I just ran across “History Majors in the Job Market,” a report chronicling the career paths of college graduates who studied history in the Vanderbilt University History Department between 1996 and 2001. The study is a bit old, but it is still worth a look.
30% of Vanderbilt history majors from this era are working in business. 24% are lawyers or were attending law school. 17% are working in the field of education (at all levels).
Of the 30% of Vanderbilt history majors working in the world of business, over half are working in finance or as an “analyst.”
Other Vanderbilt history graduates are working in museum administration, journalism, editing, publishing, counseling, politics, data management, and consulting.
90% of Vanderbilt history graduates from this period “reported that the history major had been directly and significantly useful to them.
Here are some survey-based conclusions:
It quickly becomes clear from the survey data presented above that a graduating history major possesses a vast number of career options. Many of these options, moreover, do not have any obvious or direct connection to the subject matter of history itself; rather, they involve lines of work that make use of the broader underlying skills and habits of mind that the Vanderbilt history curriculum helps to cultivate and hone.
Thus, there are two basic ways to think about the career prospects of a history major: the “narrow” and the “wide.” Both are equally valid, but they differ considerably in their assumptions and practical consequences.
The “narrow” conception is defined by the assumption that, in one’s job, one will somehow be directly applying the knowledge learned in one’s history classes. This assumption leads one to consider primarily those lines of work that bear a fairly close connection with history as an academic field: teaching, museum work, historic preservation, archival or library work.
The “wide” conception, by contrast, places less emphasis on the content of the history curriculum, and focuses instead on the underlying sets of analytical and verbal skills that one acquires in the process of studying history. Critical reading and reflection, synthesizing and organizing large amounts of information in preparation for exams, writing and revising research papers and essays, sharpening one’s ideas in class discussion with professors and fellow students — these form the basis for a much broader and more general conception of what one has to offer prospective employers in the job market.
This theme recurred like a Leitmotif in the alumni responses to our survey: the history major gives you key “foundation skills” that place you at a tremendous competitive advantage in the practice of almost any career. In a world in which many of us will have to change lines of work many times during our lives, the flexibility afforded by these foundation skills becomes all the more precious. In a professional environment characterized by rapidly evolving challenges and demands, following upon continual shifts in the nature of the global marketplace, most employers will not be seeking highly-specialized experts in narrowly-defined subjects, but rather well-rounded individuals who can think for themselves, adapt to new demands, recognize new opportunities, and chart their own paths into unfamiliar territory. These, according to our alumni, are precisely the habits of mind that the history department excels at cultivating in its majors.
The site also includes several alumni testimonials about how they are using their history degrees. These testimonials are from:
- an equity research associate
- a sales trader with Merrill Lynch
- an attorney and public defender in Lexington, Kentucky
- a political campaign organizer in Nashville, Tennessee
- a U.S. Army Major and instructor at West Point
- a divinity school student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi
- a human resource management specialist
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