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Choosing your path as a History major

Exploring industries, deciding between internships, and acting on your intuition

The Dilemma

Despite what many people think, majoring in history opens many doors. My struggle was deciding which door to open — did I want to continue my history degree and become a professor or a historian, or did I want to apply my research, writing, and critical thinking skills to a different field? The first option, exploring academia, sounded rewarding but daunting. The second option, industry work, sounded impressive but open-ended.

Before the summer of my senior year, I was torn between two internship opportunities in different fields: should I work in NYC as a part-time freelance editor or at a historic house as an education intern in a small New Hampshire town? If I choose the former, I will launch a career in the media and publishing world. If I choose the latter, I will stay in the education industry forever. There is no going back, I told myself.

I turned to my family for inspiration: how did they decide what industry was right for them? My sister, an English major, was confident in her decision to go into the publishing industry. My parents also went into “expected” careers for their majors: my mom, who majored in English, became an elementary school teacher; my dad, who majored in history, became a lawyer. I found purpose in teaching and engaging others, but I was also drawn to the prestige associated with jobs like editors and lawyers.

Exploring the Media & Publishing Industry

Figuring out whether your skills and interests align with a specific internship or job, however, is truly a trial-and-error game. I had already gained some teaching experience in my past internships but wanted to see whether journalism or editing was the right fit for me. At Hamilton College, I maximized opportunities within student organizations to explore the media and publishing industry.

I began to copy-edit for a fashion magazine and wrote arts & entertainment articles for Hamilton’s newspaper, The Spectator. I assumed that by pursuing my interests in fashion and music, I would feel a sense of fulfillment. However, when I sat down to write about a concert or edit an article about jewelry, my creativity felt stuck. The truth gradually sank in that my strengths and best qualities were underutilized.

It’s easy to be drawn to a specific industry: education, publishing, law, journalism, finance. Choosing an industry is like choosing a box labeled with a set of skills, interests, and values.

When you look closer at the various internships and jobs inside, however, each of them has its own set of tasks.

Suddenly, you are forced to imagine yourself experiencing the daily challenges and rewards. What skills will you be using every day, and are you good at them? Do you enjoy the process of completing these tasks, and do they bring value to your life? Asking myself these questions and shifting my focus to the ‘ordinary’ everyday work helped me see beyond the perceived value of each industry, and what a job title represents to others and myself.

Choosing Education

I ultimately decided to intern at the historic estate, the Fells. To my delight, I was able to connect with people from all ages over history, sift through old letters and books, learn the history and accomplishments of Secretary of State John Hay, and add value to a nonprofit whose mission inspired me.

My boss even encouraged me to start an independent research project in my free time based on my academic interests in American and Chinese history; I compiled a short historiography of John Hay’s Open-Door Policy in China for tour guides to introduce to visitors. My skills, interests, and values were in alignment and I showed up to work every day with a glow.

History will always be my passion, and as I continue to explore the education industry, I can see how history is relevant to almost everything I learn and teach. Above all, majoring in history has given me a skill set that is transferable wherever I go. In the future, whether I decide to dive deeper into the education industry or explore academia, I am confident that I will make the right decision for myself.

Author Olivia Maddox, on the left

If you decide to major in history, remember that you have many paths to choose between and you can always change your mind as you grow. Your career exploration process truly begins when you start maximizing the countless opportunities at college and experience the everyday rewards and challenges of different roles.

If you are a history major interested in…

politics: volunteer to work on a campaign or join your college’s student government

law: join the debate team or mock trial, shadow an alum or parent at a law firm, or minor in a subject that you want to specialize in, like environmental studies

nonprofit: figure out what causes you value, volunteer at local organizations, and develop skills like grant-writing

information science: work at your college’s museum or library, shadow an archivist, or attend lectures about special collections and artifacts

media: compile your published work and create an online portfolio, write for your college’s newspaper or magazine, or minor in media studies or journalism

education: become a student mentor, gain leadership experience in internships and student organizations, specialize in an academic subject

Listen to your intuition and take action!

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