What is a Historian and How Do You Become One?

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What Is a Historian?

The world is constantly evolving, and historians play an important role in synthesizing and recording the events of the past. Their efforts make it possible for individuals and societies to learn from history in order to chart a better course for the future. Those who are interested in contributing to this effort may choose to pursue a Master of Arts in History.

Historians devote their careers to studying notable past events, such as military conflicts, political milestones, and social movements. These professionals work in universities and other educational settings, as well as for the various public, private and nonprofit organizations.

As an example, some government agencies hire staff historians to advise on the potential impact of proposed policies. Historians, and in particular, military historians, can advise on both domestic and foreign policy decisions by studying major conflicts and recording a range of important details. Their research may cover subjects such as military technology, strategy, communications, leadership, and wartime public health. Military officials and policymakers can use this information to develop more effective policies.

What Do Historians Do?

A master’s degree in history can help prepare historians to conduct field research, evaluate historical records, and provide insights into past events. Historians typically have the following professional responsibilities:

Research Recorded Histories

Historians collect and evaluate information from many primary sources to answer questions about historical events, a process known as the historical method. They may analyze written records, physical artifacts, and other types of evidence during the course of their investigations. Historians often prepare reports to explain the significance of their findings, connecting the relevance and value of new discoveries to modern society.

Provide Historical Insight about Current Events

By comparing past and current events, historians can create a valuable commentary about current affairs, potentially allowing them to predict what events might transpire in the future. For example, by studying the economic history of a country that is facing a recession, economic historians can pinpoint the potential causes for that recession. By sharing their insights, they can help the country recover and help other societies around the world avoid making similar mistakes. The same line of thought applies to other fields of history; military historians can help identify the signs of war preemptively, allowing their country’s leadership to take the necessary precautions. Likewise, political historians can use their observations of past political events to predict how today’s political affairs are likely to play out.  

What Skills Must a Historian Have?

To be a historian is to develop and test hypotheses, gather applicable data, and publish subsequent research. People in this field may have to travel and work long hours when deadlines approach, and they must be avid readers and writers. In addition to these aptitudes, the following skills are vital to historians:

Chronological Thinking

Mastering chronological thinking means understanding how individual societies measured time and recorded history. Since many sources may contain histories of a single event, historians must sift through individual accounts and place the events in order of occurrence. Historical sources often don’t come with a time and date stamp, so they must be traced to identify not just their historical relevance, but also who produced the information or artifact and from where it came.

Creating a time sequence out of the materials and data that a historian collects can be a difficult task. Therefore, the American Historical Association lists chronological thinking as the skill at the heart of historical reasoning. What may seem simple on the surface is complicated not just by the number of historical accounts, but also by the many historical civilizations that followed their own interpretations of time. For example, societies founded in Christian beliefs may have coordinated their histories around critical events within the religion, while Chinese civilizations favored calendar systems centered upon the rise and fall of monarchical dynasties. Even if past civilizations diligently recorded events, the inconsistencies in their methods of chronology might make it more difficult to identify when events took place in our modern calendar. Since there is no uniform method of chronology, historians must know how to use cultural factors and context to infer the order of events over time.

Historical Interpretation

What is a historian supposed to do when faced with different accounts of the same historical event? Historical interpretation and analysis is a skill that historians apply when they compare historical accounts of a single event. In order to correctly interpret complex histories, historians must take a nuanced approach to their research. Instead of looking strictly at the facts, they must make inferences based on the context of historical events. This means taking into consideration any valid historical accounts that speak to the causes, impact, and outcomes of the historical event being researched. By drawing from this variety of perspectives on the same events, a historian should be able to draw parallels between the events they are studying and synthesize a balanced, unbiased, and accurate representation of the time period in question.

Historical Comprehension

Reference materials can be useful for understanding history, because photographs, artwork, and books provide concrete evidence of what life was like in different time periods. Mastering the art of historical comprehension relies on a historian’s ability to discover why historical events occurred, who was involved, why they happened, and what could have motivated them. For instance, someone who studies the early years of colonization in North America would benefit from studying that time from the viewpoint of both the Native Americans and the various groups of European colonizers. Cross-referencing conflicting viewpoints to reach the truth allows historians to produce a historical narrative that is as well-rounded and unbiased as possible. Additionally, historical comprehension also involves being able to seek out non-standard data that was presented in different forms during the period being studied. By studying non-standard sources, like maps, art, literature, and music, historians can draw in more actionable data that can be used to better contextualize the histories they are researching.

Job Outlook and Opportunities

Many of the top professional disciplines for historians are projected to be in high demand over the next decade. Some of the most common career choices for individuals with an advanced degree in history include:

History Teacher

Teachers educate students of all ages in various subjects, such as science and language, but what is a historian able to do in the classroom? At the grade-school level, history teachers often share general knowledge of historical events with their students. High school teachers, on the other hand, have more liberty with the subject matter, meaning they can dig deeper into historical events. After completing a class, high school students should be able to determine what caused an event, how the event played out, and what the consequences were. Beyond the classroom, history teachers may lead community-level history projects as an extension of their classroom work. These projects could be anything from coordinating extracurricular historical reenactments within the community or organizing school events to honor important historical figures.

In order to become a teacher, the combination of a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification is often sufficient, but some states also require teachers to hold a master’s degree. Regardless of state requirements, a Master of Arts in History degree is an attractive credential for schools seeking history teachers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), high school teachers earned a median salary of $59,170 in 2017.

Museum Archivist or Curator

Museums aren’t just repositories for ancient artifacts; they are places where individuals can go to learn from the past and explore ideas to use in the future. Historians who work in museums are usually employed to promote, protect, appraise, and study historical objects and records. In some roles, they are also tasked with presenting these things to the museum’s patrons in interesting new ways, such as interactive exhibits that engage visitors and educate them in entertaining ways.

There are two specialized occupations available for historians who wish to work in a museum: archivist and curator. Archivists determine the value or historical significance of a museum’s inventory and may also be responsible for helping preserve records related to historical objects or events. If the authenticity of a historical document or artifact is in doubt, archivists often have the expertise to verify whether the item is genuine or not. On the other hands, curators arrange a museum’s inventory in a way that is most likely to attract and engage visitors. They find historical objects that are a good fit for a museum’s theme and create exhibits that convey an item’s historical significance in the most compelling way possible.

Qualifying for either of these positions typically requires at least a master’s degree in history or a related subject, such as archaeology. Earning a Master of Arts in History degree can give history professionals a competitive edge when they’re applying for jobs at museums. According to BLS, in 2017, the median salaries for curators and archivists were $53,770 and $51,760, respectively.

Historical Advisor

A Master of Arts in History degree can qualify graduates for advisory careers in both the public and private sectors. For example, historians may use their degrees to qualify for consulting jobs in filmmaking and publishing. With their unique expertise, historians can ensure that media representations of historical events are accurately referenced and depicted. As another example, governments hire historians with graduate degrees to study the cause and effect of world events. Government officials can use this information to determine how to improve future policy strategies. Historians who work for the federal government are among the highest-paid professionals in the field: they earned a median salary of $94,800 in 2017, compared to a $59,120 median for all historians.

Historians have a skill set that benefits modern cultures and nations by empowering societies to learn from past actions and avoid repeating missteps in the future. With a Master of Arts in History degree, historians can record and preserve oral histories, share their knowledge and findings with others, and, in some professions, provide actionable information that can help solve present and future problems.

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 two tracks – American History and World History – allowing you to tailor your studies to your interests and goals.



High School Teachers, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Historians, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Archivists, Curators and Museum Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Do Federal Historians Do, American Historical Association

Historical Thinking Skills, American Historical Association

Why Become a Historian, American Historical Association

Chancellorsville, Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report, Battle Summaries

U.S. Army Command Historians: What We Are and What We Do, American Historical Association

The Mystery of Hannibal’s Elephants, The New York Times