Mastering your MA: an brief introduction to postgraduate work

So far on HEHistoryHub, we’ve focused mainly on undergraduate history students, freshers in particular. But they’re not the only ones starting out on degrees at this time of year, of course. Universities also welcome their new postgraduate students at this time of year – those doing taught degrees (Masters, or MLitts if you’re in Scotland) as well as those doing research degrees. Studying at postgraduate level throws up a whole new set of challenges, so we’ll be looking at studying history at postgraduate level on HEHistoryHub too. Today, I’d just like to go over some of the main differences between undergraduate degrees and masters degrees, in particular the things that seem to throw new MA students for a bit of a loop.

'Postgraduates' by John Bourne Copyright © John Bourne, stuckism.com
‘Postgraduates’ by John Bourne
Copyright © John Bourne, stuckism.com

People

Probably the most glaringly obvious thing for all MA students – whether they’ve come straight from an undergraduate degree or have found their way back to the hallowed halls of academia after some (or several!) years in the ‘real world’ – is that they will meet a whole new set of people during their MA.

Firstly, you will meet the people teaching you. If you’re new to the institution where you’re doing your MA, it’s like being a fresher all over again. You need to work out who is who, who you need to ask about what. Even if you’ve stayed on where you were an undergrad, you might be working with staff you’ve not come into contact with before, in particular research staff who offer particularly specialised modules or skills sessions. Have a look at our post on who is who in a department to get you started – I’ll be blogging more about the role of staff in your learning in future weeks.

More immediately, you will meet your fellow students, the one’s taking this MA roller-coaster with you. If you’ve gone somewhere new, you’ll be expecting to meet new people, and are probably quite excited about making some new friends. If you’ve stayed on at your undergrad uni, this can be a bit of a shock: you’ve had 3-4 years of getting to know your year group, you’ve spent your final year feeling like the kings/queens of the world, you’ve decided you’re not done with this history business yet – and now there’s a bunch of new people, and the old faces aren’t there, and it’s like someone’s pulled the rug from under your feet. Whichever camp you fall into, you will be meeting some new people, and in all probability, it will be a wider mix than when you were an undergrad.

There are three main groups of people doing a Masters – these are not hard and fast groups, some people will fit into more than one category. But it’s worth remembering that unlike at bachelor’s level, where the main reason for doing the degree is to get the degree, people will have different reasons for doing an MA:

  • There are the people who know they’re going to go on to do further study – probably a PhD – and for whom the MA is a training program where they’re developing their research skills so they’re fully prepared for full-time research.
  • There are the people who’ve got to the end of their undergraduate degree and who feel they’re just not done with their subject, or perhaps university, yet.
  • Finally, there are the people who are coming to the study of history from the world of work because they love the subject. They might not have picked up an academic work in a while, they may not remember the last time they wrote an essay, but they’re passionate about their subject.

You’ll probably recognise which of these categories you fit into. It’s also worth remembering that some people on your course might not have studied history as a first degree, and so some of the things that are second nature to someone who’s just done a history degree (how to make notes from reading, how to write an essay) will be quite alien to them – if you’re in the lucky position of coming straight from a history undergrad, just take a few minutes to think back to your first year, and remember how odd it all felt. Don’t be thrown by the different backgrounds, interests and ambitions of your masters colleagues – make the most of the variety, learn from other people’s experiences and views, and if you’ve got something useful to contribute that can help them find their feet, get sharing. You don’t need to go full-on campus tour guide, but believe me, if you can tell people where to get the best coffee, you’re providing a valuable academic service. If you’re coming back to study after a while, or are new to history, don’t be shy about asking tutors and fellow students for advice.

Focus

Most – but not all – people doing postgraduate work already have a good sense of their area of focus when they start their postgraduate degree. They’ve probably chosen to do their masters at the particular institution they’re attending because it ties in with the topics they’re into – in fact, most people have done a lot of the thinking about the focus of particular postgraduate degrees at the point when they were making the decision to apply. Some institutions offer quite focused MAs – I know of specialised MAs in Medieval History, Early Modern History, Modern History, Contemporary History, Public History, Cultural History, American Studies, Renaissance Studies, History of Medicine, Religious History, Reformation Studies, Transport History, Historical Research, Eighteenth Century History, Nineteenth Century History… you get the picture. Other places offer an integrated MA in History, but allow you to specialise in your preferred area of interest through the modules that you choose, and your dissertation. You hopefully weighed up the pros and cons of doing a specialised course over a broader History MA at the point of applying.

No matter what degree you’ve gone for, you’re likely to encounter some kind of core module which encourages you to think about the ways in which historians (yes, that includes you) do research, in particular the theories they apply and the methodologies they use. Like all core courses, these can initially appear a bit redundant – why should you spend time learning about Marxist Histories if you’re not going to use Marxist theory in your work? If you’ve come straight from undergrad, this might feel a bit of a backwards step, back to those core courses you had to do as a fresher, when you want to carry on the focused research you did in your final year. If you’re coming back to academic study after a break, they can just feel overwhelming and confusing – all names and theories and tropes and memes that make no sense. Don’t panic!

Mmm, theory & methodology  - the spinach of historical study...
Mmm, theory & methodology – the spinach of historical study…

There are a number of reasons we ask students to take theory and methodology modules, and they’re all designed to make you a better postgrad and a better historian. On the plate that is your history degree, they’re your greens – you may not want to digest them, you may grumble and moan about it, but they’re very very good for you:

  • You need to be aware that history doesn’t just happen, all historians are working within theoretical and methodological frameworks, and you should be able to recognise these when you encounter them
    • I’m confident in saying that pretty much every serious academic work you will read during your postgraduate studies will have a discussion of theory & methodology at some point – you need to know what they’re on about
  • You might come across an approach or a theory that completely changes the way you’re going to go about your own research
  • Even if you simply confirm the approach you were planning on taking is the most suitable, you need to have considered other approaches in order to dismiss them
  • You will find out about what other postgraduate students are working on, and will be able to draw parallels with their work and your own – some of the best ideas come from discussions with people who work on totally different things to you, because they force you to look at your own work from the outside

If you are ‘forced’ to do a theory & methods course, use it as a foundation for your future work. Find out about what historical tradition the important scholars in your field are coming from. Think about the best ways to approach your own research. Use the classes and the assignments to brush up on your academic skills – even those who’ve just graduated probably won’t have written or read anything academic for a good six months. Be open and enquiring – that’s a priceless academic skill right there.

Alongside your core modules, you will also have to do some optional modules, usually related to your own areas of interest, possibly some skills modules (a language, or palaeography perhaps) and in pretty much all cases, a dissertation. You might want to look at Claire’s post for undergrads about module choice and we’ll come back to postgrad skills training in a later post in a few weeks.

What I would like to highlight here very briefly  is the importance of the MA dissertation. Not only will this be much longer than your BA dissertation, but you’ll be expected to go into more detail, and to be branching out even further into original research. As an undergrad, you probably had to do your dissertation at the same time as several other modules. Most MA programmes I am familiar with have the taught components from autumn to Easter, and then dedicate the period from Easter to the summer to the dissertation. That’s not to say you don’t need to give any thought to your dissertation until well into your second term. If you know what you’re interested in doing, find out who would be a suitable staff supervisor. If you’re less sure of an exact area, start thinking about possible topics, and go and talk to staff sooner rather than later. The MA dissertation is not only the crowning glory of your MA work, it can also make or break your grade, so you want to give it as much thought as possible. Look out for future posts on dissertations here at HEHistoryHub.

Teaching & Methods

The final thing I want to flag up at this stage is the way you’re likely to be taught in an MA class. Because we know you’ve survived being an undergrad, and got a decent enough degree to be admitted to postgrad work, our expectations are that wee bit higher. You’ll be expected to take a lot more responsibility for your learning – which manifests itself in different ways.

For one thing, you’re unlikely to have lectures, mostly you’ll be taught through seminars. And you’ll be expected to have prepared a lot for those – usually through reading, reading and a bit more reading. You won’t necessarily be reading the same thing as everyone else in your group, and you’ll be expected to be able to summarise and critique the things that you’ve read – learning to read critically is one of the most important skills you’ll develop as a postgrad.

Once you get into the class, your tutor will expect you to contribute to how the class is run. Expect to spend far more time in class discussion and debate, and far less time doing presentations or working through very focused class tasks than you might have done as an undergrad. Where your tutor might leave 15-20 minutes for undergrad discussion, at postgrad level, you’re more likely to be having 30-45 minute discussions on a topic. Work out how you’re going to be able to contribute and take notes during discussions in a way that helps you get to grips with a topic.

Your assessments might be different too. Although you should probably still expect the good old essay, you might be asked to develop a proposal, make a poster or write a critical review. You’ll probably find that you’re asked to come up with your own questions and titles for essays and presentations – get guidance from your tutor not simply about topics and reading, but also about the wording of your question, as they’ll be used to the hidden pit-falls of particular phrases. For example, a question which asks “To what extent did A contribute to the development of X?” implies that A is not the only factor to consider, but that you’ll need to discuss elements B, C, D & possibly E & F too. Tutors can spot these question-traps a mile off!

Give yourself time to check out what the exact requirements of each assessment are – mark schemes are the best place to start, as these tell you the criteria the marker is working with when they read your work. If you’re doing your MA in a different institution or a different country to where you did your undergrad, or if you’ve been and done lots of other exciting things in the meantime, it’s worth spending a bit of time checking out things like the referencing system used in your department, when and where things need to be handed in, how you go about getting an extension if something goes wrong at the last minute. One that I see every year is what exactly the tutor means by an essay if you’re coming from outside the UK system – the different between a British Essay and an American Paper, for example, is quite profound, and you need to make sure you’re not inadvertently putting yourself at a disadvantage. Most tutors will be happy to explain what they’re after if you go to see them.

Hopefully, that’s given you a bit of an insight into the main differences between study at MA & BA level. You’re meeting new people, going into more depth with your research, and generally being given more responsibility. An MA should be a really rewarding experience, whether it marks the climax of your academic experiences, or the start of an exciting new research chapter. A lot of that’s up to you, but if there are some things that you’d like us to cover here at HEHistoryHub, please do get in touch and let us know.

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About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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