What is a History Degree?

Heroic rulers, tragic battles, ancient civilizations—these are just some of the fascinating topics you’ll explore during a history degree.

One of the best things about history degrees is how broad they are. In this field, you’ll study everything from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the American Civil War. You’ll learn about cultures both familiar and strange, covering political movements, ancient traditions, and everything in between.

But history is more than the study of the past; it’s also a pathway to understanding the future. On your path to becoming a historian, you’ll use sources like books, letters, and artifacts to learn about events from long ago. You’ll also analyze the trends and impacts of these historic occurrences, examining how they’ve influenced contemporary ideas.

Think a history degree might be for you? In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about this educational path, including:

  • What types of history degrees are there?
  • What’s the difference between getting a degree in history, political science, and anthropology?
  • What skills do you gain from a history degree?
  • What can you do with a history degree?

Program Options

Should you go to a community college or a university? Study part-time or full-time? Do you need a history degree or will a certificate suffice?

There are lots of ways to study history, which can make finding the right degree challenging. Consider your personal career goals, interests, lifestyle, and budget before making your choice. Here are just a few of the most common history degrees to consider:

Associate Degree in History - Two Year Duration
Offered by local community colleges, associate degrees consist of 60 credits of coursework. They are an entry point into historical studies, focusing on introductory courses like world history and historiography. Associate degrees usually take about two years of full-time study to complete. Although there are some career options available after graduation, most students eventually use the credits from their associate degree to transfer into a bachelor’s program.

Bachelor’s Degree in History - Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s degrees are usually four-year, 120-credit programs. They are offered at larger colleges and universities, and provide a more expansive foundation than associate programs do. Most programs start with a year or two of general historical studies, then offer opportunities to take more specialized subjects. This degree tends to involve a lot of writing, reading, and research.

Master’s Degree in History - Two Year Duration
If you’re interested in pursuing a teaching career or eventually completing a PhD, a master’s degree is for you. These programs are much more specialized than bachelor’s degrees are, and typically involve more research. In a master’s, you’ll have the chance to focus deeply on a particular region, time period, or historical period. You’ll also read articles and books by prominent historians, learn historical methods, and compose some research papers of your own.

Doctoral Degree in History - Three to Seven Year Duration
If your goal is to become a history professor or pursue another highly specialized career, a PhD is a must. History PhDs are typically completed after a master’s program, and usually take at least three years to complete. These programs are highly specialized, research-intensive, and self-directed. You’ll take some courses, but the bulk of the degree will be dedicated to conducting your own research and writing a dissertation.

Degrees Similar to History

Because of its breadth, history overlaps with lots of different degrees. Political science and anthropology are two of the most closely related ones. But although these three degrees share some common features, they’re distinct in key ways. Here’s what sets history apart:

Political Science
Both history and political science explore political movements, theories, and events to some degree. But history emphasizes those that happened in the past, only touching on current events to highlight significance and impact. History also covers a more comprehensive range of activities, including religious, economic, and military aspects of social life. Political science, on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on politics, with an emphasis on the present day.

It can be difficult to differentiate between history and anthropology—particularly cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology is the study of human societies, cultures, and their development. Although studying this field can involve learning about ancient cultures (like in a history degree), it also covers more contemporary ones. In addition, anthropology degrees usually rely more heavily on fieldwork and artifact-based research than history degrees do.

Skills You’ll Learn

History degrees teach you more than just facts. They also help students develop a strong set of skills that can come in handy both personally and professionally. Here are a few of the most common ones:

Analytical Reasoning
A history degree will train you to think critically and creatively to solve problems of all kinds.

You’ll prepare lots of presentations and papers during your degree, building excellent skills in both oral and written communication.

You’ll learn to perform close readings, seek out appropriate sources, and assess and compile information—all key aspects of research.

Work Ethic
History degrees require students to master both team work and self-study; they also teach you to manage your own time and juggle multiple projects at once.

What Can You Do with a History Degree?

With these useful transferable skills, history graduates can pursue a wide range of careers. Here are just a few professional paths you might consider after a history degree:

Archival Work
Archival careers are all about preserving the past—an ideal fit for a history graduate. In this domain, you could end up as an archivist, helping to organize and protect ancient documents, photographs, manuscripts, and more. You might work in a government agency, a university, a museum, or even a hospital.

Library Professions
With their strong research and reading skills, history graduates can excel in the library world. Although many careers in this area require additional training, others, like library assistant, can be completed with only a bachelor’s or associate degree. In a library job, you’ll help others access important sources and resources to conduct their own research.

Museum Curation
A job in a museum can be a dream for any history-lover. In this industry, you’ll use your knowledge of ancient cultures and historical events to help develop, promote, and manage history-themed exhibits of all kinds. A few example careers include museum education officer, gallery curator, and museum exhibitions officer.

Cultural Heritage Management
The field of cultural heritage management is concerned with identifying, maintaining, and preserving the richness of the past. This can involve anything from creating protected cultural sites to overseeing the restoration of important buildings and monuments. History graduates, with their expansive historical knowledge, are ideally suited to many careers in this area.

It’s a bit of a stereotype, but it’s true: history majors make great teachers. Some finish their degree and become secondary teachers, while some take up private tutoring. Others continue studying and pursue a career as a college professor. Whatever path you choose, you’ll enjoy using your communication skills and passion for history to help others fall in love with the subject.

Publishing & Communications
History degrees tend to involve a lot of writing and research. For this reason, many students pursue a career in publishing or communications after graduation. From becoming an editor to a digital marketing specialist, there’s no shortage of options to consider. You might end up doing something related, like writing historical content for the tourism industry. But you could also take your skills and apply them to something else altogether, like advertising.

A Bachelor’s Degree in History is one of the 10 most common degrees held by law students. It’s not hard to see why. History majors learn to conduct research, think critically, review complex documents, analyze and compile detailed information, and construct compelling arguments. All of these qualities are ideally suited to a legal career.

Politics and Public Policy
Political campaign researcher, public policy analyst, lobbyist—these are just some of the political and policy-related jobs available to a history graduate. Although some of these positions will require additional training or experience, a degree in history provides an ideal foundation. Why? History graduates possess a deep understanding of historical policies, trends, and events and how they relate to contemporary society. They also know how to conduct research, communicate, and consider information from a “big-picture” perspective—all valuable qualities in the public sector.

Conducting and compiling research will come naturally to anyone who’s made it through a history degree successfully. This one skill alone is exceptionally valuable in many professions. You could become a fact-checker for a magazine, radio broadcaster, or film production company. You could be a market research analyst for a major corporation, find work in a consulting firm, or try something else entirely.

Case Study

Ever considered becoming an SEO specialist? Careers in search engine optimization (SEO) are all about helping businesses make it easier for customers to find their content on Google and other search engines. It’s a growing field with lots of career opportunities—and, often, an ideal match for history graduates.

Now that almost every company has a webpage, being “searchable” has become essential for running any business. SEO specialists make it possible by analyzing, reviewing, and altering or “optimizing” their clients’ websites. Success in this career requires strong writing and analytical skills, both of which history students possess. The day-to-day involves collecting large amounts of online information, thinking about it critically, and then condensing it into a few actionable points. Writing a compelling history essay involves the exact same tasks, which is why this career can be such a great fit.


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