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Research Historian: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

If you are passionate about uncovering information about the past, you may want to consider a career as a research historian. Find out more about the educational qualifications for this job, as well as the skills and personal attributes that can lead to success.

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A research historian has the job of excavating information. Whether the subject is Egyptology, current military campaigns or Byzantine folklore, the research historian is expected to have in-depth knowledge of that field, as well as a broad education in history and an understanding of research methods and practices.

Essential Information

Research historians study a range of subjects and objects, from ancient writings to modern texts, to better understand the history of the time and place in which they specialize. They compile and summarize this information to contribute to the overall story of humanity. There are a variety of institutions in which research historians may find work, depending on their educational background, but most positions require some level of graduate study. For instance, historians with master's degrees may work for museums, while those who have earned a Ph.D. may seek academic positions teaching and conducting research at postsecondary institutions.

Historian Postsecondary History Teacher
Required Education Master's degree Ph.D.
Median Annual Salary (May 2015)* $55,800 $69,400
Job Growth (2014-2024)* 2% 10%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Description

Research historians must have excellent communication skills. They communicate with other historians, archivists and those requesting the research. Frequently, they conduct interviews with field specialists and, when a project covers a relatively recent historical event, eyewitnesses to events. They must also have excellent written communication skills in order to prepare reports on findings and write papers with the information they have gathered and compiled.

A keen sense of analytics is required of a research historian. Prior to accepting information, a research historian must be able to verify its authenticity or disregard it as hearsay. Multiple sources are sometimes needed to verify a single fact, so patience and diligence are crucial for success in the field. It is also beneficial to be able to differentiate between what is and is not relevant to a specific project.

Researchers must be able to think outside the box. Sometimes, information is hard to find, and researchers need to use creative strategies to learn all they need to know about a specific historical event. Researchers may need to locate unexplored archives or identify rarely used resources in the search for information. Those with a strong sense of curiosity may excel in this field.

Some researchers work on a consultant or freelance basis. Others work for the government, schools and private institutions. Museums and historical societies also hire research historians for fact-checking and information-gathering, as well as verification processes.

Find schools that offer these popular programs

  • American History
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  • Medieval and Renaissance Studies
  • Museum Studies
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Job Duties

For staff research historian positions, the researcher will need to be able to multi-task, often answering questions or consulting on more than one project at a time. Some projects may require travel, and the researcher must be able to work on multiple projects while on the road. The ability to prioritize projects is an asset for staff research historians.

Research historians spend much of their time following up on leads and making sure requested information is received in a timely manner so as not to delay a project or deadline. Tracking requests, documenting timelines and checking on information bottlenecks play a large role in a researcher's day.

Building relationships with sources is a key component of a researcher's duties. A research historian may need to use the same source for more than one project, and displaying a pleasant demeanor during interactions will make the next contact easier.

Job Requirements

A master's degree is usually the minimum educational requirement for research historian positions. Many colleges and universities in the United States offer such degrees. Job applicants are usually expected to have a broad knowledge of history, but many positions also require a research historian to have a specific informational background or bailiwick. In such cases, having spent years of study and research on the subject may be considered of equal importance to having a specific degree.

Bachelor's Degree in History

This degree provides the necessary educational foundation to pursue graduate studies and a career as a research historian in the future. Coursework includes western civilization, maritime history, magic and sorcery through history, world history, film, and women.

Master's Degree in History

Earning a master's degree in history will offer the student more in-depth studies. Most schools require a thesis as part of the final for attaining this degree, but there are exceptions. Coursework for a master's degree includes core coursework in broad subjects like modern history and teaching history, as well as more directed studies in the student's area of focus.

Ph.D. in History

Attaining a Ph.D. in history not only gives the student a leg up in the research field, but it also qualifies a student to take a teaching position in an institution of higher learning. Some programs include apprenticeship positions with other teaching staff. This program will take the student's chosen focus and develop communication and research skills to their highest levels.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2015, historians in general earned an annual median salary of $55,800. From 2014-2024, the BLS projected 2% employment growth for historians, which is slower than average. Those with experience and practical skills should have the best prospects, per the BLS.

Students who have earned a Ph.D. in history may find jobs as teachers and researchers at colleges and universities. The BLS projects 10% job growth in the field from 2014 to 2024, and the median annual salary for these professionals was $69,400 in 2015.

Earning a Ph.D. in history opens up the most job opportunities for research historians. Inquisitive individuals may make the best research historians, as their desire to learn more about the human story can motivate them in their research.

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