The American Historical Association (AHA) recently published an article exploring career possibilities for history degree-holders in its magazine, Perspectives. "History is Not a Useless Major: Fighting Myths with Data" (April 2017) challenges the prevailing message that majoring in STEM disciplines is the only path to career success and examines myths about history. The article draws upon data comparing the marketability of various degrees, using census data from some 3.5 million American households, as analyzed by the American Community Survey (ACS).
History majors end up working in a wide range of career areas, as the chart below demonstrates:
|"Data source: ACS 2010–14 5-year Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS). Includes individuals who stated they were in full-time employment, between the ages of 25 and 64, had achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher, and had either history or US history as the field of study for their bachelor’s degree." (Fig. 1 from "History Is Not a Useless Major")|
Describing the career paths of History graduates, the Perspectives story notes:
History majors seem particularly well-prepared for, and attracted to, certain careers. Nearly one in five goes into education—just over half as primary-, middle-, and high-school teachers. Another 15 percent enter management positions in business, and 11 percent go into the legal professions (most becoming lawyers)....
It’s important to note that nearly half of the history majors identified by the ACS went on to graduate school—a much higher percentage than the national average (37 percent) and higher than majors in English (45 percent) and the liberal arts (26 percent). This might be because law, management, and education require advanced study. It could also mean that students interested in careers that require graduate training see a history major as a springboard. Likely it is a combination of the two. But knowing this, history departments must understand that it is imperative that they prepare majors for graduate school and offer guidance in educational and career choices.The Perspectives story also challenges the myth of the underemployed humanities graduate, pointing out that the flexibility of the history degree results in a wide range of earnings for degree-holders--which reflect the wide range of career choices pursued by history gradates.
In fact, there is little difference in career earnings students who graduate with degrees from disciplines in the humanities, life sciences, or social sciences and behavioral sciences (see chart below). However, it is true that the earnings from the disciplinary fields in these academic areas are lower, on average, than earnings for fields such as engineering, physical sciences, health and medical sciences, and business. Since the chart explores correlations between the undergraduate degree and lifetime earnings, it is important to note that what graduates do with their bachelor's degrees, including whether they pursue further education through graduate school or professional training, can make a big difference in terms of income. Note the variation in earnings from the lowest 25th percentile, the 50th percentile, and the highest 75th percentile. (This point about the "value added" by further education is also true for bachelor's-degree holders in most disciplinary fields.)
|"Data source: American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators, table III-4a. Available at http://www.humanitiesindicators.org/content/indicatordoc.aspx?i=287." (source: Fig. 3 from "History Is Not a Useless Major")|
In short, it is not that history majors are underpaid. It is that the diverse range of occupations that a history degree prepares them for includes several important, but vastly undervalued, public service careers. If the only consideration when choosing a major is whether you will be earning six figures by the age of 30, then history may not be the best field. But for students who are inspired by work in which the greatest rewards may not necessarily be financial, a history major remains an excellent option.
The ACS data shed fascinating light on some of the myths about life with a history degree. Majoring in history does not doom a graduate to a life of unemployment or underemployment. In fact, history majors go on to become much better educated than the average person, filling roles in a wider range of careers than holders of many other degrees. The worst that can be said of this situation is that many of those careers are socially undervalued. But that does not mean that a degree in history is any less valuable.