Aviation history is concerned with the history of flight and its social, political, technological and economic dimensions. Aviation historians are trained in history and related fields, focusing their research on aviation-related topics. This job tends to involve some travel for conducting interviews or visiting crucial areas of interest.
Some of the skills and abilities needed to be an effective aviation historian include excellent communication and writing skills and strong analytical and problem-solving abilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for all historians as of May 2015 is $55,800.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree
Although any major is acceptable, majoring in history is an effective way for students to test their interest in the discipline while acquiring valuable reading, writing and interpretive skills. Students should bear in mind that graduate admissions committees may be most impressed by good grades, writing samples and professors' recommendations that come specifically from history courses. Bachelor's degree programs in history typically include coursework covering a variety of eras and regions and allow for students to choose a major and minor area of interest.
- Choose a school with access to aviation history resources or archives. Attending college near an aviation history facility could offer opportunities to volunteer, intern and become familiar with the work of professionals. Such facilities include school libraries, archives, aviation-related sites run by the National Park Service or private museums.
- Find a program offering an honors track leading to a senior thesis. While aviation topics are not generally covered extensively in classes, aspiring aviation historians can find opportunities to read, conduct research and write about the history of flight in research seminars and in electing to complete a senior thesis.
- Study a foreign language. Master's and doctoral degree programs in history typically require students to pass a reading proficiency exam in at least one foreign language.
Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree
While a few bachelor's degree holders may get lucky and find entry-level jobs in aviation history institutions, a master's degree is generally the minimum qualification for most jobs. History and public history are the most common fields of study, but a degree in museum studies, archival management or historical preservation may be equally useful for those with corresponding professional ambitions.
Master's degree programs in history and history-related fields normally take two years of full-time study to complete. They are usually comprised of coursework plus comprehensive exams or a thesis. At the graduate level, students choose a major field of study based on region or theme. The most relevant areas of study for aspiring aviation historians are the history of the U.S. or modern Europe. In public history, museum, archive and preservation programs, hands-on experience and internships are emphasized. Seminar papers, a thesis or other master's-level project offer the best opportunities to begin specializing in aviation studies.
- Choose a school with an internship program. Finding a job after graduate school is likely to be easier for those who have already gained some experience and contacts as a student intern or volunteer. Both major institutions and lesser known museums and sites seek volunteers and interns to assist in preserving and presenting aviation history.
Step 3: Earn a Doctoral Degree
Aspiring aviation historians who want to teach at a college or university or take up advanced research or curatorial roles need to earn a doctoral degree in history. Doctoral programs normally begin with 2-3 years of classes for those who do not already have a master's degree and 1-2 years for those with a master's. After taking qualifying exams in their major field, doctoral candidates spend the rest of the program devoted to the dissertation, which is a book-length work of scholarship that presents an original argument based on original research.
- Gain as much teaching experience as possible during the doctoral program. Graduate students who acquire substantive teaching experience while earning the PhD may enjoy an advantage in the highly competitive academic job market. Graduate teaching work also provides funding in the form of a tuition waiver and a stipend.
- Contact prospective advisors when searching for a doctoral program. Doctoral students typically work closely with a member of the faculty and help with that professor's research, though students should select advisors who are interested in their research and/or experts in a related area.
- Consider the proximity to historical resources. While travel grants are generally available to dissertation students, archives and libraries that are close to home are usually the easiest and most affordable to use for lengthy, specialized research.
Step 4: Obtain a Position
Entry-level positions for historians are typically available at museums, government agencies, historical societies and other organizations. Aviation historians who have completed a PhD and have extensive teaching experience should seek a position in a college or university as an assistant professor with the goal of becoming an associate professor and eventually a professor.
Step 5: Advance in the Field
For example, once an aviation historian has a position as a professor, they would then seek tenure. Tenure is job security for professors. It is awarded to professors with extensive experience, usually at least seven years of teaching at the postsecondary level, who have proven their skills as a historian by having original research published.
The steps involved in becoming an aviation historian and being successful in the field consist of earning a bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree; obtaining a professional position with room for advancement; and working hard to advance in the field, which is most clearly seen when employed in a collegiate position.