You’re considering a degree in history, but how do you choose the right course, at the right university?
Check the modules
Whether entering an undergraduate or postgraduate programme, you need to consider the specialism of the department. Have a look at the modules on offer to determine what they teach and general expertise. For undergraduates, it’s good to look for a department that offers a wide range of global modules. Though you may have loved a certain subject during your A-levels, having a broad range of modules on offer will allow you to explore areas of history you may not have considered, before specialising in your final year and potentially into postgraduate studies.
Consider whether the subject material is current. Are those teaching also actively involved in research? If teaching staff do not specialise in the areas they teach, you may find the material taught to be outdated.
Know the course
Another consideration is the structure of the course. No matter how wide-ranging or exciting the modules on offer may be, if the course structure is restrictive and does not allow much flexibility, then it does not matter what is on offer. Make sure you know what core modules are required and how many optional modules you can choose. Can you take modules from outside the department? This is particularly important if you want to include languages, or other subjects, to create a more bespoke degree, tailored to your interests and specialisms.
Look for extra opportunities
University is not just about what you learn in the classroom, but also the additional skills and experiences you gain. Look for a history department that provides extracurricular opportunities that contribute to your personal development, but also provide an experience that will set your degree apart from others. For example, does the programme give students the chance to study abroad? Many universities are part of Erasmus, a student exchange programme that currently offers foreign exchange opportunities across the EU. Some departments have options further afield, in places like Argentina, Japan and Australia.
Know your budget
Alongside any tuition fees, you will need to consider other costs involved in pursuing your degree. Cost of living will vary depending on the location of the campus. Before making your choice, have a look at the price of accommodation. Does the university offer on-campus or off-campus living? Will you need to commute to and from campus? What about the cost of food? Some modules can have very expensive textbooks that students are required to purchase, while some departments will cover the cost of all required readings. The same goes for field trips required as part of the course. Make sure you check what the additional costs may be and what policies the department or university has around such expenses.
Consider student feedback
The best history departments are those that listen and take seriously the feedback provided by their students. It is a good idea, then, to ask how student voices are represented in decision-making committees in the department. How have the department and university responded to student feedback? And what opportunities are there for you to raise issues about the course or modules? Are there student course representatives? And what role does the Student Union play in the department? Student satisfaction surveys may give you some idea of the student experience in this respect.
Explore the area
You’ll need to factor in the location of your chosen university. Is it close to family and friends? If you are not used to living far from home, this may be important, as first year students often suffer from homesickness. But even if you are independent, it is nice to be able to go home some weekends.
You should also consider whether you would prefer a campus-based university or would prefer to live in a city. Cities may sound exciting, but are you the type who is easily distracted? If so, it may be better to be on a campus set away from the city, or one in a small town. The location of a campus may also have implications on diversity, access to culturally specific foods, religious spaces and so on.
Assess your needs
As fulfilling and as satisfying finishing an undergraduate or postgraduate degree can be, it can also be an incredibly stressful experience. The most successful students are those who carefully consider their personal and health needs, and prepare properly. With this in mind, it is important to consider the kind of wellbeing and personal support available to students in the history department and the university as a whole. Does the department provide each student with a personal tutor – a member of staff they meet with a couple of times a term throughout their degree? What kinds of medical and mental health services are available? What are wait times like? Can accommodations be made if you become ill or need to take time away from your studies? While many spend lots of time considering their academic needs, it is also important to consider student wellbeing, too.
Know the department’s place
While a good history department is dependent on its course and modules on offer, the place of the department in the university is also something to consider, particularly when it comes to the allocation of resources.
Consider the facilities and resources available in the history department and compare this to other departments such as business or engineering. Is there financial investment in the history department and faculty? This is not just about having the most current technologies or new buildings, but also staffing, as well as the number of awards the department can offer. This latter point is important for students considering postgraduate studies.
Having an award on your CV can be important when seeking postgraduate funding, but if the department does not have the resources to provide such awards to undergraduates, it may make your application less competitive.
When considering the resources available to a history department, it is important to find out the number of permanently employed staff, as well as the teacher to student ratio. Fewer staff means less time spent with students.
At university open days, students often ask about the number of contact or teaching hours. The real question should be the availability of tutors outside of lectures and seminars. Are tutors available to meet with students during set office hours throughout the week? Office hours can be invaluable as they provide time for one-on-one conversations with tutors to discuss points of interest or a topic that arose in class.
Many universities employ world-class researchers and historians who do amazingly on the Research Excellence Framework. However, this means nothing if they are not around and available to you.
Investigate the student experience
My last tip for students considering a history degree is to find out the reputation and culture of a history department and its university. If you go to a university that is traditional and conservative, do not expect a liberal course offering, and vice versa. Also, consider the university and department values in regard to students.
You may also want to consider the educational, class and cultural backgrounds of the student and staff communities. For instance, some departments tend to attract students from private as opposed to state schools, or from certain parts of the country. Going to a university where your peers are from very different socio-economic or cultural backgrounds should not be a deterrent as this may be a great learning experience; however, you should consider whether you will feel comfortable within the culture of the history department and university as it will have an impact on your overall experience.
Ultimately, when choosing a history degree, it is important to know what you want from your time at university, not just what you want to study. Consider what your ‘must haves’ might be as well as the points on which you are willing to be flexible.
Choosing a university is a very big decision. Take your time, do the research and find the degree and department that is the best match for you.
Dr Meleisa Ono-George is director of student experience, and senior teaching fellow in Caribbean history at the University of Warwick