When I Study for a Master’s or Ph.D. in History, How Do I Go About Deciding What Topic to Focus On?

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Before you can get the ball rolling on your graduate studies in history, you need to figure out what area of emphasis or specialization you want to pursue. A master’s degree or doctorate in history can prepare you for a career as a historian, one of the highest-paying social science careers, and for so many other opportunities. As you explore different graduate history programs, you want to think about your interests, obviously, but you also want to consider what you want to do with your advanced education and how it will apply to your career.

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The Popularity of Graduate Studies in History

A master’s degree is the entry-level requirement for work as a historian, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even if you don’t become a historian, a master’s degree or Ph.D. in history may well be in your future. Almost half of students who majored in history as undergraduates went on to graduate school, according to data from the American Community Survey, cited by the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History newsmagazine. That’s considerably more than the national average, just 37 percent. Undergraduate history majors can go on to work in many different roles and having an advanced education can be valuable for a variety of relevant careers.

Besides graduate history programs, students with a background in history may also choose to go to graduate school in other programs of study. You might decide to earn a law school degree, a master’s degree in education or a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

Look at Your Career Focus

One of the biggest factors to consider when choosing what to study in a master’s or Ph.D. program in history is your intended career path. Although the study of history is much broader than preparing students for one specific vocation, it’s likely that students with distinct career paths in mind will find different courses relevant to them.

If you aspire to work for a college or university as a postsecondary teacher, your curriculum might emphasize the sort of research expected at the college level as well as coursework in the study and writing of history. You would also need a great deal of advanced knowledge in your field of emphasis. Elementary and secondary school teachers may also pursue an advanced degree in history to flesh out their knowledge of this content area. Students in this position may choose to look for a generalized master’s degree program in the subject or a program that emphasizes professional development. A graduate degree isn’t mandatory for elementary and secondary teachers in most states, but virtually all postsecondary history teachers need at least a master’s degree, if not a doctoral degree, according to O*NET.

Many students of master’s and Ph.D. programs in history aim to work in the area of public history or applied history. These career paths include occupations like museum curator, archivist, and other roles in museum work and work in historical sites. If this is your area of interest, you might take classes in the administration and preservation of historical archives, artifacts and manuscripts. Graduate education is common in these fields of employment. More than 80 percent of archivists and 41 percent of museum technicians and conservators have a master’s degree, O*NET reported. Among curators, 44 percent have a master’s degree and 35 percent have a doctoral degree, according to O*NET.

Despite history’s emphasis on the past, new media and information technology is a common focus in graduate programs in this discipline. Working in the publishing new media or using educational technology as a history teacher or educational technology coordinator requires you to understand the skills of digital history how emerging technologies have changed the way historical research is conducted. This aspect of historical study also looks at how new types of media can be used to package and teach historical subject matter.

You might choose a more targeted program, such as a combined master’s degree program in history and library science if you’re eyeing a career as a librarian or a doctorate in urban historical studies to prepare for advanced research in urban planning and policy.

Specialization Options in Graduate-Level History Programs

What areas of focus exist for a graduate student in the field of history? Many history specializations focus on geographical location. You might choose to focus on the big picture with a degree in world history or delve deeper into the details of the history of the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, or Latin America. You can also focus your education even more narrowly on a particular region or country within a continent through a program in the history of the Middle East, Russia, Britain or another location of interest.

Other programs emphasize a historical period over a geographical region. You might, for example, choose to pursue a master’s degree or Ph.D. in ancient history, the history of the Middle Ages, the Colonial Era of U.S. history or modern history. Some programs of specialized study focus on traditionally marginalized or disenfranchised populations, like African-American history or women’s history. Some universities also offer specializations in the history of different fields or subjects, such as the history of science, technology and medicine or social history and policy.

Should you choose a broader area of emphasis or a narrower one? A broader graduate history degree is more versatile and allows for more variety in job opportunities, while a more specialized program equips you with more expertise in a single subject area.

Additional Resources

What Are Some Career Opportunities for Me With a Degree in History?

Is a History Degree Useless?

What Can I Do With a Classics or Ancient History Degree?

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Curator?