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 ( ) 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:

There 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:

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 at the American Historical 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 "private" sector. 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 . This makes it much easier to understand requirements and things like financial aid.

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
History Department Home Page

last updated 8/31/2009