How to Become an
Historian

Man holding a note book while looking at a tree bark through a magnifiying glass

Are you passionate about history and interested in a career as an Historian? If so, this is the guide for you. It’s loaded with information on what it takes to become an Historian and what you need to know to get there.

What Does an Historian Do?

Historians study, interpret and share the past. Through research and analysis of historical documents, sources and artifacts, Historians learn new things about human history and present them to the public through writing or exhibits. Historians are often employed by the federal and local governments, universities and museums, but are also employed in many other industries.

Historians generally conduct research using a variety of historical sources, in order to build onto existing knowledge of past events, people, or ideas. They also may archive the documents and artifacts, and present historical information with the general public through articles, books and educational programs. Some common Historian duties and responsibilities include:

  • Gather Historical Data. Historians comb and inspect a variety of historical sources, such as records, newspapers, photographs, films, and artifacts, to find information relevant to their research.

  • Analyze Historical Information. Once Historians have historical sources and artifacts, they must inspect them for authenticity and theorize on their meaning and historical implications.

  • Write Reports, Articles and Books. Historians often share their research and findings through academic journals and published books.

  • Archive Historical Materials. Historians are often responsible for cataloging and archiving historical records and artifacts, in a way that is searchable and focused on preservation.

  • Share History with the public. Many Historians regularly engage with the public, leading talks or tours to share their historical knowledge.

Historian Skills

Historians spend much of their time researching and writing reports, making it a very independent job. Many Historians have flexible schedules and need to be able to self-motivate and prioritize. Employers are looking for Historians with strong analytical and problem-solving abilities, who can draw logical conclusions from the documents and artifacts they examine. They also need to have a good eye for detail, to spot important but hard to find historical details. Historians should also be strong communicators, both in writing and verbally, so that they can present their findings to the appropriate audiences.

Other key Historian skills include:

  • Experience in historic preservation work

  • Strong writing abilities

  • Experience conducting archival and primary-source research

  • Database Management skills

  • Skill in operating a personal computer with word processing, database and spreadsheet software

How Do You Become an Historian?

Education and Training

Based on our analysis of Historian job postings, we’ve found that becoming an Historian almost always requires advanced education. For most Historian positions, a Masters or PHD is required.  Many Historians get their degree in history or public history, but others have more specialized degrees such as museum studies, historical preservation, cultural studies or archival management. Students in postgraduate programs usually concentrate in a specific area of history, such as a particular time period, country or region, or historical field. This specialization will likely impact where they find work in the future.

Along with coursework, many Historians do an internship or other related work as they are studying, either at their educational institution or elsewhere. This gives students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and learn important practical skills that Historians need, such as handling artifacts, creating exhibits, leading tours and researching archival material. After graduating with a Masters or PhD and completing internships, candidates are in a good position to apply for open positions at the various bodies that employ Historians, such as universities, the federal government, museums and local historical organizations.

Finding a job

Competition for Historian positions is high, as there tend to be more candidates than there are jobs available. The federal government employed more than 1 in 5 Historians in 2014, but reductions in federal spending are expected to reduce this number over the next decade. However, some job growth is expected for Historians employed outside of the federal government, dependent on funding available to these largely not-for-profit organizations.

To be successful in this highly competitive field, your job search should begin with a high-quality resume that highlights your skills and experience. For guidance on creating a resume, take a look at our library of Historian resume samples.

Once you’ve crafted a winning resume, search online for Historian job opportunities. As you look for openings, be sure to leverage your professional network, including people you met through internships or education.

After you find an Historian job or jobs you’re interested in, you’ll need to write a strong cover letter that expresses your interest in the position and highlights your qualifications and what you will bring to the role. For cover letter inspiration, check out our collection of cover letter samples.

Insights from an Historian

To give you a better idea of what goes into becoming an Historian, we talked to Michella Chiu, a former Historian who now works as a legal professional. Here’s what she had say.

What is the common career path for an Historian?

There isn't really a "common" career path, but many eventually worked in fields which require high level writing and language skills. For example, many History PhDs actually hold JDs. And many lawyers majored in History and politics in college. Depending on what subfield in history one is more interested in, business-minded historians can work in PR, and historians of Asia and Middle East can work as journalists writing stories on international politics. 

What should someone consider before becoming an Historian?

To become a serious historian who works in the academia one must have a PhD. This is a big commitment of nine years on average - in the USA, History PhDs spend nine years on average to graduate. Ask yourself whether this is really something you would like to do. Good historians in general have very good command of three or more languages so they can read materials from different points of view. Be ready to spend years to learn a new language.

What type of person excels in this job?

People who have good command of multiple languages and good writing skills - by good writing skills I mean being able to structure arguments and essays in convincing ways.

What are some of the most important skills - hard and soft - for Historians to have? 

Language skills are extremely important. Also, historians should have the ability to see commonality among things or connections between events which are NOT obvious. This is because good history papers and books must have one argument which links all parts in an essay or a book.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of being an Historian?

History teaches me ways to look at how people relate themselves to a community or a country. This will always be relevant to people's lives.

How Much Do Historians Get Paid?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic, Historians are typically paid an annual salary, with the median yearly salary in the United States being $55,800. The lowest-paid Historians make less than $27,920 per year, while the highest 10 percent can earn more than $101,880 annually.

Top 10 States for Historian Salary

Historians in the following states make the highest median hourly wage in the U.S.

10 Oregon: $31.48

    District of Columbia

    $48.03

    Hawaii

    $43.68

    Maryland

    $41.86

    New Jersey

    $35.12

    Virginia

    $34.72

    Texas

    $33.78

    Colorado

    $33.23

    Illinois

    $33.19

    California

    $33.12

    Historian Resources

    We put together this handy list of additional resources to help you find even more information as you continue to explore a career as an Historian.

    On the Web

    Smithsonian Institution
    As one of the countries leading employers of Historians, the Smithsonian offers a wealth of helpful information and fascinating blogs.

    National Park Service
    As well as providing a huge amount of historical data, the NPS is also a large employer of Historians in the U.S.

    American Historical Association
    This website is jam-packed with professional information to help anyone advance a career in the field of history.

    Industry Groups

    The National Council on Public History (NCPH)
    The goal of the NCPH is to advance the role of public history within the historical profession.

    American Association for State and Local History
    The AASLH’s website offers research tools, job listings, and publications.

    The Society of American Archivists
    This website has an employment bulletin, publications, and other useful information for those interested in becoming an historical Archivist.

    Historian Books

    Great Jobs for History Majors
    This useful text will help the reader discern what career in history is most suited to them, and how to get there.

    How to Land a Top-Paying Public Historians Job
    Everything you need to know about getting s job as a Public Historian, from writing a resume to sitting the interview.

    Sources for this article include the Bureau of Labor Statistics, online job postings and other online sources.