How to Become a Historian: 4 Steps
Reviewed by Jacob Imm
May 05, 2023
How to Become a Historian: 4 Steps
Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once wrote of history: “Those who cannot remember the past are bound to repeat it.”
With so much of contemporary society shaped by the events and actions of yesterday, understanding how we got here is not only critical, it’s downright fascinating. If you’re a certified history buff, turning your passion for the past into a career means getting paid to do what you love.
Curious to learn how to get started on this exciting career path? There’s no need to dust off archaic tomes or learn a dead language—everything you need to know about how to become a historian is outlined in this comprehensive guide.
Step 1: Finish High School
While it may seem like a given to complete secondary school, there are armchair historians who believe formal education is unnecessary (or an impediment) on the journey of learning. While there are plenty of positive things to be said about teaching yourself, if you plan on becoming a respected authority on any historical event, formal education (of at least a master’s degree) is a must, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
If history is the only thing on your mind while finishing your high school diploma, make sure to prepare yourself for further study in the field. To build up your skills in preparation for an undergraduate history degree, take classes that focus on these skills:
- Research – History is a field of intense study. It’s a historian's job to analyze and interpret texts and historical data, understand their context, and assess their contents and validity. Learning where and how to find reputable historical sources and conduct historical research are crucial skills to develop and master.
- Writing – The written word is how history majors and other humanities students communicate with one another. Writing articles that encourage historical preservation is also an integral part of a historian’s duties. Developing your writing abilities as you go into university will help prepare you for the papers and essays your degree will surely require.
- Debate – People outside of academic circles might be inclined to think the past is black and white—this influences the way history is taught in schools and public discourse. As an aspiring historian, you know this is far from the case. A crucial part of academic dialogue is disagreeing with your peers and arguing your points using evidence and persuasion. Learning to present the information you've studied and written is an essential component of debating skills.
Step 2: Secure Your Undergraduate Degree
Abraham Lincoln held a job in the Illinois legislature and vied for political positions for nearly three decades before becoming president. Just like Honest Abe, before trying to jump ahead as a commanding voice in your field, you’ll need to put in the work to prove yourself.
Getting your undergraduate degree is the next stepping stone on the path to becoming a recognized historian. The degree process itself is a bit of a historical timeline, generally taking four years to complete. Its important steps can be broken down into:
- Choosing the right school – You can’t begin your degree until you have somewhere to study history. Selecting a well-recognized school with a robust history department will set you in the right direction early in your studies. Look for universities that offer classes covering a broad range of topics and help with placements in internships and field research positions.
- Determining your path of study – You could spend every moment of your life studying history and only understand a small fraction of world events. There’s no need to establish a laser focus early, and taking varying courses can help you determine your interests. Eventually, however, your study should follow some discernible pattern to help you establish expert knowledge on a field or topic.
- Senior capstone – While not every university requires a senior thesis, if you’re planning on pursuing postgraduate studies in the field, it can be useful practice for future assignments. Learning to work alongside faculty members and use their in-depth knowledge to your advantage is beneficial preparation for the type of work you’ll encounter in your master’s program.
- Postgraduate applications – While not strictly part of every undergraduate's path, applying to graduate school is the most common path to becoming a professional historian. Developing strong relationships with professors during your studies (such as when they supervise your senior thesis) is a key component of successful grad school applications, as they’ll be the ones writing your letters of recommendation.
Step 3: Prove You’re a Master by Getting Your Master’s
While an old professor in glasses and an aging tweed jacket is an archaic archetype for modern scholars, a cap and gown isn’t necessarily the uniform of a historian either. If you want to prove your prowess in the field, a master’s degree is the next hurdle to leap over.
Unlike your undergraduate bachelor's degree, a mix of who and what you know will be taken into consideration when going into grad school. Master’s admissions councils look at:
- Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores – Tests aren’t everyone's strength, but you’ll need to take the GREs to get into most master’s programs. Be sure to study up and take practice tests before sitting in for the real thing.
- Undergraduate degree – Competitive graduate programs prefer applicants from recognized universities. Completing your undergraduate at a highly-rated and reputable school means admissions officers will take your application more seriously, according to Brenna Swanston and Alicia Hahn of Forbes.
- Letters of recommendation – History professors will want others in the field to vouch for you before committing years to overseeing your thesis. Asking your undergraduate professors to write you letters of recommendation should be simple if you go to them for help during your studies.
Statement of purpose – Your undergraduate studies should give you an idea of the type of research you want to pursue in your master’s program. Universities want to know if you’ll be a good fit with their academic culture and research direction, and you’ll show them why you are in a statement of purpose.
What Does a Master’s in History Entail?
So, you’ve made it into that highly competitive program and you’re ready to sink your teeth in. But, what does the trajectory of a history M.A. even look like? Well, here’s a bit of a breakdown:
- Choose a specialization – Once you enter grad school, you’ll be on the road to becoming an expert in a fairly specific field or topic. Whether you choose Early American Studies, Ancient Civilizations, Medieval History, or another specialization, the focus of your master’s will lay the groundwork for (at least the beginning of) your career.
- Research component and completion of coursework – Just like in your undergraduate program, you’ll be attending lectures and seminars throughout your master’s program—but they’ll be much more exclusive. In addition to normal coursework, master’s students will prepare a research practicum (like a thesis, for example) under the watchful eye of an assigned supervisor.
- Prepare for continued education – In some disciplines, a master’s degree is the ultimate goal and there’s no further level of education to aspire to. According to the American History Association, history is not one of these disciplines. Though there are plenty of jobs to be had after obtaining your M.A., pursuing a Ph.D. is a common next step—especially for those seeking to stand out as authorities in specific historical fields.
Step 4: Work on Your Reputation and Your Ph.D.
Now that you’ve finished school, what can you do with a history degree? By this point, you will have done more than half a decade of post-secondary education and obtained the degree widely considered the baseline for being a historian. Many career opportunities will now be open to you, including:
- College professor
- Jobs at historical institutions such as museum guide and heritage site host
- Historical fact-checking and editing
- Research fellowships (generally involve pursuing a doctorate)
Historian is more a personal title than a job position. What you decide to do with your career after getting your master’s degree can help solidify your reputation as an authority in your field, however.
From getting published in periodicals to contributing to textbooks, the written word is one way for a historian to prove their skills and knowledge to their contemporaries. The Historical Journal and The American Historical Review are two of the leading publications in the sphere and being printed in either is an impressive mark of success for a historian.
Another path to respect in the field is continued study, which generally involves pursuing a Ph.D. and publishing written works for a university.
If you want to take this final formal step on your educational journey, you can expect a Ph.D. program to involve:
- Coursework – Much like every step of your education, you’ll be required to sit in classes and listen to lectures while pursuing your doctorate. Essays, assignments and examinations will all accompany this continued study, of course.
- Dissertation – All doctoral degree candidates are expected to prepare an original dissertation (essentially, a thesis as long as a novel) on a topic they develop along with their supervisor. The professor overseeing the project will provide support and guidance along the way to help steer you as you research your paper.
- Defense – After completing your written dissertation, a board of professors will read and critique your work. Then they will call you in for a defense session, where the claims of your research will be challenged. If you back up your work with solid evidence and successfully defend your thesis, you’ll be awarded your doctorate.
Once you have the highest degree in the field, there’s no denying you’ll be considered a certified historian. A Ph.D. may be a long way away but the sooner you get started on it, the sooner it will be within reach.
Pursue Your Passion for History with an Undergraduate Degree
If you’re a high school graduate (or on the verge of finishing), it’s time to take the next step to becoming a historian. Picking a college with a recognized and reputable program in history is essential to advancing toward your dream career.
Seek out schools such as North Central College that offer exciting, in-depth undergraduate degrees that provide students with a deep understanding of U.S. and world history. If you’re looking to break into a career and gain historical work experience, a university like North Central that provides work placement in the field can help you get your foot in the door.
Moving forward on your path toward becoming a historian is a big task, but one step leads to another and, soon enough, the journey will be history.
Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 13 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
Magritte, R. (n.d.). "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."--george Santayana, the life of reason, 1905. from the series great ideas of western man. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/those-who-cannot-remember-past-are-condemned-repeat-it-george-santayana-life-reason-1905
The United States Government. (2022, December 23). Abraham Lincoln. The White House. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/abraham-lincoln/
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, March 31). Historians. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193093.htm
Swanston, B. (2022, September 14). Applying to grad school: Forbes Advisor's application checklist. Forbes. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/education/applying-to-grad-school/
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