I attended graduate school to study American history. My plan at the time was to learn as much as I could about our nation’s past so that one day I could be a museum curator or historian who would help educate other people.

What Can You Do With a History Degree? My Lifelong Lessons | Catherine Alford with six of her fellow park rangers working at a museum in Richmond, Virginia.
Catherine Alford with six of her fellow park rangers working at a museum in Richmond, Virginia.

While in graduate school, I took courses on gender studies, public history, the Civil War, material culture, the history of medicine, and more. I spent hours completing internships at museums, tirelessly building my professional résumé. Eventually, I landed a coveted job as a historian and interpreter for the National Park Service.

With that in mind, it may come as a surprise that these days, I make a living as a financial writer. My entire career path has shifted. I now spend every day thinking about budgets, bookkeeping, clients, and running a successful business. Because of this, I haven’t thought about the Civil War in a long time, despite my years of training — in both undergraduate and grad school — to do just that.

The Skills I Learned From My History Degree

Do I regret going to graduate school and racking up $39,000 of student debt in the process? Truthfully, I don’t.

That doesn’t mean it’s been smooth sailing to get to where I am in my career today. It’s definitely been a process to get to this point. Those who study the humanities generally face a steeper earning curve than their peers in the fields of science and technology — starting salaries for engineering and computer science graduates are more than 1.5 times as much as their peers in the liberal arts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And as collegiate and graduate educations increasingly focus on real-world applications rather than learning for knowledge’s sake, there’s a fair amount of scrutiny that surrounds continuing studies in fields like history.

Regardless, my history degree provided me with essential skills that I can still use in my current career.

1. Reading and Writing Experience

If there’s one thing that a liberal arts program prepares you to do, it’s how to write. While in graduate school, I wrote thousands upon thousands of words each week. It was also typical to read a book every week, digesting difficult articles on historical theory in a relatively short period of time.

My time in grad school trained me to be the type of writer that I am today.

School papers prepared me to meet deadlines. Plus, the fact that I had to constantly push through the night to finish papers on a multitude of topics helped me learn how to balance demands from different clients.

2. Research Experience

A huge problem with online articles and blog posts is that individuals will often copy and paste any information without properly referencing, or even checking, primary sources. This leads to a ton of misinformation — or outright lies — that are made worse by social media.

My history background has taught me to avoid writing posts that aren’t up to par with today’s journalistic standards and to double-check, sometimes even triple-check, my sources. I learned how to research properly, how to delve into studies to find the correct stats and information, and how to convey an accurate summary to my readers.

3. Curiosity About the World

This is perhaps the biggest and most important takeaway from my studies.

The word “history” comes from the Greek word historia, which means “finding out.” Historians, by nature, question everything. We can’t help but delve deeper into even the most banal things.

Sometimes the historian in me takes over when I’m writing personal finance posts. I might write about how to use credit cards, only to wonder when the first credit card was issued.

As such, I often end up discovering more about a subject than I would have thought at the onset of an article.

This, in turn, can inform new pitches and ideas for future stories. My drive to find out more, inevitably, makes me a better, more competitive writer.

 

Why a Liberal Arts Degree? The Pros and Cons

Earning a degree in the liberal arts can be a rewarding experience. That said, it’s not without its shortcomings — like finding a job after graduation. We surveyed liberal arts degree-holding professionals across a variety of fields to find out both the drawbacks and benefits of earning a degree in English, history, or a similar field of study.

1. Further Your Creativity

“If I had not attended a liberal arts school, I would not have been exposed to numerous topics that sparked my creativity,” says investor and real estate professional Kylie Pak, co-owner of RedBrick Properties.

“While I do not use the knowledge acquired from my liberal arts education in my day-to-day work, I would say that my liberal arts education played a significant part in creating the person that I have become outside of my career.”

2. Scrutiny of Your Peers

“It’s as if you have to constantly prove that your schooling and degree mean just as much as the next person’s,” says legal consultant Melissa McKinney of The Hive Law. “Somewhere along the way, everyone decided that having a degree in something you enjoy meant you were throwing money away unless you could prove you had some kind of plan or job lined up.”

3. Multifaceted Understanding of Work

“As a marketing professional, I am continuously tasked with research and writing projects that draw upon the skills taken from my degree,” says marketing strategist Andrew Clark of Duckpin.

“In order to develop them, I must look into what topics are timely, have the potential for high engagement, and are going to contribute to positive outcomes for a business. Likewise, the general liberal arts culture of my campus prepared me to engage with a variety of people from different backgrounds.”

4. Uncertain Earning Potential

“I have found, over the years, that while liberal arts does provide a flexible industry advantage, it does not provide many options for higher paying jobs that specialized industries do provide, such as in business administration, marketing, and so forth,” says author and business owner Jaclyn Johnston.

What Can You Do With a History Degree? The Bottom Line

In short, I don’t regret getting that degree — expensive as it was — because it makes me better at my job today.

True, studying business or finance might have helped me to understand the more difficult topics that I occasionally write about. But my history background gives me the ability to find the answers and write about them in a way that is exciting and understandable, all while providing a fresh perspective.

In fact, you shouldn’t let the social pressure of obtaining a highly specialized degree prevent you from getting a degree in something like history or English.

“Too many people feel that a liberal arts degree is unfocused and not suited to professional or business career paths — that’s totally untrue,” says former teacher and current career coach Richard Williamson. “A liberal arts degree requires students to have a broad base of knowledge and the ability to do research into a range of topics. That ability to explain complex ideas is part of liberal arts coursework, and that learned skill translates into professional life.”

Williamson says that a liberal arts degree gives you a key advantage over those who make an early choice to focus exclusively on a specialized subject. “As a marketing executive, I find it exceptionally difficult to find workers who can communicate in writing using proper grammar and language,” he adds.

While I’m still paying back my student loans, it’s easier to do now that I earn more than I did when I worked at the Park Service. Sometimes I miss studying and learning about history, but in many ways, I know it will never really leave me.

Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.