Advice for History Students
considering Graduate School
(By: Belle Tuten)
This is an attempt to address some of the questions I have been asked
about choosing graduate study in History. I'm always glad to talk
about these things with students, so come by and see me, or email ( firstname.lastname@example.org
) if you want to discuss anything related to graduate study. Most of this
document relates to college teaching, so if you are thinking about other
things, you can ignore those parts.
(Disclaimer: what follows contains solely my own opinion
about graduate study, which you should take for what it's worth.)
1. Why study history in the first place?
There is a reason why, if you ask your history prof "What can I do
with a history degree?" he or she will sputter before answering. History
is not, like some undergraduate majors, automatically pluggable into a
series of very finite jobs that look logical to a college freshman, in
the same way that a Criminal Justice major might plug into, say, a police
or state patrol academy. History is good for any job that requires
good English skills, the ability to perform independently, the ability
to condense large amounts of information (essential in business), and the
ability to think critically and to make judgments between opposing points
of view. So the answer to the question "What can I do?" is really "Whatever
you want." (If you want to, you can check out the American Historical Association's
publication Careers for Students of History. Come see our copy in
the department. Or look at this excellent essay by Peter Stearns, "Why
Study History?") The key is: think about what you might like to do and plan to gain experience via internships or other avenues during your time in college.
2. Why would I pursue graduate study in History?
That said, let's look at jobs that require advanced degrees. The MA applies to a number of fields:
- MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching): a good way to get certified to teach if you didn't while an undergrad. Also a way to achieve a higher pay grade as a high school teacher.
- MA in history or museum management: for those who want to run historic homes, historical societies, etc. These are jobs that will make you happy, if you truly love them, but will not make you rich.
- MLS (Master of Library Science). Library science is a nice choice for those who love research and learning; access to information is one of the most important, but least understood, requirements of the 21st century. There are many types of careers in library science.
- JD (Juris Doctor); study in history works very well as a prelude to law school.
- An MA in history is a good thing, but it will not lead you to a particular job unless you do your planning ahead of time.
are a few jobs, one of which is four-year college teaching, that require
the PhD. Upper-level positions in archives and museums also require the
PhD, but not necessarily in History. Most upper-level college administrators
(Deans, etc.) also have doctorates.
3. What kind of work would I be in for?
Generally, the expectations are similar for the MA and the PhD; they
are just more strenuous at the upper level. Different degree programs have
different requirements, so it's best for you to look directly at the school
you're interested in. Here are a few things you can be sure about:
Getting in. This, of course, could be a page all its own. For right
now, expect to write an essay, provide transcripts and letters of recommendation,
and take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam)
general test. The subject test in history, which used to be required by
some programs, has been phased out. Law school requires the LSAT.
Course work. A Master's course work can be anywhere from a year
to two years. The PhD usually requires at least another two to three years
beyond that, except in the case of an "Incidental" MA (see below). The average time it takes to complete a PhD in the United States is eight years. I took six, but I know many people who took longer, some as long as 10.
Exams. Most graduate degrees in history (not for library science) require some sort of comprehensive
exam at the end of course work. What's involved is usually a reading list
developed by you and your advisor, a written portion and an oral portion
before a committee. The topics and number of fields vary by program.
Languages. This sometimes comes as a shock to students. Although you can avoid languages with a master's in American history, you absolutely
CANNOT get a PhD without passing a reading competence test in at least
two, and often three, foreign languages that are applicable to your field.
Languages are also required for many MAs. Even students in American History
normally have to do at least one. It's impossible to get through graduate
study without languages (so if graduate study is in your plan, be sure
to do some languages while you're still an undergrad!).
Thesis. Most MA degrees in history require a thesis (length varies,
but in the neighborhood of 100-200 pages), and all PhD degrees in history
require a dissertation (average length I would guess to be in the 300-400
page range, but I knew a woman who wrote 1200 pages!). This is supposed
to involve original research which you carry out under the supervision
of an advisor in your department. Most theses must be defended orally before
a panel of professors either before or after they are written, depending
on the program.
"Incidental" MA: Many PhD programs will not accept a student who
wants what they term a "terminal" MA - in other words, a student who is
planning to stop once they get a Master's. Some of these programs allow
the student to go right into PhD course work and award the MA after a certain
number of years in the PhD program. I call this an "Incidental" MA because
you hardly even notice you got it.
4. How much will this cost me?
For the PhD, if you're lucky, you can get a fellowship (requiring no work) or an
assistantship (requiring some teaching or other work) from your graduate
program. These are, I believe, more widely available at expensive private
schools and at the PhD level. It won't cost you as much, in general, as
a four-year BA would at the same school, but if you already have a lot
of debt you may want to consider whether you want to accumulate more. This
is, of course, true for any graduate study.
There are limited opportunities for funding for MA degrees of any kind; inquire at the school you're interested in.
In today's economy, it does not make sense to go for an advanced degree unless you are sure it will pay off for you in the long run.
5. I want to be a professor. What's the job market like for college teachers?
Terrible. It's better than in the 1980s, when PhDs were
coming out by the score unable to find employment, but the job market is
difficult and unpleasant. I have statistics in my office, or you can look
Association journal Perspectives,
which always has good information, or the H-Net
Jobguide. These include the latest job advertisements, so you can see
what's up with jobs. Jobs have tended in recent years to be slightly more
plentiful for those who study non-Western history, such as Asian and African
history. European and American history are the most popular and also the
tightest jobwise. You should be fully advised of this before you decide
to try a career in academia.
BUT: I know PhDs in history who have very good jobs in the so-called
According to the AHA, 17.5 percent of graduating PhDs in 1996 were planning
to seek jobs outside academia. Depending on how you construct your degree
and marketable skills, there are of other jobs for PhDs. As it does
in college, the job you end up in depends to a very large degree on what
you do while you're in school to give yourself marketability.
Graduate Programs and Job Listings
You can find out more about MA and PhD programs via the internet or through web sites such as http://www.gradschools.com/ . This
makes it much easier to understand requirements and things like financial
Some other helpful links:
Society of American Archivists
American Library Association Library and Information Science Programs
Preservenet for historic preservation
Public History Resource Center jobs site
Belle Tuten's Home Page
last updated 8/31/2009