Why study history and become a historian? Do you want to learn about past societies, pursue a Bachelor in European History, find out more about early modern philosophy?

But though the history department of your local university’s humanities section may offer a simple history major, you will soon realise that anyone with a degree in history has been forced to find a specialized field. Fields of specialisation can be anything from museum studies to Latin American history to environmental history to fifteenth-century ceramics to Victorian pickle jars to a jug handle fragment from the Elbe valley to the sdm.n.f form of Egyptian verbs.

Since going through all the possibilities would make this article about as big as the Internet itself, we’ll focus on some parts of the study of history that might interest you - from there, you might be able to find your perfect research project for your undergraduate studies. Despite the many fascinating cultures throughout world history, we will be mostly concentrating on Western civilization.

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Studying Ancient History

If you want to study pre-medieval history, Ancient History is the discipline you want. Depending on what aspects you want to specialise in, you can study archaeology (material remains), anthropology (prehistorical and pre-Homo Sapiens societies; in some parts of the world this also designates ethnology, the study of other societies and cultures), philology (ancient languages) or become a historian (the study of culture, philosophy, religion etc. outside of material remains).

Generally, Ancient History is considered to encompass the chronological period right up to the Middle Ages. Any time period after that falls under simple history degrees.

So what might you be studying in an Ancient History degree?

Depending on the curriculum of your university, it might include:

SubjectWhat it's about?What does it entail?
EgyptologyThe study of ancient Egyptian civilizationThe Ancient Egyptian writing systems (hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic), the Ancient Egyptian languages (Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, New Egyptian, Demotic, Coptic), art, history, religion
Near Eastern StudiesThe study of the many civilisations of the Near and Middle EastThe various cuneiform scripts, the various Near Eastern languages (Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite…), their art history and religions
Classical StudiesThe study of ancient Cretan civilizations, Etruscans, Ancient Greece and Ancient RomeLatin, Ancient Greek, the art, history and religion of these cultures

What about British History?

But what if you're interested in the history of the British Isles before the Medieval Period?

Unfortunately, in that case, Ancient History is not for you. You will want to study archaeology - some universities have a specific subject called British Archaeology, others will include it among other archaeological subjects.

Political History: What Is It?

Political thought changes throughout history.
Political history is sometimes also a history of ideologies. Photo on Foter.com

History courses at school usually focus on the big moments - the wars, the revolutions… Mostly, this is political history, reflecting the give-and-take between nations and the internal power struggles within countries.

However, there are two ways to look at political history:

  • On a case-by-case basis as above
  • From a broader perspective, studying political movements, political philosophy and the evolution of political thought over time.

Political history as the history of nations

When studying political history, you might be looking at world history through the rise and fall of nations, their interactions with each other and their influence on things like religion, culture and language.

From the expansion and division of Alexander’s empire to that of Charlemagne, from colonialism to the unity of the European Union, human history has been a constant change of boundaries and alliances. Medieval history alone shows how fluid political boundaries can be, as does much of Asian history.

Of course, not all political change is external. Sometimes, internal upheavals such as droughts, famine, pestilence or revolution can change the balance of politics within a country.

Political history as the history of politics

Or you can choose to tool your curriculum and focus your historical research on what kind of government is considered ideal and what the dynamics of power should be. Here are some of the different types of political institution you might be studying:

  • Absolute monarchies
  • Constitutional monarchies
  • Oligarchies
  • Direct democracies
  • Electoral democracies
  • Communist societies

Diplomatic History: the Dance of Nations

One aspect of political history is diplomatic history. As much as conquest and war, diplomacy has shaped the world and influenced cultures - though perhaps on a more intellectual level. Diplomacy can take many shapes, from marriages to multi-clause peace treaties to ceremonial gift-giving.

But oddly enough, diplomacy can cause conflict as much as it solves them. Diplomacy between uneven partners can put one of them at a great disadvantage, as they may not understand the implications of what they are agreeing to - as evidenced by early American history. Diplomatic ties can pull diverse nations into wars which, at first glance, do not seem to concern them, as in the Great War. It can cause allies to turn a blind eye to the atrocities of their peers as in World War II.

But mostly, over the course of the many historical periods, diplomacy has saved lives by ending or preventing armed conflict. It has enriched the human experience by providing ties between nations and allowing a cultural exchange. And it is as important today as it was two or even four thousand years ago, with a world that is growing closer together.

Diplomacy resolves conflicts.
Military history is what you get when diplomacy fails. Photo on Foter.com

Studying diplomatic history

Diplomatic history is not usually its own subject. You can study it as part of Ancient History, Medieval History or Modern History.

Or if you are interested in diplomatic theory as well, or in becoming a diplomat yourself, you can go one of several ways:

  • Study International Relations
  • Take Diplomatic Studies

You can study International Relations at the following universities:

  • University of Oxford
  • London School of Economics
  • University of Cambridge
  • SOAS, University of London
  • King’s College London
  • University College London
  • University of Essex
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Warwick
  • University of Manchester

These universities have a Diplomatic Studies curriculum:

  • University of Oxford
  • Keele University Postgraduate
  • University of London
  • Coventry University
  • University of Kent Postgraduate
  • Durham University Postgraduate
  • University of Buckingham
  • Lancaster University Postgraduate

Or find more here.

Economic History

Economic history is also a very broad section of a liberal arts education. In fact, it is seldom offered as a senior seminar, undergraduate or graduate course. It might be part of an economics degree or studied as part of social history.

The reason, of course, is that most history courses don’t teach you how to compile or interpret labour statistics or study the dynamics or recession or inflation.

Economy existed before money.
Currency and finance is only one aspect of economic history. Photo on Foter.com

However, as much as politics, economics have changed the world map in a variety of way. In many cases, too, economic factors have been at the root of big political events:

  • Migrations can be due to ideological factors, but also simply overwhelming poverty.
  • While some try to leave in times of economic crisis, others try to change the conditions that they consider the root of their poverty: through political reform or revolution.
  • Others prey on the economic crisis to gain followers, distracting from poverty and need by encouraging a particularly vitriolic form of nationalism and using a section of the population as a scapegoat (sound familiar?) This can lead to the rise of a fascist political system or even war.
  • During times of economic stability, arts and culture bloom and innovate, creating new art forms and styles and encouraging leisure activities.
  • Sometimes, economic stability can lead to new political philosophies, born not of need, but of intellectual considerations in a society where education is honoured and allowed to bloom.

As you can see, the economy can affect many aspects of a society’s history. Different economic systems will also foster different types of societies with different values and ethics.

Studying economic history

Some history departments offer History of Economics, but very often this course is found in the economics department. Some universities that offer these or similar courses can be found here.

Aspects of Social History

You might ask yourself: doesn’t every history degree involve the study of societies?

The answer is: of course, but it all depends on what aspect you want to concentrate on. Where political and diplomatic and economic history all look at the big picture, social history focuses on the lives of the people living within that political and economic system.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be studying the life of a specific Renaissance blacksmith - though you can if you want to.

Social science involves looking at all the little things that are often overlooked in history classes at school.

The types of houses people live in, the kinds of tools they used, their special needs and the differences in the lives of the various social classes and how they interact.

Lifestyles of social classes is social history.
Social history can take on many forms - including the history of agriculture. Photo credit: hans s on Foter.com

That doesn’t mean that cultural history ignores the big picture. You might be studying the structure of medieval guilds, or of the evolution of the status of craftsmen in Italian society over time. Or you could do a comparative study of the importance of tinkers at the dawn of the twentieth century versus the 1960s.
Or you can go much further and study broad social issues in historical societies, such as for example:

  • Slavery throughout human history, under the Caesars or Hengist, or its impact on African history and that of other non-European people. This can include African-American studies or migration studies.
  • The spread of certain cultural trends or even material goods that impact society, such as horse collars, hygienic methods, types of decoration or dress - all examples of cultural contact and influence.
  • The status of a certain group of people throughout global history - be they craftsmen, homosexuals or women. In the latter case, you would probably want to take graduate courses in Gender Studies, which examine the relative roles of men and women in society. In many cases, this has focused on the rehabilitation of women when teaching history but has recently also encompassed the field of what is sometimes called Queer Studies, but that includes the study of transgenders, bisexuality and other groups on the gender and sexual spectrum.

To study social history, you might want to consider getting a double major, for example with sociology or ethnology in addition to history to give you a greater breadth of tools for interpreting your social data.

Studying social history

Many history departments include either courses or at least lecture series on various aspects of social history. Gender Studies are sometimes their own department, delving deeper than the history of gender and sexuality and including sociology courses and other aspects of gender issues.

If you are interested in wider aspects of social or cultural history, you can also consider studying ethnology, sociology or even psychology.

The Skills You Need to Study History

So what do you need if you want to study history? Most universities accept undergraduates with A-levels in:

  • History
  • Archaeology
  • English
  • English literature
  • Philosophy
  • Theology or religious studies
  • Classics
  • Latin or Greek

To round out your A-levels or start on your future specialisation, you can consider of course taking:

  • Sociology
  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Any language at all is going to be viewed favourably.

Of course, just having listened to your history teacher drone on about dates and kings isn’t enough to make history coursework a walk in the park. You also need the right skills to analyze a primary source critically. So what are they?

Research skills

Research sounds easy. You read a few books, put the information together and draw your conclusions. However, though history sounds like journalism in the past, historical research is something else.
For one thing, you need to be able to interpret primary and secondary sources correctly. But what is the difference between them?

A primary source is a source from the time period you are studying. They take different aspects - they can be archaeological artefacts, manuscripts or other written documents such as inventories, receipts or letters.

They are often difficult to interpret because as a modern historian you often lack the context in which they were made. Objects often come from tombs, meaning their use in daily life is either questionable or the actual use might be unknown. Manuscripts might reference events or people that are not mentioned anywhere else, or assume the reader knows something that has not survived the centuries.

What might a future historian think of people talking about “googling” when the name of the most common search engine has not survived? Would they understand Snapchat if the software has not survived?

This means that interpreting a primary source requires critical thinking skills, but not as much as for secondary sources.

A secondary source is the work that other historians have done in the same or a similar field, or on artefacts that are relevant to your research. This is, of course, wonderful as it will save you on a lot of legwork. However, each scholar brings his or her own bias into their analysis and interpretation, and you will sometimes need your critical thinking skills to unravel relevant facts from dubious interpretations.

What jobs do you qualify for with a history degree?

If you want to ask a historian (or archaeologist, or philologist) what job you qualify for after the ink dries on your diploma, be sure to have a calming cup of tea at the ready as he or she will probably start laughing hysterically.

This is a field that is notoriously hard to get into, with the possible exception of teaching history in as a schoolteacher. Otherwise, jobs are rare and far between, and many a historian has found himself pursuing another career entirely after graduation.

Institutions looking for historians are also notorious for wanting years of experience even for entry-level jobs, so take any opportunity you can for internships, student jobs, field experience or anything else you can take to gain experience while still at Uni.

Now that you are forewarned, here are some fields you can apply for:

  • Professor at a university. You will be expected to give courses and lectures, and possibly have your own research project.
  • Researcher at a research institution, such as the Egypt Exploration Society or other historical societies. These jobs are usually project-related.
  • Museum curator. Expect to be more of a manager than a researcher, and finding new and creative ways to make your field interesting to visitors.
  • Field Archaeologist. Out there digging. Expect a lot of dirt and mud, few creature comforts and constant questions from non-archaeologists about finding gold.
  • Analytical archaeologist. On most digs, these are also the field archaeologists, but some bigger projects divide their labour force into those who dig and those who interpret the findings.
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