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Historians have the fascinating job of studying and interpreting the past. When people need detailed, nuanced information about the past, they go to historians to get the full story. They are the people who literally write history books about all kinds of topics, times, people, and places. From ancient history to a specific decade in the United States to even one specific historic event, historians come in all shapes and sizes.
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Historians do all different kinds of things, as there are many different types of historians. In the simplest terms, they study and interpret history and then relay that information to everyone else.
Many historians have some kind of specialty: a specific area of study in which they are experts. Most historians have PhDs, and they usually earned their doctorate degrees with work related to their specialty. These specialties range from specific events in history to whole time periods. Many historians specialize in a specific time period, country, or region. For example, a historian could specialize in U.S. history with a particular mastery of 1960s popular culture. Another example of a specialization could be South African history with a concentration on apartheid. Historians may also specialize in kinds of history, such as the history of women or science. However, even though many historians specialize in one topic, it is expected that they have a general base of history knowledge.
Historians study written records of history; this is where they get the support and evidence to back up their interpretation of the event or time period in question. It is their job to pore over all of the written documents they can find, and then piece together all of the information they gather to form some kind of historical narrative. Then, they can answer the questions of what happened, who was involved, why, etc.
Over 70% of all historians work in colleges or universities. This means that much of what these historians do involves teaching courses or serving some role in a history department. The work of historians at colleges and universities also greatly involves conducting research and writing articles and/or books. When it comes to writing, if they are professors, they will most likely be expected to author books about their specialty. Once they gather all of the information they can find that is relevant to their topic of interest, they tie it all together to write a book.
Those historians who do not work in colleges or universities may work as archivists helping collect and preserve important historic documents, or in government agencies involved in helping to preserve buildings. They may also be consultants for the media (TV, radio, film, etc.) with the task of making sure all aspects of the show or film in question are historically accurate.
In terms of education, historians typically need an advanced degree to have a successful career in history. While it is possible to get a job in research with just a bachelor's degree, better opportunities exist for those with advanced degrees. Historians with a master's degree in history are regularly considered for some jobs in teaching, archiving, or researching. A doctoral degree is necessary for most teaching positions at colleges or universities. All together, earning a master's and then a doctoral degree could take anywhere between two and five years. It is also recommended that historians study the language and literature of the period and location of the world in which they wish to specialize.
According to U.S. News & World Report, the top graduate schools for earning advanced degrees in history are Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and University of California - Berkeley, which are all tied for first. Coming in at number five is Harvard. All of these elite schools offer top programs for aspiring historians with varying requirements. Links to these schools' graduate program pages with more detailed information can be found at the end of this page.
Beyond educational requirements, it takes a commitment and fascination with the past to become a successful historian. People interested in the field must be prepared to spend much of their careers studying, conducting research, writing, and probably teaching.
As important as writing and research is, communicating that information is just as important. Therefore, historians must be able to effectively communicate their findings to people who are not experts, be it in a college classroom full of students or in a government office among politicians. Historians need to be able to explain in detail what has happened in the past and why it should be taken into consideration now.
Lastly, it takes great determination in researching and analyzing lots of information to be a successful historian. As mentioned above, historians must go through all kinds of documents of the past to form the most complete possible picture of the past. These documents include maps, photographs, letters, diaries, election returns, city directory books, newspapers, and many other kinds.
The workplace of a historian is one of focus and quiet. Many historians spend most of their time in offices at colleges or universities, in libraries, or in classrooms. They may do some travel to historical sites or archives for research purposes.