One benefit of studying contemporary British history is getting to rub shoulders with the subjects of your research. "I was able to put questions first hand to top politicians and mandarins," says British history postgraduate Michelle Clement, who wrote her dissertation on the formation of the current coalition government. "Their insight was invaluable."
During her studies, Clement and her peers have had the opportunity to hear the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, his press secretary Alastair Campbell and Labour's Ed Balls at Queen Mary University of London's history group.
Clement, who graduated with distinction, was already on home turf before she even came to university. By the time she'd finished school, she had already worked at the Department for Education and Skills and in Westminster for her local MP. "I have always felt understanding politics is crucial and believe that it should be part of the curriculum, as the majority of the population don't understand the institutions that shape the way we live," she says.
Like many students inspired to pursue British history beyond undergraduate level, Clement discovered her own "turning point" and source of inspiration during her first degree in history and politics at Queen Mary. "I took a course which brought contemporary British politics to life. We met so many influential figures." Clement was spurred on to win sought-after funding to take a Masters in 20th century British history, also at Queen Mary. She was one of a handful of students funded by the university's respected Mile End Group (MEG), a forum for political debate sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. Political heavyweights such as Michael Heseltine, Denis Healey and Sir John Major have given talks and Clement now works for the group and the university itself. "As one of six children from a half-Glaswegian, half-Pakistani family, it would have been difficult for me to fund an MA without [MEG's] financial support," she says.
From the fallout of Indian independence to the miners' strike, British history features widely in both generic and specialist history postgraduate degrees. While some institutions offer specialist courses, others provide options within a broader framework. Academics recommend going where your interest takes you. The beauty of studying history at this level is that you have the chance to follow your personal passions and seek out inspirational experts in your field while developing generic research skills. Oxford and Cambridge both host large numbers of history postgraduates and Russell Group universities have expanded their departments in line with rising numbers of postgraduates.
"Even in a globalised world, national histories still have their place and Britain's claim to historical significance is clear," says James Ellison, programme director of the Masters in modern and contemporary British history at Queen Mary. Britain, he points out, was the world's first modern democracy, the first industrial nation and, until the superpower age, the greatest modern empire, and continues to punch above its weight in world politics. This year, the study of New Labour, the US-UK relationship and the Iraq war and representations of the First and Second World Wars in Britain have proved popular with postgraduates. Next academic year students will also be able to study "modern girls" – a look at gender, culture and society from 1918 to 1979.
Funding for history study at postgraduate level, however, is notoriously hard to come by. Nonetheless, the number of history postgraduates remains relatively stable at just 1.5 per cent of the total postgraduates in the UK, with a higher bias towards doctoral research than other subjects. Although some academics bemoan the way it's taught in schools, British history remains a core subject at leading universities and draws some of the brightest students from home and abroad.
While in the US, it's not unheard of for academics to illustrate British culture by showing episodes of The Office, postgraduates at UK universities are more likely to come across primary source material such as minutes from the previous government's cabinet meetings, or the recently released and sometimes panicked messages from diplomats overseeing the end of the British Empire during the 1960s.
"The beauty of an MA is that you can respond to the zeitgeist and be responsive in what you offer," says Professor Miri Rubin, medieval historian at Queen Mary and former director of graduate studies. Applicants for postgraduate study must already have in mind a research proposal to pursue at dissertation she says. While most courses demand a 2:1 or higher in a relevant degree, history departments will admit the likes of scientists, economists and even retired bankers who can prove interest and ability.
A decade or so ago, history postgraduates might have gone straight into research, but today terminal Masters are more common – reflecting demand from greater numbers of graduates seeking an extra qualification to stand out from the crowd, says Professor Peter Mandler, vice-president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of modern cultural history at Cambridge. And students tend to tailor their own courses from a range of options, often interdisciplinary, to suit their interests. "Postgraduates prefer courses which don't have a narrow focus," he says.
From think tanks to policy makers, corporations and the media, employers value the skills and perspective historians acquire at university. But postgraduate study also inculcates an ability "to think big", says Mandler. "It gives a real advantage in the labour market. It allows you to look at something genuinely new, winkle out information from unpromising places, follow your interest, touch on qualitative and quantitative research and tell stories using speculation and imagination. All these skills are widely sought after in the knowledge economy."
Where to study british history
MAs in British history usually require a 2:1 first degree or greater. While the following are specialist Masters courses, many universities offer specialised British themes within generic Masters degrees.
British History, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne: The history of the British Isles, options to study from 800AD to present, plus training in the methodologies and concepts that are used by historians.
Modern British History, University of Manchester: Compulsory unit "Revising the history of modern Britain" plus variety of options from British history in the 18th century to the present, plus research training.
Modern British History, University of East Anglia: A mix of political, international and imperial history. Offers a specialisation in diplomatic history and claims to have the largest concentration of such historians in the UK. UEA offers some funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council.
British First World War Studies, University of Birmingham: Focusing on the challenges posed by the war to the British state, army and society.
Modern History, Durham University: Options include social and cultural history of early modern England, social and labour history of North-East England since 1870, British politics and government since 1820
Modern British and Irish History, University of Edinburgh: Wide range of English, Scots and Irish expertise provides inclusive understanding of modern British history. "Our staff includes a number of research leaders in this field and many courses are informed by current staff research," says programme director Dr Alex Murdoch. Good for small-scale research projects combined with specialist methodological, theoretical, historical and historiographical training.
Modern and Contemporary British History, Queen Mary, University of London: Specialist options include New Labour in government, Britain and the Middle East and the US-UK special relationship.