History Majors and the Job Market: What Can Faculty Do?

Gabriel Loiacono

Today's guest post about the post-college world for history majors is from Gabriel Loiacono. He is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. He is currently working on a book titled Paupers and Overseers: Five Lives Shaped by the Poor Law in Early Republican Rhode Island. Welcome Gabe!

A few weeks ago, a student from my introductory U.S. history course came to my office to talk about careers that he might find as a history major. I’ll call him “Rocky.” Rocky told me that his brother had graduated from a nearby university as a history major, but is now unemployed. A friend of Rocky’s, also a graduated history major, found work as a janitor, but Rocky is hoping to find work that could more directly make use of his history degree. Rocky, to say the least, is worried.

He came to me because I have volunteered to be my department’s “jobs czar” (which is my term and one that did not win consensus in my otherwise quite congenial department). This is not to say that I hand out jobs to our graduates. Would that I could! Rather, I am beefing up our web resources on careers for history majors and organizing events aimed at helping our students tackle the job market. I also talk to a lot of students, perhaps one or two a week, about the job market. I feel like a cross between a cheerleader and a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman. “Your history major,” I tell students, “can clean almost any surface”

Well, of course, I’m not glib like that. I’m quite serious. I am a believer in the power of history majors to write well, to think critically, to read analytically, and to succeed at a wide variety of careers that require those skills. I parrot the American Historical Association which, in its webpage asking the question “What can you do with an undergraduate degree in history?” answers “Many, many things.” In previous incarnations of this webpage, the AHA’s response to their own question was: “the short answer is anything.” By comparison, the newer version sounds a bit wiser and more chastened. It is still pretty optimistic, though. The AHA goes on to say “As a liberal arts major, of course, the world is your oyster.”

The world is your oyster? Of course?

Now don’t get me wrong. I really do believe that a history major’s skills can equip her or him for many careers. And I tell my students to think broadly about potential careers: they don’t have to be teachers or museum curators, as wonderful as those careers are. They could also be insurance claims investigators or even physicians. Over at the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea has been gathering examples of history majors with great but unexpected careers. Many others have also made the case for studying history very eloquently, on this blog, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and at the AHA’s Perspectives, where AHA President Anthony Grafton has articulated the value of having scholars at work in history as a defense against “attacks” on history as a discipline.

But I think that members of the AHA, the Historical Society, others, and I need to do more to make the world feel more oyster-like for history majors. Rocky, my student, has chosen a history major because he already believes in the innate value of studying history. But he also needs a job when he graduates, and he could use our help. I think he deserves our concerted efforts to show the rest of the world that he and other history majors will be great new hires, in a variety of professions.

It is good to cheerlead, to remind society of the value of having scholars working in history, and to remind history majors of the useful skills they acquire in college. We should also, though, be working harder to demonstrate to a largely skeptical world that history majors succeed in many careers. How can we help history majors market themselves? How can we be sure that employers know the gem that a well-trained history major is? How can we help more students to make the brave choice that Rocky has, to major in history despite his very concrete concerns about his employability in a couple years?