Should I do a degree in history?

History tends to be well respected by employers as a challenging academic subject, and the analytical skills it develops could lead to a career in an area such as education or law.

History degrees offer a good intellectual challenge and are well respected by employers. If you want a career that directly relates to history, you’re likely to need to take further qualifications and gain substantial voluntary experience after you graduate. However, there are plenty of other job areas you can go into that offer a more straightforward career path.

Which A levels or Highers do I need to get onto a history degree?

To get onto an undergraduate degree in history you’ll usually need to have studied history as part of your A levels, IB or Scottish Highers. For some universities, students from Scotland will need Advanced Highers, including history.

What will I study on a history degree?

In the first year your choice of modules will probably be limited. Modules are often broad, covering long periods of history and wide ranges of topics. You’ll probably need to study both medieval and modern history. If you go to university in Scotland, where most degrees last four years, it’s likely that this broad approach will continue into your second year – and that you’ll be expected to study other subjects as well as history in your first two years.

In your final two years you should have more choice as to which periods and topics to study, and be able to examine them in more depth. Different universities offer different modules. More niche topics could include:

  • Fashion history
  • Architectural history
  • History of medicine
  • History of advertising and consumerism
  • History of religion
  • History of warfare
  • History of science.

However, the fact that a module is listed on a university’s website doesn’t guarantee you’ll get to take it. There is usually a limited number of places on each module and popular modules are often oversubscribed. Modules are also linked to specific lecturers who specialise in those areas. Many lecturers take a break from teaching every few years to concentrate on their research; when they do so the modules that they teach tend not to run.

Your degree is also likely to include at least one module about how history is studied. This will look at issues such as sources, bias, how to read analytically and critically, and the work of other historians.

What teaching methods are used on a history degree?

On a history degree you’ll attend lectures, which involves listening to a talk and taking notes. You’ll also take part in group discussions led by an academic or postgraduate student – these can be called seminars or tutorials, depending on the university, and sometimes include giving presentations too. There may also be a set time each week when you can drop in to see a lecturer to get any queries answered one-to-one.

How many contact hours will I have on a history degree?

History students are expected to spend the majority of their time studying by themselves, typically researching and writing essays. You’re likely to have between four and fifteen hours of contact time a week, depending on your university and your year of study.

What careers could a history degree lead to?

Some history students go into careers that directly relate to history. However, there are plenty of other career options available.

Careers in history

If you want a career that relates to history, you’ll usually need to undertake further study after you graduate. For some careers, several years of voluntary experience is often needed before you land a paid job.

Job options include the following.

  • Academic historian. Most academics work for universities, doing their own historical research and teaching students. You’ll typically need a masters degree and a PhD.
  • Museum curator. You’ll need voluntary experience – often several years’ worth – and sometimes a relevant masters degree, such as museum studies. If you want to climb the career ladder to a senior level, a PhD helps.
  • Heritage manager. Help run historic buildings or monuments, for example for English Heritage or the National Trust. Again, you’ll need substantial unpaid experience and possibly a masters degree, plus a PhD if you want significant career progression.
  • Archivist. Archivists help preserve and organise documents, typically those of historical interest or that may become so in future, for record offices, libraries, universities, businesses and other organisations. Likewise, you’ll need a lot of work experience and a masters degree; a PhD can help.
  • Secondary school history teacher. The most typical route is to take a one-year postgraduate teaching qualification. You’ll need work experience in a school before you apply – two weeks is a typical minimum requirement. Alternatively, the Teach First scheme allows successful applicants to start earning straight away and get qualified while working.

Careers outside history

Many careers are open to graduates with any degree subject. See our guide to which jobs need a specific degree for more information. History degrees are well respected by employers as a challenging academic subject – though the grade you get and which university you attend will affect this.

History graduates are particularly well suited to careers in law. Lawyers often need to read through lots of documents, decide whether they can be trusted and put together careful arguments based upon them. To become a lawyer you’ll need to take a one-year conversion course after your degree, followed by a second course to teach you the skills you need to be a solicitor or barrister (different types of lawyer). Find out more about careers in law.

Alternatively, you might go into a career such as business, finance, the media, retail or public sector and charity. In some cases, such as journalism, you may need to take a relevant postgraduate course after your degree. However, in many of these areas you can start work straight after university and get trained on the job.

For all these careers, you’ll typically need some relevant experience to help you get your first job. However, in most cases a few weeks or months is enough.

What skills will I gain on a history degree? Will employers like them?

On a history degree you will develop skills such as:

  • Gathering and analysing information from different sources
  • Looking at events from different perspectives
  • Coming up with an informed view of a situation
  • Writing
  • Giving presentations
  • Constructing arguments
  • Working to deadlines.

These are all useful skills to have in the workplace. For example, they can be very helpful if your job involves investigating situations in which something has gone badly and trying to understand what happened. This could be the case if you’re a manager or HR manager trying to get to the bottom of a conflict between colleagues, a journalist investigating possible corruption, or a police officer or lawyer investigating a crime.

What other degrees could I consider?

If there’s one particular aspect or period of history that attracts you, it’s worth investigating degrees that would allow you to specialise in it, eg:

  • ancient history
  • modern history
  • art history.

Take a look also at closely related subjects, eg:

  • archaeology
  • international relations
  • politics
  • economics.

Alternatively, you might prefer to take a degree that directly relates to one of the careers that are popular among history graduates, eg:

  • law
  • business studies
  • education.

What happens to history graduates after they leave university?

The Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey is conducted each year across the UK and asks graduates what they are doing six months after finishing their degrees. The 2015 survey looked at graduates who left university in 2014 and found the following:

  • History graduates were much more likely to be engaged in further study, training or research than were graduates as a whole (20.0 %, compared with 12.1%). This may reflect the fact that many popular career options for history graduates require further qualifications.
  • History graduates’ unemployment level was very similar to that of graduates as a whole (6.6%, compared with 6.3%).

Among those who were in work, the top four job areas were:

  1. Retail, catering, waiting and bar staff (accounting for 19.1% of history graduates who were working)
  2. Clerical, secretarial and numerical clerk occupations (14.6%)
  3. Business, HR and finance professionals (14.2%)
  4. Marketing, PR and sales professionals (11.8%)

It’s likely that quite a few of those in the first two categories were in stop-gap jobs to earn some money while starting their careers, especially given that the figures include those who were combining work with study or who were working part time. It’s a similar picture for graduates from a number of other degree subjects.

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