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Careers for Historians

There is a lot of discussion in the field of history around how the skills acquired from a history degree are transferable to almost any field and are highly desired on the job market. The problem is that for as much as we tell students that reading, writing, and analytical skills will take them far, we fail to show them how to promote themselves and their skills in any tangible way. There are few classes on how to construct a resume for non-history related jobs or what job titles and positions to look and apply for.

Making matters worse, while companies say they want critical thinkers these same companies privilege experience over soft skills when hiring. The issue is not that history majors do not have the necessary skills; it is simply that our discipline has not cultivated any sort of meaningful professional development and career pathways for our students outside of academia and education. I would argue that this is also why history departments and majors continue to shrink and lack diversity. Many students today, and especially first-generation students, see college as a means to land a career with financial security. Without visible and achievable career pathways outside of education, why would a student pursue a history degree? A passion for history is simply not enough.

The bottom line is that we should be encouraging our students to gain professional experience outside the classroom, teaching them how to promote themselves and their skills, and developing real, tangible career pathways (complete with internships, volunteer opportunities, and course development).

One very attainable, well-paying, and secure career pathway for history degrees is the government. I am only beginning to explore this pathway myself. That is because, for as much as everyone told me the government is a great alternative to academia for someone with a masters or PhD in history, no one was able to tell me where and what to look for, how to apply, and what to expect from the process.

So, I got creative. I reached out on Instagram and asked for help. The response was absolutely amazing! One fellow academic (turned government employee) spent an hour with me on Zoom walking me through the USA Jobs website, the grade and pay scales, the application process, and how to format my resume. Another individual met up with me in DC for coffee and gave tons of insight into the various agencies and the hiring process. Even more people sent me their resumes as examples and over one hundred more messaged me with quick tips and insights.

Just last week, all of these tips and advice were confirmed when I met with a senior librarian at the Smithsonian to discuss the federal hiring system. I am fortunate to have worked with this individual as a part of my current post-doc and he was kind enough to share his resume and review the entire process with me, from the perspective of someone who hires through USA Jobs. Basically, he lamented that lots of qualified academics never make it through the initial rounds, when applicants are selected through algorithms and scoring systems, because they simply do not understand the system. Conversely, he sees resumes of people who game the process and make it to the top of pile, simply because they understand how the system works. Much to my relief, he reiterated nearly all of the advice I had already received.  

I consolidated all this advice and put everything into practice as I completed several applications for positions that I was genuinely well-qualified for and excited about. Because of this, I wanted to share what I have learned from this experience. Hopefully, history majors and post grads looking to apply their degrees in meaningful ways and secure a good career outside academia will find this useful, or, at the very least, a helpful starting point.

Types of Jobs
First, the government has nearly every single type of job you could possibly think of, which is great, but also overwhelming the first time you hop on to USA Jobs.* When searching for positions, it’s important to understand the government pay/grade scales and job series. These will help you find the right jobs for your experience and skills. You can learn more about the government pay scale (grade) and job series here.

*Pro Tip: Don’t be like me and wait until you are looking for a career to explore USA Jobs. Familiarize yourself with the types of positions offered and the skills and experience each is looking for as soon as possible. This will help you cultivate those skills and experiences early and begin tailoring your education, professional experience, extra-circulars, and skills before you even graduate!

As a starting point for history majors and graduate students, explore the following series, which often align well with historians’ education*, skills, and experiences:

Undergraduate History Majors
Scale: GS-5 to GS-7
Series: General Education and Training Series 1701; Education and Vocational Training Series 1710; Education Program Series 1720; Foreign Affairs Series 0130; International Relations Series 0131; History Series 0170; Trade Specialist Series 1140; Museum Curator Series 1015

Graduate Students/Recent M.A./Ph.D.:
Scale: GS-9 (MA) and GS-11 (PhD)
Series: Miscellaneous Administration and Program Series 0301; General Education and Training Series 1701; Education and Vocational Training Series 1710; Education Program Series 1720; Foreign Affairs Series 0130; International Relations Series 0131; History Series 0170; Trade Specialist Series 1140; Museum Curator Series 1015

Click here to learn more about how various majors align with different job series.

*Pro Tip: Relevant courses, internships, and volunteering all count on a federal resume when framing your skills and experience. This means that during your degree, you can strategically volunteer to gain the skills and experiences you need to be successful. And trust me, no one turns down free labor.

The USA Jobs Website
With these grade and series parameters in mind, hop on to the USA Jobs website to start searching for positions. One of the features I love about this site is that you can search using very specific filters and save your searches. Then, every time a new position that meets your saved search criteria is posted, you will receive an email notification. This is important because some jobs on the USA Jobs website are posted with a short window of application.

Pro Tip: Be sure to filter your search for jobs that are “open to the public,” unless you qualify for another hiring path such as veteran, military spouse, or Peace Corps alum.

Each position will list the job’s overview (opening and closing dates, grade, appointment type, and salary, etc.), location and number of vacancies, duties, requirements, and how to apply. These last three sections are the most important when crafting a successful resume, so read these thoroughly (sorry, they are often very dense) and take notes (or copy and paste) key words and phrases. This will also teach you how to frame and talk about your skills and experiences.

Pro Tip: Before customizing your resume for the position, locate the link to the “applicant self assessment” in the “How to Apply” section. This will allow you to preview the application questions AND, more importantly, see exactly what specific skills and experiences this job is looking for. Also, do not doubt yourself. If the question asks if you are an expert, you are! You must answer that you are an expert for your application to proceed. If you cannot state and support in your resume that you have expertise in what they are asking (broadly interpreted), then don’t apply to that position. In general, though, remember that the government and academia do not define expertise in the same way! Apply with the confidence of a mediocre white man!

A Federal Resume
Unlike a traditional resume, a federal resume is long, like 5-plus pages long, and very detailed. It often features key words or phrases taken directly from the duties and requirements section of the position’s posting as well as the questionnaire and/or the “Knowledge, Skills and Abilities” (KSA’s) (often listed in the requirements section).

For example, one of the KSA’s for a Humanities Administrator for the National Endowment for the Humanities is grant management. In your resume you will want to specifically list and describe any and all of your experiences with grant management. You should take this one step further and incorporate what the questionnaire asks about specific grant experience. This might look something like this on your resume:

Name of Employer
Your Position Title
Dates of Employment
Hours Worked per Week (40 = full time; 20 = part time)
Supervisor Name
Supervisor Email and Phone
Work Duties: This is the place to list all your work duties. When applicable be sure to highlight and work in relevant key words and phrases. So, for a position that wants grant experience, I mention that the Plant Humanities Initiative is a Mellon grant funded scholarly program of national scope.

You will want to separate your official duties from your key achievements. This is also a way to highlight more important skills and experience as well as work in relevant skills and experiences that were not technically part of your official duties. For example, our grant has a formal coordinator, whose official duties are to oversee the grant, but as the post-doc, I did a lot of relevant work and assisted with the management of the grant.

Key achievements:


    • Conducted peer review of applications by individual applicants for the Plant Humanities Summer Program and Teacher Residencies, which were key components and goals of the Plant Humanities Initiative grant proposal.
    • Managed grant-related programs including the Plant Humanities Lab (a digital humanities project), the Plant Humanities Summer Program and Teacher Residencies, and program-related fellowships and internships.
    • Conduct grant application-writing instruction to a diverse audience of undergraduates applying for the Gilman and Fulbright federal grants.

The underlined portions are words and phrases taken directly from the job posting’s KSA’s and questionnaire, which I combined or elaborated on with my specific roles and experiences.

While the federal resume is long and detailed, it is not overly complicated. Do not attempt to reinvent the wheel. Many agencies within the federal system “use an automated system to review resumes.” That means in order to get past the algorithm you need enough matching words and phrases from the job posting in your resume.

Pro Tip: When in doubt, use the USA Jobs resume builder. They built this tool for a reason! I especially recommend using the resume builder if you do not have several examples of successful federal resumes as references. The resume produced by the builder is not pretty, but it is exactly what they are looking for.

The Questionnaire or the KSA’s (Key Skills/Abilities)
Tired of hearing about the questionnaire and KSA’s? Sorry, but they are supper important! These specific job-related competencies and your answers to the questionnaire determine whether or not your application is referred to the selecting official for actual consideration. Getting a referral to the hiring manager is the first and most difficult hurdle. So, not only should the KSA’s be previewed and worked into your resume prior to uploading and submitting it, but you should also prepare, before starting your application, long, detailed, and example-driven responses if the questionnaire includes free response questions (most just have multiple choice). Again, the questionnaire will ask you to rank your experience and expertise. Repeat after me, “I am an expert!”

And Now We Wait!
Once you have submitted an application, you may or may not have a long wait before you hear anything. Do not stress if you don’t hear anything right away. I have also been warned that the federal hiring process can take a long time. So, it is best to start applying 6 to 8 months in advance. Finally, it is a numbers game, the more positions you apply to the better your odds. And remember it is easier to transfer once you are in the federal system, so if you are offered something that you are not terribly excited about, it might be worth taking as a steppingstone.

I hope you find this information as helpful as I did!