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The Pros and Cons of a History Degree

Updated on August 23, 2016


History is one of the best subjects for strengthening critical thinking skills, which can contribute to many, many career fields and areas of life. Simply put: history trains students to become critical thinkers. Many people believe that history is all about memorizing facts and reading dull textbooks, but at the college level, particularly with good professors, history enhances reading comprehension, writing, and analysis skills. It teaches students how to recognize and interpret arguments, how to use evidence and reason, and how to dissect someone else’s arguments and reasoning. History teaches students how to question arguments while also backing up their own. If one pursues a graduate degree in history, the opportunities to enhance one’s critical thinking skills are even more noteworthy. A typical graduate-level history class involved reading a book every week and then analyzing its argument with the class—its strengths and weaknesses. Graduate school also requires more original research, which gives students opportunities to analyze evidence and construct original arguments with it that contributes to the field and our understanding of a particular topic. In summary, the intellectual growth one gains from studying history is invaluable.

For those who simply love the subject of history, well, naturally the history degree gives those individuals the opportunity to focus on what they love. Whether it’s ancient, medieval, or modern history, or whether it’s United States, European, Asian, or World History, there are often a wide variety of available classes to suit the interests of history students. Furthermore, other approaches include social, cultural, political, intellectual, and environmental history. Even if someone only enjoys a certain area of history, they can still generally feel free to pursue classes and research that speak to it.

If someone is interested in history and fortunate enough to land a job as a professional historian, then the obvious advantage is being able to focus their entire career around what they love. The job typically involves landing a university position as a professor and teaching classes while also conducting original research. You can get numerous travel grants for research, share you history passions with students, and produce original work that may be used in other history classes in the future. While the workload can still be tough, it is also very flexible compared to many other jobs. Lastly, if one is able to land a tenure-track position, that basically means that they have a job for life. The salary is not too bad either; while new assistant professors can expect to earn an average of 50K, associate and full professors (who earn promotions based on books published) can earn from 70K to over 100K depending on the school and, well, their prestige and value to the school.

Dante's Inferno - Circles of Hell



All of that having been said, before you start to dream about a career as a professional historian or how great a history degree sounds, there are definitely some serious counterpoints to consider. The first is the job market. For those who pursue an MA degree in history, there is very little one can do other than use it to get into a PhD program (even community colleges prefer to hire PhDs). For those pursuing the PhD in history, there is very little one can do with the degree other than become a history professor and work as a professional historian. The problem with that is those positions are very few and far in between. There may be a hundred other applicants for one position open that year in your particular field. In order to be competitive, you need to have a very strong, original dissertation and at least two original articles by the time you are applying for positions. Also, the reality is that the better schools will be more attracted to graduates from other top schools, presenting an extra hurdle for those from more humble backgrounds. The best way to increase your chances of getting hired is by publishing an original book, but it may take years of struggling as a teaching adjunct to get there (adjuncts typically get paid only $1500-$3000 per course depending on the school). Furthermore, tenure-track positions seem to be going away, so then you might think you have a solid professorship somewhere only to lose it if you cannot publish fast enough.

Most full-time graduate students of history also work as graduate teaching assistants. While it provides a way for these students to gain classroom experience, it does little for their resume if they need to seek employment outside of the field. Most decent jobs require some kind of relatable experience. Even secondary schools require additional certification and secondary classroom experience. Yes, there are many articles out there that talk about what a person with a history degree “can” do, but that does not mean that they do not need to take extra steps to be competitive, such as the additional training required to work in archives. If someone spends a good decade of their life pursuing a history PhD and then needs to find employment outside of the field, it is very difficult. If someone merely pursues the history BA, that allows more wiggle room for other opportunities as one can then pursue an MA in a related field, such as law, or simply have a better chance of securing an entry-level position with future promise since they would not be as vulnerable to being labeled as “over-qualified.”

The money involved in pursuing this degree is another consideration. If one merely pursues the BA and is able to secure scholarships (and perhaps a part-time job), then the damage could be minimal. Working toward a PhD, however, could involve thousands and thousands of dollars in loans. Even with teaching assistant work (maybe 10K-15K per year depending on the school) and additional scholarships, loans can be difficult to avoid if the student needs to pay rent and bills. Some programs offer full funding, but the meaning of this can vary and may only indicate teaching assistant work and free tuition, not free living. So then, you might find yourself at the end of a PhD track program with no job and mounds of debt. Of course, students in other fields end up with debt too, but someone with a medical or law degree has a much better chance of getting a job that pays it off.

Final Thoughts

For those interested in the history degree, not all hope is lost and the purpose of this article was certainly not to crush any dreams. Being straightforward, though, as a former history PhD student, please bear in mind that the path can be a very, very difficult one. Plan ahead as much as possible in case you need a backup plan, and speak to as many professors and graduate students as you can before deciding that pursuing a history degree or a graduate path in history is for you.

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