So What CAN You Do With a History Major?–Part 51

cali-in-greenwichWhat can you do with a history major?  Work as a Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy.

Its been almost a decade since Cali Pitchel walked into my course on the history of the American Revolution. After a few false starts, today she is putting her history major to use every day.

Here is a taste of a piece she wrote at her blog:

I entered college as an “Undecided” freshman. Admissions assigned a well meaning but under-qualified Residence Director as my guidance counselor. Under her guidance direction I decided to take twelve credit hours my first semester — a hapless decision that would come back to haunt me during the first of a few eighteen credit hour semesters.

During the second semester of my sophomore year, I found myself sitting in the front row of “History of the American Revolution,” a small and rigorous upper-level history course. It was in this lecture hall where I would fall in love with the study of history and meet the faculty member who would have the most profound impact on my intellectual growth. Enthralled and stimulated in ways I hadn’t been during the first two years of college (and a full academic year behind on the Social Studies Certification), I declared myself a History major.

While my roommates studied for their state boards and MCATs, I took research trips to Greenwich, New Jersey and pored over Revolution-era documents at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.

As we neared graduation I got nervous. My friends headed onto medical school, Big Five accounting firms, and full-time positions as RNs. When I chose history, I didn’t choose a career. Next to their narrow, yet practical paths, mine looked roomy and indulgent. But at the same time my choices seemed limited. I had dropped the Social Studies Certificate, so I couldn’t get a job as a teacher. Did I want to do research? Become an archivist? None of the “traditional” paths appealed.

To buy myself time — two years to be precise — I went back to school for American Studies. I wrote about post-war America, industrial design, and what Rachael Ray’s success can teach us about nostalgia. It was fun. But again, seemingly indulgent.

Fast forward to summer of 2012. I’m wrapping up my second year of coursework in a PhD History program. The PhD felt like the natural choice after the MA. But I was burned out, unsettled, and agitated. I decided to take a leave from the program. Just one semester. That’s all I needed — a respite from the intensity of the program, and more importantly time to evaluate what I really wanted to do.

Teach? Research? Back to the archives? I was yet to imagine a professional life outside academia. I had bought into the narrative that the most acceptable place for a history major (or any other humanities student for that matter) was the classroom, the library, or the archives.

But I had sharpened very important skills as a history student, ones that applied outside the classroom. I could read. I could research. I could write. I could tell stories — stories marked by empathy and stories that accounted for context. In essence, I had the most practical education possible: I could listen to, interpret, and understand other people. And these weren’t just any people, they were people from the past. They didn’t look like me, think like me, or act like me — but my discipline required that I learn to understand them.

The Dictionary defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors. From the back-of-house in a restaurant to the boardroom or corner office, empathy and an ability to communicate clearly are requirements for any job.

John Fea, Professor of American History at Messiah College, has a lot to say about historical empathy and the employability of history grads. (He’s even written a book about it.)

While perusing his blog, I came across a article from 2014 that demonstrates the importance of “intellectual humility” (i.e., empathy) in Google’s hiring practices:

It took me five years (and a few detours) after I graduated from college to learn how to articulate the value of my humanities education. My degree didn’t read “Marketing,” so I lacked the confidence necessary to apply for jobs that I truly found interesting. Instead I continued down the obvious raod that was indeed productive, but not necessary to get me onto my current career path.

Today I’m the Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy in Seattle, Washington. If you asked me in 2007, while I donned my cap and graduation gown, where I’d be in five to ten years, I would have told you a classroom somewhere. I hadn’t left any room for possibility. I hadn’t begun to imagine how well-suited I was not only for a job outside of academia, but a job in marketing and advertising that demands you understand your audience, their behavior, and their wants and needs. My current role requires all the things I learned while I studied history — especially empathy.

I’ll end on this: If you studied history and you can’t seem to find the words to express your value in the workplace, email me. I want to help. If you’re an employer, I urge you to consider “nontraditional” applicants, those without the typical Communications, Marketing, or Business degrees. Your workplace will be better for it.

22 thoughts on “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?–Part 51

  1. The point was mine, it was made, so I could hardly “miss” it.

    To restate, we do not know whether Ms. Pitchell might not have done just as well had she taken a different path rather than spending tens and twenties of thousands of dollars and 4 years of her life on a history degree. Perhaps she'd be even further along her career path had she not gone to college, or if she had used college to become more technologically literate.

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    These are valid questions, and my apologies to Ms. Pitchell for her being the object lesson here. I'm happy for her, and I think history is a fine thing to major in. I had only hoped to discreetly and gently raise a point for the readers to ponder, one that's being argued in many more places than just the single link I gave.

    A Socratic dialogue requires a co-operative interlocutor along with good cheer in order for it to be productive and enjoyable, but neither are on offer here. I've had my say.



    Don't run off, Tom. The fun has only begun. You love to make statements that fail to stand up to scrutiny. Your last one, “Judging by some of the college teachers I come across, that “college teaches you to think” is also a debatable proposition.” is the usual claptrap.

    Let's go back a minute and see where futurepundit got its information. I posted the link. It is to Kevin Carey's article in the NY Times. Carey notes that the data is skewed since it includes a lot of data that shouldn't be placed into the study. That is the problem with statistics. They don't prove causation and often are used in various ways to both prove and deny correlation. The federal study Carey cites is just raw statistical data. It does not prove anything on its own.

    Carey himself points out in his article that college costs are the problem and he has a valid point which is another story of its own. Yet, Carey does not say that college is a waste of time like you got from futurepundit. Futurepundit makes a statement that it can't back up.

    If you want to prove causation you have to use qualitative research methods. Your opinion does not count. So your statement as usual is rejected. You have an opinion, but no facts to support it.
    So much for your say. Now you can have some peace.


  3. The premise is that those people would be successful anyway. Judging by some of the college teachers I come across, that “college teaches you to think” is also a debatable proposition.

    I've had my say. Peace.


  4. Then again the findings might prove you wrong. The fact that college graduates make more money than non-graduates is indisputable. Actually college makes you realize your thinking skills which enables you to use the brain in more effective ways. You keep trying to cite stuff to prove your point, but most of what you cite is bad research with major biases.

    As usual, Tom, you see the glass half empty. Since the stats show a significant change in the percentages your assessment misses the mark. So yes, your comment is sexist whether you want to admit it or not. Cheer up, Tom. The demographics in the nation are changing whether you like it or not.


  5. True, the numbers have changed a bit from 2000, but 39% of women preferring a male boss is plenty true enough for a passing remark in a comment box, and not enough to trigger a PC charge of sexism. Good day, sir.

    It's an unwelcome subject in a lot of quarters of the education establishment, but the legitimate question is whether Ms. Pitchell [et al.] wouldn't be even further ahead right now had she joined the workforce 10 years ago instead of spending the time and money on college.

    Hundreds Of Colleges Provide No Earnings Boost
    Most graduates of hundreds of colleges are doing no better than high school grads 10 years after graduation.

    Great that this has been quantified. Why? Two reasons you already know:

    Smart people make more money because they can do more. College does not make you smarter. Colleges with lower standards offer a way to get a degree without being very bright.

    Some colleges teach few useful skills. They lack accounting courses, let alone engineering or computer science. Even some schools have those courses recruit mostly students who aren't capable of passing them.

    Even a substantial chunk of the earnings boost associated with elite college education is coming from the intelligence and drive of the people who manage to get accepted to these colleges. Unless IQ and drive are adjusted for attempts to measure the benefits of college will produce overestimates.

    I do not expect much serious study of this issue, however. The findings might turn out to be…inconvenient.



    I believe this reflects your mindset versus mine. You see a statistic and that is all it is, just a number. I see the statistics as more than that. They tell a story. As a historian it is clear that nothing is static and that all is in a state of change. The stats you look at show something you ignored. The numbers are changing rapidly to the point where female bosses may be preferred more than male bosses.

    The numbers have changed a lot since 2000. Also, more employees do not care whether the boss is male or female. Life is a process of change. Statistics help to show us that process. Sort of like how gay marriage has become a non-issue for the majority of Americans. That changed over time. Kind of like how evangelical Christianity has lost its grip on American politics over time.


  7. Tom,
    I think you missed what she was saying. Her education has helped her get to where she is because the history degree is an extremely versatile degree.

    As for the women prefer male bosses part, that's pretty sexist.


  8. Congratulations to Ms. Pitchell. You can't keep a good man down. 😉

    Of course the question is whether–in life terms–Ms. Pritchell was helped or hindered by her education: The equation of the time it took to acquire it, and the time and money it took to pay for it.

    It's indeed a pity that a citizen has to major in history to actually learn our history, and even then, it may or may not be our history.

    Still, I think we can safely say that majoring in history is entirely worthy in its own right for a liberal arts major, esp if this

    is the alternative. What we need is a poll on how many women would like a Women's Studies major as a boss. 😉

    [Let's get real here. Women prefer male bosses. A Womyn's Studies boss?]

    To return to the topic, I submit Ms. Pitchell was always destined for success–and this has been argued elsewhere and often–that college was just one of her stops along her way.

    I don't think my sister will mind me revealing here that she started in the secretary pool of a very macho corporation in a very macho industry and rose to vice-president. Not a vice-president, but THE vice-president, the second-in-command.

    This is not to say that higher education is irrelevant of course. It is to say that it is often more unchallenging than challenging for the individual, a waystation more than a destination for many if not most.

    I had dropped the Social Studies Certificate, so I couldn’t get a job as a teacher.

    A separate scandal. Good thing for you that you were “disqualified” by the edu-industrial complex, Ms. Pitchell. Mazel tov!


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