Nurturing the 'sceptical mind': Why Postgraduate History is as relevant as ever

Postgraduate History students from across the country explain the reasons why their subject is as relevant and fascinating an option as ever

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The Independent Online

This year has been a historical one to say the least, so it’s no wonder prospective students are turning their attention towards History at postgraduate level.

Far more than simply a recitation of the past, history courses allow students to develop transferrable skills – such as analysing and prioritising wide breadths of information - that are invaluable to any job.  

And since the introduction of the postgraduate loans, there’s even more opportunity to take your studies on to masters level.

Dr Lucy Delap, Deputy Director of History & Policy at the University of Cambridge, agrees that studying history at postgraduate level is hugely beneficial for a number of reasons.

“Postgraduate work is particularly attractive because students get to define their own questions, select their evidential base, and navigate the archive,” she says.  “We encourage in depth archival work, and the course is structured to give them enough time to travel to several archives – again, something undergrads are not expected to do.” 

So what other benefits are there for students considering taking history to the next level? 

Postgraduate history teaches essential skills 

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Lewis Brennen, a postgrad student at Southampton University

Lewis Brennen who achieved a First in History at undergraduate is continuing his studies in History at the University of Southampton.

He says studying history fits “today’s political climate” because of “ the kinds of abilities that postgraduate study in history encourages – the sceptical mind, the ability to think critically, and to communicate oneself clearly to a range of audiences – are all-important. 

It’s more challenging

Part-time student Oliver Palethorpe, 21, works in marketing for a start-up alongside studying History at University College London.

“Intellectually, it's much more challenging,” he says. “It’s also much more interesting precisely because I'm able to design the degree around my interests and focus on the skills needed for further study, if I decide to go down that route.”

You can be more specific 

Postgraduate history also offers a chance to study specific modules, dissimilarly to the often rigid curriculum at undergraduate level.

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Oliver Palethorpe, 21, studies at UCL

Cambridge student, Tim Galsworth, 22, studies American History at Selwyn College. He says: “Postgraduate study gives you the opportunity for greater specialism, to spend much more time studying the historical topics you are most passionate about.”

It’s a notion Oxford student, Danny Coleman (21) seconds. Coleman currently studies Modern British and European History at Mansfield College, and says postgraduate history allows him to “specialise in the areas you find most interesting in history, with fewer requirements to study particular modules.” 

“It is most easily summed up as the transition between what you are supposed to do to what you would like to do,” he adds.

Annie Drynan, 62, who studies History at the Open University and previously studied Archaeology at masters level said she enjoys having more say over her learning.

“You are more in control in what you are studying - a significant part of that is your dissertation, with which you can choose a topic”

It’s a route into doing a PhD and future career 

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Alex MacIver, 21, studies Modern British History at Cambridge

Masters courses in History are also a good route into undertaking a PhD and can be a career boost. A recent Hesa report found 85.9 per cent of postgraduate students who graduated in 2014-2015 were working in professional positions within six months after graduating, compared with 73.5 per cent of full-time first degree graduates.

Charlie Troup, 23, who studies for an MPhil in British and European History at University of Oxford says: “Above all, I'm doing a History postgrad for professional reasons. I want to go on to a PhD, and then hopefully to an academic career. 

“I think a very large part of the appeal for all History postgrad students is the intrinsic value of studying something we feel is personally enriching””. 

You’ll meet like-minded people

Masters courses are often smaller and more intimate, meaning you are more likely to meet like-minded people.

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Annie Drynan studies through the Open University

Alex MacIver, 21, who studies for an MPhil in Modern British History at Queens' College Cambridge, says: “Post-graduate study is an excellent opportunity for students to improve their academic skill set and capabilities, because it allows students to take an in depth approach to intellectually stimulating topics that they are passionate about. 

“At post graduate study you are able to interact and engage with like-minded students, who will challenge you intellectually to make your research the very best it can be.”

You’re more likely to be treated as an equal

With smaller class sizes and the notion that, unlike your BA, everyone is there because they really want to be, postgraduate degrees are an opportunity to form close bonds with your teachers and advisors and incite enjoyable, comprehensive debate among peers.

Gaby Suarez, a 22-year-old student reading Contemporary History and Politics at Birkbeck, puts it: “We seem to look really in-depth at historic events. I feel like lecturers see you more as an equal at post grad level than undergrad.”

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