At this spring’s History department open house, faculty, alumni, and current students shared their experience in the department and their reflections on what you learn through the study of history.

Facilitated by Associate Professor Neslihan Şenocak, the two panels included Professor Barbara Fields, Professor Elizabeth Blackmar, alumni Yasemin Akcaguner (BC ‘17), Chris Allison (CC ’09), Spencer Gyory (CC ’13), Karen Rios (GS ‘12), and current students Matt Geyman (CC ‘21), Tommy Song (CC ‘20), and Michelle Yan (CC ‘20).

As advocates of the value of transferable skills, we thought their reflections deserved their own post.

History Skills Are Professional Skills

So, what is it that you learn when you’re learning history? Here are just a few of the skills that panelists highlighted. 

1. How to Listen

Through the discussion-based format of history seminars, you learn to listen to understand others’ ideas. As Professor Fields pointed out, this requires listening without thinking about how you would respond—a skill in short supply in our era of sound bites and combative infotainment.

2. How to Participate in Civil Discourse

In a history seminar, Professor Fields noted, you’ll be thrown together with people you may disagree with, or whose points of view you may not know. Engaging in productive conversation in this setting requires practicing the skill of respectful civil discourse. Listening, as noted above, is crucial in this process.

3. How to Read (A Lot)

In your history classes, you’ll learn to read for different purposes: to learn something new, to identify arguments, to track sources, to learn about narrative, to analyze scope, to understand why something is, or isn’t, working.

You’ll also be asked to read a lot—at times, more than you can reasonably complete. This means, on the one hand, that it’s crucial to love reading, and be driven by curiosity, as Professor Blackmar observed. 

On the other, said Professor Fields, this experience—of being presented with more work than you can reasonably do—teaches another set of skills: learning to manage a task that’s too big to do, learning to adjust your mode of reading depending on the context, and learning to forge ahead when something feels overwhelming.

4. How to Conduct Research

Your history courses will require you to gain a solid foundation in qualitative research, a skill that is transferable to a wide range of settings.

Though this is true across the History major, where you’ll write research papers for most of your courses, completing a senior thesis can take your research skills above and beyond. For current PhD student Yasemin Akcaguner, conducting archival research for and writing her honors thesis was the most rewarding experience of her undergraduate career. She used her thesis as her writing sample for PhD applications, and remains proud of the project to this day.

Alumna Karen Rios has taken this skill further afoot, to finance and the start-up world. Looking back on what she learned in her History major, she says: “I use the research skills I developed here every single day.”

5. How to Write and Craft Narratives—Including Your Own

History, as a writing-intensive discipline, will help you hone your ability to write clearly, concisely, and persuasively. As Professor Fields pointed out, you’ll learn to make your ideas reader-friendly and, crucially, to convey the stakes of your work.

You’ll also develop your oral communication skills, by presenting and defending your ideas in seminars.

As alumnus Spencer Gyory observed, this will help you not only in the classroom, but also when you’re asked to present your own story to others. Reflecting on his experience as a hiring manager, he added, “If people can’t explain that, we don’t hire them.”

This skill extends not just to landing your first job, but also on your longer journey. As Karen reminded attendees, history, with its emphasis on narrative, teaches you this big skill: “the power to reinvent yourself.”

6. How to Summon Evidence for Arguments

Reflecting on her consulting internship, current senior Michelle Yan shared how the experience of identifying relevant textual evidence and deploying it to support an argument in history seminars and papers had helped her feel well prepared to do analogous work in a professional business context.

One way you might focus your attention on building this skill, Professor Blackmar recommended, is to take the time to read the footnotes, as they’ll show you what sources the author is using.

Current PhD student Yasemin Akcaguner observed how the skill of persuasive argumentation had been useful closer to home, when her rigorous historical training allowed her to start winning arguments with family members. “The major is transformative in your thought,” she said, “It will equip you to express yourself precisely and clearly.”

7. How to Ask and Recognize Good Questions

History, Professor Fields argued, is primarily question-driven. Studying history, you’ll learn to ask good questions yourself and recognize them when others ask them.

This process of inquiry provides you with a foundational problem-solving toolkit. As Karen put it, in studying history, “You’re trained to look at large systems and take them apart.” When you’re able to ask good questions, you’re able to make big problems more manageable.

This skill is transferable to many realms. As Michelle reflected, “the intellectual imperative to challenge all assumptions has made me a better critical thinker.”

8. How to Analyze Problems in Context

Context is at the center of the study of history, and of problem-solving in general, as alumnus Chris Allison pointed out: “It’s hard to solve problems if you don’t know the context. This is a core question in history: How did we get to where we are now?” 

Chris brings this context-based lens to his work in advertising, where it helps him be savvier in analyzing and identifying possible solutions to problems.

9. How to Practice Empathy

Panelists alluded to the idea that learning history can help us foster our capacity for empathy—an idea that scholars refer to as “historical empathy.” 

In short: trying to make sense of the past not only forces us to consider events and ideas within other contexts and from other perspectives, but also encourages us to reflect on what’s been included in and excluded from the historical narrative—and what we can do about it.

Final Words of Wisdom

As current junior Matt Geyman put it, “Whatever industry you want to go into, know how your History training translates specifically [to that field or area of work].”

As you’re reflecting on your career interests and this process of translation, these additional resources may be useful: