5 Misconceptions You Probably Have About Academic Fields

Image shows a painting of the Greek Muses.

Most education systems, particularly in the UK, tend towards ever-increasing specialisation.

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In the sixth form, you might have friends studying subjects you’ve never studied (certain languages, Psychology, Economics…). By the time you get to university, you might have friends studying subjects you haven’t thought about in four years or more (Geography, History, Religious Studies) or ones you’ve tried very hard to forget since you finished your GCSEs (Maths, English, Sciences). You might be well aware that you know nothing about the subject they’re studying. Or you might be in the dangerous illusion of knowledge stage – where you’ve studied a subject just enough to think you know a lot about it, while a bit more study would have revealed to you just how much more there is to know.
And the consequences of this are straightforward: we all have a lot of misconceptions about the subjects about which we don’t know all that much. Here are some of the most common A-level and university subject choices, and the mistakes that people most usually make about them.

1. Geography: It’s a much broader subject than you think

Image shows pathogen research.
Geography can include the study of the spread of diseases.

What do you think of when you think of Geography? Perhaps you’d think of colouring in maps, of oxbow lakes, or at most, of charts detailing the population growth of cities.
You might think that a module on Heritage and Memory belongs in History or Museum Studies; that a module on War and Peace in the Middle East should be be studied as part of International Relations; that a module on Martian landscapes is Geology, Astronomy or science fiction. But they’re all taught as part of undergraduate Geography degrees around the country, at the high-regarded universities of Exeter, Birmingham and Durham respectively. The breadth of the subject means that while there are subjects that are categorically part of Geography, there are also a number of interdisciplinary topics where Geography provides a particular framework to look at issues.
This means that within the typical division of physical geography and human geography are a huge range of other areas of study: medical geography, biogeography, historical geography, economic geography and many others. The Geography you might have studied at school is just a small taster of the variety of what you’ll study at university. Given some thought, this seems obvious: after all, you don’t assume that your History lessons in school have addressed all eras of human existence on this planet, or that you’ve read every book worth reading in English Literature. Yet people continue to be surprised when the study of Geography isn’t just cartography and volcanoes.

2. Mathematics: There isn’t much arithmetic

Image shows a restaurant meal.
Maths students might not be that useful here.

Being good at Maths, at school, is usually about being good at arithmetic. It’s true that at A-level the advantages of being able to do sums quickly begin to recede, but even then there are exam papers for which calculators aren’t permitted. And though Maths is now the most popular A-level for sixth form students in the UK, it’s still the case that less than a fifth of students choose it for A-level. So it’s unsurprising that the impression we have of what studying Maths is like is based on our experiences at GCSE, where speedy mental arithmetic still offers something of an advantage.
This can be a bit difficult with university maths students. When a large group of students have gone out for dinner together, and some have had three courses including steak, and some have confined themselves to salad, one couple has shared a main but also had a cheeseboard, and there’s debate among the group about whether a 10% or 15% tip would be more appropriate, it’s tempting to turn to the Maths students to sort it all out. But as this kind of calculation has only marginally more to do with university-level Maths than, say, university-level English, they probably won’t be much help.

3. English Language or Literature: English has changed more than you think

Image shows a manuscript of the Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales was written two hundred years before Shakespeare.

Pretty much every student of English Literature will have heard one or both of the following at some point:
“You’re studying Old English? You mean, like Shakespeare?”
“You’re reading Shakespeare? Isn’t that really hard? Because it’s all in Old English?”
In fact, the language in which Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets is Early Modern English, and university-level English students are expected to be able to read it without much difficulty. The types of English look like this:
Modern English: “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling)
Early Modern English: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.” (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)
Middle English: “The rote of this tree is Contricion, that hydeth him in the herte of him that is verray repentant, right as the rote of a tree hydeth him in the erthe.” (The Parson’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer)
Old English: “Æðeldryð wolde ða ealle woruldþincg forlætan, and bæd georne þone cynincg þæt heo Criste moste þeowian, on mynsterlicre drohtnunge swa hire mod hire tospeon.” (Life of Æþelþryth, Ælfric of Eynsham)
You can see that Early Modern English can be tricky, but is essentially readable. Middle English is harder, but you might be able to puzzle out that “the rote of a tree hydeth him in the erthe” means “the root of a tree hides in the earth”. Old English is effectively a foreign language.

4. History: Progress towards the modern age was neither straightforward nor linear

Image shows a map of the British Empire at the end of the 19th century.
Some historical ways of studying history were influenced by imperialism.

Many Victorian historians and anthropologists subscribed to the idea that the story of human life was one of straightforward progress from a primitive state of invention, culture and society to one of greater sophistication. This is part of a story that usually begins with the Greeks and Romans, then goes awry in the early Middle Ages (hence calling them the ‘Dark Ages’) before getting back on course with the Renaissance and progressing smoothly towards the height of the British Empire.
Most people in the UK accept that, at the very least, it’s a bit more complicated than that – especially the bit about the British Empire. They might feel, for instance, that though the early Middle Ages weren’t a time of great progress in Europe, progress was occurring in the Middle East as part of the Islamic Golden Age – so it’s still all part of a linear progression if you look a little further afield.
This kind of thinking is pervasive in popular culture, but more-or-less irrelevant in the modern study of History. It doesn’t really matter for any practical purpose whether one society was more advanced according to various arbitrary measures than another, and so this is a way of looking at History that has largely been abandoned. If you ask a History student how ‘advanced’ the people were in the period that they are studying, you might get a tolerant attempt at an answer, but understand that it’s a little like asking a Maths students whether the numbers they’re using today are bigger than the numbers they were using yesterday – even if they can give you an answer, it’s not likely to enlighten you on why they were studying such a thing.

5. Medicine: There’s a great deal that we simply don’t know

Image shows a woman sneezing.
Medical students probably won’t give you any particularly original advice when you’re ill.

If you have a friend who’s really interested in health in a hobby-ish, amateur way, try asking them what to eat in order to be healthier. They will probably have lots of ideas: less salt! No gluten! Less lactose! Less sugar! More superfoods! Lots of kale!
If you have a friend who is studying Medicine or a related subject, trying asking them the same question. The answer will probably be something like, “do you feel unwell? Are you tired a lot? No? Well… probably just carry on as you are, then.”
As this article in the New York Times discusses, what we do know about Medicine is frequently outweighed by the amount we don’t. For instance, we don’t know very much at all about how anaesthetics work; we just know that they do, and most of the time that’s good enough. There are also lots of low-level, essentially harmless medical conditions about which we know next to nothing. Take pityriasis rosea: it’s a common skin condition that looks a bit unpleasant for a while and can be itchy, but isn’t contagious and goes away on its own within a couple of months. We have no idea what causes it, and we don’t really need to, as it’s not affecting anyone’s quality of life in any significant way. It might be nice to know a little bit more, but as medical research funding is limited, it’s hard to justify diverting funds from the study of cancer or dementia to dealing with something so unimportant.
Medical students often find that their friends expect them to know everything about health after just a couple of terms of study. In fact, they don’t have access to some secret store of high-level medical wisdom – and if you ring them up when you’re feeling a bit under the weather, their answer is likely to be to put your feet up, stay hydrated and take it easy for a while, just like anyone else’s.
What misconceptions do people have about your field of study? Share them in the comments!

Image credits: banner; pathogens; dinner; map; Chaucer; illness.