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What can I do with a history major?

Ken Ledford, a professor in our history department, recently responded to an email from a prospective student with some terrific information about what history majors do post graduation. We thought it was such good stuff that we needed to share it on the blog. Thinking about a major in a liberal arts field, but worried about your future prospects? Read on for Prof. Ledford's words of wisdom!

Alex Xue responded to my email from last week by asking a very reasonable question:

I just have a couple of questions about history majors in general. Throughout high school, history and social studies have always been my favorite classes and there's no doubt in my mind that it can me considered what I want to do, but recently, i've heard from many peers of mine that the major is a not practical. I do intend to hopefully attend law school or business school, but for you as a teacher who has seen so many students come and go, what path will most students take after graduating with a bachelor in history? Also, will most students minor in a specific area that is rather more prevelant for the history majors? I've considered a career in law or business, but what route should I take as an undergraduate interested in history? I would greatly appreciate it if you could answer these questions for me.

I was very grateful that Alex posed the question, and I was so sure that the same question was in the minds of many of the rest of you that I asked him whether I could share the question with you all and send my answer to you all. He graciously agreed, so here is my answer (I get this question all the time)!

There is the short answer and the long answer, sort of like the whole genre of "good news-bad news" jokes. The short, and honest, answer is this: Unlike engineering, education, accounting, management, journalism, nursing, or other undergraduate professional degrees, there is no single, clear career track into which most graduating history majors go and find employment after receiving their bachelor's degree. Unlike economics or some other liberal arts degrees, not as many employers come to the Career Center and list interviews as "History majors only" or "History majors preferred" (although that can be changing; see below).

Indeed, since the 1960s, this has been the case. In the 1960s, many businesses, such as banks, hired recent-graduate history majors to become trainee bank officers; my brother-in-law followed this career path and just retired from J.P. Morgan Chase after a 40 year career. Some time in the 1970s, certainly by the time I graduated from college with a history degree in 1975, that career path came to an end, as undergraduate programs in management or business administration came to occupy those business jobs (but again, times may be changing again, see below).

But do you see vast numbers of homeless former history majors huddling around heating grates in your hometowns every winter? I think not. So history majors DO get jobs; the question is more accurately: What jobs?

That is the long answer, and it is pretty diverse. Traditionally, probably the single biggest post-graduation destination for history majors is law school. This is what I did when I graduated from college; I applied to law schools my senior year and went straight to law school the fall after commencement (only later, after 4 years practicing law, did I go to graduate school in history). At Case, about 25 percent of history majors go to law school. Many think that to go to law school you major in something called "pre-law," but there IS no such major (as contrasted to "pre-med," which is a pretty well-described curriculum in math, biology, chemistry, and physics). They go to all kinds of great law schools: In the past decade Case history majors have gone to law school at Columbia, NYU, Stanford, Harvard, University of Virginia, Georgetown, Duke, but also to Case, Ohio State, Cleveland-Marshall here in Cleveland, and the University of Cincinnati.

But you don't have to do that. Another 10 percent of history majors at Case pursue the "Teacher Licensure Track," which qualifies them for teacher licensure in Ohio for secondary school social studies instruction. Every year, about 10 percent of the history majors are in fact pre-meds, whether majoring only in history or doubling with biology or chemistry or even biochemistry.

Other options are more diverse. History majors sometimes go to professional school in library science, international relations, archives management, or museum studies. Others seek jobs. In fact, this is becoming easier, as increasingly businesses realize that the strengths in which history majors abound (the ability to read, write, and think critically) are helpful to their businesses.

One senior history major this year already has a job in Madison, Wisconsin, for which he interviewed through the Career Center, with a computer software firm that markets patient-record management software to healthcare providers (hospitals, doctors' practices, nursing homes, etc.). He will be a "project manager" on site at customers' locations, helping to troubleshoot the needs of the customers and interpret customers' interventions and suggestions to the technical computer programmers who will then implement the changes needed. He also had a "flyback" interview at an investment banking/financial services firm in Philadelphia; he didn't get the job, but he got that important second interview, and if you get that interview, you might get that job!

Beyond this concrete example, history is an excellent major to prepare you for a career in journalism. You can major in history, work on the Observer, work or intern with newspapers during the summers, and then either get a reporting job after graduation or go to graduate school in journalism at Columbia, Northwestern, North Carolina, or Missouri.

At least half of history majors at Case double major; sometimes they study history because they love it and another field in which they are more secure in the conviction that they can find a job (economics, or biology for a pre-med). It's easy to double major at Case, and that means that students don't have to abandon one interest for the sake of another, and that's a really good thing.

Finally, some few history majors do decide to go to graduate school in history and are very successful. Faculty try to warn these students that this is an arduous and uncertain path, but once students decide to follow it, we try to make sure that they are very successful. This year, there has been a visiting professor in Classics who was a History and Classics double major in the early 1990s and who has finished a Ph.D. in ancient and medieval history at Harvard. And a more recent graduate won a national competition for a Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Study and is studying for a Ph.D. in British history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Alex correctly identifies a social prejudice that majoring in history, or in any of the liberal arts for that matter, is an "impractical" major choice that "won't get you a job." Tom and Ray Maliozzi joke on "Car Talk" every Saturday about "art history" as a "worthless" degree! But the reality is: What undergraduate major guarantees any college graduate a clear, guaranteed career track? Physics? Mathematics? Biology? Psychology? Everybody who majors in these fields either plans to go on to graduate or professional school of some sort, or s/he looks for the same kind of jobs that History majors look for. And History, I would argue, prepares you for disparate careers better than almost any other field (although those fields are great too, and anyone who loves them should major in them and work out the job-thing later!).

So that's a very long answer to a seemingly simple question, which turned out not to be so simple at all. Case is a great place to study history, and history is a great major to study; you just have to take the longer view of what is valuable in your life. You have to ask yourself what will serve you best in the rapidly changing world and economy in which you're going to work for 40 years after graduation: A fixed body of facts, or the ability to think for yourself critically, to write about what you think clearly, to read with a critical eye, and to express yourself orally very well. If you tend toward the latter answer, History, and Case, is the subject and place for you!

Kenneth F. Ledford
Associate Professor of History and Law
Editor, Central European History
Case Western Reserve University

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