The profession of historian


The Occupational Outlook Handbook of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics offers this description of the historian:

Historians research, analyze, and interpret the past. They use many sources of information in their research, including government and institutional records, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, interviews, films, and unpublished manuscripts such as personal diaries and letters. Historians usually specialize in a country or region, a particular period, or a particular field, such as social, intellectual, cultural, political, or diplomatic history. Other historians help study and preserve archival materials, artifacts, and historic buildings and sites...

Information on careers for historians is available from:
* American Historical Association, 400 A St. SE., Washington, DC 20003.
Internet: http://www.historians.org

Some (including this writer) find it curious that the BLS chooses to group historians within a field it calls "Other Social Scientists", rather than among scholars of the humanities. But having done this, it writes:
The educational attainment of social scientists is among the highest of all occupations, with most positions requiring a master's or Ph.D. degree... Bachelor's degree holders have limited opportunities and do not qualify for most of the occupations discussed... Training in statistics and mathematics is essential for many social scientists... Many social science students also benefit from internships or field experience. Numerous local museums, historical societies, government agencies, non-profit and other organizations offer internships or volunteer research opportunities... Social scientists need excellent written and oral communication skills to report research findings and to collaborate on research...

The following tabulation shows employment, by social science specialty...

Historians 3,400

Overall employment of social scientists is expected to grow 10 percent from 2006 to 2016... The following tabulation shows projected percent change in employment, by social science specialty...

Historians 8
This 8% growth is about 300 additional jobs in the next ten years.

At this point it is critical to point out that the very unfortunate nomenclature of the BLS in the cited place categorically excludes historians who teach on the post-secondary level! Thus, as we shall shortly evidence below, the numbers above refer only to those one might most accurately term non-academic historians, a group which is very small compared to that of academic historians.

The BLS estimates the (seasonally adjusted) civillian labor force of the United States in June 2009 as 140,196,000 persons. Thus, from the information above, we surmise that less than one in 40,000 of them is a (professional non-academic) historian.

The BLS provides extensive information on the annual salaries of these non-academic historians, current as of May 2008, here. Listing total employment there at 3,700 (vs. 3,400), it estimates a median of $54,530, with 10% and 90% percentiles, respectively, of $25,670 and $96,530. The middle half of the distribution, i.e. that bounded by the 25% and 75% percentiles, shows a range between $33,570 and $77,290. A thankfully revealing aspect of the data above is the listing of an employment numbering a mere 100 persons in the "Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools" industry - an implausibly pawltry quantity were academic historians to be included within the group!

This would-be enigma is shattered when one refers to the additional data here on "History Teachers, Postsecondary", which explains that such people

Teach courses in human history and historiography. Include both teachers primarily engaged in teaching and those who do a combination of both teaching and research.
Here the BLS says they number 21,020, while here it says 26,000. This ranges between about one in 7,000 and 5,000 employed US residents. It then is made plausible that the former group of 100 actually consists of a subset of non-academic historians who pursue the history of the tertiary educational instititions themselves. Note that by adding together both (the small minority of) non-academic and (the large majority of) academic professional historians, one arrives at a rough estimate of between 25 thousand and 30 thousand professional historians in the United States today. (N.B. We elect to exclude secondary school teachers of history, which number roughly 57,200, or about 5.0% of the 1,133,000 teachers at that level.) Thus, no more than one USA resident in 10,000 is a professional historian - they are rare creatures indeed!

The position of French academic historians was relatively stronger than that of their German counterparts. In France one-third of the arts faculty posts in 1910 were held by historians (120 out of a total of 360 posts) ...In German universities historians had to make due with a quarter of the total number of posts in comparable departments during the first decade of the twentieth century.

- page 223 in History as a Profession: The Study of History in France, 1818-1914 (Princeton University Press. 1998)

According to yet another BLS table for May 2008 here (restricted to the NAICS 611300 sector: Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools) the number of Postsecondary History Teachers, which categorically excludes Graduate Teaching Assistants, is 15,560 persons. (This tally also excludes the 5,380 Postsecondary History Teachers in another economic sector, employed by Junior Colleges.) We compute a total for NAICS 611300 of Postsecondary Teachers in all disciplines (categorically excluding Teaching Assistants, support personnel and some other subgroups like Adult Literacy, Remedial Education, and GED Teachers) of some 728,350 people, of which Postsecondary History Teachers constitute 15,560 / 728,350 = 2.1 percent.

The BLS does not break out employment growth estimates among the various types of Postseconary Teachers, but offers that as a whole

Postsecondary teachers are expected to grow by 23 percent between 2006 and 2016...

A report by the American Historical Association (AHA) republished here from the May 2008 issue of Perspectives on History says that for the year surveyed, among the

702 institutions with history departments participat[ing] in the CUPA-HR survey... the private colleges and universities in the survey hired 114 new assistant professors ...while the public institutions hired 228 new assistant professors...

As for the May 2008 salaries of Postsecondary History Teachers (i.e. academic historians) in all sectors, the BLS estimates the median was $62,000. The values at the 10% and 90% percentiles are respectively $34,230 and $111,100, while the middle half of the distribution, i.e. that bounded by the 25% and 75% percentiles, shows a range between $46,400 and $82,570.

Using the imperfect assumption that average and median salaries are the same, the 15,560 + 5,380 = 20,940 Postsecondary History Teachers in the USA earn 20,940 x $62,000 = $1,298,280,000 or about $1.3 billion annually.

History books are not unimportant in the non-fiction segment of the 418 million publisher-copies-shipped adult hardback "trade" USA book market. (This market segment of course excludes the many copies of school history textbooks and the few copies of academic press monographs.) According to the executive summary of a business plan published here,

The market for historical products in the U.S. is substantial. The history book market alone is estimated at $500-$800 million in size, representing approximately 25 million books sold per year... While it is difficult to determine the history component of the video market, the History Channel's Collector's Choice edition set of videos, for instance, sold over 1.4 million in copies in a recent quarter.

US history textbook market

One might try to use a very approximate indirect method to compute the sales volume for school history textbooks in the United States. Let us make the crude assumptions that textbooks in all disciplines last as long, and constitute the same fraction of textbook sales which their respective type of teacher constitutes of the total faculty. Earlier, we noted that about 2% of postsecondary teachers (excluding those teaching at junior colleges) are professors of history, while about 5% of teachers in secondary schools instruct in history. Let us use the former to estimate the postsecondary history faculty fraction and the latter to estimate the total effective K-12 history faculty fraction.

Let us now use the estimated USA textbook sales numbers (all disiplines) for 2007 provided in The Statistical Abstract of the United States. Total net publisher unit shipments (in millions) are 34 hardback + 44 paperback at the "college" level and 70 hardback + 108 paperback at the "elementary/high school" level. This comes to 78 million postsecondary and 178 million K-12 units. Applying the guesstimated history textbook fractions of 2% and 5%, respectively, we arrive at about 1.6 million college and 8.9 million K-12 history textbooks per year, a total volume (10.5 million books) substantially smaller than that for the (presumed extra-academic) "history book" sales in the aforementioned business plan. (Note that we are excluding sales in the "University press" and "Professional" book sectors, which include many titles which aspiring historians in school may purchase upon the recommendation of faculty or according to their own lights.)

If one makes the added assumption that textbooks in all disciplines cost the same on average, one can also use the retail dollar sales numbers from the cited source to guesstimate history textbook dollar sales, again using our "faculty-fraction hypothesis". The results for history textbooks are $6,751 million x 2% = $135 million at the college level and $5,713 million x 5% = $286 million at the K-12 level. In the case of dollar sales, the history textbook market (guesstimated at $421 million) might well be not all that much smaller than the extra-academic history book market, because of the high unit price of textbooks, especially for college.

An interesting critique of the typical disdain which American academic historians today seem to have for writing books intended for the general public is offered by William Craig Rice in the essay Who Killed History? An Academic Autopsy here. (Some asides: The article notes that in a typical month, the AHA will be sent 400 books to review, which comes to about 5,000 new titles annually - rare few of which appeal to laymen. It also writes about dozens of specialized journals... the hundreds of papers presented [each year] at academic conferences, and the annual harvest of 500 or more Ph. D. dissertations... in the historical field.)

One reaction has been the emergence of the distinct field of Public History: history that is seen, heard, read, and interpreted by a popular audience. Degree programs in this field are profiled at Where to Study Public History. See also History of Historical Societies in the U.S.

Wikipedia, the quasi-anarchist online encyclopedia, offers this article about the American Historical Association. The AHA web site itself writes:

The AHA serves more than 14,000 history professionals, representing every historical period and geographical area. AHA members include K-12 teachers, academics at two- and four-year colleges and universities, graduate students, historians in museums, historical organizations, libraries and archives, government and business, as well as independent historians.

The AHA does not invite institutions (like historical societies) to become members. It provides a membership application for individuals here. Member benefits are described here.

Prospective undergraduate history majors may want to purchase ($7) or otherwise review a copy of the AHA's 48-page report The History Major and Undergraduate Liberal Education: Report of the National History Center Working Group to the Teagle Foundation . Such a work might be available in the library of a local historical society.

The AHA offers information on jobs and careers in (broadly construed) historical professions. Their free online Careers for History Majors writes in part:

What can you do with an undergraduate degree in history? ...Among the jobs you can consider are: advertising executive, analyst, archivist, broadcaster, campaign worker, consultant, congressional aide, editor, foreign service officer, foundation staffer, information specialist, intelligence agent, journalist, legal assistant, lobbyist, personnel manager, public relations staffer, researcher, teacher . . . the list can be almost endless. More specifically, though, with your degree in history you can be an educator, researcher, communicator or editor, information manager, advocate, or even a businessperson.
The AHA also writes:
For those interested in continuing their studies further and entering the ranks of professional historians, we offer [the free online resource] Careers for Students of History.
Note that since few secondary school teachers of history have graduate degrees in history, our choice to exclude secondary school teachers from the ranks of professional historians (cf. above) seems to be consonant with the way in which the AHA itself defines terms.

In this global age, when even transcontinental videoconferences can be held at close to zero incremental cost for those in wealthy nations, and free-use rudimentary written human language tranlslation engines decorate the World Wide Web, one might also inquire about other national (and even transnational) professional historical societies, particularly those using English for discourse. Among these we number the following:

The search engine here lists 1295 (university) history departments around the world, including 360 outside the USA, as of July 2009.

-RF (July 2009, minor edit April 2011)