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History Department

Employment and the Humanities

As history majors, you have likely all heard at some time from friends and family: "History, eh? What are you going to do with that?" or "What job does that prepare you for?" or even worse, "What a useless degree!"

It is true that career choices for history majors, like all liberal arts students, are not as straightforward as they are for someone in a more technical or specialized major, but that certainly does not mean that there are no career opportunities for our graduates. In fact, as Howard Figler has written in his best-selling The Complete Job Search Handbook, earning a liberal arts degree assures you of one clear advantage: "Your broad education will provide that most precious of commodities in today's labor market -- flexibility."

Our departmental historians recognize that a history major does not necessarily become a historian, just as a psychology major might not choose to become a practicing psychologist. The history graduate may choose to pursue a career in law, journalism, teaching, the arts, business, or government, for example. But whatever the future holds, all of our graduates will discover they have developed very practical career skills while studying history. Robert Goodward, Director of Publications for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, has written an article titled "Why Hire Humanities Graduates?" in which he concludes: "More than any other curriculum, the liberal arts train people to think critically about concepts and society, look at the big picture and analyze cause and effect relationships, break an idea or situation into component parts and put it back together again."

As a history faculty we also hope that we will nurture your love of history as a discipline that gives us all so much insight into the questions we share about the human experience. History is at the core of a liberal arts education, and as such it enriches the quality of our lives beyond what money can buy. Our goals for all history majors are simply this: that as people who are liberally educated, you will be able to (1) discern who you are and what you value, (2) articulate what your career goals are, (3) become eminently marketable as a job seeker, and (4) develop a humane philosophy of life based on your historical studies while continuing to educate yourself after college.

Finally, we must emphasize the long-term value of a liberal arts education in the areas of career satisfaction, advancement, financial stability, and quality of life.

The Humanities: Jobs and the Real World

"It is a frequently-held misconception that a liberal arts degree is limiting for graduates entering the workforce. But research shows, to the contrary, that the liberal arts provide a solid background -- no matter what the major -- representing the best opportunity for long-term professional success. A classic liberal arts education has formed the cornerstone of education for centuries, virtually throughout the world. We will demonstrate how the humanities contribute to the development of decision-making skills, critical thinking skills, and breadth of knowledge that are requisite to professional development in any sphere.

Arguments for a Liberal Arts Education: The presumption has long been that to pursue a degree in the humanities was to opt for a cut in pay upon graduation. But research tells a different story: a study tracking the salaries of liberal arts graduates from the University of Virginia between 1971 and 1981 reported the mean salary to be $30,000 [$50,820 in 2000 dollars]; 21% earned $50,000 [$84,700 in 2000 dollars] or more; and 14% earned $60,000 [$101,640 in 2000 dollars] or more (Benner & Hitchcock, 1984). Similarly, a survey of liberal arts graduates from Pennsylvania State showed that, although they started at lower salaries than their counterparts in professional programs, over a period of time liberal arts graduates outdistanced the field in every one of those occupations in salaries (Paulson, 1980). Salaries for liberal arts graduates may start out lower than those of graduates from professional programs, but in as few as three years' time, the liberal arts graduate stands to fare better, not worse, than the student who has taken a degree in a more technical field.

The long-range career success of humanities graduates is most certainly due to the broad range of skills the liberal arts graduate brings to the job market -- skills that include strong written and oral communication, interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and adaptability -- the very skills employers are seeking (Murphy & Jenks, 1982). These skills translate into enhanced advancement potential, as well as a greater quotient of job satisfaction (Murphy & Jenks, 1982). [Editor's note: as further evidence of career advancement benefits, recent research indicates that about 60% of the nation's CEOs have a liberal arts degree]

In particular, liberal arts graduates are touted for their verbal and written communication skills, as well as their interpersonal skills. These skills help humanities graduates at every stage of their working life, from the interview process on. A full 91% of graduates from University of Virginia's College of Arts and Sciences agreed that a liberal arts education provided the best undergraduate preparation for their careers ten years following graduation (Benner & Hitchcock, 1984).

Those students are no doubt aware that their work in the humanities prepared them to continue to learn on the job, an ability executives from General Motors, AT&T and Far West Laboratories, among others, agree is critical to long-term career advancement. One of the greatest assets a liberal arts graduate brings to the job market, R. W. Goddard argues, is that their education ‘has taught them how to learn how to learn' (1986). Former General Motors Chairman Roger Smith sees generalists such as liberal arts graduates as ideal candidates for higher level management positions precisely because the generalist is not limited by a narrow specialty (Smith, 1981).

Stanley Paulson suggests that this broader focus contributes to greater job satisfaction for the humanities graduate. He cites a study which finds that as many as 80% of the liberal arts graduates surveyed reported high satisfaction with their jobs -- compared to a 46% satisfaction rate for engineers. Paulson accounts for the discrepancy by noting that the liberal arts graduate ‘does not have highly fixed expectations' pertaining to a specific job, since training in the liberal arts is not job-specific.

Quality of Life: A Way of Seeing: The humanities provide more than an avenue toward a successful career, however; the humanities disciplines contribute to a way of seeing the world that is perhaps measurable in its effect on quality of life. In a recent essay, Earl Shorris discusses how integrated exposure to the humanities influences the lives of two cohorts of uneducated urban poor. Shorris developed the Clemente Course, a year-long curriculum designed to provide poor people with an introduction to the concerns around which the humanities center -- literature, art, logic, history, and philosophy. After only two years' experience with the course, the findings are astonishing: the humanities, he contends, teach people to reflect rather than react, to negotiate instead of using force. The humanities make people rich, Shorris insists, not in terms of money, but in terms of life."

The Liberal Arts and a History Education

Having looked at the advantages of a liberal arts education in general, now let us look at the history degree in particular. As we have already stated, history is at the core of the liberal arts. History as a discipline plays an integrative role in liberal learning, since its essence is a search for the connectedness of human experiences. History looks for the linkages between economics, politics, society, culture and thought, and religion, and attempts to create a holistic understanding of the past. So while history incorporates the fundamental elements of liberal learning found in the other liberal arts, it also serves to integrate liberal studies while developing an understanding of historical development and its relevance for the present and future. The American Historical Association has recently stated it best: "In sum, history is at the heart of liberal learning, as it equips students to: (1) participate knowledgeably in the affairs of the world around them, drawing upon understandings shaped through reading, writing, discussions, and lectures concerning the past, (2) see themselves and their society from different times and places, displaying a sense of informed perspective and a mature view of human nature, (3) read and think critically, write and speak clearly and persuasively, and conduct research effectively, (4) exhibit sensitivities to human values in their own and in other cultural traditions and , in turn, establish values of their own, (5) appreciate their natural and cultural environments, (6) respect scientific and technological developments and recognize their impact on humankind, (7) understand the connections between history and life." In addition to these aspects of personal education and maturation, historical study also develops the following essential skills so desired by employers:  

  • Ability to conduct research and synthesize ideas
  • Ability to clarify problems or situations
  • Ability to document a conclusion and present it clearly and logically
  • Ability to interpret both past and present events
  • Ability to read carefully and extract relevant data
  • Ability to concentrate for long periods of time
  • Ability to discern long-term developmental trends within complex data
  • Ability to assess conflicting interpretations of data
  • Critical thinking, analytical thinking, and problem solving skills
  • Communication proficiency (both oral and written forms)
  • Organization (of information and people)
  • Proficiency for accurate detail
  • Appreciation of ethical concerns
  • Interpersonal relations skills
  • Leadership and management skills
  • A broad knowledge of economics, social dynamics, political events, cultural formation, and interaction between these forces in history


The National Association of Colleges and Employers Salary Survey for September 1999 (Volume 38 Issue 4) indicates that college graduates with a History B.A. were at that time receiving starting salary offers on average of $28,557, with Education positions averaging $27,723, Museums/Cultural careers averaging $28,667, and Research organizations averaging $30,500. There were even history majors entering careers in investment banking starting at $37,000 and in consulting services at $40,545. This compares favorably to business majors starting at an average salary of $33,217 and science majors starting at an average salary of $33,036. Though liberal arts graduates often start careers with salaries slightly lower than those from business and the sciences, studies show that within just a few years liberal arts graduates outpace graduates from business and sciences in earnings and career advancement (as the salary figures in the above essay "The Humanities: Jobs and the Real World" have already indicated).

This is because you will have been educated rather than trained in your college experience, and therefore you possess the skills that will enable you to advance beyond the job training aspects of any career and take on leadership roles. Just identify how many skills you will develop as a history major from this list of the most desired employment skills according to Fortune 500 Companies (in order of importance): Teamwork, Problem Solving, Interpersonal Skills, Oral Communication, Listening, Personal/Career Development, Creative Thinking, Leadership, Goal Setting/Motivation, Writing, Organizational Effectiveness, Computation, Reading. With the exception of computation, you shall have ample opportunity to develop all these skills as a history major. So have confidence that you will be very competitive on the job market after graduation, no matter what career path you choose. You need only discern your own career interests and then use your undergraduate education to prepare yourself for your chosen career path (or paths!).