Historical Researchers and Consultants

Recommended if… you are great at organizing and guiding projects and would enjoy exploring a wide variety of (assigned) historical topics. You can work full-time for a company, be hired contractually based on your expertise, or gain a series of regular contracts in a self-employed capacity.

Requirements… An excellent reputation for completing projects with experience and client testimonials to back it up. This will, of course, take time. Keep in mind that for full-time positions you will be competing with historical researchers with more experience. Completion of an undergraduate degree is desirable, and graduate school and relevant work experience is a plus. Ultimately, however, it comes down to practical experience and the ability to work efficiently and effectively.

History for Many Clients

Historical consulting involves doing research on behalf of a client. Clients may range from an individual who hires you to trace their family history, to a research contract on behalf of a not-for-profit agency, public or private corporation, or institution. Historical consultants do research for families, law firms, writers, filmmakers, publishers, churches, archives, and even private investigators.

Two ways of conducting research or consulting are introduced here:

  • working within a consulting firm or business (employed by a company)
  • working as the sole-proprietor of one’s own business (self-employed).

Given the contractual nature of self-employed work, and the varying income, self-sufficiency is key, including having alternate sources of income at times when necessary. See the section on independent scholars for further insights into self-employment.

Many historians who work in other full-time jobs – professors, authors, archivists, curators – are asked to offer their expertise for research contracts on the side. Those with specific historical expertise may be asked to consult on a documentary film, motion picture, television series, novel, non-fiction book, or exhibit.

The historical consultant works in archives and libraries, but also, sometimes, conducts oral histories by interviewing individuals about recent events. The collected data is presented in whichever way the client wants: raw documents, summary reports, or an article or monograph. Historical consultants may also assist in the completion of a publication, film, or exhibition.

Some consultants may be primarily involved in archives consulting, which means that they likely have had professional experience and training working in archives themselves. Others are more broadly involved in conducting historical research either related to a topic in which they are expert or in an array of new projects to which they apply their research skills and training.

While historians with a BA, MA, or PhD may end up working with companies that seek historical researchers, to be competitive in the field, a researcher has to establish a reputation and a portfolio that demonstrate their capability to complete assignments. Work experience is key. If this is a line of work that interests you while you are studying history, you can begin by doing research assistantships or practicums that are conducive to gaining this work experience. “Word of mouth” is a main mode of gaining contracts as a historical consultant. Contracts can also be found through online or published job listings.

Some starting points

Further insights into doing consulting or research work can be found in Chapter 7 of Careers for Students of History published by the American Historical Association. Also see the AHA’s listings of Careers in Public History. Read an interview with historian Sean Stoyles, founder of Cobblestone Heritage Consultants, on Canada’s History for a good case study of someone who is self-employed. The article “Finding a niche as a public history consultant” on the National Council on Public History's History@Work website provides further insights. The Council has compiled further resources for consultants on their website that includes a list of consultants across the United States.

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Do you have further insights on historical research and consulting careers, or additional information that we can add here? If so, please contact us so we can refine this resource.