Are you thinking of studying History?

History is reliably one of the most popular subjects for students to study at British universities, and it’s easy to see why.
This fascinating subject equips you with advanced skills in research and analysis, as well as providing an intriguing insight into the past. You could choose to specialise, and focus solely on Modern History, Medieval History or even something more specific like Egyptology, or you could use your undergraduate studies to gain a much broader view of how a particular theme or issue evolved over time, such as in Economic History. You’ll also look at Historiography, the study of the methodology of historians, how they come to arrive at a particular view of the past and how these accepted views can be challenged.

What kind of things can I expect to study?

In your first year, you will probably get a broad overview of much of the past 2,000 years of history, though how this is presented and divided into modules will vary from department to department. For instance, it might be divided into the medieval and the modern, or into British, European and World history.
After this, in your second, third and fourth year (if you take a four-year course), there will be increasing opportunities to specialise. A few sample modules from leading universities include “The Politics of Evolution in Britain, c.1844-c.1918”, “American Landscape History” and “From Bede to Becket: The Cult of Saints in Earlier Medieval England, c.600-1200”. You will increasingly be asked to consider the role of historians, their responsibilities and the effects of their work. You’ll also learn more sophisticated research skills, such as how to use primary sources. Finally, you will almost certainly do a dissertation: a longer piece of in-depth research that will probably span a whole academic year.

Image contains details of an online American History course.

What do I need for a History degree?

History is one of the subjects that depends most heavily on strong essay skills (others include English and Law). That means that you should have at least one essay-based A-level subject, ideally two, in order to give you a thorough grounding in these skills. History A-level isn’t absolutely essential, but it is strongly desirable and if you don’t take it, you’ll need to explain your reasons in your personal statement – and they will have to be compelling, such as “my school doesn’t offer it but I did a great deal of reading in my spare time to make up for it”, rather than “I didn’t get on with the teacher.” There are no other required subjects, but languages (both modern and classical) can be very useful to enable you to read a wider variety of sources and scholarship from other countries.
As with an English degree, you’ll need a willingness to read very substantial amounts. You’ll also need attention to detail and an analytical mind. History degrees have a relatively low number of taught hours, so you’ll need to be prepared to motivate yourself and manage your time well to get your work done without frequently contact with lecturers and tutors.

What skills will I acquire?

You will build on the skills you have from A-level, taking your abilities to analyse, assess and problem-solve with intellectual rigour to a much higher level. You will gain excellent research skills that will stand you in good stead in a variety of careers, and your time management will be outstanding.
One of the key abilities honed by a History degree is critical thinking: the ability to assess theories and ideas with an open but analytical mind, to think objectively and to be aware of your own biases and the ways in which you are influenced by your society.

Will I get to travel as part of my degree?

Travel is seldom a required part of a History degree, unless it proves to be necessary for your degree (for instance, a dissertation on Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical architecture might require a tour of the remains of pre-Norman churches). However, many history degrees give you the opportunity to take an optional year abroad. History is also a popular choice for a joint honours degree with a language – e.g. History and French – which would almost certainly require you to spend a year in a country that speaks the language of your choice.

What careers are possible with a History degree?

History has a reputation for poor job prospects, which is partly supported by the league tables. History students will need to take advantage of their relatively low number of timetabled hours in order to build up connections and work experience through part-time jobs, internships and student societies in order to boost their chances of employment after graduation.
Having done so, they are likely to find that their transferable skills are valuable in a wide range of possible careers. Directly relevant jobs, like museum curation, are likely to require further study and not be very well-paid, but there are lots of other options, like marketing and the Civil Service, where History graduates are very welcome. Many History graduates also take law conversion courses, as their skills in analysis and research are very useful in legal careers.

Related degrees

If you’re thinking of studying History, you might be interested in these possible alternatives:

  • English Literature: though not that closely related to History on the surface, many prospective History students also strongly consider English; both are analytical and involve a lot of reading, and English Literature requires considerable understanding of History in order to give texts context
  • Archaeology and Anthropology: if you’re interested in exploring the societies of the past and the present from a more investigative, hands-on and scientific perspective, this subject takes you further from the library and the classroom and nearer to the field.

A final thought on History

The study of History is not just fun (though it’s certainly that as well – History graduates often have great anecdotes); it’s also rigorous and excellent training for written communication, development of arguments and critical analysis of facts and cross-referencing viewpoints, all of which means that a degree in History opens the doors to numerous rewarding careers. Just don’t include that quote about those not remembering the past being condemned to repeat it on your personal statement.


Image credits: banner; Becket; essay; Rubik’s cube; museum; literature.