Yes, You Can: Studying History and Finding a Career

Twice each year, at our Ambrose University Open House days for prospective students and their parents, I know I will have several conversations about the economic value of a history degree. Almost without fail, parents ask this question–and quite rightly, since they are usually the ones investing tens of thousands of dollars into their children’s education. They want to know that they’re making a good buy and that their kids won’t end up under-employed. Students are somewhat less likely to ask questions about their future employability after they earn a history degree. They’re largely focused on studying the history they’re passionate about–and quite rightly, since no one wants to spend four years studying topics that don’t interest them, or invest their time, energy , and money in an unfulfilling career path. Once they’re a year or two into their degrees,  however, they too begin to ask, sometimes doubting the wisdom of their choice of history as a major. (Often, this occurs after discussions with well-meaning but under-informed friends and family over the Christmas or summer holidays!)

2017 Ambrose Grads
Some of the 2017 Ambrose University history graduates

No university degree guarantees employment, and there are plenty of examples of successful people with little or no formal education. At the level of the individual, education is just one factor in employability. Work and volunteer experience, connections to professional networks, a good resume, the right attitude, personal relationships, creativity, aggressive job seeking, and the good fortune to come across employment opportunities all play a part in university graduates finding their way into good jobs and fulfilling careers. In my own case, for instance, even when I was well into my PhD in history at a good university, it was only because I received an unexpected e-mail from an old friend that I heard about the position I first landed at Ambrose.

All of that is to say that it makes the most sense to address the question of the economic value of a bachelor’s degree in history, the humanities, or liberal arts in general in aggregate terms. Over a decade ago, when we first applied to offer a history degree at Ambrose, here’s how we justified it in terms of societal need:

The Canadian University system is actively responding to economic transformations toward what is being labelled the “knowledge economy.” In this context liberal arts education is seen as having particular value. In Employability Skills 2000+ the Conference Board of Canada suggests that skills in effective communication, problem-solving, analytical and critical thinking, leadership, flexibility and adaptability to change will be particularly valued. These “soft skills” are core outcomes of arts and science programs. Even when the value of a liberal arts education was questioned, especially with poor employment opportunities in the early 1990s, the cost of education, student debt, and government cutbacks, students with BA degrees were getting jobs both in the public and private sectors (see Mark Giberson “The Liberal Arts: Beleaguered or Beloved?” Carleton University Magazine, 1998). According to Giberson, corporations not only valued but also intended to hire students with a broad liberal arts education, especially those with some specialization. This point was reiterated in the published statement by thirty leading high-tech CEOs that “liberal arts and science education nurtures skills and talents increasingly valued by modern corporations” (AUCC, 3 June 2002). … Students who take the [BA in history] will be well equipped to pursue further studies leading to careers in education, museums, archives, libraries, civil service, public relations, law, journalism, social work, Christian ministry and a wide range of other fields.

Generally speaking, this seems to have been borne out over the years. Here’s what the independent experts assessing the Ambrose history program recently concluded:

The career plans and trajectories of Ambrose University’s History students are remarkably similar to graduates from other programs across the country. Ambrose University’s History program has an excellent track record based on its relatively short history of placing its students in discipline related work such as museums, archives, and education/teaching and in training people for educational advancement at the MA and PhD level. It is indicative of the high quality of the program that graduates are finding such success in the private sector and are considered with such high regard by professional and graduate programs. Survey results show that almost all of the graduates have found meaningful employment, which we consider to be proof of the quality of student at Ambrose University and the degree to which the History program equips its graduates with the skills, historical literacy, and practical experiences to perform well competitive vocational and educational environments.

Along the same lines, research from Statistics Canada confirms that graduates from history programs are slightly more satisfied with both their educational choices and their careers than the average university graduate.

More generally, there’s plenty of statistical and anecdotal evidence about the value of liberal arts degrees, which applies as well to degrees in history. Here is a brief run-down:

A 2016 Maclean’s article, “Revenge of the arts: Why a liberal arts education pays off” examined new research from the University of Ottawa that demonstrated the value of “soft skill” degrees. The Educational Policy Research Initiative, which conducted the study, summarized their findings in a short video that explains graduates’ earning potential.

Developing Canada’s future workforce: a survey of large private-sector employers” is a 2016 report by the Business Council of Canada which examines “employment trends and skill requirements.” The number one result of this survey was that “large companies are increasingly looking to recruit or develop employees with strong soft skills, such as teamwork, communication, problem-solving, functional knowledge, relationship building, customer service (i.e. listening, problem-solving), analysis, and creative or innovative thinking. “These skills,” they add, “are especially important when identifying and developing future leaders.”

These are the very skills we emphasize in our Ambrose history degree. Our program outcomes start with historical thinking, which includes concepts like change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency. This kind of thinking is flexible and important for life in a world of rapid change and evolving careers. Other history program outcomes include developing skills in the areas of research (formulating questions, collecting evidence, analyzing and synthesizing data, and formulating arguments), written and oral communication, the analysis of source evidence, and the understanding of different points of view and competing interpretations of data.

So when I’m talking with the parents of prospective students, or with anyone else wondering about the value of a university degree, these are the kinds of arguments I make, explaining that our history graduates have gone on to interesting careers or further education. Careers in education (school teachers, vocational trainers, etc.) are the most common, but our graduates also run small businesses, work in museums, raise children, manage bank branches, serve in the military, work in churches, and perform in the entertainment industry.

I can’t claim to tell you what career you or your child studying history will end up in, but I can tell you with total confidence that our BA in history will give you the skills you need to get a good job and find your way into a fulfilling career and a decent income.

In the end, perhaps the easiest way to understand where studying history (or the humanities, or the liberal arts more generally) can lead is to see where others have gone with history degrees. Here are a few places to find out:

The American Historical Association provides statistical data on the careers of history graduates, articles on the flexibility of history degrees and the intangible edge they provide, and a long list of potential careers for those who study history.

The Canadian Historical Association recently posted the profiles of history graduates.

My favourite resource for exploring careers for graduates of history programs is the blog of professor John Fea from Messiah College, in Pennsylvania, USA. He has posted over 50 testimonials and profiles in answer to the question, “So what can you do with a history major?”

And finally, here’s a (slightly irreverent) list of “23 of the Best Jobs for History Majors” that illustrates the multiple directions a history (or humanities/liberal arts) degree can take you.

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