How to Become a History Researcher: Steps and Career Outlook

a smiling history researcher stands in front of a building

History 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. Individuals interested in  how to become a history researcher can prepare for the role by pursuing a Master of Arts in History degree.

What Does a History Researcher Do?

History researchers study past events, people, policies, and documents to gain an in-depth understanding of their significance and impact on modern and future societies. Examining primary and secondary sources is an essential part of a history researcher’s job. They interpret and translate texts into different languages, contribute to research for textbooks, and assist museum curators and historians in preserving artifacts and documents. History researchers may work at universities and conduct specialized research on a certain topic. Areas of study can range from the impact of religion on ancient governments to American history.

History researchers begin by identifying a broad question or topic, and then search for and analyze past research studies on the same subject. After refining or narrowing their scope of study, they decide which historical research method to use. They find primary and secondary sources through university or library archives, historical societies, and public records, analyzing the accuracy of these sources and using their findings to write and publish academic papers or books.

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. An advanced history degree can help individuals learn how to become history researchers and achieve success in their field. Some career options for history researchers include those in the following sections.

Research Historian

A research historian’s goal is to understand how and why important past events 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.

Museum Researcher

Museum researchers are responsible for providing artifact descriptions, authenticating historical materials, and contributing to exhibits and educational programs. Most museum researchers 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.

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.

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 Intelligence Analyst Selection Process (IASP) tests critical thinking, writing, analytical skills, and time management—all areas of emphasis in Master of Arts in History programs.

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.

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 teach courses in other departments, such as political science and public affairs.

History Researcher Salaries

History researchers earn different salaries based on their specific jobs, education level, and years of experience.

  • Historian. Historians earned a median annual salary of $63,690 as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
  • Museum researcher. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for archivists, curators, and museum researchers was $49,850 as of May 2019.
  • Cultural resource manager. The BLS groups cultural resource managers with anthropologists and archaeologists, and reports that individuals in these positions earned a median annual salary of $63,670 as of May 2019.
  • FBI intelligence analyst. The median annual salary for FBI intelligence analysts is about $70,000, according to the compensation website PayScale.
  • Navy historian. Annual salaries for navy historians range depending on the position, but a supervisory curator, for example, may earn between $96,070 and $126,062, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  • University professor. Postsecondary history professors earned a median annual salary of $75,170 as of May 2019, according to the BLS.

Steps for Becoming a History Researcher

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

Step 1: Pursue an Advanced Education

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.

Step 2: Gain Experience

While students may learn about the day-to-day work of history researchers in internships and field assignments, there’s 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.

Step 3: Earn a Doctorate 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.

Earn a Master of Arts in History Degree

Norwich University offers an online Master of Arts in History program 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, analytical, and presentation skills. The program offers four concentrations―Public History, American History, World History, and Legal and Constitutional History―allowing students to tailor their studies to their interests and goals.

Explore how Norwich’s online Master of Arts in History degree can help you learn how to become a history researcher and prepare you for a successful career in the field.



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