So what are you going to do with a History degree?
I’m guessing you’ve all experienced it, and as graduation looms ever closer you’re starting to dread that conversation more and more, maybe because even you start to internalize your uncle’s worry that a History major won’t easily translate to the so-called “real world” of gainful employment. Maybe nightmare scenarios are starting to dance through your head, of post-graduation life in your parents’ basement and resumés that nobody reads past “BAH History.” Why didn’t I study computing at Waterloo?
Back in first year when you chose history as a major, you weren’t thinking about practicality—you just loved your history courses and did well in them. Perhaps the world and its past fascinated you. But now things are starting to get real. So what do you say?
There are lots of things you could say, that you are becoming an expert in an area of the world, that you are developing the skills and curiosity to be a lifelong learner and a thinking, informed citizen, and all of these are perfectly true, but your uncle isn’t convinced and maybe at some deeper level you aren’t either.
So try this one out for size, and see if you like it:
“I’m training as a researcher/analyst.”
That slash between researcher and analyst is essential, because all useful research requires analysis, and all useful analysis requires research.
Your history courses, if we are doing our job, are training you to know where to go—well beyond Google—to find books, articles, documents, and multimedia sources where you look for answers to historical questions. You know how to use footnotes and bibliographies and search terms and databases to track down more information. You know how to keep a record of where everything comes from. That’s research.
We also try our best to train you to read books and articles and primary sources critically, to discern and judge the quality of their information and the logic of their arguments, to think about viewpoints and agendas, to separate what is useful and credible from the irrelevant noise, and to decide who makes the most convincing case when authors disagree. That’s analysis.
Even if your courses deal with the Crusades or gender roles in Colonial India, these practical skills of research-slash-analysis are:
1. Unquestionably job-relevant in a knowledge economy, and
2. In shorter supply than you might think.
How do hedge fund billionaires make their money? Some trade on confidential insider information they’ve cultivated through their web of contacts (even though that’s basically illegal). Some write mathematical algorithms to automatically buy or sell when a stock or bond goes above or below a certain value. But many make their money by finding publicly available information about a corporation (or a country), by subjecting documents to rigourous analysis, judging the accuracy of what they report, discerning essential truths while separating out the lies, the BS, the noise, and the hype. Research/analysis.
How do governments make policy? Looking at what has worked in other places, costing out options, figuring out who stands to gain and lose, again separating out the signal from the noise. Research/analysis.
What do risk management consultants do? Research/analysis, which they present to their clients in written reports (same thing you do in essays) or public presentations (same thing you do in seminars).
How do lawyers win trials? Finding and presenting applicable legal precedents to place the facts of their case in the most favourable light. Research/analysis.
I have spent hours in judicial archives in South America, side-by-side with attorneys working in those same documents. I was looking for different things, for different reasons, but our methods were nearly identical. I once used my historian’s training to write a deposition in a lawsuit (on behalf of an academic journal), only to see my words reordered into numbered paragraphs by some kid just out of law school, billing $800 an hour. Don’t believe for a minute that your skills cannot command value in the marketplace.
But I’m not going to sugar-coat this: although there are far-thinking employers out there who know that historians make excellent researchers/analysts, there are likely more—people just like your uncle—who don’t. Corporations don’t send out recruiters to history departments the way they do to Commerce or Computing programs. If your goal is to break into business or government with a history degree, it’s going to be on you to sell yourself and to sell the job-readiness and job-relevance of your skills. And you may have to do some extra work to make the sales job believable.
Some break through the ignorance and prejudice and get their foot in the corporate or government door by earning a second degree: a Master’s of Public Administration or Industrial Relations, an MBA, a law or journalism degree.
But there are other ways, too. Choose your electives strategically, to develop demonstrable skills—a foreign language, or some evidence of numeracy, or a certificate in something that sounds employment-relevant. Study abroad. Find an internship through the department or through one of Queen’s other programs. Use your extracurriculars to build a wealth of experience and a portfolio of work you can actually show.
But above all, when talking to your uncle or particularly in a job interview, learn to have confidence that you have been trained in job-relevant skills, and learn how to talk about what those skills are. If you decide that it works for you to call yourself a researcher/analyst, don’t hesitate or doubt yourself for a minute. When you walk out of Queen’s with a History degree, you’ll have earned that right.
David S. Parker
Associate Professor and Acting Chair of Undergraduate Studies