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What's it like to study... History

History doesn't have the greatest reputation for employability, but that shouldn't put you off, according to Edinburgh undergraduate Jon Vrushi

The Complete University Guide’s appraisal of opportunities for history graduates is pretty shocking, ranking the subject at 42nd in terms of employment prospects. These figures make worrying reading for even the most passionate of historians, so I took a step back to consider whether I really wanted to pursue a degree with such apparently low job possibilities − according to the Guide, only 23 per cent of history students find graduate jobs.

After thorough reconsideration however, I realised that this scary figure could be, if anything, more of a personal challenge. Now, with the advantage of hindsight, I can say that I’ve never looked back in regret.

History is a very versatile subject; it’s as theoretical as practical, as much about facts as interpretations, as self-contained as it is interlinked with other study areas. In order to analyse events of the past, their causes and the continuity between them, one must have a basic understanding of economic principles, philosophical ideas, theological doctrines and interpretations, individual and mass psychology, arts and cultures, geography and landscape, law and customary rights and many more areas.

The first year syllabuses at most universities are broad, introductory courses meant to give an overview of a certain area of study. As a student at the University of Edinburgh I took a course in European History since the Renaissance and another on British History since 1603. This year I will take a Medieval History course and an American History course. Certain universities will start straight off with more specific periods and spaces, but even in that case, they are designed to be ‘fresher-friendly’ in order to first get students accustomed with writing history essays, assessing sources, understanding historiography and thinking as historians.

While reading lists may appear daunting at first, the material a student needs to absorb can also be quite interactive. Because of its versatility, history can be studied in different ways. It can be studied by reading books but also by watching films, going to museums, art galleries, castles, battle sites or just talking to people who have experienced history first hand.

Although at university the main sources of information are books and journals, you will undoubtedly experience history hands-on during your time as a student. At Edinburgh, we have an innovative learning week where lectures and tutors use interactive methods of teaching. During that week, last year, I attended several seminars on topics ranging from new computer techniques for historians to a brief history of political rock music. Films which carry a historic significance or narrative were screened and students got the chance to discuss them in an academic as well as more casual context. Other events outside the university premises included a trip to Hadrian’s Wall, Stirling Castle and a virtual study of the Rhind Mummy in the National Museum of Scotland.

Because of its multi-disciplinary nature, history makes for an excellent half of a joint degree. Among more popular examples are History and Politics, History and Philosophy, History and Economics, History and English, etc. Practically every subject has its history and can be analysed and interpreted in a historical context.

A by-product of the multi-disciplinary nature of history is the wide range of transferable skills that it equips students with. These can be used in a range of different sectors and industries. To quote The Complete University Guide again, history graduate destinations include “teaching, law, research, accountancy, journalism, administration, information management and the media.”

Cultural sensitivity is one of these transferable skills worth expanding on. Learning to evaluate different cultures is a central part of the historian’s training. Students reading history have the opportunity to develop a cultural sensitivity that is invaluable in an ever more globalised society, giving them a tangible advantage when it comes to entering the worlds of business, diplomacy, politics and many more career destinations.

History is an enjoyable degree to study and it gives the flexibility to choose between a wide range of courses. As a result, everyone can create a personalised degree, tailored to serve their specific needs and interests. It requires hard work and long hours spent writing essays and reading, but because of its flexibility you can study what you are really interested in, thus making the workload seem somewhat less agonising. Whether it’s written by victors or professionals, whether it repeats itself or not, whether it matters to society or only to historians, one thing is certain, a history degree is a good choice to make for your higher education.