“A history degree? What are you going to do with that?”
Work my way into the best tech company in the country. That’s what.
Not right out of college, of course. It’s entirely possible to work at your dream company with a history degree, though—-as long as you’re willing to work hard at learning new skills.
I had all the same skills that every other fresh history graduate possessed:
- Great research skills
- Great writing skills
- Critical thinking skills
- Big-picture thinking
- The ability to learn rapidly
These have served me incredibly well throughout my career so far—nearly 7 years long, as of writing—but they didn’t help me get my foot in the door.
I had to learn some important career lessons early on in my career that set me up for success years down the road.
- Soft skills don’t land entry-level jobs. Hard skills do.
- Not all skills translate well in a resume.
- Nobody is obligated to take a chance on you.
- Few hiring managers believe in the inherent value of a history degree.
Heeding those lessons pointed me toward growth, and ultimately the tech industry.
The disillusionment of grad school
I did a master’s degree under the delusion of landing a tenured role in academia—-until one of my professors dedicated a week’s worth of reading toward the industry’s employment problem.
These were some of the more eye-opening tidbits I can still recall from those readings:
- More trained historians have existed between 1950 and the present than in all of history prior to 1950.
- Only 50% of successfully defended doctoral candidates in the humanities land a tenure-track job.
I felt ridiculous for buying into the dream.
It turns out that academia is so far beyond “saturated” that it’s darkly comical. I was grateful to the professor for having us read this material, but I also felt betrayed by the entire academic system. Why hadn’t any of my professors said anything?
Hell, my own father was a tenured history professor for 40 years and this never came up once. I asked him. He hadn’t been aware, either.
The future I’d imagined for myself simply wasn’t likely to happen, so I had to make a new plan.
Transitioning from university was… rough
Sensing impending unemployment, I focused on gaining more directly applicable skills. I joined the department’s open-source journal to learn everything I could about publishing.
I knew it was the right call when I used that experience to land a job at a small textbook publishing startup.
Unfortunately, the owner changed my job description from “introverted textbook writer” to “digital marketer and extraverted account manager” without training or experience to back up the decision.
Then I was let go.
It was nine months of uncertainty, depression, and an incredible sense of shame. I was rejected left and right for hundreds of applications, never hearing back about most. I almost landed a job with a publishing company, but I was the second choice.
Even with a master’s degree in history I was still passed up for a job selling history textbooks to history professors. I think that was when I truly started believing I wasn’t good enough.
Why so much rejection, though?
I lacked real-world sales experience, plain and simple.
Real-world experience was the missing ingredient
Having lost my best shot at a job and my only feasible shot at entering the publishing industry, I revisited digital marketing. I used what I’d learned from my first role to pick up a few odd jobs to build a portfolio and a fledgling network.
It was a rough start. My network consisted of similarly underemployed history grads, or shady business people tied to the boss who had let me go.
So I tried something new: I made a portfolio website for myself and amassed a list of several hundred marketing agencies in Ontario, emailing all of them to introduce myself as a content writer.
That’s when I started seeing some results.
They were hesitant to offer work to an untested person, but I was putting in more effort than most others. The industry’s high competition also came with a sea of low-quality writers that I could out-write—-and those two factors gave me traction.
The research and writing skills I’d developed through my history program put me a head above most others, which made many of my freelance jobs a success.
At the end of those nine months I landed a job at a digital marketing agency (one that had ignored my earlier outreach, ironically). My then-new boss had some insights to share about why he chose me over the other 200 candidates, too.
- I had a portfolio website. Nobody else did.
- Writing for so many industries gave me range.
- My writing quality was way above the average content writer (including his other employees).
- Freelance experience suggested I could manage myself.
He also liked my experience as a teaching assistant and as an editorial assistant for that academic journal a few years earlier, but the main points were clear. Putting in the effort to find my own experience had been the secret sauce to getting my foot in the door.
None of my history professors told me that.
Soft skills fuel career growth
I spent several years learning the trade secrets of digital marketing, but it was my training as a writer and researcher with critical thinking skills that helped me accelerate my growth.
That’s why I was called on for bigger and better projects over the next three or four years: I applied everything I learned with big-picture thinking (thanks, history!). It accelerated my career growth considerably.
I was briefly behind the curve compared to career college grads with 2-year marketing certificates, but then I overtook most of them within a year or two. The hard skills got them into entry-level roles, but studying history trained me to think beyond the “job-ready skills” that are in vogue today.
Supervisors and hiring managers will recognize that, if you show them. I started picking up on the signs:
- I wasn’t the most technical person by any stretch, but I could communicate the core concepts and their impact to company leadership.
- I wasn’t the best number cruncher at all, but I could interpret marketing data to explain what the numbers actually meant.
- I wasn’t the ad specialist, but I was asked to lead strategy on more than one ad campaign—and to write the ads— because I thought laterally and holistically.
Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, once wrote “clear writing is a sign of clear thinking.” He’s right. I wouldn’t have come half as far in my career if I hadn’t studied history, despite the lack of career prep in university.
That’s when Shopify noticed
And that, friends, is why Canada’s most successful tech company took notice when I applied for a role. Out of hundreds of applicants I was a close second.
Yes, a close second—so close, in fact, that the hiring managers made room for me with another opening.
They didn’t just see a collection of hard skills that could satisfy recurring tasks. They saw that I was putting those skills to work on progressively interesting projects with high-level thinking.
I’m talking about:
- Investigating everything.
- Big-picture thinking.
- Pattern recognition.
- Information synthesis.
- Accounting for the human factor in everything.
- Thinking across time.
Working at Shopify has convinced me that “hard skills” aren’t the only path to long-term career success—-but they are absolutely crucial for early and mid-career success. The soft skills matter more when your role goes beyond the usual task-based work.
This isn’t an isolated case, either. As I look around I can see similar success stories from other history grads:
- I know three history grads who are practicing lawyers. One of them is working on an MBA, too.
- One of my contacts with a history degree charges big financial brands $120 per hour for communications work.
- A past supervisor of mine with a history degree earned her MBA while working full-time.
- One of my teammates at Shopify landed the same job as I did with his history degree and a background in journalism.
- My partner, another history grad, is a senior content marketer at D2L, a successful Canadian edtech company.
- The best copywriter I’ve ever worked with is a history grad and now the Director of Copy and Content at a creative marketing agency.
History grads who apply themselves really do find career success. We absolutely need better career preparation, but never doubt that you have something to bring to the table.
Look what happened when I stopped doubting myself.
Andrew Webb is a Content Designer at Shopify and author of the Employed Historian blog. He received an undergraduate degree in history from King’s University College at Western University and earned his Master’s degree at the University of Guelph.