How my history degree led to my dream job

From film producer to historical novelist, four history graduates reveal their routes to exciting careers in the field, and offer some tips for those wishing to follow in their footsteps

History graduate Steve Humphries' 1998 film explores the stories of women who worked in Magdalene laundries such as St Mary's Training School, Dublin (pictured here in 1935–38). (Photo by BNPS)


1

The historical novelist

Cesca Major

Author of ‘The Silent Hours’ and other novels

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My career as a historical novelist began when I was working as a history teacher at a secondary school and searching for something to teach my Year 9 class. A colleague of mine told me about a little-known event from the Second World War, and the research was so absorbing I found I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had learned. I decided to fictionalise the story and my debut novel, The Silent Hours, was born.

Since then I have written three novels that all focus on little-known tragedies that occurred during the 20th century – attempting to bring these events to life through the people who might have lived through them. I also write romantic comedies under my pseudonym, Rosie Blake. Historical novels involve a lot of research, which can be fascinating but time-consuming. It is also important not to lecture the reader or start to throw in interesting but ultimately irrelevant details. It’s a fine line.

Having read history at university, I’m tempted to spend my time reading books and not writing my own!

Reading history at university taught me research skills, but also means I’m always tempted to spend my time reading books and not writing my own! I work in my writing shed at home and, so far, it has been an incredibly satisfying career, which works well alongside looking after my three young children. I adore attending book events, starting a new project and hearing from readers. The writing community is friendly and supportive, and I consider myself very fortunate to be part of this wonderful world.

2

The public historian

Sam Willis

Historian, archaeologist, author and TV presenter

My career as a public historian began in the final years of my PhD. My supervisor was approached by a publisher to write a series of illustrated books on warships – he was too busy and passed them on to me. They became the Fighting Ships series. This led to an intense period of writing, and I was increasingly approached to appear on TV documentaries. And then came my big break, when I was asked to present a documentary for BBC Four. All I had to do was spend three weeks in Antigua! This became Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole, a show about the excavation of a mass grave under a Caribbean sand dune. The success of that led to my first series, Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History, and I haven’t stopped since then – nearly a decade of working as a public historian.

My career has constantly evolved, and I think all historians must learn to pivot and change. I started to focus on naval and military history, before seeing the potential of bringing my approach to other historical themes or questions, such as outlaws, weapons and the Silk Road.

Most people think your identity as a historian is all about your chosen subject – it isn’t; it’s about your approach. I’m an archaeologist as well as a historian, and bring as many creative approaches as I can to anything I’m studying. This has now manifested itself in my latest work: the podcast and live show Histories of the Unexpected. The idea is that everything has a history, even the most unexpected subjects, such as clouds or rubble, and that everything links together in unexpected ways. It has fundamentally transformed the way I think about the past – and the present – and I am absolutely loving it.


3

The curator

Lucy Chiswell

Assistant curator, Royal Academy of Arts

I have always been fascinated by the lives of objects and the journeys of artefacts through time. Growing up near Oxford, I visited the Ashmolean Museum a lot as a child, and my mother would take us on cultural pilgrimages across the country. I remember my cousin saying to me that, when she grew up, she wanted to be a curator at the British Museum, and I had no idea what she meant (incidentally, she’s now a retail consultant). It was only during my master’s degree, when I took part in a Renaissance drawings exhibition, that I understood what it involved. I realised that few things in life had thrilled me as much as studying and handling a Tintoretto drawing and thought, yes, this is what I want.

Studying ancient history for my BA prompted me to fall in love with Rome and move there after finishing my degree. It was in Rome that I discovered the Renaissance. I came home to do an MA in history of art, specialising in 16th-century Italy, and that was that.

Every day is different, and I work on multiple projects with different people all at once. I am currently working on The Renaissance Nude, which opens in March, and a major show spanning Antony Gormley’s 45-year career, which will take place in the autumn. Typically, my day involves creating exhibition graphics and audio guides, writing and editing texts, sending loan letters, giving talks, taking tours, reading and – perhaps most importantly – looking!

For anyone who wants to get into curating, I’d advise them to volunteer at a museum or gallery. It’s a great way to get a sense of working in a cultural institution, and when it comes to jobs, experience like this is gold dust. It is also important to realise that curating is not academia: it’s about having people skills and an eye for detail as much as reading books.


4

The film producer/director

Steve Humphries

Founder of Testimony Films

I wake up every morning thinking how lucky I am to still have my own small independent production company, and to be able to create films I’m passionate about. It is, for me, simply one of the best jobs in the world.

What I love most is getting people to open up on camera and tell deeply personal stories on issues that matter. These can range from testimonies by the last survivors of the First World War (as in our recent BBC Four series The Last Tommies) to the protests of Hull fishwives for better safety at sea (as in our BBC Four programme Hull’s Headscarf Heroes).

One of the films I’m proudest of is Sex in a Cold Climate (1998), in which young women locked away in Magdalene laundries in Ireland told their stories. It led to one of the biggest helpline responses in Channel 4’s history, directly inspired Peter Mullen’s feature film The Magdalene Sisters and helped expose abuse in the Catholic church. I feel it helped change the world a little bit for the better, which is the ultimate aim of the films we make.

I got into the TV industry in the 1980s, helped by a doctoral thesis and book – Hooligans or Rebels? – based on interviews I’d done with unruly working-class children. It documented strikes against the cane by schoolchildren in 1911.

Attempt to deal with rejection in a positive way, keep going and feel lucky!

I knew nothing about the technical aspects of the industry then – and still don’t. For me it is all about identifying a powerful untold story and getting the right people to tell it.

A history degree can help get you to an interview, but you don’t necessarily need one. What you need is to be passionate, tenacious and strong-willed. And you need to get lucky. There are so many applications for researcher jobs in TV – and that’s the best way in – that you have to make yourself stand out.

The first rule is to research the company you are applying to, watch some of what they have made and mention this in your application. Another rule is to go to TV festivals – hang out in the meeting places and bars and start networking. The final piece of advice is: don’t take rejection personally. There is a lot of rejection in this business as it’s so competitive. It’s all about dealing with it in a positive way, keeping going – and feeling lucky!

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This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine