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How to Become a Historian

Do you love history? Then perhaps the job of a historian appeals to you. Here is everything you need to know about this fascinating field.

What Does a Historian do?

A historian's job is to study the ideas, individuals, institutions, and events in the past. This is done through:

  •         Researching and interpreting events in the past
  •         Using costumes, tools, and photographs to learn about lifestyles in the past
  •         Relating knowledge from the past to problems or situations in the present day

Since history is very broad, historians usually will specialise in a certain country, region, or time period.  Other historians often will specialise in specific types of history. Some examples are historians that specialise in the history of:

  •         Immigration, women, ideas, or science
  •         Politics, economy, or social


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Where do Historians Work?

There are a variety of places in which a historian can work. 

  •  Universities and colleges – Historians who work in the academic sector will often teach, write, and research. 
  •  Archives –Archives are places in which historic documents, records, and a variety of other materials are collected as well as preserved.  Historians who work in archives are known as archivists and they collect objects such as historical documents for special libraries, historical societies, special libraries, and various other organizations.  They organize the historic materials and prepare exhibits for those who do the historical research. 
  •  Publishing firms – Some historians are hired by publishing firms where their job is editing magazines, history books, and many other similar materials.
  •  Media – Sometimes historians are called upon to consult for film, radio, and television producers.
  •  Self-employed – Sometimes a historian will write about the historic people or events in history.


As the name implies, most historians perform historical research.  This is usually done through reading about their subject. If a historian is researching a city, some of the things that they might examine are:

  •         Old maps
  •         Photographs
  •         Pictures
  •         Election returns
  •         Census records
  •         City directories
  •         Tax lists

They also often will go to more personal or in-depth resources, such as:

  •         Newspapers
  •         Interviews
  •         Diaries
  •         Residents
  •         Letters
  •         Church or temple records

They’re trained to analyse all of the information and sometimes use computerised data and statistical methods to learn more.  They piece together this information to create a picture of what that area was like during an era or event in the past. They generally will compile their findings into articles or books. They also might present these findings to historians, students, or other groups during lectures.

Entry Requirements and Qualifications

An advanced degree’s necessary to be hired as a historian.   With a history bachelor’s degree, it may be possible to get hired to perform historical research. However, advancement opportunities are going to be limited. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get a history bachelor’s degree and then go onto graduate study in law, business administration, journalism, or other fields.
  • Take one to two more years after getting a bachelor’s degree to get a history master’s degree and research, become an archivist, or teach. 
  • Take two to three more years after getting a master’s to get a doctoral degree to teach or become an administrator in a university.
  •  It’s also important to take some courses in the literature and language of the period and area of which you want to specialize.  Learning statistics is also important.
  •  Continue studying and reading through your career to keep up with the new information.

Getting Hired

There are a variety of places where a historian can find a job. 

  • Placement office at the university or college
  •  Professional journals
  •  Direct application to archives, universities or colleges, publishing firms, and government agencies

Job Outlook

A historian with a doctoral can become university or college professors. They’re also able to become administrators in archives, universities, colleges, or agencies in the government. A lot of historians advance through because they have increased their skills or they’ve published articles and books and won other scholars’ recognition.  Some of them also write books which will appeal to people who aren’t in their profession.  These authors often will be brought in to lecture.

The growth of the historian profession is slow, and most of the openings will be due to current historians retiring.  There will be a lot of competition for the academic positions but finding opportunities dealing with historic preservation will be easier, since the public interest in preserving as well as restoring the historical sites has been rising.

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