History at Cambridge

Simran is a first-year history undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Coming from a state-comprehensive background, she is passionate about providing potential applicants with the same encouragement and guidance as she received. In her spare time, she enjoys learning French and exploring the sights of Cambridge!

1. What is your course and where do you study it?

I study history at Trinity College, Cambridge

2. What does your course entail?

Studying history as a first-year at Cambridge entails taking three modules from a wide choice that can be broadly categorised into six approaches to history: British social/economic, British political, European, American, world and political thought. In your second year, you choose a further two. There are some requirements: You must choose one British social/economic, one British political and one European paper, as well as one pre-1750 paper (though, there are ways to get around this) over both years. Each term, you study one of these papers, responding to an essay question per week. At the beginning of the week, you have little knowledge of the topic area, but through reading (and the occasional lecture), you are able to produce a 2,000-to-3,000-word essay by the end of the week, on which you are then supervised by an expert in the field. The roughly six lectures you have per week serve to fill in the gaps that your reading does not cover and provide broader overviews of running themes. Although I have ‘Preliminary Examinations’ on these papers after Easter of my first year, it is only the five three-hour exams (for each of the papers) at the end of my second year that contribute towards my final class. So far, I have studied:

British Political History 1880 onwards – Covers the high political dynamics and decisions of Prime Ministers from Gladstone, through to Churchill, Thatcher and Blair. A focused paper, spanning short time scales, and requiring a decisive and opinionated approach. Owing to an abundance of written and visual sources, the topics of this paper feel incredibly pertinent and of immediate relevance to current affairs.
European History 1440-1760 – Surveying broad chronological and geographical swathes, yet simultaneously emphasising the role of locality, this paper deconstructs key historical developments, such the renaissance, the enlightenment, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the scientific revolution and the witch craze. The challenging, yet incredibly rewarding, job of the historian is to understand the mentalities of early modern people, often requiring analysis of visual and material sources. Informed by a rich historiography, the debates of this paper are constantly evolving in fascinating directions, making this paper my personal fave so far!

Additionally, first-years take a Themes and Sources paper that directly engages with primary materials in a series of seminars. I chose a paper on utopias throughout time that examines how authors envisioned the ideal society, the role of religion, the state and the individual, and what their purpose in writing was. Discussing the evolution of how authors imagined utopias over time has been one of the highlights of the course for me. Throughout the three years of my degree I will also take a Historical Argument and Practice paper, covering the range of historiographical approaches, from environmental to oceanic to cultural history. This will give you the understanding of historiography necessary for studying your other papers.

3. What is your favourite part of the course?

Certain Pros
o Very independent course – I can control when, where and how I work. I can even choose what essay questions I write and the articles I read. Great training for further study!
o I can focus on one topic at a time – Each term is structured around one paper and each week is structured around one essay.
o This course really trains you to be a great historian that can contribute new ideas to the discipline. The emphasis on historiography and the breadth of chronology and geography covered in papers makes for a fascinating course!

4. What would you improve about the course?

Potential Cons
o Very independent course – low contact hours, most of my week is spent studying alone, requires a lot of self-motivation.
o The first two-years are classed solely on examinations
o All historians choose different modules so I rarely get the opportunity to collaborate or share ideas with others

5. What do you plan to do after you graduate?

Overall, I am very glad I chose to study history. After I graduate, I am considering either continuing to post-graduate study or applying for the Civil Service Fast Stream and perhaps pursuing a career in social research.