Top tips for studying history

Expert advice, practical tips and inspiration for students hoping to plan a future based on the past...

Photo by Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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You’ve just started a degree in history, or perhaps you’re already studying and your thoughts are beginning to turn to life after university.

Over these 16 pages we offer a series of articles designed to help you get the most out of your studies, and find out how a degree in history can lay the groundwork for the career of your dreams. We’ve got information and advice on making the most out of your first year at university, as well details on the skills and qualities that history graduates can bring to the workplace.

We’ve also spoken to a selection of mature students to discover why they made the decision to return to the classroom.

We hope you’ll find this a useful guide to help you plan a fulfilling and fascinating future in history.

Charlotte Hodgman

Deputy editor

Make your first year count

As thousands of students settle in to life at university, Charles West, admissions tutor at the University of Sheffield, shares his top tips on how to survive the first year as an undergraduate…

1)  Try something new

Chances are that you’re studying for a history degree because you really enjoyed studying the subject at school or college – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the first year of a history degree is a wonderful opportunity to broaden your scope as part of your training as a historian, and just to try something different.

Most UK history departments offer a very wide range of courses or modules on topics that you’ve probably not been able to study before. That might be new periods of time, such as ancient or medieval history, or new geographical areas, especially beyond Britain and Europe; or it might also be new approaches to the past, for instance through themes like gender or global history, or through broad survey courses that take in great sweeps of time.

Perhaps the most addictive thing about studying history is its sheer diversity and range. Take advantage!

2) Don’t try to memorise everything

Studying history at university is very different from studying it at school, because the marking criteria don’t normally expect you to know certain specific examples.

You’ll be exposed to huge amounts of information but don’t worry, no one is expecting you to learn it all. A history degree isn’t a three-year memory test. Instead, you need to know enough to decide what you think about an issue and to be able to argue your point convincingly – that’s one of those ‘transferable’ skills that will come in handy after university.

So, if you’re asked to read a book, don’t worry about capturing every single detail, just focus on the argument and the key points – and the same goes for lectures.

3)  Prepare to be stretched

The way history is taught at university is also different from how it’s done at school and college. That’s partly a matter of new methods – for instance, lectures and group projects – but it’s also a question of learning new skills. You could be asked to write a blog, or do a joint presentation, or maybe make a short film.

Even essay-writing is a bit different, since lecturers won’t be looking for the ‘right’ answer or the right essay structure, but for a convincing, evidenced and well-argued piece of writing. In most universities, you just have to pass the first year, and the grades you get won’t count towards your final degree. So, your first year is the perfect opportunity to experiment with new techniques, as you transition to degree-level study.

Remember that your tutors are there to help. They’ll often have time set aside as ‘office hours’ for you to drop in and have a chat if you’re not sure about something.

4)  Get engaged in the seminar room

History as a discipline is fundamentally about reasoned argument: interpreting evidence to make a point.

That means it’s essentially about discussion, whether in writing or face-to-face. That’s why the subject is usually taught in small seminar classes as well as in big lecture theatres: they’re a chance for you to bring what you’ve learned to life. If you’re not sure you understand a point, or you don’t think you agree with something, say so – politely, of course! There’s absolutely nothing that tutors like more than seeing an enthusiastic and constructive debate unfold in the seminar room. That’s what studying history is all about.

5)  Find the library

These days, most of the reading you’ll be asked to do at university will probably be available online, at least in your first year. But it’s still a really good idea to get into the university library rather than staying put in your room! That’s partly about helping you to organise your time – something that is especially important for a reading degree like history, which involves lots of independent study.

But it’s also because there will always be books and journal articles that haven’t yet been digitised, but that are nevertheless really useful.

It might sound old-fashioned, but checking out a university library bookshelf is still the best and quickest way of finding out what’s been written on a subject. Plus, you’ll discover that librarians are some of the most helpful people on Earth.

Dr Charles West is admissions tutor in the department of history at the University of Sheffield, where he has researched and taught early medieval history since 2008

Graduates offer their tips on surviving the first year as a history undergraduate

Choose a course you’re really interested in rather than one you think you *should* do. @JillbJill

Read sources for your tutorials, and contribute to the discussion. Your perspective will be welcomed and valued. @ladywolverine3

Apply yourself, and stick with it through the stuff you find less interesting, you will be given opportunities to specialise later. @danielccrandell

Choose a module that you’ve never studied before, it could shape your whole time at uni! @Ajmoore21

Read voraciously, pick modules you will love, let nobody tell you ‘academic’ subjects don’t count, and let historians inspire you. @Mich_RJ

Learn how to navigate databases of primary sources early. Primary sources used correctly add richness, verve and rigour to your essays. @roos_annamarie

Read as widely as possible to form a broad understanding of the topic. It feels great to be able to answer questions from your tutor. @jocno5

Read widely for essays, but try and form your own interpretation. @collinson26

Putting your degree to work

You’ve spent years studying for a qualification in history, but what can you actually do with it after you’ve graduated? More than you might think, according to Philip Carter from the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London…

The usefulness of a history degree has long been debated. Generations of undergraduate historians have pondered how their study of the past might equip them for professional life in the future.

Questions of usefulness and ‘value’ are now increasingly pressing, for obvious reasons. What history students gain while at university, and what qualities they bring to the world of work, matter more than ever.

To those doubters who regard undergraduate history as yet more dates, facts and chronologies, any positive connection to ‘real world’ employment can seem tenuous. But today’s undergraduates should keep the faith. There are both well-established and newer arguments in favour of a history degree, many of which highlight the skills developed while at university.

In large part, history is a training in how to discover and interpret information. As historians we become adept at handling large amounts of information of various origin and types, and in differing formats – its retrieval, verification, description and storage.

At the same time, history is concerned with the creation and communication of new knowledge. This means the assessment, evaluation and integration of information (from other historians and our own research), and its effective – and engaging – expression in essays, seminar presentations or undergraduate dissertations.

Skills such as assimilation, evaluation and critical thinking have long been recognised. They are seen as underpinning a range of established professions, including law, media and broadcasting, the civil service, publishing and policy formation. Like historians, practitioners in these areas are able – reliably and quickly – to gather and assess, then distill and communicate.

The modern workplace is heavily reliant on data. As a result, the techniques learned by historians are also valuable in other areas of employment, where people deal in information that is exchanged and exploited within professional networks. These, moreover, are skills of growing importance.

Twenty years ago, professional life seemed set to become a largely verbal culture thanks to telecommunications and the mobile phone. But the modern prevalence of email, and smart technologies, means that good communication still relies heavily on the written word.

Today’s undergraduate historians know this technology better than anyone. Yet we all need to learn, and to keep being reminded, how to make best use of the written word. Three years spent reading, writing and presenting history can give its undergraduates a distinct advantage.

A new approach

These well-established claims to history’s usefulness remain powerful. At the same time, the content of many courses is changing. Newer forms of historical research are shaping the student experience – seen in the growth of non-text-based sources and methodologies in undergraduate teaching.

The values of these newer approaches are similarly measurable in terms of the skills they promote. A module in digital history, for example, might teach you how to build and analyse a database, design a website, or create and geo-reference a historical map. Similarly, histories of material culture, with their focus on object-based learning, will provide instruction in conservation, archival management, 3-D imaging and printing, or even augmented and virtual reality. Meanwhile, interest in public history and engagement creates opportunities to devise and run projects that will take you well beyond the classroom and your peer group.

As well as bringing new historical insights, such methodologies also correspond to the qualities many employers seek. On graduating, most undergraduates will decide to leave academic history behind.

Yet the skills gained in courses on digital history or material culture may prove more enduring and useful. Historical understanding will always prove an asset, but you’re as likely to be employed in historical game design for your technical skills as for your knowledge of medieval Europe, or employed in museum curation for your talent for object interpretation as much as for an essay on the industrial revolution.

While history ‘beyond text’ is increasingly prominent, undergraduate courses continue to attach considerable importance to printed sources. Here, too, students’ experiences, and the skills they acquire, are evolving.

A key question for today’s lecturers is not simply whether their students are reading enough history, but what and how they read.

The huge growth in online content – from primary sources, digitised books and articles, to blogs and reference works – is one of the most important developments in historical study in recent years. Perceptive and informed use of online content is now a key requirement for high quality history.

This means knowing what is and isn’t out there; what you might be missing; and how you may be being misled. These challenges go well beyond the seminar room, shaping our personal and professional lives. As undergraduate historians you have an opportunity to gain critical awareness of these common, but often little understood, sources of information.

History in its own right

These skills can be transferred to a range of non-academic careers. Equally, they can be more directional for those seeking to retain professional links to history.

It’s unlikely, though, that many of this year’s history intake are thinking so instrumentally. Instead, the majority of new undergraduates choose history at university because it’s a subject they enjoy.

The value of history in its own right is championed by many professional historians at work today. History matters because it provides a means to deepen our understanding of the human experience. It matters too in an age defined, on the one hand by presentism and on the other by greater readiness to commemorate and reflect, especially around historical anniversaries. And if we’re going to look back, we should do so accurately and insightfully.

But, regardless of our future profession, we all benefit to some extent from a discipline that helps set contemporary society in wider context. Studying history makes us more sharply observant and less complacent in a world that, in turn, becomes more interesting and complicated. These are valuable sensibilities for adult life.

Complications also extend to the modern workplace. The idea of a job, or even a profession, for life is itself increasingly the stuff of history. It’s a change that, with the exception of a few careers such as school or university teaching, makes it harder to plot direct connections between a history degree and a specific profession.

This could make the future even more daunting for the class of 2017/18. But it’s worth remembering that the composition and disposition of the modern workplace is also changing.

Given the rise in university numbers since the 1990s, it’s ever more likely that your future employer, rather than dismissing your history degree as an indulgence, will have had a similar training in this or a related humanities discipline.

Recent studies also show that many employers, while valuing acquired skills, above all seek to employ clever, imaginative graduates with the potential to think and act creatively. The historical literacy you’ll acquire at university requires more than a knowledge of what happened in the past, or the ability to handle data. It’s also the creativity to appreciate what did not happen, what might have happened, and what could happen. Even the most historically informed employer is really interested in what could happen next.

Undergraduates who pursue as broad and enriching a subject as history are, it’s fair to say, prepared for an intellectual workout. The challenge is how to get the most from this opportunity, now and in the semesters to come.

So, if you’re starting out on a history degree course, you might consider three goals over the next three years: celebrate and test your cleverness; cultivate a range of intellectual and practical qualities; and enjoy history for itself.

Dr Philip Carter is senior lecturer and head of digital at the Institute of Historical Research, in the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Number crunching

A history degree can set you on the way to further study or a career in a host of employment sectors, as history graduates from 2015/16 discovered…

History graduate destinations 2015/16 (6 months after graduating)

Working full-time in the UK: 39.2%

Working part-time in the UK: 13.1%

Working overseas: 2.3%

Working and studying: 6.8%

Further study: 25.5%

Unemployed, (including those due to start work): 6.1%

Other: 7%

Further study undertaken 2015/16 (6 months after graduating)

Studying for a master (eg. MA, MSc): 63.4%

Studying for a doctorate (eg. PhD, DPhil, MPhil): 4.3%

Studying for a postgraduate qualification in education: 14.9%

Studying for other postgraduate diplomas: 9.2%

Studying for a professional qualification: 3.7%

Other study: 4.5%

Top 10 industries for 2015/16 history graduates

Retail: 16.5%

Education: 14.9%

Hospitality: 7.4%

Government: 6.2%

Legal and accounting: 3.9%

Financial services: 3.6%

Recruitment and HR: 3.5%

Culture: 3.3%

Health: 2.6%

Social care and social work: 2.5%

2,125: the number of history graduates in further study (6 months after graduating)

these figures were sources from Prospects who produce the annual publication What Do Graduates Do? which charts the destinations of graduates six months after leaving university. The statistics are based on the 77 per cent of history graduates who responded to their survey. Find out more about their work at prospects.ac.uk

Back to the classroom…

Mature students explore the benefits of studying history later in life

Building a new role

“Having previously been stuck in an admin job, returning to university to study for an MA in history enabled me to embark on a career in the conservation sector, as a church buildings adviser. It was the best decision I ever made.”

(Charlotte Vickers MA History University of Bristol)


Starting again

“When I was made redundant aged 61, I knew I wasn’t ready for retirement so I embarked on a two-year part-time MA course. Despite an inevitably steep learning curve with a challenging reading list and eight assignments, I’ve enjoyed every minute. Now it’s research assistance and speaking locally: a whole new career.”

(Elaine Johnson MA Social and Cultural History Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln)

“Studying keeps my brain active and a distance learning degree means that I do not have exams to sit.”

(Anne Fisher BA (Hons) Ancient History and Classical Archaeology University of Leicester (distance learning)

“Being a mature student allows you to combine life experience with academic knowledge, resulting in a clear view of what you want to gain from your education.”

(Grace Young Studying for a BA in History University of Manchester)

Old love, new challenge

“I have always loved history but I ended up working in an academic library for 14 years, straight from school. I liked my job and the friends I made there, but I needed a new challenge. For me, that challenge was to start a degree course. While a degree will always be challenging, as a mature student I had that extra drive and confidence in what I wanted to do. History is where I should have always been and now I’m taking it even further with an MA.”

(Jade Notley BA History  Bangor University)

“As a mature student, I brought a gravitas to my studies that would have been absent earlier in my life.”

(Ian Jenkins MSt History University of Oxford)

A mountain to climb

“My explorations and false starts after leaving school meant I was more focused, driven, flexible, and imaginative when I finally returned to education to study for a degree in history. I began the course intent on earning an undergraduate degree; I exited with PhD acceptances and a desire to climb the next educational mountain.”

(Angela Tate BA (Hons) History and American Studies California State University)

Balancing act

“I worked in a supermarket for 13 years but had always had an interest in medieval history and literature. I completed an Access to Higher Education Diploma, which served as a stepping-stone to a BA. I’m also married with three children so balancing home life with university workload is challenging, but definitely worth it.

(Lauren Hunter Studying for a BA in English and History University of Leeds)

Educational escapism

“I’d wanted to study history for more than 25 years, but was unable to until now. Being a mature student is difficult. The course was demanding, and juggling family commitments, as well as being a carer, was hard. The course was my escapism; meeting new people, and learning more about a subject I am passionate about, has opened up a whole new world. I have just graduated with a BA and I’m now planning an MA.”

(Theresa Ryley BA Medieval and Early Modern History University of Aberystwyth)

“I graduated with a BA in history at the age of 48 and went straight on to do an MA and PhD. I’d left school with no qualifications but the decision to go back and study part-time changed my life – I’ve even had a feature published in BBC History Magazine!”

(Lesley Hulonce PhD History Swansea University)

A new career path

“Having worked in retail since I left school at 16, I realised that to make something of myself, I needed to be better qualified. After graduating I did my PGCE in secondary history and went into teaching. I’m now a head teacher. Going back into education gave me confidence and a wealth of opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.”

(Mike Bennett BA European Studies with German Language University of Warwick)

Planning for professorship

I was 37 when I began an MA in history and I started the course fully intending to go on to a PhD and become a professor. I found my age to be an advantage; the life experiences I had gained previously helped me through difficult times in the course.”

(David Bassano PhD in International, Global, and Comparative History University at Albany, New York)

“The Open University gave me the flexibility I needed to study in my own time, with an online network of like-minded people so I never felt alone.”

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(Suzanne Lister BA (Hons) History Open University)