What does a historian do? (Plus salary and skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 13 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Historians analyse historical events and provide both historical and contemporary contexts for their studies. Much of their work involves performing historical research and publishing articles related to specific historical events. They might also work in places of higher education as lecturers or researchers. In this article, we explain what historians do, the qualifications of historians, their core skills and list job opportunities in the field.

What does a historian do?

If you have an interest in history, you may wonder, 'What does a historian do?' A historian studies historical events and artefacts to provide an understanding based on historical and modern insight and context. It's an extremely varied field, with many historians focusing on specific time periods, historical figures or events. A lot of their work involves understanding why certain historical events occurred and how they can help inform the present and future. Historians can work across an incredibly diverse range of topics, from art history to specific time periods or geographical locations.

Historians work to compile as much information as possible about their field. This might involve deciphering historical texts or inspecting evidence from the period. This research helps to grow the body of knowledge around significant historical events or individuals, often critiquing the work of other academics and historians. Institutes of higher learning usually fund the work of a historian, and historians normally receive funding to compensate for their work in academia. In some cases, this might be teaching or lecturing, while in other instances it might involve publishing research articles or books.

Related: 8 popular history degree jobs (salaries, duties, requirements)

What are the qualifications of a historian?

Historians provide an important academic function, so they require academic qualifications. Historians typically earn a bachelor's or master's degree in history or a related subject. Getting onto a history degree course requires good A-Level or equivalent grades. If you want to go to a specific university, check what their current entry requirements are.

A master's degree in history gives you several job opportunities to pursue. If you intend to work in academia as a historian, a PhD is a usual prerequisite. This usually takes three years of study and a completed thesis of your own original research in history. There are a number of institutes of higher learning across the UK that offer bachelor's, master's and PhD courses, but the most popular ones are:

  • Durham University

  • Cambridge University

  • The London School of Economics

  • Oxford University

  • University College of London

Related: Different types and examples of job qualifications

What skills does a historian have?

There are many useful skills that help historians with their work, which vary depending on the type of research they do. Below is a list of important skills used by historians to do their jobs effectively:

Historical interpretation

Historical interpretation is a very specific skill that develops during higher education. It requires a keen understanding of historical events or artefacts to provide context around historical time periods. It's a useful tool employed by historians to link historical views, methods and technology to the current world.

Analytical

Historians often review historical records and analyse data to glean insights about the past. This requires a good analytical mindset because many historical records are partial and only tell part of a historical account. In many cases, historical analysis requires significant guesswork and working with probabilities to move the analysis forward.

Related: How to think critically and improve problem-solving skills

Good communication

Historians relay their information, findings and insights across many channels, ranging from mainstream audiences to niche academics. This requires excellent communication skills—both verbal and written—to effectively get their points across. This might require dividing difficult concepts or terminology so that a wider audience can understand their work.

Fact recall

There are many scenarios where a historian has to recall facts about specific historical events. Working in a museum or providing academic lectures are both examples where fact recall can be important. Historians can use their expertise to answer historical questions, too.

Computer literacy

Many historians use industry-specific software for a number of purposes, so it's beneficial to be computer literate. Many applications allow historians to view artefacts, inspect research projects and other features that make their job easier. There are also lots of historians using computers to create online archives to collect historical information.

Collaboration

It's quite common for historians to work with other academics on large-scale projects. From archaeologists to biologists, there's a multitude of disciplines that coincide with the work of a historian. As a result, collaboration is an essential skill for historians to possess.

Related: The advantages of working in a team: 11 aspects to consider

Multilingual

Some historians work with different, sometimes dead, languages. Although not essential for every historian, being multilingual can make the work much easier, particularly if they can speak the language of the artefact or historical records that they're studying. Even if they're not, being multilingual can make it easier to understand things like syntax and grammar in languages they may not know, which can help with a historical analysis of dead languages.

Writing and reporting

Historians write reports and journals about their work to offer their findings to academics and the general public. Because of the nature of the work, historians rely on strong written skills to create well-constructed theses and reports. This helps others review and analyse the body of work.

Related: A guide to the communication process (written and verbal)

Public speaking

Historians often speak in front of audiences to discuss their academic findings or offer a historical analysis of significant time periods. Being able to discuss these events succinctly and confidently is important for historians. It's particularly common for lecturers and museum curators to speak with audiences.

Related: How to improve public speaking skills to communicate effectively

How much does a historian earn?

The average salary for a historian is around £34,377 per year. With a few years of experience in the industry, historians are much more likely to hit this average target. Moving into lecturing as a historian can increase earnings as their academic and industry experience aligns with their qualifications as a doctor of history—provided they hold a PhD. To increase earnings even more, a historian can apply to become a professor of history. This often comes with a significant pay increase but commands much more responsibility.

What other career options are available for historians?

Although academic work is the main goal for historians, it's a very competitive field that has limited positions available. As a result, historians often look to other industries to find career options. School teaching is a common route for historians to take, but it requires additional education. Working in museums or public archives is also an option, but as with academia, there aren't many of these positions available.

There's a growing demand for family historians who research genealogies for individuals, which many historians have gravitated towards. This is a freelance job that aligns with the work of historians and can offer a good financial outlook. Below is a list of common career options for historians, including salary expectations and job responsibilities:

1. Lecturer

Average salary: £34,047 per year

Primary duties: Lecturers work for institutes of higher education, such as colleges and universities, to provide a curriculum for students in their area of expertise. In some cases, lecturers may work across multiple institutions to provide in-depth presentations on their specialist topics or may speak at industry events.

Related: How to become a lecturer (definition and step by step guide)

2. Archivist

Average salary: £30,096 per year

Primary duties: Archivists work to collect, file and organise various artefacts and important historical documents on-site or via online archives. They may be responsible for uploading imagery of artefacts and cataloguing them for databases. Archivists often work in tandem with museums to help set up and prepare exhibits that showcase specific historical items.

Related: Discover how to become an archivist: a step-by-step guide

3. Archaeologist

Average salary: £26,781 per year

Primary duties: Archaeologists are responsible for surveying, maintaining and excavating various historical sites. This involves finding historical artefacts, analysing them and creating research about what they find. Archaeologists also showcase their findings in lectures or conferences.

Related: How to become an archaeologist (with salary)

4. Professor

Average salary: £68,598 per year

Primary duties: Professors normally lead the curriculum for a specific subject at an institute of higher education. They might specialise in a specific time period or historical figure but can also have a well-rounded knowledge of history. Professors give lectures, provide assistance to students and examine their work throughout the academic year. They normally couple this with their own academic research.

Related: How To Become a Professor

5. Historian

Average salary: £34,377 per year

Primary duties: A historian works to assess, inspect and compile various historical data to provide a greater context around historical events. They normally achieve this through publishing research papers and journals.

Related: How to become a historian (plus different specialisations)

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed. Salary figures reflect data listed on the quoted websites at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate’s experience, academic background and location.

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