By understanding the stories of people from the past, we can better shape the politics, art, and philosophy of the present and future. Acting as researchers, analysts, documentarians, and distributors, historians gather, analyze, and record information from prior periods, both for the sake of scholarship and mass distribution. A historian also provides a lens to further explore the past. For example, while Columbus is well known as a hero and discoverer; historians reveal he also was a slave trader. Taking contemporary concerns, such as race and gender, historians reevaluate the events of the past to reveal new information.
As such, the role of a historian is varied and includes a range of career paths. For those considering a career as a historian, this guide defines the role of a historian, different types of historians, and the academic preparation needed for success in this profession.
What Is a Historian?
Historians are responsible for researching, synthesizing, and chronicling information. They work with a range of sources, such as archives, government documents, videos, images, and letters, to better understand human history. Analyzing this data, historians can determine the significance of historical events, find patterns in human behavior, and propose theories on interpreting the past. “Above all, historians are trying to understand how and why things change over time,” says the National Council on Public History. “This isn’t a matter of simply pinpointing causes and outcomes, but of considering different contexts and time scales for interpreting the available facts.”
Beyond research and documentation, historians also may present their findings to the public by publishing articles and books, leading classes and presentations, and contributing to archives and museums.
Historians work in a variety of environments and industries, from museums and academic institutions to research organizations and nonprofits. Some even work as freelancers or independent consultants. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the largest employers of historians in 2016 were local government entities (25%; federal government entities (23%); professional, scientific, and technical services (17%); and state government entities (17%).
To succeed in their field, historians must have robust research, analytical, and communication skills for processing large quantities of data. They also should have strong problem-solving skills for making connections between disparate information and sources. Despite the range of career options in this field, these skills remain critical for all different types of historians.
The Educational Elements of Being a Historian
Prospective historians need a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in history or a related field such as museum studies or archival management. Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in Military History degree program, for example, exams global military history to help students build the historical knowledge and skills needed for careers in the field.
Courses such as Introduction to History and Historiography, Global Military History to 1800, U.S. Military History, and Race and Gender in Military History help students expand their knowledge of military conflicts. Students explore historical methodologies and techniques as well as the global patterns of warfare and the evolution of military institutions.
This knowledge empowers students to pursue careers with one of the many organizations that need experts in military history. Graduates often work for government organizations, museums, nonprofits, historical societies, and academic institutions.
Potential Historian Careers
A range of career opportunities is available to those interested in working as a historian. The careers listed below are some of the more common options for graduates with a master’s degree in military history, such as the one offered by Norwich University.
Research historians gather historical data from different sources to study specific subject areas such as countries, wars, governments, and societies. They may pull primary or secondary sources from archives, libraries, museums, and excavation sites. They, then, study and analyze this information to draw connections and propose theories, which may appear in books, articles, and reports.
BLS data from 2018 reports that the median annual salary for historians is $61,140, with workers earning between a range of $78,650 and $38,640. Going forward, the employment of historians is expected to increase by 6% from 2016 to 2026, according to the BLS. Competition in the field remains strong, but skills in technical writing, research analysis, and documentation can help research historians advance their careers.
U.S. Army Command Historian
U.S. Army command historians research and analyze military history to provide their commanding officers with the knowledge that enables them to make more strategic and informed decisions. According to Stanley Sandler, a command historian with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, military historians are asked to provide everything from a bibliography of Special Operations to a report on the effectiveness of the Superman mine-awareness comic book in Bosnia. U.S. Army command historians also travel to gather information and may visit “inhospitable areas” with portable scanners and laptops to document findings.
As stated above, the BLS expects employment of historians to increase by 6% from 2016 to 2026, and the annual median wage for a historian is $61,140. Historians working for the federal government earn as much as $97,840 in median annual salary, according to the BLS. Additionally, the BLS expects employment opportunities to be “very good for qualified individuals” across all branches of the armed forces through 2026.
Museum curators research, acquire, and store both new and old works, choosing which pieces to add to collections. They also plan and design exhibitions, and may build and conduct tours for museum attendees. They may even act as the face of the museum, representing an organization at press events and conferences.
PayScale data from 2019 reports that the average museum curator salary is $49,368, with top earners garnering up to $78,000 per year. The BLS projects that employment of curators is expected to grow by 14% from 2016 to 2026, as public interest in museums and cultural centers continues to increase.
Archivists appraise and organize documents for an organization’s archives, which may include historical records, photographs, websites, films, maps, and objects. They may build a system for cataloging, preserving, or duplicating these documents to ensure that they’re easy to access and open to the public for classes, exhibitions, or workshops.
According to 2019 PayScale data, the average salary for archivists is $49,267, top earners bring in up to $68,000. The number of archivist jobs is expected to grow by 14% from 2016 to 2026, according to the BLS, as organizations increase their need for documentation, organization, and accessibility of electronic records.
Cultivate Historian Skills and Knowledge
Established in 1819, Norwich University is a nationally-recognized institution of higher education, the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and the first private military college in the United States. Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in Military History helps students develop the skills needed to become effective historians and advance their careers. Developed by distinguished faculty and guided by the goals outlined by the American Historical Association, this highly-regarded program explores global military achievements and conflicts and prepares students for success with a wide range of historical knowledge.
A People’s History of the United States, Google Books
Historians, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Historians, How to Become a Historian, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
How Historians Work, National Council on Public History
Master of Arts in Military History, Norwich University
Careers for Students of History, American Historical Association
Average Historian Salary, PayScale
U.S. Army Command Historians: What We Are and What We Do, Perspectives on History
Military Careers, Job Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Average Curator, Museum Salary, PayScale
Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Average Archivist Salary, PayScale
Career Outlook: Military Historian, Norwich University