Why the History MA is right for me

by Owen Arkley

Hi, my name is Owen. Choosing which subject to study for my Master's was difficult but I eventually settled on History for a number of reasons, chief among them the flexibility it gave.

When it was time to apply for my Master’s, I found it difficult to choose which subject to go with – a struggle I was all too familiar with. In 2016, deciding which of my A-Level subjects to continue at university out of Media Studies, History, and English Literature was an arduous task. I ended up taking a combined English Literature and History degree at Lancaster so I didn’t have to choose between them. As you can imagine, trying to whittle these two equally complex and interesting subjects down to one took a lot of thought!

I eventually settled on the Master's in History for a number of reasons. A natural concern for any history buff is finding an appealing degree when the curriculum can span thousands of years just as easily as it spans the entire globe. Everyone has their area of focus, and how can that be reconciled with the practical limitations of a university course? The solution offered by the History MA at Lancaster is the pathway system.

Through these pathways, students can specialise in topics such as medieval history, early modern history, modern history, and heritage. There is also a parallel course for International and Military History, and one for Digital Humanities, about the growing intersection between historicism and technology. Alternatively, if (like me) you refuse to be put into a box, you can pick any mixture of modules you like – this is the ‘bespoke’ pathway.

I ultimately went for the bespoke option because of the flexibility. As a historian, I consider myself drawn to inequality, particularly of gender, race, and class. Unfortunately, this has made it hard to find a time period I can call my own – injustice has sadly been part of every era. It has also made me more interested in the actual study of history and its myriad sources, rather than particular events. You might think this was a pickle for a student studying the past, but even for someone as awkward about it as me, I was spoilt for choice.

Alongside more traditional themes such as the Cold War, I also chose a few more theoretical modules, such as Beyond the Text which examines the historical significance of different source types, and Critical Heritage Studies which looks into the public presentation of history via museums and statues. On that note, an aspect of the MA which has to be mentioned is the freedom you have to compile your own essay topics – for Critical Heritage Studies, I looked at how museums have used technology and social media to keep afloat during the pandemic. I might just be the first student in the department to use TikTok as an academic source!

The highlight, however, has been my placement module, where another student and I have worked with the department’s Elizabeth Roberts Oral History Archive. I was hesitant about taking the module at first: what if I didn’t end up on a placement that I liked? What if the options were extremely limited due to the pandemic? I’m glad that I stuck with it, because it’s been extremely interesting, and it’s really helped me to realise the paths that this degree opens up.

For the placement, we’ve investigated and digitally catalogued an array of items relevant to working class history in the North West, which has given me an even greater appreciation for the lives these people have led, and the conditions in which they lived them. One standout was a moneybox given to families by Lancaster’s electricity company during a recession – the existence of this item alone illustrates that simply keeping the lights on was no easy feat for many people.

All in all, if I had to sum up the History MA in a word, it would be ‘opportunity’. It’s been a great experience so far exploring a variety of different topics. The placement module has also just been absolutely fascinating, to the point that I’m looking to do my dissertation on the archive! As I said, it did take some time to decide whether I wanted to go ahead with a History master’s or not; English Literature will always have a special place in my heart, but I’m confident that I made the right choice.


Owen is studying MA History at Lancaster University.

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