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How to Become a Researcher


Researchers in all fields leverage their intellectual curiosity and analytical skills to uncover new information and share their findings with the world. History researchers are no exception, as they often have a zeal for sifting through the fragments of the historical record in order to gather details that may illuminate significant moments of the past. Individuals who pursue careers in history research can put their skills to use in a variety of professions in academia, government, military, economics, museums, and the private sector.

Career Options for History Researchers

History researchers can take on many important roles in a range of private industries and government agencies. Advanced history degree programs, such as a Master of Arts in History, focus heavily on research techniques, subject matter expertise, and practical applications of findings to help prepare individuals for success in these areas. Some career options for history researchers include the following:

Research Historian

A research historian’s goal is to understand how and why important events of the past occurred by interpreting facts in many different contexts. The grist of the researcher’s analysis is historical evidence, which includes primary sources, such as material artifacts, documents, and recorded firsthand recollections; and secondary sources, which are often the work of other historians. Their work may be exhibited in museums, used in lectures, published in academic journals, or referenced in a variety of other media. In 2017, historians earned a median salary of $59,120 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Museum Researcher

Museum researchers are responsible for providing descriptions of artifacts, authenticating historical materials, and contributing to exhibits and educational programs. Most museum historians possess specialized knowledge in a particular field, and some focus their work on a particular type of historical record, such as manuscripts, photographs, maps, or video and audio recordings. Museum researchers may also be involved in acquiring and curating new pieces for display. BLS reports that the median salary for archivists, curators, and museum workers was $47,360 in 2017.

Cultural Resource Manager

Cultural resource managers are charged with not only safeguarding historically significant artifacts and materials but also memorializing the cultural heritage that they represent. The tools of the cultural preservationist's trade include historical maps, government records, contemporary publications, oral histories, and secondary sources. Cultural resource manager salaries are generally comparable to those of professionals who have similar roles, such as anthropologists and archaeologists, who earned a median salary of $62,280 in 2017, according to the BLS.

FBI Intelligence Analyst

Historians with strong technical and analytical skills may qualify for specialized careers in the intelligence community. FBI intelligence analysts collect and interpret information from many different sources to identify threats and communicate them to decision-makers. Analysts with backgrounds in historical research can advise on potential responses to these threats by drawing from their knowledge of similar events in the past. The FBI's Intelligence Analyst Selection Process tests critical thinking, writing, analytical skills, and time management—all areas of emphasis in Master of Arts in History programs. The median salary for an intelligence analyst at the FBI was $65,000 in 2017, PayScale reports.

U.S. Navy Historian

History researchers can leverage their expertise in past social and political events to support and consult government agencies. The Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) employs history researchers, archivists, and other personnel who are responsible for “using the power of history and heritage to enhance the warfighting capability of the U.S. Navy,” according to the NHHC. Specifically, the agency collects and preserves materials of historical significance to the Navy, in addition to assisting in the recovery and preservation of lost Navy ships and aircraft. Salaries for NHHC historians range depending on the position, but a supervisory curator, for example, may earn about $100,000 annually, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

University Professor

As businesses and government agencies increasingly hire historians as consultants, higher education institutions are in need of history professors to prepare the next generation of researchers, according to the Journal of Research Practice. In addition to teaching and conducting research in history departments at colleges and universities, history professors may also teach courses in other departments, such as political science and public affairs. In 2017, professors earned a median pay of $76,000, according to BLS.

Suggested Steps for Becoming a Researcher

While there is no standard path to become a full-time history researcher, the common thread for those who work in the field is thorough academic preparation combined with real-world experience gained through internships and jobs.

Academic Preparation

The first step in preparing to thrive as a history researcher is to lay a solid academic foundation, beginning with a bachelor's degree in a relevant field. While working through their undergraduate history coursework, aspiring researchers can build valuable career skills by taking classes in computer science, data analysis, writing, or a foreign language. A bachelor’s degree may be sufficient to qualify for some entry-level historian positions, but for most historian jobs, a master's degree or doctorate is mandatory. Many history researchers have a Master of Arts in History degree, while some hold degrees in subjects such as museum studies, historic preservation, and archiving.

On-the-Job Experience

While students might learn about the day-to-day work of history researchers in internships and field assignments, there is no substitute for the practical knowledge that comes from working in a full-time position, such as research assistant or assistant museum curator. Being immersed in the job is an effective way to evaluate various career options available to researchers while practicing hands-on skills, such as designing exhibits and processing and preserving artifacts. These roles also provide opportunities to apply broader skills developed through academic work, such as writing research reports, using technology resources, and analyzing data.

Doctoral Degree

Researchers who wish to pursue an advanced specialization may enter a doctoral program in history, particularly if their goal is a research position in academia or with a federal government agency. Specializations typically represent a particular country or region, a period of time, or a specific subfield, such as political, cultural, or social history. Colleges and universities often fill teaching positions with people who hold a master's degree and are pursuing a doctoral degree.

Norwich University’s Master of Arts in History Program

Norwich University offers an online Master of Arts in History program that is focused on meeting the needs of today’s historians. Norwich’s program can prepare students to think like researchers with an insatiable historical curiosity and unyielding desire to ask “why?” Through the 18-month program, individuals can gain in-depth knowledge of historical topics, as well as advanced writing, research, and analytical skills that helps prepare them for a successful career. The Master of Arts in History program at Norwich offers concentrations in American History and World History, allowing students to tailor their education to their personal interests and professional goals.

Three Master of Arts in History Courses for Future Researchers

The connections between the theoretical and the practical are at the heart of the Master of Arts in History curriculum at Norwich University. While course availability varies depending on which concentration students choose, the following three classes demonstrate the program’s emphasis on how researchers can apply their findings to benefit the public and inform decision-makers.

In the Introduction to History and Historiography course, students are trained in historical thought and techniques, from the classical period to the present, as a foundation for their subsequent studies. The material delves into the techniques used by researchers in the past, as well as how to utilize primary and secondary sources for historical insights and to investigate bias and selectivity in historical interpretation.

American Colonial, Revolutionary and Early National History, a seminar in the American History concentration, examines the earliest interactions between Europeans and North American natives through the early 19th century. Rather than presenting the material chronologically, the course takes a thematic approach to present the historiography of the era. Individuals who are interested in this period of history can gain a deeper understanding of the events, ideas, people, and places that could become focal points in their future careers as researchers. As an outgrowth of this seminar, students may incorporate American history research into the MAH program’s required capstone project.

World History from 1800 to 1991, part of the World History concentration, studies revolutions in Europe during the period, workers' movements, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and the world wars and Cold War of the 20th century. The course focuses on prominent historiographic debates and themes of the period and their impact on world events, providing a strong foundation of subject-specific knowledge for those who aspire to pursue careers as world history researchers. This seminar can also prepare students to focus on this period of world history in their capstone project.

History researchers help create an enduring record of the most important activities of humanity. Their work helps preserve meaningful ties to past generations and events while charting a course for future scholarship. Researchers can serve in a variety of roles, and there are many possible paths that can lead toward a career in the field. By building upon their historical knowledge and developing key analytical and research skills, Master of Arts in History graduates can be well-equipped to pursue a successful, intellectually rewarding profession as a history researcher.

Learn More

Norwich University is an important part of American history. Established in 1819, Norwich is a nationally recognized institution of higher education, the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and the first private military college in the United States.

With Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program, you can enhance your awareness of differing historical viewpoints while developing the skills needed to refine your research, writing, analysis, and presentation skills. The program offers three tracks ― Public History, American History and World History ― allowing you to tailor your studies to your interests and goals.

Recommended Readings
What is a Historian, and How Do You Become One?
8 Compelling Careers in History
Career Outlook: History Professor

How Historians Work, National Council on Public History
Historians as Researchers, American Historical Association
Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Anthropologists and Archaeologists, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Postsecondary Teachers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Historians, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Operations Research Analysts, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Average Intelligence Analyst Salary at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, PayScale
Intelligence Analysts, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
Naval History and Heritage Command: Who We Are, U.S. Navy
Supervisory Staff Curator, Naval History and Heritage Command, U.S. Office of Personnel Management
Research Skills for the Future: Summary and Critique of a Comparative Study in Eight Countries, Journal of Research Practice
Postsecondary Teachers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Where Historians Work, American Historical Association
Perspectives on History, American Historical Association
A (Very) Brief History of the Master's Degree, American Historical Association
Master of Arts (MA), History Degree, PayScale