What can you do with a history degree?


Here is an excerpt from a Guardian article on the demise of HMV:

“a lot of the narrative has been dictated by music lovers, reminiscing over the old days of meeting friends in noisy stores, browsing vinyl records, and discovering new artists.”

via – HMV and retail nostalgia: it’s about games as well as records and books | Technology | guardian.co.uk.

The piece is primarily a lament over the dying pleasure of buying video games, music, and books on the high street, but the article struck me for another reason.

I wonder if training in academic history might not entice a marketing firm: Public Memory, Nostalgia. Could these be the concepts that get historians into the advertising world? Methods attained through historical study could certainly ‘add value’ in the marketing industry.

Nostalgia in marketing is hardly a new field of study, and the opportunities are undoubtedly limited, but I’m always interested in ideas that involve historians getting out of the university and utilising their skills in the wider economy.

Around 50% of PhDs won’t get a full-time academic job so it’s unsurprising that we historians talk a lot about jobs and careers.

Advice to think about alternatives to ‘Plan A’ is almost always non-specific and therefore unhelpful in practical terms, which is why I’m intrigued by examples of historians ‘making it’ in unfamiliar places.

I  have no doubt that a background in history provides an incredible toolkit for employment outside of academia (it worked for me: I had a job in Corporate Finance for a while). As I wrote here, we need to be clear what we are talking about: careers as historians or careers for historians?

The second issue is particularly troubling. Many humanities students I’ve spoken to have a fatalistic attitude of ‘I’ve never done anything else’ and write-off their chances of a non-academic career.

One reason for this is that academic training does not always articulate the skills it affords in business terms. Sometimes framing these skills in a market-orientated way is seen as crass, but more often those providing such training are simply unfamiliar with the types and terminology of the skills employers seek.

Without the ability to articulate what the historian can offer a potential employer, or having the confidence to make such a case, it’s unreasonable to expect a non-historian employer to speculate on a ‘non-traditional’ employee that apparently lacks self-belief.

Post-PhD employment is an ongoing issue for historians with no easy answers. Clearly, not everyone can or wants to work in ‘nostalgia marketing’ – though HMV might have avoided administration with the help of historian-marketers(!) – nor are historians going to colonise one particular industry and create a new default career-path.

The point is that historians need to be more effective in explaining why they will do a job just as well as, or better, than other candidates. Possessing confidence in articulating skills would also help thinking about one-off job opportunities rather than targeting generic – and increasingly precarious –  ‘career paths’.

In short, I think the conversation should be much more about appreciating and articulating the skills we have already attained rather than thinking about alternative ‘career paths’ that might accommodate historians.

I’d be interested if anyone has come across other quirky ‘that sounds like a great position for a historian’ opportunities.


Some Links:







[UPDATE: 25/01/13: Nostalgia Marketing and the new Microsoft Internet Explorer Ad (below). Perhaps there really will be a historian-led marketing agency before too long!]



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