Education & training needed to become a historian

Written by shane hall
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Education & training needed to become a historian
Historians apply systematic methods to explain and understand historical events. (Mexico image by TEMISTOCLE LUCARELLI from

Historians study and interpret the past through research and analysis of historical material and records. They work in colleges and universities, as well as with state and local governments. Like other professions in the social sciences, such as economics and political science, becoming a historian requires extensive education and training. The best opportunities exist for individuals with graduate degrees, usually a Ph.D., in history.


An undergraduate education in history offers a broad training in the discipline, as well as the opportunity to develop a speciality; then upper-level course work can be concentrated in the study of a certain part of the world or in a specific era, such as ancient, medieval or 20th century history. Students also study methods of conducting historical research and how to analyse qualitative and quantitative data. Working as a historian, however, requires graduate-level education, leading to a master's or doctorate in the field. Graduate education involves more in-depth study and research in history.


A Ph.D. in history requires a student to master an extensive amount of knowledge and contribute to it by completing a dissertation of research. Earning a Ph.D. can require four to six years of full-time study and research. Most historians, especially those with doctoral degrees, specialise in the history of a particular part of the world or focus on a specific historical area of study, such as economic, political or intellectual history. Depending on their area of concentration, historians may need knowledge in other subjects besides history. A specialist in ancient history, for example, will need a working knowledge of at least one ancient language, such as Greek or Latin.


The historical method is one of the most important research skills an historian will possess. Undergraduate and graduate training in history provides instruction in the historical method, and approaches historical issues systematically, asking not only what happened in the past, but how and why something happened, how previous historians framed the event and what the event can tell us about that time. Historians try to answer those questions through research that uses primary sources as much as possible. Primary records include writings, documents, recordings and other materials from that particular time in the past, left by the people living at the time. A historian must review and analyse these materials, assessing their reliability and points of view.


In addition to being able to conduct research and critically analyse historical evidence, a skilled historian must be able to communicate the results of her research in as clear a manner as possible so that all audiences--historian and non-historian alike--will understand them. This means historians need excellent writing and communication skills.


Historians with graduate degrees often go on to teaching and research careers at colleges and universities. Most tenured faculty members have Ph.D.s in history. Fewer history-related career opportunities exist for people with bachelor's degrees in the field. Some men and women with undergraduate history degrees pursue business careers, work for government agencies or become journalists, or school teachers.

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