Gabe Loiacono, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and a reader of this blog, has challenged us to think about how we as history professors might help our students find jobs. He wants us to move beyond cheerleading and remind students that they have useful skills that can lead to successful careers.
Great stuff. It is the kind of thing I have been preaching for a couple of years here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home (thanks for the plug, Gabe) and the kind of stuff I have been trying to emphasize as the chair of the Messiah College History Department.
Just today I was chatting with a student who wants to switch majors from psychology to history. He loves history and really wants to study it, but he is worried about his job prospects.
What did I say to him?
First, I told him that job prospects are bad for everyone right now, so he is not alone.
Second, I told him that the job market is constantly changing. Very, very few 20-somethings today are doing exactly what they trained to do in college. Many will change so-called “careers” multiple times in the next two decades. As a result, majoring in history, a bedrock liberal arts discipline, will provide transferable skills that will serve him well in the future as he navigates this ever-changing world.
Third, I told him that he should think about what he wants to do with his life. Once he has a few options he should work with his history-department adviser to do everything possible to make his goals a reality. Internships and professional development experiences are key. If a student loves to study history, but wants to eventually work in the CNN newsroom, then perhaps he or she should get a summer internship in the newsroom at a local television station. We recently had a history major who wanted to go into real estate. She spent her summer interning at a real estate office doing research on historic preservation laws.
Fourth, we must equip students to be confident in the skills that they have acquired as history majors. Students need to learn how to sell these skills to potential employers. I recently heard about a high school history teacher who told the parents of his students at an open house night that “I was a history major in college and since you can’t do anything with that major, I decided to teach.” Don’t get me wrong, we need history majors in the classroom, but this student obviously never thought deeply about the kinds of skills he developed through the study of history.
Rather than apologizing to potential employers about being a history major, our students should enter job interviews boldly, discussing their ability to write, communicate, construct narratives out of the small details, listen, empathize, analyze, and think critically. We need to instill our students with confidence. At Messiah College we have developed, in conjunction with the campus Career Center, a brochure we give to all first-year students that walks them, year-by-year, through the career-development process. I think this kind of thinking should also find its way into the curriculum.
The particular student I talked to today wants to go into counseling. While I told him that if he decides to pursue this field he will need courses in psychology, I also stressed how history majors know how to empathize, understand, and listen to people. Granted, most of those people are dead, but attempting to understand before judging is at the heart of the historical discipline.
Or consider the letter I recently received from a CEO of a finance company in Raleigh, NC. (I have posted this before). Here is a taste:
Any good and well rounded liberal arts education is a strong foundation for business. Ultimately, you have to be able to write, speak, and think. Still, for me, history is singularly the best discipline for success in business. In history, you learn and become immersed in why people and groups do things over an extended period of time. History validates that people and organizations act in clear, recognizable patterns. You also learn about human nature. Behavior becomes very predictable, which is vital to understand in business because you have to be able to anticipate how people will behave; you have to stay ahead of actions.”
Like Gabe, I am absolutely convinced that history majors have a lot to offer. Yet we tend to honor those students who go to graduate school in history. (Largely because they want to be just like us). So often we hold them up as feathers in our caps–evidence that we are doing the right thing in educating them. I am not so sure that this is healthy. It is time that we develop a different kind of culture in our departments–a culture in which our model students are the ones who go into non-history or non-academic related fields where they can find meaningful and fulfilling work.
John, Let me just say how thrilled I am to be mentioned on your blog. I have arrived! Also, I should say that your series “So, what CAN you do with a history major?” gave me much inspiration and ammunition for talking about the subject on my own campus.
Also, I really like your point about tending to neglect students who do not go into teaching history in some form. I think we really need to show how much we value students who go into other fields. When I've contacted alumni of our history department, they've often responded apologetically that they don't do something history-related. It is hard to convince some of them that they don't have to apologize!
I would only add that while it is a great thing that you and others are working on this subject at various colleges throughout the country, I think we could benefit from more coordination and a sort of united offensive against the idea that history majors are not suited to do much in the work world. Your CEO from Raleigh is very heart-warming for me. But, for more CEOs to think like her or him, I think we have a lot of work to do!
I wish, in general, that people viewed a college education as less of a four-year vocational training. The pressure to answer what 'you're going to do' with your concentration seems ill-placed in conjunction with the supposed reasons people go to college in the first place.
When I decided to study History and Russian in college, my practical parents tried to talk me out of it. I chose these fields simply because I thought they were interesting, and I am now employed in a non-profit that works with the Former Soviet Union. I am not living in luxury, but it isn't a box, either.
On a snarkier note, I definitely think that the demands placed on history majors ought to make them MUCH more employable than those who graduate with degrees like 'communications,' which I actually see listed explicitly on more job ads.
Nat, this is a good point, you have: what happened to education for its own sake? And I'm inspired by how creative you've been in making your History and Russian (what a cool combination!) work.
Many of my students, though, have trouble imagining what kind of careers they might make. And their parents put them under pretty intense pressure too. For these reasons, I think I and other profs could help by working hard to help students, their parents, and the broader public see what history majors can do. One place to start is by trumpeting the career paths of alumni like you.