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Practical Histories: Humanities and the Business Environment

25 Oct 2019

Practical Histories

Like many others, I found that leaving my student lifestyle did not come as easily as anticipated. Six years in higher education and with two years of teaching under my belt, I found that my passion for history was stronger than ever – but increasingly the desire to get into the working world and begin my career was gradually taking over my thoughts.

Initially, recruitment was not on my radar. I mean, does anyone grow up specifically wanting to be a recruitment consultant? Nonetheless, I took the leap. I swapped late night seminars and long research days in the library for a commute and a 8:30 to 5:30 day; my vans for a smart pair of shoes that hurt my feet (a lot); and my flexible working days for structure and stability; and it was the best decision I ever made. Everyone always told me (and as a teacher I frequently encouraged my students) that there are no limits to what you can do with a history degree. If this was true, why was I sitting staring at yet another rejection e-mail? Had I lied to my students, and to myself? The answer to whether a history degree, or in fact any humanities degree, can take you in any direction you wish, even into the business environment, is yes it can – you just need to know how to make it work for you.

For me, the recruitment industry combined the fast-paced business environment I was looking for with the opportunity to continue working with people. I had learned from my teaching experience that assisting and supporting people was something I enjoyed and - while I decided pursuing a career in a business environment with accountability and targets appealed to me far more than the loneliness of sitting alone and researching in my office or writing lectures – I was not ready to give up working with people every day. My experience studying, but especially my experience teaching abroad, gave me the confidence needed to work in recruitment. It taught me how to communicate with people effectively, have good listening skills, be patient, and, most importantly, be confident. People are at the heart of recruitment and thus a huge part of the job is communication; whether by phone, e-mail or in person. Your effectiveness at your job can change someone’s life; whether this is assisting someone who is unemployed and trying to find work or helping someone achieve career progression they did not think possible. Similar to teaching, rewards are not sought every day, but rather come along scarcely in fleeting moments.

The key to making the change from the academic environment to that of a more business or corporate setting is to rebrand your skills and experiences from your humanities degree in order to show organisations that the skills you learn are truly transferable. In other words, look not only at the wealth of knowledge you have obtained, but the skills you gained while learning it. Humanities degrees prepare their graduates to be strong writers, researchers and problem solvers. In history, for example, we learn how to search for sources and craft the missing narrative as closely to the historical record with the often-limited information we have available. When I started this transition process, I found these three things to be of high importance:

Tailoring your CV

This is the first thing employers see - and sometimes the last if the CV does not contain the right blend of information. What many of us are guilty of is overloading our CV’s with technical jargon that doesn't spell out clearly what your skills can bring to a business environment. For example, instead of plainly writing that you ‘write to a high standard,’ give the employer a specific example of a time that you used these skills. Were you under tight time constraints, did the research go to plan, and what did you do when it didn’t? Practical solutions rather than technical hypotheses are what businesses want to see from candidates.

Competency based interviews

These are gradually becoming the ‘go to’ interview style of many organisations and can seem overwhelming at first glance.  This can be for many reasons, but particularly because throughout university we are asked to flex our brain muscles and intellect on paper as opposed to talking through the part we played in practical scenarios. However, when these competency-based questions are broken down, they are not as daunting as they may seem; you just need to do your preparation. You do not need to have fifty different examples, rather have a handful of scenarios that show a multitude of different things – this way you will not be as stressed about trying to recall too many scenarios.

Culture of the Company

This is arguably one of the most important things to consider. You’ve found the job you want, you prepare endlessly to get it, but what if it turns out to not be all it seemed? For this generation, more than ever before, it is important to know and be happy with things like your working hours and the environment you will be working in. Do the company’s values and ethics mirror your personal views? Is the culture somewhere you can see yourself thriving? These are the questions you must ask yourself.

In the UK, history is currently one of the most oversubscribed courses - although in the US, student numbers in the humanites are taking a downward turn as enrolment rates drop. However, with a high number of Humanities graduates coming out of universities every year, it is important that options are made clear. In a very non-vocational field there are very real business opportunities.

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