Biased as I am, I think you can’t go wrong with a BA in History because it helps you hone your critical thinking (and writing!) skills, which will be useful in many pursuits! But I’ll tell you a few of the things I have tried, so you get an idea of the range of graduate school experiences available to one of us. I’ll also send you to the American Historical Association page “What do I do with a degree in History?
Personal anecdotes ahead!
I wanted to get back to Chicago after I graduated from McGill (where I actually only minored in history… but that’s another story!), so I enrolled in the Master of Teaching History program at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. It was a good fit in some ways, because classes were in the evening so I could work during the day, but not a great fit in other ways. I worked full time starting at 5 am, and I am not a night person, so I was tired during night classes and a bit overwhelmed by the grad school work load!
I left the program after a year (it’s a two year program if you’re enrolled full time). My friends who finished now teach in Chicago area high schools and are quite content. My best friend from that program was changing careers, and I feel like it was the perfect program for that. She still had her day job, but she got experience teaching. The program was a great way to gradually move into teaching with support in place (the program helps you find placements to get teaching experience in high school classrooms).
All that to say, you can always try one thing and then successfully change careers later!
As seems to be the case with most people between the ages of 20 and 40 right now, I had a bunch of odd jobs. At some point, my friend who was in it told me about an MA program in Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. As an international student, I couldn’t work off campus, so I was a Teaching Assistant.
After completing my MA, I was invited to apply for the PhD. I suggest that, if you pursue international options for grad school, you check into your funding situation fairly carefully. International tuition is sort of like out of state tuition for undergraduate studies in the USA — expensive! When I was a TA at UIC it was a much better situation because, as an in-state student, I got paid a stipend in addition to a tuition and fee waiver. At Carleton, as an international student, I got paid but I didn’t get a tuition waiver so there were long stretches of eating ramen and Kraft Dinner laced with edamame. But there were a lot of people in the same situation, so it didn’t feel that weird while it was happening – and the restaurants on campus had student prices, which helped! Plus I had Canadian healthcare, huzzah!
I am currently enrolled in the PhD program at Carleton. I have been in the program for about ten years, with starts and stops for family related reasons. I quite enjoy it and would be happy to tell you more about it if grad school is something you’re interested in. It is also TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY FINE (an probably encouraged!!!) to not go to grad school! It is fairly expensive (in terms of tuition and opportunity cost) and time consuming. But it can also be a lot of fun if you like to read, write, think, and talk about ideas.
One of our high school history teachers told us that school was a great place to be when the economy is not doing well, and I’m not sure if that was the best advice, but I took it (I started grad school around 2008).
Some of my other friends who did graduate studies in the USA (and are USAmerican) had a great time at UIUC (University of Illinois Urbana Champaign). In part, this is probably because you get paid basically the same stipend as a TA regardless of if you live in New York City or Champaign, Illinois. All of my friends who went to grad school in NYC are still paying off their student loans, while all of my friends who went to UIUC are into their tenth year of paying off their mortgages on their houses! (It’s a different story for my international student friends who went to UIUC, of course.) Champaign / Urbana is a very inexpensive place to live, and that makes it a pretty great place to be a grad student or raise a family as a grad student. This also seems to be a selling point for places like Rochester, NY, and other places that might be considered small college towns.
Kids / family / house / mortgage stuff is probably not on your radar right this second (or maybe it is! you do you!), but if you are considering grad school, those might be things that come up while you are enrolled (if it takes you the 5-10 years to finish that it takes many people in the humanities). The cost of living / international tuition / kids pieces are things I didn’t think too hard about beforehand. Therefore, I bestow this wisdom on you in hindsight!
Whatever decision you make, you can always change your mind if things aren’t working for you / change advisors / change your career, or power through and then move on to the next thing.
There are lots of opportunities with on-line teaching and distance courses, but there are definitely benefits to being on campus. I got my first two TA jobs by schmoozing in person with the right faculty member at the right time. Those positions led to other work as a TA and a Research Assistant. I think this holds true in most industries — you have to put yourself out there, show up, get lucky, and then do the work, so I’ll cross my fingers for you!
In academia more generally, there are loads of options for research grants, travel grants, and fellowships that are worth looking into if you go that route. UIUC has a pretty good fellowship finder list that is public
. I have applied to several grants and landed a few, but the few I have gotten have been great! This professor’s CV of failure
is pretty fantastic if you are ever feeling down about the opportunities you didn’t manage to snag.
I have found it helpful to join list servs and look for obscure research grants. I am on a map list serve and a comix list serv (my dissertation is about maps, comics, and Indigenous erasure / toponyms / a lot of stuff… It has kind of gone off the rails, but that’s part of the fun of research, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself!).
There are loads of conferences, and if that isn’t something you looked in to during undergrad, it might be worth looking in to now. Sometimes they are very pricey, but they often offer reduced rates for students or underemployed folks. A local conference or two, if you’re near a campus hosting such an event, could be a good way to meet more people and learn more about different career options. You might also want to look into your alumni association’s support system. Sometimes they have mentorship programs with people in a field you want to know more about, and you can get connected that way.
Hopefully this is useful and not overly terrifying to a young historian venturing out into the world of not-school. Lots of people enjoy not-school, and lots of people take some more time in school before they get their legs, and some people never leave school (ahem, many professors)! I am sure that whatever you do will turn out to be awesome, and then twenty years from now, you will be emailing (or virtual reality pinging?) youngsters with all of the life advice you have gathered during your adventures that are just ahead of you now!
In conclusion, good luck, you can do it! And there’s no harm in trying different things until you figure out what is going to work for you. Godspeed, young grasshopper!