Studying History at the University of Birmingham

Yesterday (the 17th July), I graduated from the University of Birmingham with a First Class undergraduate degree in History.

The last 3 years have been the best of my life, and I am truly going to miss living and learning in Birmingham. I wanted to dedicate an entire post to my own experience of studying History at the Uni, how it shaped me as a historian, and what I liked and disliked about the course. Hopefully future students will be able to read this and get an idea on what Birmingham has to offer.

I want to begin firstly by saying, I absolutely loved studying at Birmingham. I genuinely believe it has one of the best courses for History in the country, that was the reason I chose to attend and it never disappointed. I thought it would be best to break down each year and talk about what I liked, what I struggled with, and any advice I would give to future students. As a disclaimer I will say that all modules are subject to change depending on the availability of each lecturer, and courses obviously develop over the years so my experience may be different to those going into Birmingham in the future!

First Year
First Year serves as a whistle stop tour of History. There are four core modules that everyone must take, which span from the Middle Ages all the way up until present day, and 2 optional modules which students can pick. I’ll be honest; first year was an absolute blur for me, we were given A LOT of content meant to cater to everyone’s tastes and as such there is a lot I don’t really remember. I enjoyed the process of First year though, it allowed students a chance to delve into every part of history, really get to grips with different eras and decide what your niche was. I was already pretty set on Early Modern History, however First Year opened my eyes a little to different periods, and allowed me to expand my horizons. I remember vividly a lecture which focused on Society and Culture in the Aftermath of the First World War, led by Professor Matthew Houlbrook. This lecture was delivered perfectly, and engaged me in a period I had very little interest in before. Subsequently in later years I chose modules which strayed from the early modern period, because my experience of First Year taught me that other periods could be just as interesting. My main advice for first year would be to give everything a chance, engage with different themes and centuries and see which ones you are most interested in. First Year is for gaining some independence and discovering your niche.

One thing I learnt: MAKE SURE TO PICK YOUR MODULES BEFORE THE DEADLINE!! I made this mistake in first year and ended up doing a module I had no interest in, I missed half the seminars and it was by far my worst grade. Pick your modules quickly so you are actually motivated to learn!!

Second Year
Second Year was by far my favourite year, module wise. However it was also a massive jump from first year, and the workload was a lot more intense, so be prepared! I took two optional modules which both focused on Tudor England and the Religious Reformation, as well as the core modules of History in Theory and Practice (which I have mentioned in these two blogposts) and Public History. The core modules in Second Year, are perhaps the appealing aspects of studying History at Birmingham, Theory and Practice and Public History helped me to deconstruct how I viewed History, and reframe in a totally new light. I am not exaggerating when I say my view on the subject completely changed after second year. Obviously they weren’t easy, and at many times I found the modules impossible – History in Public in particular had interesting core values but wasn’t presented in the best way, this structure, I have been told, has since changed for future students. However disregarding the teaching methods, both modules were (in my opinion) transformative for me as a Historian. I can’t emphasise enough how much they changed my focus in History. I think it is innovations like this, which make Birmingham such an important place to study, they challenge you, they guide you and they change you. Second year was also vital because I was able to dictate much of what I learnt for the first time, my dissertation topic was chosen and condensed in this year and my optional modules heavily influenced these decisions. I would advise using Second Year to enhance your knowledge on areas you are intersted in, pick modules based on topics you wish to pursue, and identify what you are most passionate about.

One thing I learnt: Write about what you are interested in, particularly in History in Theory and Practice. When you are passionate about something it makes researching and writing ten million times easier, Second year gives you plenty of opportunities to dictate what you are studying, pick things you are actually interested in. Both of the Core modules allow for a lot of self-expression in the assessments, this is brilliant practice for writing a dissertation and will guarantee a good mark. I wrote an entire history on the abuse of Whales because it is something that is important to me, and I got a First. If you are truly invested in something, write about it and you will do well. Passion is everything!

Third Year
For me, the jump from Second to Third Year was less intense than the jump from First to Second, however I think that is because I set strict deadlines on myself – and also probably because I didn’t stay out until 4am as much as I did in Second Year!!! The workload was definitely more intense, we had our dissertation to write, a two term ‘special subject’ module and another optional module per term, all of which required intense readings – although we no longer had lectures to attend which freed up time. Special Subject was the chance to do an in-depth study on a particular topic of our choice. Following a full year of Sixteenth Century Religious discourse, I wanted a change and chose to study the Social, Cultural and Military History of the First World War. The topic was really interesting and Professor Adam Dighton, who taught me, was an excellent Professor and extremely helpful. Though I knew little about the topic, each subject is taught in such detail that it does not matter if you know nothing going in – I did fine regardless. The most time consuming aspect of Third Year for me was writing my Dissertation, however it was also the most enjoyable. I have written more extensively about this in another post, however I will say that if you put the effort in, your dissertation can be one of the most rewarding parts of your degree. I had a brilliant tutor in Professor Christoper Markiewicz who guided me throughout the year, and gave me incredible feedback to work upon. Third year overall was a lot of work, it was hard and time consuming, but the end is in sight and you know the reward is coming. Enjoying what you are studying really helps to make this easier, and it makes you fight harder for the end goal. I know that I tried my absolute hardest in Third Year and it yielded good results. For all those going into Third Year, know that you will be fine, you are supported and as long as you are working hard, you can absolutely do it.

One thing I learnt: Do your dissertation research early and set deadlines! I had completed all of my research over summer, so by the time I returned to Third Year I was ready to start writing. I cannot tell you how much of a relief this was later on, when I knew a large portion of my work had already been completed and I had more time to actually write. Once in Third Year, my tutor and I set deadlines throughout Autumn term so that I could write the majority of my draft before Christmas. This may not work for everyone, but having a large chunk done so early allowed me to rework and rewrite later on in the year with plenty of time. My dissertation is my proudest accomplishment at University, and being organised honestly helped me a lot so even if it sounds tough – try and get it written as early as possible!!

Birmingham was the best place I could have gone to study History, it taught me a lot more than I could ever imagine and it helped steer me towards a future path. It was hard work and sometimes frustrating, but overall I left with an immense feeling of gratitude. I know who I am and what I want to do, Birmingham has inspired me to follow history into my career and I am excited for the next chapter. I will miss everything about this University and I hope all future students have the same wonderful experience as I did.

I love you forever Birmingham!

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