Careers in History

Careers Advice

HA, last updated: 4th January 2017

I love history but I've got to think about a career!

It's easy to see how learning something like IT at school can help you when you start looking for a job.  With a subject like history, it may be harder for you to identify a clear career path.  Sometimes students are even encouraged to drop history in favour of something more ‘practical'. 

In fact, history is very practical, because it involves:

  • Learning about people - how they interact, the motives and emotions that can tear people apart into rival factions or help them to work together for a common cause (useful knowledge for team-building at work!)
  • Learning about countries, societies and cultures - so many of today's conflicts and alliances have their roots in the past; how can you negotiate with, trade successfully with, or report on a country if you know nothing of its history?
  • Learning to locate and sift facts - to identify truth and recognise myth, propaganda and downright lies (useful in every aspect of life!)
  • Presenting what you've learned in a way that makes sense to others - whether in graphs, essays or illustrated reports - and having the confidence to defend your findings.

All these skills are valuable in a whole range of jobs.  So instead of only looking at ‘careers in history' you could also look at careers where it will help a lot if you've studied history.

The decisions you take when it comes to planning a career will be affected by a lot of factors, such as:

Your other favourite subjects and interests - for example:

  • History plus Art could lead to work in a gallery or auction house (perhaps via an Art History degree, though there are also opportunities for non-graduates) or you might want to become an architect or architectural technician, specialising in projects involving listed buildings and heritage areas.
  • History plus a keen interest in politics or a desire to make the world a better place could lead you into a whole range of career directions - local or national politics, charity work, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, or the Civil Service, to name but a few. The Armed Forces are also delighted to get recruits with an interest in history; all regiments are proud of their own history!
  • History plus Media Studies could lead into print or broadcast journalism
  • History plus Craft skills could develop into a career in restoration work
  • History plus Leisure & Tourism could help you find work in the heritage industry (Stately homes, theme parks, etc.)
  • History plus Drama/Theatre Studies could help you find a role as a costumed guide or re-enactor.
  • History plus administration skills (e.g. Word Processing, Accountancy, Business Management) could lead to you gaining experience in a variety of business careers then taking this, and your interest in history, into working for a heritage charity, or managing a historic property

Whether you want to get a job straight after leaving school, or go on to a training scheme, apprenticeship, further education or higher (degree level) education -  You may of course decide to mix and match -study part time and work part time, get some useful work experience during your gap year, begin a career which may give you a chance of training on the job, or even take your history degree by email (yes, it's possible, though new and mainly an option for mature students)  You need to discuss all the possibilities with your careers advisor; then if you want to go to university, you'll need to check out the UCAS site or directory to check what courses are available, then visit individual university websites to see what they offer, download prospectuses, and find out about open days. 

Whatever you think might be your future career direction, it's always a good idea to get some insight through Work Experience or Working as a Volunteer.  When looking at career opportunities, will also give you some sources of information for work experience and volunteering.

Which aspect of history fascinates you most, for example:

  • You're excited by the idea of learning about the past from artefacts and fragments left behind - then maybe archaeology is for you.
  • If your greatest thrill is sharing your knowledge with others, then maybe you should consider working in a museum or as a teacher.
  • If you're fascinated by the records of the past, the documents that open a window into how people lived and worked, and how towns and villages evolved over the centuries, then maybe you should investigate work as an archivist, in a Records Office or perhaps train as a librarian specialising in local history. 

So how might you combine a love of history with a career?

Below are some suggestions - together with web sites which will help you find out much more.

Quick Links:

First, it might be worth noting that some jobs can take you anywhere: If you look at any university's list of first destinations for graduates, you will note a lot of people have gone into secretarial, clerical, administrative and IT jobs.  One of the reasons that so many people take this kind of work to begin with is that it gets them inside the doors of a whole range of employers. Once in, they can increase their work-based skills and are in a good position to show off their abilities and take advantage of any career moves that may come up.  Secretarial, administrative, clerical and IT staff are needed by heritage charities, museums, heritage sites/stately homes, companies dealing with conservation and restoration, university research departments, the media and practically every company and office you can think of. 

For more specific career directions, you could investigate:

Museums and Galleries: Jobs exist at many levels and in many areas. With a relevant degree (and perhaps a postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies) you could be a curator. A history degree will be a bonus if you are applying for an administrative position, though ideally you should get some administrative experience too and relevant skills such as IT. The education section of museums and galleries will be looking for graduates with teacher training and experience, but there will also be support roles for unqualified people. In the art world, conservation opportunities also exist, but there are very specific degree routes for these, as practical skills need to be learned.  Jobs which do not require a degree - and which may offer a chance for learning on the job - will be things like information assistants, box office attendants, shop and café staff. People with practical skills like carpentry will be needed in the exhibitions department; those with graphic design skills may also be needed here, and in the production of leaflets etc. Large museums in cities and busy tourist areas (including Open Air museums and visitor attractions with a strong historical element) may also have jobs for costumed ‘living history' re-enacters, though these may well be only seasonal. 

A good site to visit is Museum to get an idea of the range of museum jobs on offer (in the UK and abroad). You could check out details of jobs though the specialist advertiser is the Museums Journal. The Museums and Galleries Yearbook is also a good resource to help you identify over 2,500 potential employers! Also visit the websites of individual major museums, which often have a ‘vacancies' section.

Work Experience and volunteering opportunities are offered by most of the major museums - for work experience contact the Human Resources Department, for volunteering the Volunteer Co-ordinator, or check out their websites. Smaller museums often SURVIVE through the input of volunteers - why not approach one you already know and visit directly, and offer your services?

Heritage sites/Historic Houses: Any major heritage site will have a huge range of jobs, from the Property Manager at the top (a job which requires considerable maturity, administrative and management experience) and down through many ranks of support staff. The National Trust manages or owns a large number of heritage sites, not only historic buildings but also vast acreages of grounds which will require traditional agricultural and horticultural management. Jobs available will include administrators, conservators, wardens, housekeeping staff, visitor information and ticket-selling staff, shop and café staff, gardeners. In addition the Trust has regional offices, which will include the usual range of office staff, and also education staff, personnel management, press and public relations people etc.  Full details of National Trust vacancies can be found on their website, there is no ‘quick click' route to these, but if you type the word ‘vacancies' into the site search engine, you should get all the information you need on the types of jobs available. 

The National Trust also runs an apprenticeship scheme for horticultural/grounds workers - they call it ‘careership', so if you are a school leaver with an interest in both history and horticulture, you might like to ring their information line, 01793.462700 for more information.  Trainees get a chance to live and work in some very beautiful places!

English Heritage of course also manages a large number of properties and offers a range of jobs, but they do not have comprehensive information easily available on a website.  Everything is done regionally, with vacancies usually advertised in local papers. You could also try contacting the personnel department of your regional English Heritage office. In addition there are of course hundreds of privately owned ‘stately homes', heritage sites and historic buildings in the UK, which again will use a range of staff. Vacancies in these will usually be advertised locally.

Volunteering Opportunities: The National Trust website has a click on ‘volunteering' section which allows you to select from a range of opportunities, for example, local, full time, working holidays.  If you select ‘local' you can type in your postcode and the site will find volunteering opportunities within a 10m. radius of your home.  It will list the types of jobs volunteers do (e.g. staffing shop and admissions desk, acting as tour guides, participating in living history days) and the days and times when they are needed.  Also check out local historic houses, volunteer bureaux and keep an eye out for adverts in the volunteering section of The Guardian.  Some historic houses and heritage sites use costumed volunteers in the summer months.  If this is an area that interests you, you might like to join a re-enactment group - for information on these, contact the National Association of Re-enactment Societies.  Their site gives information on local member groups.

Heritage Organisations and Charities: In addition to the National Trust and English Heritage, mentioned above, there are other organisations looking after specific areas of heritage and history (you can identify these very easily by going to your local library and looking through the Directory of British Associations.  Alternatively you could use a search site like Google or Jeeves and typing in your particular area of interest, for example, ‘English Civil War' should bring up, near the top of the possible listings, the English Civil War Society's website address - but you may need to specify UK or you'll get the American special interest societies as well.  Unfortunately most of these Societies and Associations, like the Historical Association, manage with a very small staff and a lot of committed volunteers, so vacancies are seldom available.  If you have a particular area of interest, however, it's always worth while joining the relevant Association, both for interesting activities, updates and information, and for the networking opportunities these provide.

Work Experience and Volunteering: Opportunities vary tremendously.  The problem tends to be that staff time is needed to organise work for volunteers, train and induct them, and make them feel at home - and this time just may not be available if the organisation has a very small staff.  However some are desperate for volunteers, especially to handle clerical and office jobs like mailshots to members, or to use their skills and talents in areas such as fundraising.  Most are kind enough to give you advice on who else you might approach, if they cannot use you.  

Record Offices and Archives: These are a tremendous resource for people interested in history, whether national, local or simply of their own family or home.  They therefore also provide job opportunities for people who love history and get on well with people (because record offices and archives don't just keep documents safe, they make information available, and have an ever-increasing thrust towards education).  To get an idea of the kind of vacancies available, check out the national website,  and click on the job page.  Local Records Offices and archives are likely to advertise locally.  There is also a Society of Archivists, whose website (click on Training, then Careers) can provide you with useful information.

Work Experience and Volunteering: The Public Records Office (or National Archives, as it is now known) is currently devising a work experience scheme, and your local Record Office or archives may also be able to offer work experience.  At the very least they should be able to give you a behind the scenes tour and explain what they do.  Some Record Offices and archives also involve volunteers in local history research projects.  Why not ring them up and find out?  

Libraries: Many libraries recruit university students as part time library assistants, so one way of finding out whether you would enjoy library work is simply to get a part time library job while you're studying.  If it appeals, you can take post-graduate training in librarianship, perhaps while continuing to work in a library.  Obviously, general libraries cover a whole range of subjects, as do reference libraries - though any search skills you gained as a student will help you help others in their studies.  There are also some specialist local history libraries, and major libraries (like the British Library) also have specialist sections.  For example, at the time of preparing this booklet, the British Library were advertising for a project worker who would be helping to create a web-based resource for lifelong learners on English Accents and Dialects, using their very extensive collection of oral history tapes.  To get more information on careers as a librarian, go to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals website.

Work Experience and Volunteering: Many libraries do take work experience students; you can either contact your local library directly or check out your Council's website (as most libraries come under local authorities).  Local History libraries also sometimes work with volunteers from local history groups to set up exhibits, or help people new to local or family history to plan their research, etc.  

Universities: Universities are rather like small towns, and so offer a whole range of job opportunities - many of which are part time and filled by students, as you will discover if you go there! - but while some grants exist for postgraduate studies, the majority of research opportunities are post MA or post-doctorate, and these are pretty fiercely fought over.  They can however be worth fighting for - one around at the time of writing this booklet offered a gem of an opportunity to a History of Art PhD who would ‘provide academic support for current work on the decoration of the 16th century Royal Apartments at Stirling Castle' and would include ‘a conference and a series of publications'.  The best way to find out more about working at a university is to check some of their websites. 

Work experience and voluntary work are less likely to be readily available, though there may be some opportunities in administrative offices.  Also some universities do give opportunities to potential students to spend time sitting in at lectures, and getting the feel of the place.

Teaching in Schools: It may be that a particular history teacher inspired your interest, and you'd like to do the same for someone in the future.  If you feel you have a real flair for conveying your own knowledge of and enthusiasm for history to others, teaching is definitely an option - whether you do this as a PGCE course after your history degree, or you are more interested in training as a primary teacher where history will be one of a number of subjects you are likely to teach.  The government is very keen to get new teachers on board, so there are perks in the way of grants and remission of your student loan if you stay in teaching for a set period of time.  Make no mistake, though, teaching isn't an easy ride!  It demands commitment, patience, a lot of hard work (forget the holidays for a moment and think of the evenings/weekends you may have to spend preparing lesson plans!).  

Work experience and voluntary work: You'll have a good idea of what teaching in a secondary school is like from being a student in one!  There are some opportunities in primary schools for volunteers to help in class or with after-school clubs and activities, but obviously schools have to be very careful on who they allow to work closely with vulnerable young children and may have a policy of only accepting pupils' parents and other mature helpers  and will do police checks on them, which can take time.  If you would like to volunteer or gain work experience in a primary school, this is probably best organised through your careers adviser rather than making an approach directly yourself - they can effectively act as your referee.  

Archaeology: It's probably best if you contact the Council for British Archaeology direct.  Archaeologists are usually graduates, but there are plenty of contract opportunities for unqualified or part-qualified site workers (have trowel, will travel!) and the increasingly technical side of archaeology - familiar to any fans of Time Team - requires specialist technicians.  For a slightly irreverent - but realistic - look at careers in archaeology, you could try (the website of Current Archaeology magazine)

Work Experience and voluntary work: Again, the Council for British Archaeology is the best source.  Many of the opportunities it offers may be more suited to sixth form or university students, but if you're younger, you might find it useful to check out the Young Archaeologists' Club (also accessible through this site).  

Architecture and the conservation of buildings/artefacts: It is unlikely that you will have taken a history degree and then decided to go into these fields; the usual route is to take specialist degrees (e.g. architecture, restoration - the City & Guilds one includes stonemasonry and carpentry).  Or, if you don't want to follow the degree route, there are non-degree skills training opportunities for architectural technicians and building trades workers (stonemasons, carpenters, joiners, plasterers, bricklayers, metalworkers etc.) to which specialist training in conservation techniques can then be added.  Some firms of architects specialise in conservation work - at the time of writing this booklet, one was advertising in The Guardian for qualified conservation architects and technicians to work on ‘world heritage sites, National Trust properties, churches, castles, historic houses' .  The advert specified that ‘computer literacy is essential together with an academic interest in the historic background of conservation projects'.  You might like to contact the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings or the The Institute of Conservation to get an idea of the kinds of specialist training courses, activities and career opportunities available...

Work Experience and Voluntary work: Because conservation requires specialist skills, this limits the opportunities for work experience or volunteering.  You might be interested in joining a local group of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, which often arrange tours round interesting properties.  You could also identify architects, furniture restorers and others with a particular interest in historic buildings or artefacts, and see if they could offer you some work experience - even if this is more or less as an office junior, you'll  get a better idea of the kind of work that goes on.    

Horticulture and Nature Conservation: We've already mentioned the National Trust's training scheme for people who will work in the gardens and grounds of their properties.  If you like practical outdoor work, gardening can combine very nicely with an interest in history.  There are job opportunities for people with horticultural qualifications and/or experience to work on the gardens of many historic properties, whether owned by heritage organisations, individuals, councils or of course some of the ancient schools and universities.  Sometimes this involves restoring a historic garden or park to its former glory, following planting patterns laid down a century or more before.  Nature conservation can also link very well with history, as so much of England's countryside has been shaped by the history of its agriculture.  Certain traditional skills such as dry stone walling, coppicing and hedgelaying are still in demand, especially in the extensive acreages covered by National Trust properties and National Parks.  The Forestry Commission are also restoring some traditional woodland management practices, and increasing their community and schools education activities.  Many traditional skills can be learned as a volunteer with organisations such as BTCV, and though it wouldn't be easy to make a full time living using them, these skills plus a knowledge of and interest in history could help you find a job as, say, an Assistant Park Ranger or Ranger in a National Park.

Work Experience and Volunteering: Both the National Trust (see above, under Heritage Sites and Historic Houses) and TCV run working holidays for conservation volunteers, some of which will offer training in such skills as dry stone walling.  Local conservation teams also go out for working days either during the week or at weekends - contact your local site or group.

National and Local Government the Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service: There are a host of opportunities at graduate and non-graduate levels, in all of which the study of history will be a bonus.  For example, those dealing with planning applications are likely to be involved in searches of records and will need a knowledge of local history, while if you are working in the Diplomatic Service, it goes without saying that if you are posted to a British Embassy in a country, you really do need some knowledge of that country's history!  Vacancies, including trainee posts, are usually advertised in The Guardian (and its website), and in the case of local government, in local papers.  Politicians of all parties also often need researchers.  Web sites worth visiting to find out more are:

Work experience and voluntary work:  The Civil Service (see above) has some paid work experience opportunities for university students.  Local authorities may well offer work experience but it is probably easier to contact their Human Resources department than to check their websites, as using work experience as a search criteria may bring up lots of documents from the Education Service rather than actual vacancies!

The Media: There is a national training advisory service, Skillset, which offers advice to people seeking careers in broadcasting, film and interactive media.  They also have a free helpline, 0808 0300 900.  You also should keep an eye on the advertisements in The Guardian on Mondays (media day) and check out the websites of any broadcasting company or newspaper you might like to work for.  With regard to print journalism, check out the National Council for the Training of Journalists' website.  This gives good advice on the qualifications needed and the routes of entry.  Beware, though - this is a popular career route (practically every university careers website you may care to visit will have something on media careers!) and the competition, especially for something like a trainee producer's job with the BBC, is very fierce indeed.

Work experience and volunteering: The BBC and major independent TV and radio companies do run work experience schemes, and you can find out more through their websites.  For the BBC; for independent TV companies and radio stations, you will need to check out your local ones direct (by website or telephone); Channel 4.  You could also contact local radio stations to find out about any opportunities they offer and see if your local hospital radio needs volunteers.  National, regional or local newspapers may also run work experience schemes - write to those which interest you.

Law: Rather specialised forms of history are part and parcel of a career.   Barristers  need to have an excellent memory for precedents, i.e. legal cases in the past where judgement may be considered to have set a precedent which could still apply to a similar case today.  Solicitors dealing with any kind of transfer of property and land will need to be able to search out the history of that property through local records sources - they don't want their client buying a bungalow neatly situated over an old mine shaft, for example, or find too late that half of the garden they thought they'd bought - and all of their access drive - actually belongs to a neighbour!  For information on legal careers, visit the website of the Law Society.

Work Experience and Voluntary Work: This is likely to be limited by issues of confidentiality, but you may find that some solicitors and other law firms offer work experience.  Again, seek the help of your careers advisor in checking this out.  Courts also have public viewing areas so you can ‘sit in' on a trial and see the roles taken by prosecutors, defenders and court officials.

The Armed Forces and the Police: The Armed Forces may deal with very modern situations, equipment and weaponry, but as mentioned before, every regiment, every ship and every Air Force base has its own history, of which it is very proud, and they are delighted when recruits turn up who have an interest in history.  Obviously they will require other personal qualities and the qualifications they look for - and subjects they need at GCSE or A Level - will depend very much on the type of work you want to do.  The range is actually huge, and there are opportunities for supported university degree courses as well as on the job training in a whole variety of career options which lead to qualifications recognised in the civilian world.  For enquiries about careers in the Armed Forces, contact your local recruitment office or visit the appropriate Forces website(s), for example: RAF, Army, Navy.

Work Experience and Voluntary Work: Most school students interested in a career in the Forces will join a local Cadet Force

The police also have quite a warm attitude towards history; studying history means studying people, cultures and societies; the research skills gained in such studies might be particularly useful in some of the ‘back room' support staff jobs which involve  analysis of the patterns of certain crimes, for example.  To get an idea of the range of careers within the police force, check out their careers website.   There are some work experience opportunities within the police, but you would need to contact your local force to find out more.

Any more career options?

Well, yes, there probably are.  As we said right at the beginning, history involves so many useful disciplines and touches upon so many areas of life, you can take it in many different directions.  You can probably think of quite a few which we haven't even touched upon.

Hopefully, though, the information here will give you ideas which you can then explore further for yourself.

We wish you the best of luck!