Did you recently complete a PhD in history?
Yes? Awesome! Congrats! Just one question:
No, really! Why did you choose to do a PhD, and why did you do it in history as opposed to, say, English, anthropology, philosophy, or marine biology?
We’re asking because, across our years of experience working with PhDs from all walks of academic life, the reasons they chose to do this or that degree often had very little to do with the particular subject matter involved.
Seriously, let’s stop and think about this for a second. What are history PhD students good at? What do they really like doing? A few choice talents might be:
- Working with large bodies of data
- Managing research projects
- Blowing dust off old books
- Analytical and synthetic writing
- Seeing things from someone else’s point of view (e.g. using actors’ categories)
- Making a huge deal out of seemingly inconsequential details
- Studying foreign languages
- Arguing for the sake of arguing
- Playing devil’s advocate
Okay, so some of those were jokes. But our point is, PhD students in history do all sorts of things over the course of their studies.
It’s truly remarkable how different one history dissertation is from the next. Some are data-driven research projects ensconced in social-scientific theory. Others are literary explorations of a particular time and place and fall firmly on the humanities side of the academic spectrum.
Today we’ll be looking at several jobs for history PhDs that take advantage of these myriad skills and experiences.
IMPORTANT! We’re NOT talking about “careers for people who like history” or “careers for history lovers.” We’re not going to tell you to go work in a museum or archive or at the History Channel or something (oh God no).
Quite the contrary: we’re discussing careers and jobs for history PhDs that are NOT history research jobs, that have NOTHING to do with historical subject matter. We’re looking at careers that take full advantage of the skills, interests, and aptitudes that inspired many of us to study history in the first place.
1. For the Number Crunchers: Library & Information Sciences
Librarianship is one of the best jobs for history PhDs who love working with data. This career path involves earning an MLIS (Masters of Library and Information Sciences) and working as an information specialist at either an actual library or a business.
As of course you know, librarians do way more than sort books. At its core, the job is about organizing and maintaining large bodies of information.
What’s more, most people with MLIS degrees don’t actually work in libraries. They go “beyond the stacks” (you can see why we like this term) and find jobs at small businesses, nonprofits, or major corporations.
If you’re the meticulous kind of research historian who enjoys compiling, organizing, and interpreting giant tables of data, librarianship may be the next logical step in your career.
What job titles to look for (apart from “Librarian”):
- Knowledge management specialist
- Information officer
- Information architect
- Database administrator
2. For the People-Wranglers: Project Management
When sifting through various jobs for history PhDs, did you ever come across project management careers?
Think about it. Every article you wrote, every course you taught, was also a project you managed.
In your dissertation, you drew from all kinds of primary and secondary sources and assembled them into a coherent manuscript. You obtained funding and managed budgets while on research trips. You corralled groups of dozens or even hundreds of students over the course of a semester.
Admittedly, jobs in project management are hard to pin down. That’s because they’re not typically defined by a concrete set of tasks and responsibilities. A “project” can be just about anything.
Instead, project management might best be described as “herding cats” or “people wrangling.” You manage a team, and your job is to make sure everything gets done on time.
Basically every job ad these days asks for “excellent communication skills.” But in the case of project management jobs, they actually mean it. You’re constantly giving directions to employees, answering customer questions, reporting to your superiors, etc.
But hey, if you genuinely liked micromanaging your dissertation research and working closely with your students, give project management some serious consideration.
What job titles to look for:
- Project manager
- Product manager (it’s different, trust us)
- Associate director
- Program development manager
3. For the Wordsmiths: Copywriting & Copyediting
For the literary-minded history students out there—those who embrace the term’s etymology as a chronicle, narrative, or type of storytelling—copyediting is a great career path that will take full advantage of your hard-earned writing skills.
As we’ve discussed before, there are all kinds of great writing jobs for history PhDs and PhD students in general.
But historians are particularly well suited to copywriting and copyediting. Copy, whether in print or (much more often) on websites, requires narrative flow. You may be writing about a particular product or service a business offers, and it’s your job to make it attractive and compelling.
In short, copywriters make arguments based on evidence. The audience is non-academic and your writing style may be more casual and conversational than an academic paper, but the basic principle is the same.
If you’re the historian who loves weaving together facts and figures into eloquent and readable prose, who spends half an hour combing thesaurus.com for just the right metaphor, give copywriting a shot.
What job titles to look for:
- Content writer
- Marketing copywriter
- Digital marketing writer
4. For the Head-Getter-Insiders: Market Research
There’s a particular skill history PhD students learn better than perhaps any other group of academics. There’s not really one word for it. It’s the ability to get inside someone else’s head and see things from their point of view.
This isn’t just about empathy and appreciating different perspectives on an issue. It also isn’t just about understanding human psychology (though that may play a role).
What we’re getting at here is more a state of mind. Historians use actors’ categories wherever possible. We shun “Whig history.” There’s no worse insult you can fling at a historian than the dreaded “P-word”—presentist.
It’s a fundamental goal of historical scholarship to understand the past from the perspective of those who lived it. As if the historian was actually there when it happened. As you study people and cultures from centuries past, you start to see the world from their perspective. You speak their language and use words as they would have used them. You appreciate their art, read their literature, study their philosophy, and (almost) believe in their religion.
Where are we going with all this? There are plenty of careers for history PhDs that take full advantage of our abilities to get inside someone else’s head.
Market research is the classic example. The profession is premised on studying groups of people and understanding their beliefs and motivations.
Typically, market researchers will study the target audience for a specific brand or product. Your job is to understand potential customers’ wants, needs, and “pain points” and devise a marketing strategy accordingly. In other words, you get inside their heads and see the world as they see it.
If you wrote your entire 500-page dissertation on (say) a single monastic village in medieval Armenia, if you reveled in uncovering a long-lost people and unraveling their thoughts and motivations, you may love market research and the chance to immerse yourself in another culture.
What job titles to look for:
- Market research analyst
- Insights analyst
- Market research interviewer
- Marketing data analyst
- Product research analyst
- Qualitative research analyst
5. For the Language Lovers: Software Development
Do you have any friends from grad school who went to coding bootcamp?
Software development (i.e. coding) is an increasingly popular choice among recovering academics, especially those who aren’t looking to dump another 2–5 years into another graduate program.
After all, programming languages are exactly that: languages. They have their own words, grammar, and syntax. Even better, they’re logical languages! No arbitrary pronunciations; no cavalcade of exceptions for every rule. Code follows a strict set of specifications that are complex but well within your ability to master.
A word of caution: coding bootcamps are very intense. We’re talking nine-hour days five days a week plus homework. Don’t expect to do anything else while attending a coding bootcamp.
What job titles to look for:
- Software developer
- Software engineer
- Automation engineer
This article has sought to demonstrate the broad range of jobs for history PhDs that go far beyond the subject matter of history.
Our message is simple. Forget about what you know. Focus on what you can do. Dwelling on your historical subject-matter expertise will severely limit your career options. There are tons of careers and jobs for history PhDs out there besides the stereotypical “history jobs” of professor, archivist, History Channel voiceover, etc.
Instead, think hard about what attracted you to studying history in the first place. Whether you wanted to hone your writing chops, manage research projects, study different cultures, or anything else, there must be something that piqued your interest.
Looking for more jobs for PhDs beyond the conventional academic career trajectory? Please check out our series of articles on careers for PhDs beyond the academy.
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