Historians use their knowledge of the past to attempt to explain current events.

They determine which topics to research, or pursue research topics specified by clients or employers, organise the data and analyse and interpret its authenticity and relative significance.  They then organise the information for publication and for other means of dissemination, such as in CD-ROMs or on internet sites. They may collect detailed information on individuals for use in biographies, and interview people in order to gather information about historical events, and to record oral histories. They may trace historical development in a particular field, such as social, cultural, political or diplomatic history.

Historians research, analyse, record and interpret the past as recorded in sources, such as government and institutional records, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, interviews, verbal accounts, films, electronic media and unpublished manuscripts such as personal diaries and letters, to determine their authenticity and value. They then develop theories about the evidence, and present the findings in teaching, lectures, or writings.  They need to coordinate the activities of the workers engaged in cataloguing and filing materials.

Some historians research the history of a particular country or region, or of a specific time period, or conduct historical research as a basis for the identification, conservation and reconstruction of historical places and materials.  They present historical accounts in terms of individuals or social, ethnic, political, economic or geographic groupings. Another task may be to recommend actions related to historical art, such as which items to add to a collection or which items to display in an exhibit.

In addition to conducting historical research, and publishing or presenting their findings and theories, historians may teach at colleges, museums or universities, other research agencies and schools. They advise or consult with individuals and institutions regarding issues such as the historical authenticity of materials or the customs of a specific historical period. They may also serve as consultants to editors, publishers, or to radio and television shows or films, and edit historical society publications. They prepare publications and exhibits, or review those prepared by others in order to ensure their historical accuracy.  Some historians research and prepare manuscripts in support of public programming and the development of exhibits at historic sites, museums, libraries and archives.  They speak to various groups, organisations and clubs in order to promote the aims and activities of historical societies.

To summarise, areas of specialisation for historians include:
  • history of a specific area, region or country
  • history of a particular era
  • history of a field such as economics, medicine or the arts
  • historical preservation of such items as documents and art pieces
  • teaching
  • writing

Personal Requirements

  • special interest in history
  • curious and persistent
  • inquiring mind and academic approach
  • able to communicate ideas clearly both in speech and in writing
  • able to work independently and as part of a group
  • ability to understand details as well as broad concepts
  • interest in research, good organisational ability
  • analytical skills and good judgement

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

Compulsory Subjects: No compulsory subjects
Recommended subjects: History, Economics 
Pass in Matric with a Bachelor's pass
Check each universities entrance requirements for admission to a degree programme.

What to Study

Degree: BA (History) - UFS, Wits, UWC, UNISA, UZ, US, RU, UCT, UP, UJ.

Post-graduate studies are essential for senior positions - UZ, UJ, Wits, UNISA. Although a masters degree is sufficient for some positions, advancement opportunities are limited for the historian who does not have a doctors degree.

A PhD is required for permanent teaching positions at college and university level and for many research and administrative positions.

A BA degree with at least one of the following subjects is a prerequisite for employment in the government service: History, Political Science, Public Administration, Languages and Cultural History.


  • universities and universities of technology
  • libraries
  • museums
  • historical societies
  • publishing firms
  • government agencies
  • archives
  • schools
  • HSRC

Further Information

  • try to obtain vacation work in a museum, library or archives
  • arrange to speak to an historian or an archivist about the work

Programmes by Study Institutions

Related Occupations

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