The Real Poop
Getting a career in history may seem pretty pointless—after all, it's a field dedicated to the study of stuff that already happened. If we want to know about the Napoleonic Wars or the greatest Chinese leaders, we can just Google it.
But where do you think Google gets the information? It's not all people-powered Wikipedia entries and neat little clickbait about the "Ten Things You Won't Believe Aztecs Knew (Number Seven Will Really Give You The Shivers)." The real facts come from real historians who really know their history—and know that we'll never really know everything about anything.
Historians spend their working hours researching and interpreting documents from the past to give us a better understanding of where we come from. On average, a historian makes $55,000 per year, but it really depends on location (source).
They work in a variety of research centers and public institutes—anywhere you can find ancient manuscripts and people who're fussy about not touching the delicate edges of said manuscripts.
While historians rarely get to discover groundbreaking evidence that changes the course of, uh, history, they do often discover some pretty cool stuff.
Whether you're looking at a manuscript that hasn't been read in hundreds of years or a piece of pottery with some poorly drawn horses on the side, the whole point of doing so is to interpret what happened with the available evidence. It's like your own personal CSI: World History episode every time you go to the office.
Not all of your time will be spent with your head buried in books, though. Historians frequently conduct their research at the actual locations of historical events. Some art historians recently found a lost Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, hidden behind another great masterpiece by another great artist.
Even Pompeii is still revealing new secrets about centuries-past eruptions, thanks to the work of historians who just never lose interest in the sites. You're not exactly going to be Indiana Jones-ing around doom-filled temples, but you still might come across a lot of yet-uncovered history.
A historian's place isn't just in the past—at times they're a voice (maybe the only one) of opposition when historic areas are at risk for demolition or change in the present. It's thanks to historians that we have things like the National Historic Preservation Society and the Library of Congress.
They've even done things like keep a casino out of Gettysburg, PA, site of the major battle of the American Civil War (source). Historians believed that a casino would increase traffic and commercialization of the area—and if Gettysburg isn't hallowed ground, what is? Sometimes historians can be heroic.
Historians spend countless hours trying to get history right, and even more time making sure it stays in one piece. They're the go-to experts on the proper way to handle and store documents, or on the extensive precautions that must be taken when unearthing, transporting, and displaying ancient artifacts.
These folks take more care with a letter written 200 years ago than some surgeons take when operating on a human heart right now. (Although, if you find such a surgeon, we recommend you don't schedule procedures with them.)
As you'd expect, historians work at museums, universities, and historical archives. But you can also find them giving advice to consulting firms, assisting local officials with historical preservation, analyzing historical evidence for attorneys, and even at corporations preserving company history. That's right—Ronald McDonald has a paid historian, keeping tabs on the burger dynasty.
Then there's your high school history teacher. This person is a historian. Be careful telling them you're getting into this career—they don't really like the competition.
Despite the range of options, there aren't a whole lot of jobs available in this arena (source). There are few positions for those with a bachelor's degree in history; more job opportunities will present themselves if you get a master's or Ph.D. Students getting out of graduate school usually vie for positions within universities, then try to hang on for the duration.
When someone becomes a tenured professor at a university, they stay forever—or at least until they basically become historical artifacts themselves.
So what do you do to compete in this small and specialized field? Become attractive to employers by expanding your skill set. Write papers, publish articles, become involved with your local historical society, pick up some editing skills to work for a publishing company, earn a museum studies certificate, or join the American Historical Association.
The bottom line is, to get paid to study the past, you're going to have to work pretty hard in the present to build the career for the future. If you have something to teach us about our past, do it. They say those who ignore the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. Without your skills we may not even realize those mistakes were made in the first place.