I’m an historian. Help!

So you’ve graduated: now what?

Ok, so this isn’t strictly an article on history as such. Rather, I’d view it as a description of the supposed problems facing history undergraduates as they come to the end of their university careers. I thought it might be useful to look at the prospects for historians in the dog-eat-dog world of careers that exists outside the Durham Bubble.

So, where do you start? There are very few instant jobs to go into when graduating as an historian, so a degree of lateral thinking is required. The obvious decision is, of course, to do a History M.A. You stay in Durham for another year, probably see familiar faces and sights and generally have another good, albeit more taxing, year at university. Quite an attractive proposition one might think. Indeed, it has been shown by some statisticians that doing an M.A. can increase your potential employability, with rates ranging from a four to a ten percent rise.

But let’s face it – unless you plan to become the next Howell Harris or Adrian Green (positions we all of course aspire to), there are a number of powerful arguments against such a pursuit. You’re spending yet more money on a subject which, in all likelihood, you’re not going to follow as a career. The tuition fees alone for a taught History M.A. cost £4,530 for UK/EU students in the 2010/11 academic year; this will no doubt increase further next time round, and does not include the cost of living in a house or in college for a year. The cherry on the top of this is that the Student Loans Company won’t fund you unless you’re doing a PGCE or have very exceptional circumstances; even then, the options are somewhat limited. You are, in effect, putting off the crunch decisions for another year, in the hope of a more amenable general economic climate, particularly in the job market. This not necessarily a bad thing – but is it really worth spending over £5,000 to do this?

The more attractive option, if you’re keen to wait a while, is to take a Gap Year. This would give you time to undertake work experience, feel around the job market to see what you really want to do and generally to take a break from work. No bad thing! But unless you’re going to make full use of a Gap Year, then the exercise will be rather pointless. No company is going to take someone on who wasted their time getting drunk at home. Furthermore, taking a break at such a crucial point in your working life could potentially put you at a disadvantage with regard to job applications. Without the drive to constantly improve and continue to work that one associates with continuing education at school and university, you could end up losing crucial momentum in your career; this would seriously disadvantage you in the ever-tightening job market, where “drive” and “dynamism” are key attributes of any graduate. Likewise, an increasing number of people took their Gap Year before university (7.3 per cent of us in 2008); two years off might therefore be seen as something of a waste of time.

Another option is to go in an altogether different direction – into Law. There is a massive market for the Graduate Diploma in Law (the year-long qualification that non-Law graduates need to become a lawyer), with a host of different providers, from Northumbria University to the College of Law. The trouble is this is even more expensive than doing an M.A. The College of Law charges £8,390 for the privilege of doing the course in London and fees don’t dip below £5,000 in the rest of the country. In addition, you have to fund £11,800 to do the subsequent Solicitor’s Legal Practice Course or £14,670 to do the Bar Practice Course. Law is also the third most popular degree choice in the UK, making the degree of competition even more intense.

The other oft-heard of option for a Durham historian is the City, with the associated high rates of pay, terrible hours and lingering macho culture. Not a choice for the faint hearted then. Rates of application and job vacancies are still quite high but there is no doubt about the reality today; gone are the days when you could ask why HSBC should be offering YOU the job, not why you were the best person for the position. In the post-recession job culture, if you don’t have an internship under your belt, it’s unlikely that you’ll make the grade.

Yet is this really reason to despair? The levels of competition are higher, true. The number of jobs available is somewhat less than before. But people are still retiring, dying and changing jobs – in effect, there will always be a need for graduates, especially ones with the transferable skills learnt from studying history – analytical skills, hard work and a capability to work under pressure. The job market is also much broader than the stereotypes at Durham make out. What about publishing? What about the manufacturing industries? What about accountancy? What about the Civil Service? One former Durham economic historian, Sir Richard Dannatt, even ended up as head of the British Army.

In reality, there is a lot of rumour and a lot of propaganda about graduate prospects in this day and age; a product of media hype and government hysteria, that has without doubt unnerved a significant proportion of the current history undergraduate community. Durham historians are, perhaps, more prone to despair than our brothers and sisters in the science community, given the lack of an obvious job and the prospective months of unemployment and frantic job searching. But there truly is no reason to panic, no reason to despair. Providing you’re willing to stand up and actively work for your future, you have a much stronger chance than many others of securing your future. Failing that, you could always give it all up and become a hermit. I leave the choice to you.

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