Yesterday our department met with some of our web services and marketing folks to talk about planned updates to our website and the materials we give to prospective students. I was glad to hear that a key theme of the update will be sharing stories of what our alumni have done with their history degrees. While we strive to reassure nervous high school students and their parents that history majors do find gainful employment in a wide variety of fields, that message comes across much more convincingly as it’s told in the form of testimonies from our graduates.
Indeed, collecting such stories has become a fairly significant part of my job as department chair. (Here I would refer readers to John Fea’s description of the chair-as-recruiter.) Our department blog’s “What Can You Do with a History Major?” page currently hosts seventeen alumni interviews, a couple of news stories, and a YouTube video. Not surprisingly, we’ve heard from teachers, professors, lawyers, librarians, and museum staff, but also a worship leader, nurse, magazine editor, social entrepreneur, and major league baseball umpire. (One more plug for John Fea: he has an even longer series of posts on this very topic…)
But I’m most struck by the two interviews I’ve done with Bethel History majors who took very different paths to different leadership positions in different kinds of corporations.
We knew from our last alumni survey that 30% of our graduates were working for businesses of varying sizes, doing everything from sales to accounting, customer relations to finance. And that squares with the many employer surveys that claim that liberally educated students are highly desirable to businesses, regardless of major. But we also knew that there was no single path from the History major to the business world, and that our students often feel like it’s difficult to convince recruiters and HR reps to hire History rather than Business majors.
• Brandon went to law school at the University of Minnesota, wrote for the law review, and parlayed his J.D. into a position as a research analyst for a small company providing due diligence for investments like commercial real estate. He’s now the vice president in charge of risk assessment for that company.
• Tim studied history, biology, and writing at Bethel, worked on a political campaign, wrote a novel, taught science in Brazil, and built from an early interest in web design and blogging into employment with software startups. He’s now vice president of marketing for a group that facilitates mergers between software companies.
Despite taking such different routes, Tim and Brandon came to some of the same conclusions when asked how a History degree prepared them for careers in business. Both emphasized the skills they’d learned from their undergraduate studies, and that their abilities to think critically, research, and write well very much set them apart in the business world:
(Brandon) …the biggest things I took away from my education at Bethel were how to think more critically about situations where the right “answer” isn’t always apparent, and how to write well (as you get a lot of practice writing in history classes). Apart from certain financial and accounting aspects of it, business is largely a “soft” science. Training in history and other humanities gets one comfortable dealing with ambiguities. It helps you assess the significance of facts and order their importance relative to other facts. Being able to focus on the big picture, while still knowing how the small details relate to that big picture, is a huge advantage in business, and something that studies in history can train one to do. Also, history courses are an important element of a well-rounded, liberal arts education — and especially in the context of a small business, where one inevitably wears many hats, a “generalist” mindset is valuable.
(Tim) …the ability to write well is incredibly valuable across all disciplines, I’ve found. It was certainly true in my history courses, as well as the rest of my Bethel experience and beyond…. Writing skillfully, accurately, and with a touch of flair is an even more significant advantage in the job field now than I think it was a decade ago…. History majors are perhaps a bit more prevalent in the corporate world than you would think. The habits of research, writing and critical thinking that a history degree can build are vital in any field. The ability to critically evaluate sources is particularly valuable…
See also the video we produced last October for a Homecoming event that let current students talk with history, literature, philosophy, and political science alumni in various fields. For the video, Brandon and three other alumni with humanities majors talked about their choice of major and how it prepared them for their careers.