In this post, historian Dr Andrew Foster offers guidance about the transition for students undertaking taught undergraduate and Masters degrees to research courses, as well as his thoughts on future careers for history graduates. He turns the spotlight towards the transition of taught degrees to postgraduate research as it is often neglected in dialogues about how to aid students and researchers in this important step, and they are designed to provoke thought on the subject and to ally fears. Likewise, in his advice on history graduate careers, he draws upon “graduate attributes” when history graduates start to prepare for job applications and interviews, reflecting on the sets of skills that a history degree has provided for graduates to embark on their chosen career path.
Transitions from Taught Undergraduate and Masters Degrees to Research Courses
Some people can find the transition from taught undergraduate and Masters degrees to a research course quite overwhelming. Unlike traditional taught degrees where you normally form friendships and bonds with other peers embarking on the same course as you, research degrees can sometimes be a lonely and often an isolated experience for many.
A way of coping with isolation at the beginning of the transition is to develop good routines regarding when and where you work, as this can positively influence your work structure, and also give you the opportunity to meet other researchers in formal and informal settings. Design a clear system for when you are going to have supervision and maintain communication with your supervisor about any obstacles you have encountered. Do not be afraid to discuss anything you like with your supervisors: they can only help you effectively if you are open with your queries and setbacks.
There are clear phases to research, each of which involve their own particular predicaments which need to be overcome. The opening stage involves drafting a “feasibility” study and becoming confident that you have a good research project that is achievable in the time constraints of your degree and that is meaningful to your chosen subject field. The second phase can feel tediously long, and it is during this phase that you will need endless patience, perseverance and grit. Remember, that for the many days of research which may appear like a waste of time and effort, they can in fact help shape your research ideas and where certain research points end and where a new idea can begin. Keep notes of these “blind alleys” to use as a positive comment on where you have drawn blanks. The final phase is, of course, the “end game”: the process of writing up your thesis and re-drafting important sections, in particular the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion.
One peculiarity to come out of research is that you start to learn a great deal about what you do not know! This can be quite disconcerting after all the certainties of earlier coursework. There will be few reference books to turn to as you become more specialist in your field; you will have a lot of decisions to make and you will have to deal with much uncertainty and research questions because of it. Eventually, you will come to appreciate this strange level of “knowledge” and in time will start to feel at ease. After possibly feeling like an “imposter” when starting to teach for the first time during your research degrees, you might be able to use this new-found unfamiliarity as an advantage with students, as you can expose the problems and pitfalls relating to sources and how different methodological approaches can affect our studies and knowledge.
It would be prudent to consider the first few months of your research as a “feasibility phase” in which you attempt to read around your area of interest and to think about questions that are worthwhile of long-term study. Try to construct a reading list for yourself, and identify the location of possible primary sources in archives, libraries and museums. Check recent lists of theses in progress (and recently completed), to ensure that you have found a useful niche that has not already just been covered. Do not be afraid to email known experts in your field for advice, for academics can often offer useful guidance at this stage and put you in touch with others in the field. In undertaking research, you are entering a scholarly network in which people are usually delighted to help given the specialist nature of your interests and theirs. Likewise, seek the advice of archivists and librarians with a good command of catalogues and materials in their repositories.
Advice on careers for History graduates
Much useful advice may be found about careers for History graduates on the websites of History organisations such as the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Association. Traditional advice on History graduate careers is usually couched in terms of classic options, including teaching, librarianship, the world of archives, museums and galleries. By visiting these websites, they can help be a stepping stone that can lead to a host of other helpful websites with details on training, qualifications for entry, salaries, etc.
What might also be helpful, however, is to consider the issue of careers from a different point of view, namely that of the graduate about to be interviewed, or preparing his/her curriculum vitae and letter of application. Importantly, what are employers looking for in the twenty-first century job market?
The current debate is about transferable skills, i.e. what can we do with our degrees? These answers will not be expressed in terms of the content of what we have been taught , but how we have learned, and how do we reflect upon those skills? So, what would we expect of any graduate, and an historian in particular?
Below, I have provided some thoughts that might help graduates illustrate the following attributes that they have gained from their degrees when preparing for jobs.Through studying History, you will have become:
- Self-confident and articulate in expressing yourself during discussions.
- A fast, independent and effective learner.
- A “researcher”: someone who is aware that there is always more to learn.
- Able to present material effectively on paper and in solo presentations and group discussions.
- Aware that presentation of material today is through a range of multimedia platforms.
- Able to ask rational and critical questions.
- Able to work independently and also as part of a team.
- Show initiative in problem-solving.
- A “self-reflective” and self-critical researcher.
- Able to make decisions on the basis of fragmentary and often contradictory evidence – a classic position for historians.
- Sensitive to different types of “evidence”, and are aware that “data” may have flaws.
- Creative and intuitive, prepared to think in cross-disciplinary ways.
- Sensitive to others and different points of view.
- Possesses integrity and is prepared to act responsibly and to be accountable.
- Possesses resilience.
- A strategist, organiser and planner who sees things through to completion.
- Intellectually curious with sensible modesty about the unknown.
In thinking about these points – and creating more of your own – consider how you would provide examples drawn from your degree experience. Remember, keep the focus on what this has enabled you to do, rather than drop into a list of your courses.