What is it that comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, journalist Louis Theroux and former president George W. Bush all have in common? If it weren’t for the title above, I doubt you'd guess that they all studied history degrees at university – providing an apt reflection of the diverse range of career paths pursued by those who study history.
If you’re considering enrolling in a history degree, click on the tabs below for more information about the courses and specializations you could choose from, as well as the history careers you could go on to.
Common skills gained with a history degree include:
Most undergraduate history courses are three or four years long, depending on norms in the country of study. History degrees generally offer a very wide range of modules, starting with foundational courses in the first year, and then progressing to more specialized options.
Studying history is not just about memorizing the facts of historical events. It also involves analyzing the overall impact of historic occurrences, trends and artefacts on the world – for example, how various revolutions and civil wars have shaped particular countries’ governments into what they are now, or how a strain of belief has developed to influence contemporary thinking.
You’ll normally be assessed by written assignments, which usually involve analyzing different arguments, often in response to a starting statement. You may also sit examinations, either at the end of your degree or at intervals throughout. Your studies will conclude with a dissertation focusing on a specialized area of interest, in which you’ll need to put forward an in-depth discussion and analysis of a set topic – usually of your own choice.
Some universities will require you to have previously studied and achieved a good grade in history at secondary school level, for example as an A level subject in the UK. However, it may also be possible to apply to study a history degree even if you haven’t studied history at the previous level. Many arts, humanities and social sciences subjects could be good preparation for history degrees, including politics, philosophy, English literature and economics.
There is seemingly no end to the possible specializations to choose from in a history degree, due to the span of possible periods and locations.
In some cases, the specialized history courses available are grounded in the university’s own national or regional culture. For example, at Australia’s University of Melbourne it is possible to specialize in Australian history at the dedicated Australian Centre, while at Mexico’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México you can study Mesoamerican history. The available specializations will also depend on the university’s current faculty members and research projects, so if you are particularly interested in a certain area you might like to investigate which schools have lecturers who are experts in that field.
Specializations which you may prefer to study as a dedicated degree program include art history, ancient history, military history, European history, American history and more. You might also have the option to choose from a selection of course modules focusing on a set period in a particular culture or country’s history, for example the history of the US from 1789-1865.
Here are just a few of the most common history courses you may choose to study:
These were some of the most destructive and wide-reaching human conflicts in history, and as such they take up a fair amount of curriculum space on history degrees. If you opt to study one or both of the world wars, you’ll analyze at various sources and related events from the build up to these wars (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, for example). Related specializations include Nazi Germany/the Third Reich, the Cold War and Stalinism.
Another very open specialization, focusing on the Middle Ages could mean studying anything from the Norman conquest of England to the Black Death. You may also wish to look at the Renaissance, perhaps drawing on art history to consider the impact of Renaissance art on European history, and the varying debates historians have on the topic.
As mentioned earlier, the history specializations on offer are likely to vary significantly depending on your country of study. For example, in the UK you could study Victorian Britain or the British Empire, while in the US you’re likely to encounter course modules covering areas such as colonization, independence, or African American history. If you’d prefer to study an entirely different country’s history (for example, Japan since 1868) many universities will offer specialized programs. If you do choose to study the history of another country, you could even get the chance to spend part of your degree on an exchange program in the relevant location.
As with most humanities and social sciences subjects, it’s possible to access a wide range of graduate careers with a history degree. History graduates should acquire broad knowledge of past issues of human endeavor, and develop an analytical mindset in order to apply this historical knowledge to the societal problems of today. This mindset, honed with a deep insight into the political, cultural and social motivations of historical figures, events and movements, is extremely well-suited to history jobs which are focused on the cultural, economic, political and/or social issues present in the modern world.
Careers and sectors suited to history graduates include:
If you have a strong specialist interest in a particular field of history, you may consider pursuing a career in research. This could be in an educational setting, perhaps as a university researcher and lecturer, or within a heritage role in a museum, gallery or archive where the focus is on preserving professional and public knowledge. Additional specialized study or training may prove useful for some of these roles.
If you want to work in the museum sector, there are several different history jobs available. You will definitely find it useful to have undertaken work experience in the sector before and/or to have a postgraduate degree.
Many history graduates go on to share their interest in the subject by becoming teachers, at secondary level or within universities. The first of these options usually requires completion of a professional teaching qualification, while the second route often requires completion of studies up to PhD level. Many history careers within universities combine both teaching and research, with faculty members serving as lecturers and tutors while also conducting original research in their area of expertise.
History graduates’ strong analytical skills may also be especially valuable within media and journalism careers; the ability to interpret a set of facts and tell a compelling story is equally important for a good historian and for a successful reporter. As a writer, editor, broadcaster or media guru, your ability to approach political, cultural and social spheres with a critical eye could help you capture and communicate some of the most memorable news stories around.
The strong analytical and communications skills developed during your history degree should leave you well-prepared for careers in marketing, advertising and public relations. Knowledge of how society and culture have been shaped throughout history could help you to identify and effectively communicate with different target audiences, continuing to develop your understanding of how people behave and respond to a variety of factors.
Other professional sectors where you’ll find lots of history graduates include law, business and finance, politics and the public sector.