Careers in Interdisciplinary Studies

What Can I Do With an American Studies Major?

Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender
Director, American Studies Program
The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York

Only a small percentage of American Studies majors go on to work in the field of American Studies; most go on, instead, to become lawyers, librarians, businesspersons, writers, archivists, researchers, teachers, politicians, and even entertainers. Leaders in every industry, from business to the arts, can point to their training as American Studies majors as the starting point for their success. Below is a brief examination of the sorts of skills developed by American Studies scholarship and various career options available to American Studies majors. By examining the varieties of approaches American Studies scholars use, the discussion below seeks to identify the advantages of the distinctive interdisciplinary approach of Ameircan Studies in fostering well-rounded intellectual development as well as developing valuable career skills in research, writing, analysis, argumentation, and documentation.

What are the skills one learns as an American Studies major?

One of the key ways of thinking about what an American Studies major prepares you to pursue after graduation is to focus on the skills one acquires as an American Studies student. These include:

  • Effective writing skills--vital to any job for which a college degree is a necessity, effective writing means the ability to successfully and precisely communicate one's ideas in text.
  • Critical analysis skills--vital to the decision-making process for any job, critical analysis means the ability to analyze a situation and come up with creative and practical solutions.
  • Research skills--vital to any job, research skills mean the ability to understand past practices and policies and to trace the roots of any issue, to find new information which bears on that issue, and to incorporate that information into one's analysis of an issue.
  • Interdisciplinary thinking and training--vital to any position, interdisciplinary thinking and training means the ability to think about a problem in a multitude of ways, to analyze it using multiple tools, and to provide solutions which draw from different traditions of thought.
  • Curiosity and inquisitiveness--vital to any position, curiosity and inquisitiveness mean the desire to learn more and to continue learning, to examine reasons beneath issues, and to come to understand them as part of a continual, life-long, education process.

What are some of the careers paths which American Studies majors commonly follow?

American Studies majors as Educators

Many American Studies majors go on to become educators, focusing on the communication of their ideas. Educators include teachers in Elementary and Secondary education. They also include Higher Education on many levels, including teaching at community and junior Colleges, undergraduate colleges, and universities. But educators are also important members of other educational institutions that you may not think of as immediately as schools. These include historic sites and museums, where history majors can become docents, education directors, curators, guides, and interpreters. In addition, there are other forms of teaching than standing up in front of a classroom. These include work as historical consultants, contract archivists, public historians, writers, and even filmmakers.

American Studies majors Researchers

Many American Studies majors go on to careers as researchers, emphasizing their skills in evaluating and analyzing documentary evidence. American Studies scholars as researchers include public historians as well as policy advisors, who serve as planners, evaluators, and policy analysts, often for state, local, and federal governments. In addition, American Studies scholars often find employment as researchers for museums and historical organizations, or pursue additional specialized training to become professionals in cultural resources management and historic preservation.

American Studies majors as Writers and Editors

Because success as an American Studies majors depends upon learning to write effectively, many American Studies majors become writers and editors. They make their living as authors of historical books, or more commonly, they work as editors at a publishing house. Many American Studies majors become print and broadcast journalists, and others become documentary editors who oversee the publication of documents such as those produced by government agencies.

American Studies majors as Information Managers

Because American Studies majors must learn to deal with documents, many pursue a one- or two-year graduate program in library studies (commonly, a Master of Library Science, or MLS, degree) or archival management and enter careers as information managers. With this additional training, they enter the fields of archives management, information management, records management, and librarianship.

American Studies majors as Advocates

Many American Studies majors find that the interdisciplinary nature of American Studies training makes a perfect preparation for Law School, as American Studies scholars and lawyers often do roughly the same thing--they argue persuasively using historical data to support their arguments, and they analyze and critique their opponents's counter-arguments. Many American Studies majors become lawyers; others undertake careers in litigation support as paralegals. Others enter public service and become policymakers, serve as legislative staff at all levels of government, and become officers of granting agencies and foundations.

American Studies majors as Businesspeople

Most people overlook the value of an American Studies major in preparing an intelligent person for a career in business. Yet, American Studies majors track historical trends, an important skill for those developing products to market or engaged in corporate or financial planning. Many American Studies majors enter banking, insurance, and stock analysis. American Studies majors also learn how to write persuasively, and this training gives them an edge in advertising, communications media, and marketing. Finally, many industries depend on an intimate knowledge of government policies and historical trends; thus, American Studies majors have found their skills useful in extractive industries and in public utilities.

Check out these careers and others with the Salem State Career Services office (Campus Center, first floor)

Recommended Reading

Vince Willoughby, Diverging Career Pathways for Humanities PhDs; Barbara Howe, Careers for Students of History (Washington DC: American Historical Association and the Council on Public History, 1989). (To order, contact the American Historical Association ; The Modern Language Association