracking down sources that are not readily available, knowing where these sources are, and how to access them. This is a real skill, mining information,” Dr. Campbell says.
“Genuine digging is hard work, and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. How do you evaluate sources? How do you evaluate that a source of information is accurate or reliable?” he adds.
Problems with research in the work world can have significant financial cost, he says. “If you’re working for an investment company and you screw that up, you’ve just lost your company millions. Actually understanding how to do research and do it properly matters a great deal.”
But research is only part of the equation. “The other thing is this business of communicating information and explaining what’s going on. Ronald Reagan may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but he is called the Great Communicator for a reason. Your ability to actually explain things clearly to people, to convey complex information in the way they will understand it and be able to act upon and make informed decisions about something is a very valuable skill,” Dr. Campbell says. “This takes training. It’s not something you can just do. It’s something you have to really learn how to do, and this is the point about history.”
Research. Communication. Critical thinking. These are all skills in high demand in today’s diverse, multicultural work environment and they are all part of achieving a degree in history. “If you can find information that other people cannot and if you can communicate effectively when other people cannot, you’re going to find that you’re going to have no problem getting a job, and more importantly, have no problem keeping the job, because you’re actually going to be good at what you do,” adds Dr. Campbell.
For more information about National University’s Bachelor of Arts in History and the BA/MA History Transition Program (both available online), please visit the program page on our website.