Improving career prospects for history graduates beyond academia

CHA Logo

A CHA Proposal to History Department Chairs by Robert Talbot and the CHA Executive 

To many outside our profession, the connection between a degree in History and a non-academic job related to history can seem far from obvious. As instructors of History who benefit materially and intellectually from the thousands of students who attend and participate in our courses every year, it is incumbent upon us to make the link between a History degree and history-related jobs more obvious for students, employers and the wider community.

The study and practice of History must be defended on their own merits. Developing a more nuanced and critical understanding of the past is fundamental to the fostering of an informed public, the encouragement of critical engagement with society, and for speaking truth to power. Increasingly, however, our discipline operates in an ideological context that tends to emphasise business and economic outcomes before all others. Historians are being called upon by administrators, students, and even parents to address concerns surrounding career outcomes for recent graduates in History.

These concerns are understandable. According to the 2013 national survey of 2009-2010 college and university graduates conducted by Statistics Canada, among employed grads, “At both the bachelor and master levels, ‘humanities’ and ‘visual, performing arts and communication technologies’ had the highest proportions of graduates who reported their job being unrelated to their education.”[1] More specifically, in the humanities, 30% of employed Bachelor’s graduates had found work that was closely related to their degree, 59% of employed Master’s graduates, and 78% of employed PhD graduates.

While the historian’s skillset can be applied in a variety of ways in the modern economy, many parents, prospective students, and potential employers don’t always realize it. This lack of awareness has doubtless contributed to challenges in enrolment, and it may also be contributing to some history graduates’ difficulties in securing work that relates to their skillset. If students are not informed by their professors about the different types of skills that they have developed, and about how those skills relate to different types of employment, then they might not think to seek out those jobs – they won’t necessarily know how to promote themselves to prospective employers. If employers are not aware that history students have the skills they are looking for, then they won’t seek to hire those students.

For example, policy analysis is one of the types of work that History graduates are well suited to, in light of the evidence-driven research, writing, information synthesis, and critical analysis skills that are emphasized in our field, and in light of their sensitivity to the crucial historical contexts that inform and sometimes drive the policy issues of today. And yet, a recent Government of Canada post-secondary recruitment campaign for new policy officers did not include “History” among the nearly 50 different areas of educational specialization applicable to the competition.[2]

How, then, can we help to improve the career prospects of our graduates, specifically, beyond academia?

A number of historians and departments are making efforts to meet this challenge. For its part, the CHA is in the process of building a “Why a history degree” website where the profile of successful graduate students and their present employment will be posted. While acknowledging that the operational context of every university is different, we believe that additional steps, articulated below, could be taken by departments and by professors.

For example, History departments could:

  • Develop and implement a communications plan or promotional campaign to encourage greater awareness among students, parents, professors, the media and employers about the skills developed through a history degree and how these skills can be applied in the job market.:
    • Editorials and outreach to local online and print media outlets.
    • Closer collaboration with post-secondary external relations and recruitment bodies.
    • Direct engagement with local employers to identify skills that they are looking for in candidates, and to encourage them to consider History and related skills among the key requirements in job competitions.
    • Information for local high schools and parents of prospective history students about the value of a history degree, including the intellectual and professional advantages.
    • A webpage on the departmental website celebrating graduates who have pursued careers outside academia, complete with bios and contact information and/or links to websites or LinkedIn. The individuals featured could respond to students seeking advice and information on pursuing work in their field.
  • Where appropriate, rename and/or redesign courses to better reflect the transferable or ‘soft’ skills that the course will develop (see Adam Chapnik’s “A Profoundly Immodest Proposal” in the CHA Bulletin, 41.3 (Fall 2015), p.25).
  • Work more closely with post-secondary career development centres, and ensure that faculty and students attend career-oriented workshops that bring employers and alumni from different professional backgrounds together with students.
  • Create a departmental “Careers Committee” to study career outcomes of recent alumni and to look at ways to connect students with potential employers.
  • Explore ways for the undergraduate and graduate degrees to incorporate courses in other disciplines that are being called for by employers.
  • Encourage unique combination majors/minors, partnered college diplomas and community placements, with a view to broaden students’ skillset in different areas like web design, data management, leadership, user design, or public relations, etc.
  • Share information on changes that have already been made by departments to address the career prospects of graduates – successes and lessons learned could be shared in a roundtable at Congress, or through articles in the CHA Bulletin.
  • Inform the CHA at the next meeting of departmental chairs of ongoing and new initiatives that the department and its faculty members have undertaken and plan to undertake in order to improve the career outcomes of their graduates.

For their part, professors and instructors could:

  • Provide students with an overview of the specific skills that they will develop in the course, and explain how they can convey that skillset to potential employers.
  • Attend and encourage students to attend sessions organized by their university’s career development centre; or invite local professionals from outside academia with a history background to talk to their class about the skills related to their work and career planning.
  • Where appropriate, give assignments that more closely reflect the types of projects that students might be expected to undertake in the professional world outside academia. In addition to developing skills and tangible experience that are more relatable to employers, these types of assignments will allow students to analyze the past in new and provocative ways.

For example, students could:

  • Develop a business case for a new historic site, complete with an explanation of the strategic context, analysis of risks and opportunities, recommendations, and post-approval management of the site.
  • Write a business case, costs/benefit analysis, or risks and opportunities assessment for a historical undertaking that occurred in the past, from the perspective of someone who would have been alive at the time – such as a historical treaty, trade agreement, business arrangement, union, strike action, alliance or military engagement.
  • Write a follow-up report of a historical event or meeting between historical leaders, from the perspective of someone who was there.
  • Write a briefing note, complete with background information, strategic considerations and follow-up recommendations about a historical event or issue, for a historical figure or decision-maker who would have been alive at the time.
  • Produce a media analysis report, based on newspaper, radio or television reports at the time of a historical event, or of the introduction of a ‘new’ technology or product.
  • Develop an advertising campaign or communications strategy for a historical company, consumer product or technology, geared toward a historical audience.
  • Create a timetable for the completion of a series of tasks or events that are part of a broader historical initiative or development.
  • Write a speech or speaking notes for a historical actor.

There are many opportunities to develop these types of assignments. For instance, templates available online can be used as a starting point (see, for example, the federal Treasury Board website[3]). Given the renewed popularity of interdisciplinarity, there are opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in business school, in communications, in political science, economics, and in other fields to develop such assignments.


[2] The related areas of specialization were: Administrative Law, Human Rights, Labour Law, Law, Statistics, Women’s Studies, International Law, Business Administration, Auditing, Commerce, Administration, Information Management, Finance, Public Finance, Financial Accounting, Industrial Relations, Management, Marketing, Office Administration, Project Management, Risk Analysis and Management, Taxation, Public Policy, International Business and Supply Chain Management, Communications, Arts, Education, International Relations, Social Policy, Sociology, Psychology, Economic and Finance Policy, Economics, Human Resources Management, Industrial Administration, International Business and Management, Labour and Industrial Relations, Management and Business Information Systems, Organizational Behavior and Development, Public Administration, Accounting, Mass communications, Media studies, Political Science, Social Sciences, Advertising, e-Business Supply Chain Management or International Studies.


Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

2 thoughts on “Improving career prospects for history graduates beyond academia

  1. Jason Ellis (@jasone_history)

    History departments could also consider teaching courses that deliberately apply the historical method to policy analysis. E.g. a course called “History for Policy Analysis.” This approach might be more productive than emphasizing indirect skills transfer in an education marketplace with plenty of vocational options that teach directly marketable skills. As an example of the latter, while I agree that a history graduate will have good preparation in the transferable skills needed for policy analysis, why should government hire this graduate when they could just as easily hire someone with a degree in public administration who has taken courses that teach them the exact work that occurs in government policy “shops,” e.g. how to write a briefing note, how to present data effectively, etc? Of course, history departments are not equipped to teach these tasks or skills. But we are equipped at least to teach historical skills that bear directly on policy analysis, a stronger tack then saying that our skills transfer.

    I work in a faculty of education where I’m called upon constantly to answer the question “Why do graduate researchers in a policy-heavy field (education) need a history course?” My answer is in a course that I teach called “History of Educational Policy,” where I take a 3-part approach to answering the question. The first part of the course surveys the development of educational policy in BC and Canada from the mid-19th century to the present. The idea here is to emphasize that policy has changed over time and to emphasize some of the causes and effects of those changes as well as the significance of change. The second part of my emphasis is on examining how policy makers use historical claims and how knowing something about how to think like a historian helps us to evaluate those claims. For example, when a government proclaims a “back-to-basics” approach to curriculum and teaching, just what basics do they think they are going back to? The final part of my emphasis–the substantive and most difficult part of the course–is in teaching students how to evaluate the causes and effects of policy change over time as they relate to a topic of interest to them, and teaching them how to reach conclusions that would enable policy makers to learn from those changes. For example, what has caused special education policies to change over time? (The answer includes shifts towards universal education, emergence of rights for people with disabilities, litigation, etc.) What does this history tell policy makers about their plans to further reform special education? One conclusion that one could reach is that with the influence of courts on this area of educational policy, many changes that policy makers could have made 30-40 years ago may in fact now be out of their hands. This is useful historical information that policy makers can apply.

    A number of historians of education have taken up this dilemma of a “useful” history of education. This is because we have faced a considerable crisis of declining enrolments and the threat that our subject would be wiped out of the faculty of education since the 1980s. In other words, history generally can learn from what history of education has gone through There is now some excellent work on “applied” history of education. I like Tyack and Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia (1995) especially but there are reams of examples (some in the syllabus linked below).

  2. Adam Chapnick

    I’m a little concerned here that there might be a lot of effort spent reinventing the wheel. The American Historical Association has been tackling this challenge seriously for closer to a decade (see the Tuning Project, Career Diversity for Historians, etc). Has any effort been made to reach out to the AHA? My sense would be that there would be a number of opportunities to piggy-back here. James Grossman has been to the CHA annual meeting at least once before (just after he wrote the ‘No More Plan B’ article. He’s probably the best resource out there. I hope someone has reached out to him.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.