History gets a bad rap. Popular opinion says that if you are not going to teach or work in a museum, then studying history is hardly worth the time and money. Telling someone you study history is usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes and an all-too-audible scoff. The way I see it, all of that negativity rests on misplaced assumptions that are product of deep structural issues. The structural issues of American education is a conversation all its own and does not belong here, but the common assumptions about history are more than fair game. The idea is that history is nothing more than names, dates, and facts; all rather useless. Granted, history does involve those objective pieces, but history is far from useless. I am a bit of living proof.
I graduated in May with a history degree from Messiah College. I chose not to teach and not to work in a museum and I am doing just fine. In fact, I was employed before I graduated. A novel idea for most, but true all the same. While completing the second semester of my senior year I started the process that most college seniors do – searching and applying for jobs. Thanks to some due diligence and blessings from above I was able to find a job as a web content writer for a commercial kitchen supply company.
If you think that job has nothing to do with history you would be wrong. It has everything to do with history! In the course of the average day I do the three things absolutely critical to historical study: analytical thinking, research, and most of all, writing. History is certainly more than just those things, but boiled down, that is what you get. The names and dates provide all-important context for the analytical thinking, research, and writing, but facts do not define the discipline.
The job of undergrad historians looking for work is learning how to shift the perspective of potential employers past the objective parts of history and get them to focus on the transferrable skills historical study teaches. I worked terribly hard at that and it paid dividends (not actual dividends, I am only entry level, after all, but it did score me a full time job with salary and benefits!). I convinced my interviewers (now bosses) that history is so much more than what they gave it credit for.
For starters, I told my employers that at its core history is the study of people. To do good history you have to connect with your subject on a deeper level; really get into their mind. Why did they act the way they did? What were they thinking? That idea applied directly to my job. As a content writer, I write all of the text you see on our website – blog posts, articles, and product descriptions. The goal of all of those is to connect with potential customers. I get my paycheck because people buy things from our company. If I can really connect with them about a product – understand why they might want something and how it will enrich their lives, then I am doing things correctly. I have to understand how and why people think what they think and capitalize on it.
Then I sold my employers on the concrete skills that history cultivates. Most people fail to realize that history involves a lot of writing. In fact, in terms of work, that is really all a historian does. And researching. Lo and behold, writing and researching are major facets of my job. On an average day, I do heavy research on the product I’m given to learn everything there is to know about it. Then I write a detailed, informative description of it. If that’s not history, then I don’t know what is!
I just completed my two month probationary/training period and at each of my progress report meetings I was commended for my researching and writing abilities. As I said, that is a direct result of studying history in college. My boss, a former English major, even told me she prefers to hire history majors. That is a working professional in a medium-to-large sized business specializing in kitchen supplies giving solid evidence for the usefulness of studying history. It might take some time for the majority to come around on history, but there is no reason your history degree should scare away employers. In fact, your history degree should push you above and beyond other applicants. It’s up to you to understand what historical study allows you to do and convince potential employers of its worth.
For some more in depth information check out my interview with Dr. John Fea here or hit me up on twitter @buddy_hocutt.