Last Updated on December 28, 2022
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how to become a professor of history
Professors are an important part of higher education, and becoming a history professor requires a lifelong dedication to learning, a passion for the past and a desire to teach. It also takes preparation for the role, multiple academic degrees and published research or articles to become a history professor. In this article, we explore what a history professor does, the amount of education required to become one, the skill set to have, and the steps to take to become a history professor.
What does a history professor do?
A history professor teaches college students about the past, both in broad terms and specialized topics. They can help students interpret events and lessons from certain time periods and how they influenced future circumstances. The curriculum of a history professor can focus on a certain time frame such as the industrial age or postwar civilizations, or a region and area, like Japanese history or the ancient Roman Empire, for example.
History professors may use a variety of media and methods to show the causes and effects of historic events including books, documents, photographs and film, cultural artifacts or even social media in lecture-based courses or seminars. They create lesson plans, tests or essay topics, grade student assignments and serve as faculty advisors for graduate-level scholars. Besides their teaching responsibilities, history professors also may conduct research on historical topics and publish academic articles and books.
Typical duties of a history professor can include:
Preparing lesson plans and a syllabus
Grading tests and essays and evaluating student progress
Organizing lectures and leading class discussions
Advising students individually or in group settings
Learning new teaching strategies
Researching, writing and publishing professional papers, findings or books
Continuing to stay up-to-date on current events or new historical discoveries
Becoming a history professor at a college can be competitive, and some in the field may instead consider a career as a history teacher in a high school, or work as a museum archivist or in a role with a historical society.
Related: A Guide to College Professors’ Salaries
How to become a history professor
Here are eight steps you can take to become a history professor:
- Complete your bachelor’s degree
Many undergraduate history degree programs take a broad look at various types of history by time period or geographical areas, including American, European and Asian, or medieval history or modern history. Some of these bachelor’s degree programs may also cover specialized topics like African American history or military history, for example, and many allow you to select a concentration. Earning a bachelor’s degree in history is a prerequisite to taking graduate-level courses.
Related: 5 Types of Academic Degrees: Which Is Right for You?
- Earn a master’s degree
Many colleges and universities require a master’s degree to teach as a history professor. Master’s programs take about two years to complete, and coursework may focus on a specific topic through classroom study, research and lectures. Here are other expectations you may consider while earning your master’s degree:
Completion of a master’s thesis: Many programs require rigorous thesis research guided by an advisor and the presentation of a well-written thesis argument that includes fieldwork or research seminars. The topic and quality of your thesis can influence doctoral programs or subsequent work.
Work as a teaching assistant (TA): Working as a TA while gaining your master’s degree gives you firsthand practice teaching at the collegiate level, and it can count as experience on your resume when applying for professorships. Working as a TA is also often a required part of moving onto a doctoral degree program.
An approved internship: Taking part in an internship can help you expand your skill and knowledge in a practical setting and you can add the experience to your resume or CV.
- Earn a doctorate
Earning your doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree can take 3-5 years and requires picking a topic or region specialization like 20th century, medieval or military history, or Latin America or Asian studies. Becoming a tenured history professor at colleges and universities often calls for a PhD. Here are other expectations while earning your doctorate:
Foreign language and exam requirements: PhD candidates in certain concentrations must pass several foreign language exams, which typically involve translating text from one language into English within a specified time limit.
Continued work as a teaching assistant: Required TA work at the PhD level for a semester or more can provide stipends and fellowships for financial assistance in the cost of your PhD.
Completion of a dissertation: A doctoral candidate must complete a dissertation about a topic related to their major. It can require significant specialized research, writing and delivery of findings, with the last step of defending your doctoral dissertation to a committee.
Related: 38 Careers That Require a Doctoral Degree
- Gain experience
Being hired as a history professor often requires previous experience, which could include former social studies or history teachers in middle and high school settings, semesters spent as a teaching assistant in graduate school, or by joining a department team as an assistant, associate or adjunct professor. Here are the required education standards to teach history at these three levels:
Middle and high schools: A bachelor’s degree
Community colleges: A master’s degree
Four-year colleges and universities: A doctorate (PhD)
Having real-world experience is also important when gaining experience to become a history professor, and many institutions expect you to have a work history in the area you want to teach. This could come from internships, lectures or research or belonging to historical societies and associations, all of which are also great networking opportunities.
- Get published
Published works of research are important in becoming a history professor, and you can start as early as during your master’s degree program. Published works may help get you accepted into a doctorate program or a job offer, and the quality and quantity of publications can influence your career as a history professor.
- Gain tenure
Securing tenure as a history professor offers freedom, stability and expertise and can lead to a higher salary. Tenure is a demonstration of a lasting relationship between an employer and employee, particularly a commitment after you prove worth or have worked for a long time at an institution. There are many benefits to tenure, and it carries importance in the success of higher education professors.
Read more: The Role of Tenure and Why It Is Important
- Advance your career
Many history professors continue to advance their careers even after earning tenure. For example, a history professor could become a department leader or dean at a college or university. Continuing to network with others in academia can lead to more opportunities and advancement as a history professor.
Skills of a history professor
Here are several skills that can help you become a successful history professor:
Writing: Being able to research topics and write clearly when publishing your academic work can help you in advancing your career.
Oral communication: Strong oration skills can be key to delivering lectures, doing speaking engagements, interviewing or advising.
Interpersonal: Interpersonal skills allow you to be adaptable to different learning styles of students, to promote critical thinking and discussion and to work with colleagues and students from various cultures.
Technology: Technology skills can be valuable for keeping in touch with students, using computer systems to tally grades and assignments or as part of teaching materials and methods.
Organizational and time management: Time management and organization are key traits a professor should have to stay coordinated with teaching schedules, semester planning, grading of students’ work, and handling professional writing and publication deadlines.
What Is a History Professor?
History professors teach students at colleges, universities and other postsecondary schools how to interpret and understand past eras and events through a variety of sources including books, private and official documents, photographs, film and other cultural artifacts. They may teach lecture-based courses or smaller seminars or tutorials, and they also serve as faculty advisors to graduate students. In addition to teaching and mentoring students, history professors typically continue to research their particular area of historical expertise and to publish scholarly articles and books.
The following chart outlines the general requirements for a career as a history professor.
|Doctoral degree, master’s degree for many community colleges
|Education Field of Study
|History with a concentration in a particular area such as medieval history, American history, European history
|Experience as a teaching assistant not required but helpful
|Strong written and verbal communication, ability to facilitate original and critical thinking, organizational skills, adaptability to different learning styles
|Job Growth (2020-2030)
|Median Salary (2020)
Source: * U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
A history professor is one of the leading experts in history at his or her postsecondary institution. As a professor, you’d likely spend much of your time teaching, along with doing research and publishing articles in scholarly journals. These days, professors also must be adept at emerging technologies, which are often used to keep in touch with students and share class schedules, homework assignments and required reading. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), comfort with online teaching formats will be useful as distance learning becomes increasingly popular (www.bls.gov).
For professors in 4-year colleges and universities, the minimum required education is typically a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree, according to the BLS. The number of years it takes to earn a doctorate can vary, but a range of 3-5 years is typical.
Even after earning the Ph.D., the road to a professorship can be a long one. Individuals start out as assistant or associate professors before attaining full tenured professorship. The tenure process lasts from several years to as many as seven, and it involves an evaluation process based on a number of factors, including research work and student involvement. Some 4-year institutions will hire instructors with master’s degrees or Ph.D. candidates for certain subjects, according to the BLS.
A master’s degree is acceptable to start as a professor at most 2-year institutions. Smaller institutions may also use part-time professors, known as adjunct professors, to teach classes.
Course of Study
History degree programs are available at all levels. If you’re interested in becoming a professor, you should start with a bachelor’s degree program in history. Most programs include a broad look at all types of history, such as American, European and Asian. History programs at the master’s degree level are also broad in terms of the types of history studied, but include research and scholarly writing coursework. At the Ph.D. level, students can often specialize in a particular region, such as Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe and America. A dissertation project is usually a requirement in Ph.D. programs.
Professors should communicate well with students and help motivate them to succeed, according to the BLS. A good way to gain that experience is to pursue opportunities to become a graduate teaching assistant who works with professors in delivering education. It is a way to see if you enjoy teaching at the college level, and you can get feedback on your methods while working on your graduate degree. Because you’ll be working in academia, maintaining a good academic record is important.
What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?
Individuals who want to share their passion for history with students may find jobs as history teachers at middle or high schools. Like history professors, teachers plan history courses, deliver lectures and grade student assignments, but they are not expected to conduct research. Another option for history enthusiasts is a job as a museum archivist. These professionals appraise, preserve and maintain historical artifacts and museum records. They may also serve as supervisors for museum workers who set up exhibits. Although a Ph.D. is not required for this occupation, archivists usually need to hold a master’s degree in history or a closely related field.