Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 12, 2015

Dispelling the myth of the unemployable humanities major

Through the History Fellows Program, faculty in the History Department are helping undergraduates realize the wide variety of career options open to them

“It’s a very collaborative endeavor — building connections in the community for internships, and developing a really solid, well-organized curriculum.”

Adam Warren
Director of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Professor, History,


Historians spend a great deal of time separating fact from fiction as they dive into myths and misinterpretations of the past. Now, through a mix of academics and professional engagement in the History Fellows Program, the UW History Department is dispelling the modern myth that a history degree is professionally limiting by helping undergraduates realize the wide variety of options open to them.

Launched in 2013, the History Fellows Program is open to junior and senior majors who apply for a three-quarter sequence of classes and workshops, culminating with an internship.

Faculty took the lead in this effort. “We’re confronting head-on the assumption that a history degree leads to nothing,” says Adam Warren, associate professor and director of Undergraduate Studies. Warren and his colleagues had noted the trend of students taking courses they see as ‘employable’ at the expense of indulging their curiosity and pursuing their passions. “It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation,” he says.

Faculty and staff collaborated to create programming to complement students’ academic coursework. “We wanted something in tandem with the academics they’re doing, and not imposing itself into the curriculum, because we don’t want our faculty to re-adjust how they teach history,” says Matt Erickson, the department’s director of Academic Services. “But we needed students to think concurrently about professional development while in their undergraduate career.”

Tailoring curriculum with the Career Center

“The real point is not to funnel our students into traditional places that history students go, but for them to realize that they’re getting very adaptable skills that apply in all sorts of different career and professional settings.”

Jon Olivera
History Fellows Program co-manager and Undergraduate Adviser, History


The department hired doctoral candidate Michael Aguirre to lead the History Fellows Program with Undergraduate Adviser Jon Olivera.

They reached out to Patrick Chidsey, a counselor in the Career Center, and together they developed a curriculum specifically for history majors.

The History Fellows Program focuses on placing each student’s career goal at the forefront. The first step is helping students identify their strengths and see how they relate to future options. “Especially in humanities where that path is less obvious, we want students to develop pride in the choices they’ve made, to recognize the value in what they’ve done inside and outside the classroom and to see the interrelatedness of it all,” says Chidsey, who was a history major himself.

Graduates of the History Department have gone on to jobs with Google, The Brookings Institute, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Park Service, Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and the Alaska Center for Energy and Power.

Peers help each other articulate unique skills with a new lens

In their first quarter, History Fellows build career skills through workshops on writing strong résumés, practicing interview skills, and expanding networks through informational interviews and social media. The sessions are purposefully structured for small group work.

“During the résumé workshop, students learned a lot from each other about presenting their skills in an attractive and concise way. If there isn’t something that catches an employer’s eye in about four seconds, they’ll move on. Even I edited my résumé after that!”

Michael Aguirre
History Fellows Program co-manager and Doctoral Candidate, History


“Small groups allow students to relate to one another, share the same concerns and push others to realize individual skills and accomplishments,” says Chidsey. “The intimacy to let down walls, challenge each other or brainstorm in a vulnerable way is important.” As they work together, each student builds confidence and practices articulating the skills gained from academic accomplishments such as writing major research papers.

“Sometimes you need somebody else on the outside to see your strengths. I believe we all left that workshop thinking, ‘Wow, we’re history rock stars,’” says Debra Pointer, a senior who was in the first History Fellows cohort. That confidence, along with support from program staff, helped her land an internship working in the archives at Planned Parenthood of the Greater Northwest in spring 2014.

Career fairs are a transformative experience

The Fellows program provides a framework for history undergraduates to articulate skills as humanists with their strengths in information literacy, critical thinking, cultural understanding and more. Even when faced with position descriptions that never ask for a history degree, the Fellows learn how to adapt and tailor their pitch.

Students are then required to put their freshly polished résumés to good use by attending at least two career fairs to gain practice. “I wanted them to immerse themselves in the experience and see what the competition is,” says Aguirre. “It was really eye-opening for the students.”

Pointer notes that the experience was challenging but ultimately helped each of them build confidence. “It’s hard to sell yourself. But you have the skills. It’s about finding your way to talk about what you can do,” she says.

Internships connect academics with careers before students graduate

Skills gained in the first two quarters are put in practice by spring quarter, when many students land internships. The program’s faculty and staff work to give students meaningful options, although they also encourage students to find new opportunities that suit their interests.

“A lot of people have the perception of ‘Oh, you’re a history major, does that mean that you’re going to be a teacher?’ And I say, ‘No, you can do a lot of things with a history degree, actually.’”

Molly Malone
Senior, History major


Senior Molly Malone, whose spring 2014 internship at the Labor Archives of Washington at the University of Washington inspired her to pursue master’s degrees in History and Archives and Records Management, is a strong advocate of these experiential learning opportunities. “I tell people all the time that they should do an internship,” Malone says.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Studying the past, looking to the future: “So much of what we are doing is breaking down myths and getting history majors to realize they have skills to bring to the table, even in a supposedly technology-driven world,” Aguirre observes.

Through small-group workshops, networking practice and internships, the Fellows emerge more confident in themselves and their ability to find a fulfilling career after studying their passion.

“I followed my heart with my history degree,” says Pointer. “I would love to see all history majors know they have skills that mean something.”

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to link academic passion to life and careers.