"The School of Athens." By Raphael, 1510-1511. Fresco in in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.
Getting a graduate degree in history is major commitment, but it can also help you qualify for a career as a professional historian. Not all jobs require a graduate degree. A graduate degree in history is necessary if you want to work as a specialist in museums or archives, if you want to teach in a college or university, or if you want to work as a researcher or in historical preservation. Many college history majors also choose to pursue graduate degrees in law or public policy. As a general rule of thumb, a Ph.D. is necessary if you want to teach at the college or university level, while a master's degree is necessary if you want to work in non-university settings or if you want to teach at the junior college level. A master's degree is not necessary to teach high school history, although many high school teachers choose to earn a master's to increase their qualifications and pay.
Most Ph.D. programs do not require you to have a master's degree in order to apply. Typically, students in a Ph.D. program earn a master's in the first two years of their Ph.D. program. Students who decide to leave without completing the Ph.D. are often still awarded a “terminal master's degree.”
If you think you might want to get a Ph.D. but you have a B average from your undergraduate institution (or medium GRE scores), you should consider applying to a master's degree program rather than a Ph.D. program, but look for programs that also offer a Ph.D. track. This can make it possible for you to transition into a Ph.D. program once you have proven yourself as a master's student.
In 2010-2011, people who earned graduate degrees in history were most often employed by in colleges and universities, in local, state, and federal government, in management consulting, or in scientific research services. Historians also often work in museums or at historical sites, in architectural companies and historic preservations companies, in civic organizations, and in publishing and editing. The median annual wage for historians was $57,840.1
Graduate training in history can give you skills that are very attractive to employers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. A degree in history gives people “training … in writing, analytical research, and coherent thinking, so their skills can be applied to many different occupations. As a result, many workers with a history background will find work in niche areas with specialized titles, such as researcher, writer, or policy analyst.” In coming years, employment of historians is expected to grow by 11 percent, about as fast as the average for all occupations, reflecting the relatively few jobs outside of Federal, State, and local Government.”2
The American Historical Association publishes an excellent overview of types of careers that can be pursued with a master's degree in history in schools, museums, editing and publishing, archives and libraries, historic preservation, government, consulting, and contracting.
The Application Process
1. Writing a Letter of Application
A key part of the application letter-writing process is highlighting your research accomplishments and your research goals. What research skills can you discuss in your application letter? Do you have a clear sense of the kind of research you want to do? You should particularly demonstrate that you know that Ph.D. students work in archives. In your letter, write about any archival research that you have done and about any archives you use for your Ph.D. research.
2. Writing Samples and GREs
All graduate programs in history will require you take the GREs. Take them well in advance so that you can re-take them if necessary. Writing samples can be as important as test scores, especially if you don’t have excellent GREs. You should therefore work closely with your upper-level professors on editing a top-notch writing sample.
To figure out when and where you should take the GREs, LSATs, or other standardized tests, consult the excellent timeline and advice available at the Towson University Career Center.
3. Getting Letters of Recommendation
Your professors need about two-months lead time for writing letters, especially when there are multiple institutions to which you are applying. Before you ask your professors to write recommendations for you, you should compile an application folder to give to each recommender. Your folders should include the following:
A list of all schools you are applying to.
Your C.V. (Learn the difference between a C.V. and a resume)
Your best writing sample
Your statement of intent to study
Any addressed, stamped envelopes (although these days nearly all applications are on line)
Your time frame for submitting applications (deadlines for the professor to write the letter of recommendation)
1. How long does it take to get a degree? Can I work while I get the degree?
Graduate programs are very time-consuming and not easily matched to full-time work. A Masters Degree in history usually takes at least two years. A PhD usually takes at least six years, and it is not unusual for a PhD in history to take seven or even ten years, particularly if a student is doing research abroad using more than one foreign language.
The cost of a graduate degree varies a great deal from school to school. In 2011-2012, for example, in-state tuition at UMD College Park was $5,416 – $6,991 per semester, depending on how many credit hours a student took. At Harvard, full tuition for a year as a graduate student cost $36,304.
Masters degree programs usually require students to pay full tuition, leaving you to finance your education out of pocket or through loans. PhD programs, however, often offer funding to their students in return for teaching assistantships or other work. PhD students are also eligible for certain Federal grant and fellowship programs such as the Jacob K. Javitts Scholarship and the Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship.
If you have excellent grades, therefore, you should consider applying to a PhD program even if you think you might just want a Masters. If you decide not to finish the PhD, you can still leave the program with a Masters Degree. Especially at the Ph.D. level, private universities tend to have better financial packages than public institutions.
Keep in mind that your professors usually know little or nothing about financial aid. You should contact the financial aid offices at each institution to learn what types of financial aid exist at their designated graduate institution.
Many history majors go on to law school. If you think you might want to do this, you should do Towson University’s concentrated track in pre-law with the pre-law program run through the Political Science Department. The director of the pre-law program is Dr. Jack Fruchtman. Contact him as early as your sophomore year. Advising for law school application is handled through Professor Fruchtman.
5. Where should I get my master's degree in social science?
If you want to enhance your content knowledge in any of the social sciences, you may want to consider applying to Towson’s Master of Science program in Social Science. This program fulfills the MSE standards for advanced teaching degree and focuses on content rather than pedagogy (which is the focus of the MAT program offered by the College of Education). Johns Hopkins also has a very good MAT program, and you should consider applying there to vary the institutions on their C.V.’s.
6. Where Should I get my master's degree in history?
If you want to stay in the Baltimore area, there are excellent master's degree programs in history at George Mason University; James Madison University; UM College Park; Morgan State; and UMBC. You might also consider Towson’s master's program in Social Science, which has a history track.
If you want to be a college history professor, you need a Ph.D. in history. When considering taking this career route, however, you should be aware that there are very few jobs for history professors. Only the top institutions are really placing their graduates in academic jobs. If you want to be a history professor, you should seriously consider applying to one of these top programs. If you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in history, you should be sure to have a “plan B” – many history Ph.D.s pursue careers in editing, publishing, public history, public policy, etc.
When you get a Ph.D. in history, you will be studying for many years under a single academic advisor, so it is important to know who you are applying to study with. You should therefore really research individual scholars in the field you want to study. Ask yourself: “Who are your favorite authors in the field you wish to study?” Find out which universities those people teach at. Write to those professors and explain your interests before actually submitting the application. Many times scholars have moved off a topic a student might want to study. If your application references the scholar’s old research, he or she may not take you on as a student.
8. Will I need to study a foreign language to get a Ph.D. in history?
In order to do a Ph.D. in history you will need to have foreign language competency unless you plan to study U.S. history. You should begin training in your sophomore year. Study abroad in the junior year to enhance your skills and improve your graduate school application.