“Using” Your History Major

by Doug Howard.

The phrase, “I’m not really using my history major,” should be banished from the vocabulary of history grads!

Ten years out—no, five—you’re probably not going to remember more than a few of the facts you learned in History of the Modern Middle East. (I’ve gotten over it.) I do hope something sticks—especially, an attitude, an approach, a way of looking at things.

And five years out—no, two—no one is going to remember your GPA. Or care. (Sorry.) Employers are going to care about the “Calvin College” on your diploma. And the fact that you have one.

If you know how to ask a good question, identify the sources that will be helpful in answering it, and write a coherent report, you’ll be using your history major.

If you have to analyze a report, articulate a client’s position, or find evidence to disprove a competitor’s assertion, you’ll be using your history major.

If you have to evaluate different accounts of an accident, write an executive summary of a proposal, or list recent studies of an issue, you’ll be using your history major.

Your first job, you might be competing with some people who didn’t even go to college, or get a degree. But the second job, and the third—your degree is likely to raise your ceiling. And there might be times between jobs, too. Times without a job. A lot of people go through that. Some of my best friends. And if you do, you know what? It’s not going to be because you picked the wrong major. Our economy is way more complex than that. There are no guarantees in life, and to think that some major besides history will bring you those guarantees is naive.

You decided to major in history because, well… you have to major in something. It could have been religion, or philosophy, or English, or sociology, but you picked history because you like it. It’s interesting. There’s nothing wrong with that. Then you go get a job. And the history major gets you ready for whatever that job is.

Here’s a list of some history majors and what they’re doing now, all from Calvin College. Many others are profiled on our department website. These are just a few I can remember off the top of my head. I didn’t ask my colleagues, but for sure they could all give a similar list:

  • a software testing specialist at an insurance company
  • graduate students in fields like geography, medicine, anthropology, and, yes, history
  • someone who went to grad school and now works in the construction industry
  • a consular adjudicator at the U.S. embassy in Beijing
  • the owner of a successful bakery that just opened its second location
  • someone who was a banker for almost twenty years and then went on to become a pastor
  • a community outreach specialist for the state’s Housing Development Authority
  • a stay-at-home mom and worship leader in her church
  • someone who teaches English in Turkey
  • other teachers in the International School of Budapest, a high school in Seattle, and an elite boarding school in Pittsburgh
  • an archaeologist who started a graphic arts company for that works on cultural preservation
  • an unemployment counselor with Goodwill who is now himself unemployed; while he has some time, he’s working on the local history of the town where he lives
  • some who are unemployed, or in transition, or between jobs

In planning your college program you probably do think about getting a job. But your job isn’t your whole life. And a history major is about more than just your job. Life is long. Turns out, there’s a second half. You might find yourself on a board of trustees, a school board, directing a Christmas pageant at church, writing a travel blog, updating the website of the historical society where you live, running for office, teaching a Sunday School class, starting a non-profit.

Maybe it’s natural for me to get this. My father was a history major. He taught school for two years, but he hated it, and before I was even in kindergarten he had quit and instead made a career in the United States Air Force. He wasn’t a pilot, he worked at a desk. He got an MBA. We lived in many places, and everywhere we lived we saw the local history. The mission of San Xavier del Bac outside Tucson. The Ankara citadel. The LaBrea Tar Pits. The International Peace Gardens. History wasn’t his job, not exactly, but it was his life.

Doug Howard is a professor of history at Calvin College. He’s almost finished writing a history of the Ottoman Empire. 

Calvin history students wondering about how they can use their history majors after graduation are warmly invited to attend a resume workshop with Doug Howard and career development staff on Thursday, February 27, at 2:30 pm.

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