History never had it so good

There has been an explosion in taught history Masters degrees in subjects as diverse as the media, the UK's Celtic past and early modern Britain. Huw Richards investigates a new trend

In spite of this warning, opportunities to study history at postgraduate level have never been more copious. The growth of taught Masters programmes offered by UK universities over the past few years is graphically demonstrated by the annual surveys in History Today magazine.

The 2000 survey noted that "the range of choices... continues to grow exponentially". It listed 156 courses. By 2004 there were 289 on offer, while this year the magazine - evidently feeling that too much valuable space was being demanded - discontinued individual listings but noted the wide range of options available in some institutions, with both Birkbeck College, London, and Glasgow offering 13 different courses.

Proliferation is equally in evidence at institutional level. Barry Doyle, leader of the MA programmes at Teesside University, says: "We had courses in the 1980s, but they fizzled out in the 1990s. We started bringing them back in 2000 because there was clearly a demand."

Sian Nicholas, director of postgraduate studies in the department of history and Welsh history at Aberystwyth University, says : "Five years ago we had maybe three programmes. Now we have nine or 10 separate pathways. We introduced media history last year and this year are bringing in Celtic history, historians in the making of history - which is a historiographical programme - and early modern Britain."

It recalls the dramatic growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s of Master in business administration courses, with hardly a week seeming to pass without the announcement of some fresh variation on the MBA theme, each with its unique selling proposition.

Like that expansion, the growth in history Masters reflects pressure on both the supply and demand sides. But where MBA growth was largely generated in the private sector, with fast-expanding consultancies and merchant banks offering employment to the newly credentialed, the drive for historians is largely rooted in changes in academic life.

This is not to say that every MA student is bent on an academic career. Michael Kandiah of the Institute of Contemporary British History, part of London University's Institute of Historical Research (IHR) points out : "There are particular advantages for teachers who obtain a Masters - a better chance of teaching sixth-formers or of getting jobs in the private sector, where pay can be very good."

Felicity Jones, the IHR's director of development, points to a group of students who "want to carry their engagement with history through to a piece of focused research on a subject of particular interest before going off to careers in perhaps publishing or teaching".

There can be, Nicholas notes, an element of "delaying the inevitable" in spending one more year at university, completing coursework and a 15,000-20,000 word dissertation; it is, though, she warns, considerably more demanding than the "alternative gap year" that some students envisage.

These, though, are a minority. The bulk of historians doing Masters courses are bent on joining the more than 3,000 students currently working on doctorates in British universities. Two decades ago the pattern was for the newly graduated, armed with their firsts or upper seconds plus academic ambition, to go straight on to working on doctorates, supported by grants officially described as being "for research training" - in practice, whatever could be extracted from your supervisor.

No institution yet makes a Masters a prerequisite of registering for a doctorate. But if you want one of the studentships offered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which awards about 100 each at Masters and doctorate level, from three to four times as many applicants each year, then your MA bid needs to be couched in terms of progression to doctoral level, while the PhD hopeful needs a Masters secured or, at least, underway.

Jones points out: "Doing an MA is a chance to find out whether you really do want to do research and acquire basic research skills and to define a subject that might be the focus for your doctoral thesis - these are all things that used to be done in the early stages of studying for a PhD."

On the supply side, proliferation is, in part, an income-generator. Each Masters student is worth £3,000 or more in tuition fees - and considerably more if they do stay on to do a doctorate. Aberystwyth talent-spots among its undergraduates, making sure that all third-year students are made aware of the Masters option. "We do see the courses as seedcorn for PhDs," says Nicholas.

Another factor is departments playing to their strengths in order to offer prospective students attractive options. Where they might once have run a single historical studies MA, institutions now offer a variety of options incorporating core research skills from that course plus a speciality. Nicholas says: "A lot of our Masters students have been enthused by a particular element and/or its teacher in their undergraduate courses and they want to continue in greater depth."

The decision to offer media history reflected her own expertise on broadcasting, and history professor Aled Jones's extensive publishing on the press. Similarly, Southampton offers Jewish history and culture; Birmingham, African studies and colonialism in history; Goldsmiths, visual histories; and De Montfort, sports history and culture.

Jones has noted growing interest in colonial and imperial history, with its implications for modern multi-racial Britain.

Another growth area is local history, with many institutions shifting to a more regional focus for their courses. The Centre for Metropolitan History, part of the IHR, is launching its first MA programme - on metropolitan and regional history - this year.

Teesside, meanwhile, is cooperating with the other four North-eastern universities on an MRes in regional history which has grown out of an AHRC project: "Students who register with us will do two-thirds of the course here, and a third with a series of day schools, at the other universities," says Doyle. The programme extends the trend towards collaborative provision evident in the region, with Newcastle and Durham already running a joint medical history Masters.

By recruiting on a national basis, the regional MRes will broaden Teesside's otherwise local base for its programmes on cultural and local history.

To assume that courses will continue to proliferate simply because they have for the past few years is exactly the sort of error Masters-level historians should long since have eschewed. But that there's currently an unprecedented range of choice - if not the funding to match it - is not in doubt.

'I realised that I wanted to do in-depth research rather than short-term projects'

For Helen McCarthy, 25, who is completing the dissertation for her Masters in Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research, the course represents a resumption of an academic career she chose to interrupt. Three years ago she had the credentials - a first from Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, followed by a year at Harvard as a Kennedy Scholar - but not the desire: "I could not be 100 per cent certain that I wanted to be an academic," she says.

Instead she went to work for the Demos thinktank: "I worked on a whole range of policy areas - everything through mobile phones to social exclusion and policies for old people. I did a report on professional women's networks, got interested in tracing the history and decided at that pointed that I wanted to go back to academic life and do a PhD. I realised that I wanted to do in-depth research rather than quick, short-term projects."

If all goes well, she will build on her comparative dissertation on men's and women's business clubs in the 1920s and 1930s, taking the story into the postwar period as a PhD student at the Institute of Historical Research. She has no doubt that her commitment to carrying on to a PhD was vital to securing an AHRC studentship for the Masters, or that her first year of study has been worthwhile: "It has been a very positive experience, getting me back into academic life, with time to think about how I will do the PhD and what I'll need to find out to ensure a well-designed, well-organised course."

She also has no doubt that her time at work has given her skills and disciplines she would not have acquired by carrying straight on as a student: "I'd recommend anyone to spend a year or two working first." Psychology rather than finance has been the main challenge: "I am very aware that my peers are getting on with careers, moving on and in some cases buying houses while in a way I'm stepping back. But this is a long-term investment in my long-time career goals and in doing what I want to do." HR

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