The History Degree, and What You Can Do With It


“I see that your degree is in history.” The interviewer glanced over my resume again. “To be honest, this position seems like it is in an entirely different field of work. Tell me what makes you qualified for this position.”


The blunt question came from the interviewer looking to hire a Career Advancement Specialist (Career Developer) for one of Minnesota’s largest nonprofit organizations. I was shortly out of college, looking to transition from teaching at a childcare center to a position supporting out-of-work parents in their search for sustainable careers (part of the TANF program). I did not have any paid work experience teaching a job skills class, co-managing a caseload of over 300 clients, or interacting with potential employers to connect them with job seekers—all of which were everyday activities for the position. How to convince the interviewer that I was a good fit for the position? The answer to the question, I told the interviewer, lay in the transferable skills gained from my degree.


Transferable skills are skills/talents/abilities which can be taken from one position to be used at another position. Unlike job-specific skills, which may only apply to one particular field or position, transferable skills are like versatile tools in a toolbox which can be widely utilized in just about any field one chooses. Often (though not always) these transferable skills can swing the balance of a resume, cover letter, or interview in the job seeker’s favor—even if they have not done this particular job before.


In my personal experience, when people would hear that I was pursuing a major in history, they would assume that I would teach History in an elementary/secondary school setting. But, sitting in front of the computer, internet searching and networking my way through hundreds of job postings, I realized that I was interested in exploring different ways to apply my degree. When I started looking at the skills required for different positions, I realized that a history major—and the transferable skills gained from the degree—is a fantastic asset in the job market.


In the case of the position I was interviewing for, I did not have any job-specific experience working for a non-profit or any organization specializing in social work. My relevant “experience” lay almost solely in the transferable skills which I had gained from my classes as a history major at Ave Maria University. For example, the two main components of Junior Research Seminar—primary/secondary source research and presentation in front of peers—provided me with practical skills highly applicable in the workforce. By being taught to do careful research, I was learning the skills to work carefully and confidentially with client data. The presentation and seminar experience gained from Junior Research Seminar, Historiography, and the History Senior Seminar (Thesis) was invaluable in demonstrating my familiarity with speaking in front of groups and leading discussions. The short reports required weekly for the American West in Film class and other elective history classes utilized skills similar  to those required by the reports and “client success stories” that the Career Developer would have to submit. Thus, while my major appeared to be in an “entirely different field” from the job for which I was applying, my history degree gave me the transferable skills to be a close match for the job I was seeking.


I was offered the position of Career Developer less than 24 hours after the initial interview. I am confident that it was largely due to the experience I gained as a history major at Ave Maria University. While I have now transitioned into a new career, I continue to volunteer with the organization on a weekly basis.


I would encourage any history major—or really anyone who is interested in studying the liberal arts—to look carefully at the many ways in which their studies provide those transferrable skills essential in the workforce. Specifically mention them in cover letters and interviews! The history major, like a degree in many of the liberal arts, is incredibly versatile and “work-force friendly” for anyone looking to pursue a job after college.


Rebekah Thomas graduated summa cum laude from Ave Maria University in 2014, and was class salutatorian and recipient of the History Department Award. She recently completed ghostwriting the memoir of former dentist and New York Giants player, Dr. Edgar H. Lechner (A North Dakota Farm Boy Finds His Way, published by Lilja Press). In addition to writing, Ms. Thomas enjoys working on digital transcription projects, assisting others with their career searches, and hunting for old books. She volunteers with RESOURCE Inc, a Minnesota nonprofit serving over 18,000 people who are experiencing barriers to education, employment and wellness. Ms. Thomas currently resides in the Twin Cities area with her husband, fellow AMU graduate Anthony Thomas, and their son.