So What CAN You Do With a History Major? Part 16

In today segment of “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” we bring you Janet Vogel, the Children’s Services Supervisor at the Thurmont Maryland Regional Library System. Janet is a member of the Messiah College class of 2003. She earned an MA in Public History from Loyola University in Chicago, a Masters in Library Science from the University of Illinois and has a passion for all things gelatin. Janet offers some very insightful thoughts about putting your history major to good use in the job market.–JF

So What CAN You Do With a History Major?

Become a Librarian or Public Historian.

In my experience, flexibility, enthusiasm, and a willingness to try a variety of jobs has been the key to my success. I have had 8 jobs and an internship since graduating from Messiah in 2003, which isn’t something to brag about, but it is an indicator of three things:

1). I moved 6 times in four years, thereby requiring me to change jobs frequently. (I wasn’t fired, I promise!).

2). I have been in a lot of interviews and have had to think about the many ways one can use a history degree.

3). Your first job isn’t necessarily your job for life. Don’t be afraid to continue looking for new opportunities or feel tied to an employer just because you like them if the job isn’t what you want. In the end, you need to find the job that is a best fit for you.

After all those jobs, I ended up as the Children’s Services Supervisor and Assistant Branch Administrator at a public library. When I went into the interview, I knew that it was the job for me, and I could unequivocally tell my interviewers that.

So how did I get where I am today?

I began college as a computer science major, but I decided that I’d rather stay up until 2 am writing a paper about the history of fashion than writing a computer program. However, I am very thankful for the computer skills I acquired, and I know that they have been an important component in my career advancement.

After graduation, I knew I was going to go to graduate school, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a librarian or a public historian. I applied for all sorts of jobs, from a hotel front desk manager to library cataloging assistant. You can all probably remember looking for that first job and trying to figure out whether or not you’re qualified. After taking into consideration a variety of options (including pay, what I thought I wanted to do, commute time, schedule, and benefits), I accepted a position as the manager of the children’s department at a bookstore. (Another thing I’ve learned is that not everyone wants to work with children, so if you do, it can help you with the job search process.) Thus began my odyssey, with each job building on the one(s) before.

How DOES a history major get a job? Here are a few tips I’ve learned:

1). Experience: Do internships, get a summer job, work during the school year. Almost anything will give you a skill you can take to a job interview. Work in retail? You can work well with a variety of people and under pressure. Have a workstudy cleaning toilets? You work well independently and do not require constant supervision. Think carefully about everything you have done and how you can spin it into something you can use.

2). Enthusiasm: people want to see that you are excited about working for them. Interviewing at a museum? Go beyond simply saying, “I have always loved museums” and share specifically what you like about this museum.

3). Knowledge: Educate yourself about the organization or company. I’m constantly amazed by how many people disregard this common advice. Visit them in person before the interview if at all possible – you can always bring up something about it in the interview. If it’s not possible to visit in person, read their website, newsletters, etc.

4). Willingness to Learn: make it clear that if you do not know how to do something you are asked about in the interview that you are happy to learn. Then share (briefly) how you learned or taught yourself a skill at a previous job.

5). History: History is one of those disciplines that requires you to write a lot, argue your point, and overall, become a well-educated individual. Make it clear that you are articulate in person and on paper (so make sure that resume and cover letter have been proofread over and over!). Think about what you have done in class that is similar to your job. Applying to work in an academic library? You are very familiar with the library from all of your research and are comfortable in that environment. For a more specific listing of how your liberal arts skills translate, visit: (I actually received this list during my internship class while at Messiah and refer to it each time I write a cover letter and prepare for an interview.)

What is it like to be a librarian or public historian?

I think that the connection between being a history major and being a public historian is more obvious than the connection to librarianship, although they are both closely linked. I focused my career aspirations on working with children, so as I pursued public history, I sought opportunities in museum education. I have given many historical tours of buildings, towns, and museums to elementary students, and I have helped create exhibits and programs. Historical research from my undergraduate and graduate courses were key skills as well as the general knowledge of history I acquired.

Of course, to work with children, you really need to be enthusiastic and entertaining. It takes a special personality to lead an engaging and interesting program for children. (And a willingness to try the gross out factor if you need to grab their attention. Nothing captivates kids more than talk about where and in what people went to the bathroom in the past.) You typically need a Master’s Degree in History, Public History, Art History, Archeology, etc. to be a public historian. Take a look at job ads and see which jobs you want to eventually have and compare the requirements.

I want to start the discussion about librarianship by noting that you do need a Masters Degree to be a librarian. You can work in a library without the degree, but to be the person sitting at a reference desk answering the tough questions about how to find a source or what books someone should read, you usually need the graduate degree. Academic librarians often have a subject masters degree or occasionally a PhD, depending on the university. Like museums, there are many types of libraries, each with their own requirements, so it’s a good idea to look at job ads and make sure you know what you will need when you are ready to apply. As a children’s librarian, people often assume I don’t use any of my past skills, but kids do ask a lot of questions about all sorts of things, and they have plenty of homework questions to answer. I have found that my history degree and all of the time I spent in the library as an undergraduate and graduate student prepared me well for all of those questions. While I don’t write papers any more, I do spend plenty of time looking for answers, and I get to see all of the new books as soon as they arrive!

For those of you who have made it to the end of what has become quite the essay, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section.