Would You Like a Career With That? History Beyond Traditional Teaching

“I love history – but I don’t want to teach.”

At some level, you are a little out of luck. One of the most important things about history is communicating research to others – and in that regard, the person trained as a historian is always teaching. But if by “teaching” you mean standing up in front of Junior High students and talking about the Gettysburg address, then I get what you are saying.

What can you do with a history degree other than teach? At CWU, an important part of advising and the History 302 and History 481 courses is a discussion of what students can do with their history degree, including careers beyond the traditional classroom.

Get Creative – Get Entrepreneurial

In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers approached a professor at the University of Montana about a research project. Unable to or uninterested in the work, he pushed it off to one of his students – Alan Newell – who turned to Gary Williams, a recent MA graduate unable to afford the PhD program he was accepted to in California. Together, the two founded Historical Research Associates, a private firm that helps public and private parties engage in natural resource management, historical research, and litigation support. The company works on topics related to Native American land rights to the history of roads in Utah and developing historical apps for smart phones. HRA has offices across the United States (including Seattle) and employs historians in many facets of the operation. You can find out more about HRA here.

Gary Williams later left HRA to pursue a more personalized approach to research and develop a research niche. His firm – Heritage Research Center – has employed as many as forty people around the United States – which varies according to the needs of the firm. Employees see a starting pay of twenty-five dollars an hour (Mr. Williams stressed this point with me when we talked about his business), and carries out research projects all over North America. You can find out more about HRC here.

What does this story mean for you? Networking, creativity, and the application of the skills acquired during your BA and MA in history are the key to a great career moving forward. Even if you despise the idea of thinking about history as “vocational,” you still have to admit that a history degree gives you a broad range of opportunities by virtue of teaching you how to think and communicate.

The research, writing, analysis, and information synthesis skills of a history student are far beyond what your peers in STEM and business fields are exposed to – so turn that to your advantage. But how do you do that? Get creative and think expansively, because history does not lock you into a single career path.

At the heart of historical research is looking at the past and asking new questions – of creatively considering new ways of reading documents and the discovery of texts, images, or material artifacts that nobody has considered before. The same goes for finding a niche for your employment future. Can you merge your history skills with other passions like art, science, cooking or something else to work for an existing company or create your own?

For example, I recently attended the game developer conference PAX-Dev in Seattle as part of a College of Arts and Humanities teaching grant on incorporating games into the classroom. I spoke with game developers (video and table top) from mega-companies like Wizards of the Coast and Blizzard to indie creators starting out – and they all agreed that writing quality, problem solving, and historical knowledge (for game accuracy) were skills their companies wanted for scripting, design, and concept work. There wouldn’t happen to be any history majors at CWU that like video and table top games, would there?

Add Skills to Your Tool Box – and Sell Those Skills

Non-governmental organizations, the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, legal firms, film studios – these are just a few examples of entities that employ history grads. Not because they know the names of all the officers at the Battle of Celaya (though that is pretty cool), but because of their research, writing, and analytical skills.

Your peers in STEM and Business can’t write and research like you can – but you can’t stop there. The history major large plan at CWU only requires 79 credits. Use some of your time to pick up courses in the basics of geographic information systems (GIS), coding, communications, political science, tourism management, botany – whatever might give you additional skills that match with your interests and goals. If you are a small-plan major, try to think creatively about your minor. Will it be museum studies or anthropology (both great), or will it be economics, physics or computer science? Don’t even get me started on what mastering a language will do for your marketability.

While attending the 2007 World History Association meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I presented on a panel with a historian of the Caucasus. His employer? A giant text-book company. This particular scholar leveraged his skills as a historian to enter publishing where he finds authors, edits books, and travels around the globe researching and presenting – all while working for Oxford University Press.

Use Your Resources

The CWU History Department has three formal internships with great practical experience that will bolster that CV: The Washington State Archive Central Branch, the Ellensburg Public Library, and the Kittitas County Museum. What a great way to get college credit and practical work experience – which is why it is such a shame when we only get one or two applicants for each internship or students who intern but don’t do it for credit.

Internships, conference presentations at Phi Alpha Theta or other organizations, volunteer work – all of these are great ways to use resources provided to you by the University to deepen your experience. They also allow you to build professional networks. And don’t forget the basics of just doing your best in your class work instead of looking for shortcuts to get around an assignment: Your skills will improve but you’ll also win over your instructors and make them part of your career and mentoring network.

In Sum

The personal philosophy of history influences the ability of the history student when it comes to the job market. If all history is to you is a series of entertaining stories, you may have trouble finding ways to look beyond the use of history for the job market. If, on the other hand, your philosophy leaves room for history as a creative endeavor of inquiry after knowledge that links you to other people, you might just be able to imagine something more: You can creatively conceptualize how the skills you acquire as an undergraduate or grad student can solve global problems, network you into a career you might actually like, and allow you to “teach” history in ways that you will love.

A Short List of Resources:

For more on Public History jobs and careers (and some other examples of thinking creatively for jobs in history), see the National Council on Public History.

For a great data base of NGO and Public Service careers, see Idealist.org.

For more on the State Department and the Foreign Service Exam.

For careers at the CIA.

For more on tech companies and liberal arts degrees, see Forbes.

For an example of teachers – particularly professors or those teaching in history – that opted for different career paths, see Out-Ac at The Professor Is In blog.

Jason Dormady, Associate Professor of Latin American History, Central Washington University.


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