Until recently, the popular image of a postgraduate history student might have been a lone figure in a library, poring over weighty tomes. While that style of study still exists in many places – and with good reason – it's not what Peter Quigley is doing for his MA in public history at Royal Holloway, University of London. He's more likely to be seen on London's streets with a digital recorder in hand, interviewing people and then editing soundbites for a website providing eye-witness accounts of historical events.
The essence of this course, says Quigley, is the word "public". "It is about bringing the presentation of history to the public, not in academic journals, but directly into the public sphere, in a way that involves the public in the process."
One of the early modules on his two-year part-time course was on oral history, something he combined with an internship at the Peabody housing association. "They were looking for someone to build content for their website, so I was conducting and editing interviews, for example, with Peabody residents recounting how they'd survived the London bombings in the Second World War."
That project led Quigley to be taken on two days a week at Peabody, to work on another website project, and to continue exploiting the historical investigation and presentation skills he's learning on his postgraduate course. He joined it straight after finishing his undergraduate degree at Royal Holloway in 2011, and it was a choice he made for two related reasons.
"During my third year, I was watching what was going on with competition for graduate jobs and the competitive environment that was looming, so I was looking for a way to make myself more employable – developing interpersonal and communication skills – but also to continue studying history." The Royal Holloway course is designed to take graduates into careers in broadcasting, film, museums, heritage or journalism.
And staying put after his first degree seemed to be the obvious choice. "Royal Holloway was pioneering public history in the UK," he explains. "It was very important that, as a Royal Holloway graduate with a 2:1, my fees were paid."
The majority of his co-students are doing the course full-time, so he's been part of several largely different groups over his two years. "This year especially I'm with a really nice group, and a real mix of nationalities and different ages," he says. "That gives us different perspectives on history, and creates good discussions in seminars."
Contact time on the course is low – two hours a week in his first year and four in his second – but that's not unusual for the subject. "I'm used to not having much contact time. Anyway, a lot of the learning is in doing the practical work. And, for my dissertation, I get the chance to see my supervisor once a fortnight and get good one-to-one input."
The course has given him an appetite to work in a history-related area, but he knows that might not be possible. "I'd be keen to stay working in communications and the digital world, perhaps for a think tank, and ideally with a history component to it, but I know that getting a job in the heritage sector is difficult."