February 2024
Christopher Gehrz
Christopher Gehrz, professor of history and co-chair of the Department of History, Philosophy and Political Science at Bethel University

It’s the inevitable question facing history majors: what are you going to do with that degree? Turns out, the answer is almost anything they want. That’s because history degrees provide graduates with a solid foundation of inquiry, analysis, communication skills and empathy that is useful for a multitude of professions. It just might take a bit of sleuthing to figure out that “what.”

As a professor of history and co-chair of the Department of History, Philosophy and Political Science at Bethel University, Christopher Gehrz is used to fielding this question from students and parents. He shares data to allay their fears, including that about 30 percent of Bethel’s history majors work in business, 25 percent teach K-12 students and 20 percent hold government, law and nonprofit jobs.

When students are considering history, Gehrz tells them, “Not only will you enjoy college and learn knowledge, you also will acquire skills. Majors like history teach you how to ask good questions, how to do research to find better answers, how to step back and think critically about yourself and the economy and political systems, and how to communicate and navigate cultural differences. They teach you how to write persuasively and listen to other people. These are all skills that are important for any job or career.”

Brittany Merritt Nash
Brittany Merritt Nash, an assistant professor of history at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University

Brittany Merritt Nash, an assistant professor of history at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, often is intrigued by history graduates’ richly varied jobs. From librarians and human resources specialists to environmental consultants, alumni apply the skills they honed while exploring the past. The diverse abilities they develop also happen to meet employers’ needs.

“We’re hearing from the career center that employers want employees who don’t just have knowledge but also have translatable skills, such as being able to talk to other people and understand where they are coming from,” Merritt Nash says. “They sift through competing information and figure out the truth, and they problem solve and adapt as things change. History students are very comfortable with change. Their adaptability is a strength.”

Yet it can take exploration to find the best use for such skills. Private colleges offer numerous ways to help students determine their path, including first-year assignments to investigate professions at the career center. At CSB and SJU, history sophomores also interview someone employed in one of their job interests.

Career centers serve as a reliable resource to identify volunteer opportunities and internships that help students develop their career path. At Bethel, staff often arrange events that bring in alumni from various professions, such as law and politics. “It helps students envision their own journey,” Gehrz says.

At all three schools, seniors put their skills to work during capstone projects. They do original research about a complex problem and develop solutions. Bethel history students work in groups to explore topics like health care or nationalism. Then they present their findings and ideas to department faculty, an experience that mirrors doing a grant pitch.

The senior project “helps students gain really strong oral and written communication skills,” Merritt Nash says. “They write for different audiences and then share those ideas. They make arguments based on evidence. Students in our history classes know that unless they can back it up, they can’t say it.”

Maddie Strelow
Maddie Strelow, 2020 alum of the College of Saint Benedict

Maddie Strelow (CSB ’20) came to college wanting to study history for the love of the subject. Yet she wasn’t quite sure how she would apply her education. Interested in law, Strelow completed a paralegal degree and worked as a legal assistant. She determined through this experience that she didn’t want to be a lawyer. Instead, Strelow sought a law-adjacent job, ideally in an academic setting.

Then she saw an enticing position at the University of Minnesota that seemed to fit: an export controls and security specialist. She was excited to see that history was a preferred major and landed the job in 2022. Now Strelow advises researchers at the U’s five campuses to ensure compliance with all federal rules and regulations related to exporting goods and technologies.

Strelow often does significant research and writing, and then explains her findings clearly and concisely to others. “History comes in handy when I have to explain the rule and how we apply it to you, and here is the framework it falls in, and let’s find a way to work with that to make everyone happy,” she adds.

Strelow encourages people considering a history major to go for it: “History gives you a lot of soft skills that you can apply to anything you might be interested in. There is a lot of benefit to having a strong background in research and writing. You can make your degree be what you want. Follow your passion and you will find the way.”

Cody Bishop
Cody Bishop, 2015 alum of Bethel University

Cody Bishop (Bethel ’15) studied history, intending to teach high school. But student teaching sowed some doubts, and an internship in tech opened his eyes to a career in digital business. Today, Bishop is a product manager for Personify Health, a platform that teams with health insurers and employers on wellness initiatives.

Bishop constantly calls on the skills he developed during college. “History prepared me well for having comfort with complexity,” he says. “It’s being willing to understand different circumstances and viewing them from a variety of different perspectives, and then ultimately synthesizing the sources with other ideas.”

He does this regularly during team-based work with software engineers, sales and marketing, and customer-focused leaders. Bishop’s job involves being a good listener, understanding varying needs and thinking creatively to solve problems.

“The core thing that drew me to history is the need to understand your fellow human. If you can do that well, you can have a host of different opportunities and career paths,” Bishop says. “There is a propensity in the business world to dismiss history or liberal arts backgrounds because there are not clear, hard skills. But history gives you dynamic and fundamental soft skills that you can build on throughout your career and apply in a lot of different ways.”

By Suzy Frisch