Whether you’re wanting to be a professional historian or what the history world affectionately calls the Sunday Historian (someone who studies on their own time, for the pure love of the craft), there are some skills you’ll need to master and a couple of hoops to jump through. To find out how you can get started deciphering the annals of history, get started with Step 1 below!
Developing Vital Skills
Improve your reading and writing skills. The most important skills for a historian are their reading and writing skills. You’ll need excellent reading comprehension and an ability to clearly communicate through writing in a professional tone. You can improve your reading and writing skills by reading challenging texts and writing whenever you get the chance.
Improve your reading skills by looking up words you don’t know. Write them down in a journal so that you study them later.
Improve your writing skills by writing letters or emails back and forth with a family member, such as your mother or grandmother.
Learn multiple languages. Historians all need to speak more than one language, as a general rule. This is because the documents being written at the time were often written in different languages because they came from different sources. You’ll need to study from these original sources in order to learn more about history. Even as a native speaker studying the history of your own land, often you may need to read the work of diplomats, explorers, and immigrants in order to get a more complete picture. You can learn these languages cheaply from local community colleges, at the university where you get your degree, or even using online study tools (like Rosetta Stone or DuoLingo).
For studying ancient history, you’ll often need to know French, German, and multiple dead languages for the area you’ll study (Attic Greek, Latin, Middle Egyptian, Sumerian, etc.)
For studying medieval or European history, you’ll generally need to know Latin, French and German, as well as some languages like those used by the Celts or Old Norse, depending on your area of study.
For studying North American history, you’ll generally need to know Spanish and French.
Note: learning the languages prior to entering graduate study is often required.
Practice your critical thinking skills. Historians highly value the abilities to read between the lines, infer information correctly from minimal evidence, and remove as much personal bias as possible. You’ll want to practice your critical thinking skills, so that you too can be fully prepared to look at historical documents and situations from all angles.
A good way to practice is to keep up with and discuss politics and law cases.
Learn to travel like a pro. Professional historians will often be required to travel in order to study. Being truly comfortable with this kind of work means being able to take a 14 hour long flight and go to work the next day. It means that you need to be ready to go to a monastery in the middle of nowhere, without a single English speaker in sight. It means you need to be prepared to eat a lot of weird foods and look happy about it, because passing might offend your guests. Traveling and dealing with unusual environments is not for everyone, so if you’re wanting to become a professional historian, you’ll need to be sure you’re up to the challenge.
You may need to consult materials in a museum across the country, or go on an archaeological dig half-way around the world. It is also very common to guest lecture at universities around the world. You’d be surprised at all of the reasons that historians need to travel.
Learn about other subject areas too! Historians often need to be skilled and knowledgeable in lots of different subject areas. Often historical studies will require you to have a basic understanding of statistical analysis, health problems common to the time, and even law procedures. What areas you need to know about will vary by what era you study and what subject within that era. Play it by ear!
Learn about peer review. Peer review is going to be the food on which you live for your entire career as a historian. It’s especially important for untrained historians, since they will lack the training to analyze historical information. Essentially, it’s like homework that’s gotten an A. While studying, you’ll need to pull your information from peer-reviewed sources and once you work professionally, you’ll need to get your work peer-reviewed as well.
Basically, the way it works is that someone researches a subject and then writes about what they found out. Of course, history is very complicated and lots of guess work and interpretation are involved. So, once a paper is done, it’s given to other historians to read. They’ll double check that the arguments are good and the facts are straight. Once everything is checked, the paper or book will get published by a journal or university press.
Learn to distinguish secondary and primary sources. Understanding and knowing how to use primary and secondary sources is another incredibly important skill for a historian. Primary sources are sources that were written at the time, by the people who actually experienced the event or close to it. Secondary sources are sources that were written after the fact or are studies of events that happened. Marcus Aurelius wrote primary sources. Historians write secondary sources.
As a historian, you will rely on primary sources (with greater degree, the further you get into school and your career). Secondary sources will be supplemental but will still be used when doing your own research.
Secondary sources are considered not as good as primary sources because not only are you getting the bias and filter of the original authors and people experiencing the events, you’re getting the bias and filter of the secondary author. This can make the information skewed at best and wrong at worst.
This skill is especially important for casual, at-home historians. You will have less training in distinguishing sources and companies looking to make money off of enthusiasts will try and take advantage of you and sell you secondary sources as if they are as reliable as primary sources.
Go to college. Professional historians are required to have a degree in history or a related subject (such a anthropology). You’ll need to get a BA and then an MA and PhD or a combined MA/PhD. You can get your Associates degree at a cheap community college but you’ll need to get your BA from the best university you can get in to. History is a very competitive field and going to a good school will help you get into the graduate programs which are often held at very prestigious universities.
Usually, about 10 years of post-high school education are necessary to complete the education you need to get a job in the field. Some jobs, such as lower level museum jobs, you can get with only an MA however, which works out to about 6 years of college.
Get outstanding grades. Of course, in order to make it in this competitive field, you’ll need to get outstanding grades. Graduate schools generally require a minimum 3.4-3.5 GPA. Study, study, study, get tutors, an any extra help that you possibly can.
Find an area of interest. As you progress through school, usually between your second and third year of your BA, you’ll choose an area of history to focus in. This area will be your specialty. You will probably also take classes in secondary focus areas, often ones that are related to your major field.
Example areas of interest include: Ancient history, Medieval history, Early Modern history, American history, history of the Middle East, Ancient East Asian History, Modern East Asian History, history of science and technology, history of medicine, and other fields of study.
Develop a relationship with your professors. Having a good relationship with your professors will be crucial to you succeeding as a historian. They will need to write you recommendations to get into graduate school and they will provide you with a lot of guidance along the way. They might even end up being your colleagues someday. Make a good impression by looking and acting professional, and make use of their office hours so that you can get to know each other. Speaking up in discussions and lectures is also helpful.
Get your undergraduate degree. You’ll need to complete your BA with a minimum 3.4 GPA in your major in order to get into graduate school. Completing a BA generally takes about 4 years, but you can probably complete it in 3 if you work hard and smart. You will want to take language courses as your electives when possible in order to speed up the process.
Apply to graduate school. Applying for graduate school usually means taking a test, such as the GRE, and then filling out applications. Often the applications will have a number of essays. You’ll also need three recommendation letters from professors that you studied under. You’ll need a significant writing sample, which will usually be your undergraduate thesis paper. Doing extra things to make yourself appear better to the school is also a good idea.
You can try to get your work published somewhere or volunteer with a museum. For research fields that require fieldwork, getting a spot on a dig can also look good on an application.
Go through graduate school. Graduate school usually entails a small number of extra classes, more language classes, but mainly actual experience in the field. You’ll be doing research, writing your dissertation (and possibly an additional MA thesis), and interning in museums or getting other experience. Often graduate students are called on to TA and then teach lower level classes.
In the study of history, most graduate school students will receive a tuition waver in exchange for work.
While working on your graduate degree, you will significantly narrow the area of study you work in. For example, you might be researching and studying only marriage and family relations for the era you specialize in. Economics, military, international relations, and trade are other common areas of study.
Complete your dissertation. While in graduate school, you will be required to write a dissertation in order to earn your PhD. This is a book-long research paper which significantly contributes to the field you work in. Generally for historians, working on this dissertation is all you do in order to earn your PhD and other classes will likely not be taken unless you want to take them (meaning that really, you get many years to work on the paper). Don’t worry: you will have a professor who supervises your work and helps you find an appropriate topic.
When you are done, you will be required to defend your thesis to a number of professors at your institution, in order to complete your degree.
Find work. Once you graduate with your PhD, you’ll need to find work as a historian. Your university will usually help you find a position and may even offer you one themselves. You might go on to work for a museum, teach at a university, work in the field, or even work for other institutions (like the government).
You can often find job listings by visiting the websites for the institutions you are interested in working with. Doing this before you get your degree can be helpful, because it can give you an idea of the kinds of qualifications they’re looking for. You can also find work by attending conferences and networking with people.
Publish in your area of expertise. While you work as a historian, it is generally required that you continue to research and publish in your area of expertise. You will likely travel in order to get the documents you need. You will also go to conferences where you will hear and give lectures about your area of interest. You may write books, which will often either be published by your university or by another university press. Writing articles for peer reviewed journals is also required.
Generally, you will be expected to publish around one journal article every two years, and write a book every 5-10 years.
You may be given what is called a sabbatical in order to write your book or do other major research. This is essentially a year long paid vacation, except that instead of sitting on a beach you sit in a library. Which is almost as nice to a historian.
Learning from Home
Audit classes. You can audit classes from a local college or university, which allows you to take the college courses but not get credit for it or be allowed to do much of the homework. It is, however, a great learning experience. If you’re well into your years as it is, you may also find that your local college has a great continuing education program, which provides classes to adults for much cheaper rates than those trying to get a degree.
Read lots of books. Read lots of books about history. Make sure that the books you read are peer reviewed or from otherwise good sources. When you see a serious history book, it should have a long list of citations at the back of the book or in footnotes. Be wary of sensationalist books. These are usually just trying to get you to spend money on the book, and are often poorly researched or just wrong.
Avoid TV shows and documentaries. TV shows and documentaries will often twist facts and even manipulate interviews with experts in order to make the subject sound more interesting or support the premise of their show. Even the best TV sources, like PBS, have been guilty of this. You’re better off with books written by experts than anything you find on TV.
Such things are fun to watch, however. Don’t feel bad if you want to watch them for fun. But it is important to realize that you shouldn’t pull your information from them.
Go to lectures. You can often find special lectures at nearby colleges that are either ticketed or just open to the public, where a special speaker is brought in to teach a one-time lesson on a subject. You can also ask the history professors at local colleges and universities if they’re okay with you sitting in on the occasional lecture. They’ll usually be supportive and allow it, as long as you are quiet and well behaved.
Be a patron. By going to museums you will not only help yourself to learn more about history, you’ll also be helping those organizations raise money. That money gets used for research and preservation, which is very important to the study of history.
Ask your local museum about other ways you can help too. They will often need volunteers or people to help out at fundraisers.
Add to the historical record. Contribute to the study of history by doing your part to create and maintain the historical record. Do interviews with the elderly, keep a journal of your own experiences, maintain historical documents like significant newspapers, and find other ways to record events as they happen. This will give future historians material to study and work with.
Be willing to look at an event in a new way, and don’t always assume the author is always right.
Take a lot of different history and history-related courses in school. This will give you the opportunity to see diverse cultures and see how they developed and how they may have interacted with each other.
Pick up any interesting books you see, no matter the time period or topic, you never know what you might learn or simply find yourself interested in and make more connections.
Go to a local historical site, and see if you could do a course or small apprenticeship there. They’re bound to want more eager history lovers there!
Study and learn as much as you can. Formal education is an excellent source, but there are plenty of self-taught historians than can be every bit as knowledgeable as their University counterparts.
If you enjoy history, and you think you are good at it, then this would be a good job for you. There’s no point getting a job that you do not enjoy.
If one is still in high school, they should opt for a foreign language and a computer class. Remember that historians have a wide range of jobs!
Do not limit yourself to the history you are familiar with. Sometimes you can fall in love with a topic you would never have normally seen before. An American can definitely become a historian of Egyptology with enough work and dedication.
Writing one paper or book is very unlikely to make you rich and famous as a historian. For most historians, just knowing that somebody read their work and appreciated is the most fame some historians will ever receive.
You can be wrong at times. You will be wrong at times. Accept this and move on, either find out why someone believes you’re wrong and argue your side or take the argument and mold it into your own ideas. Don’t be afraid to change your opinion several times. History is the pursuit of facts, that is, truth.
Remember Carl Sagan’s maxim: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
Most historians don’t manage to make a living selling articles and books. Many are teachers or happen to like a particular topic and may have found time to write about it.
History is also the explanation and interpretation of these true facts and events. Some historians develop their own theories or borrows them from other people in order to explain more and more about the past. Sometimes, historians disagree over these different theories, and could argue about them. Most of the time these discussions are an usual part of the process of making history and being a historian.
How to Become Class President
How to Research the History of Your House
How to Find Prehistoric Amerind Artifacts
How to Be a Brilliant Student in History
How to Be a History Buff
How to Prove to Yourself That You Can Publish Your Book
How to Reenact the Civil War With Rubber Band Guns
How to Enjoy Learning History