James wrote this at the end of his third year of History here at Christ's College, Cambridge. He is from Ipswich, Suffolk in the east of England, and studied English, History and Philosophy, Ethics & Religion for his A-levels.
How did you choose to study History?
I think I was always leaning towards History, not only because it went well at school, but because I enjoyed the work it involved. The only other real contender was Philosophy, but to my mind, the course seemed too granular, with all its deeply specific musings. What appealed about History, especially at Cambridge, is that the course content is incredibly wide-ranging – in my time studying, I went from Emperor Augustus to 20th-century health reform; if you choose to, you can do a grand sweep of millennia.
Personally, I didn’t feel that there was any dramatic difference between History courses at different universities. Most seem to follow the same general structure of breadth in the first two years, followed by specificity in the third year. So in my case, it wasn’t necessarily the course detail which made or broke my choice of universities in the end.
Why did you choose Christ's?
I chose Christ's in part because I met a really lovely tour guide! It was also the right size, and in the right place – close to both lecture halls and Sainsbury’s. I was struck by a real sense of community at this College too. In fact, I was originally considering another College, but ultimately it seemed a little too small, and perhaps a bit insular, while Christ’s seemed to offer just the right sort of atmosphere.
It’s definitely worked out in the three years I’ve lived here. Everyone’s been really warm, and it’s a very vivacious place; there’s so much going on all the time! From freshers' pantomimes to mock-Olympics and Hunger Games, there's always something to do. It is a whirlwind in Christ’s, but a great one!
"It is a whirlwind in Christ’s, but a great one!"
What advice would you give sixth formers considering History?
I suppose the main thing is to show that you are interested and genuinely enjoy History beyond your taught curriculum. Whether that's going to a museum, taking part in an essay competition (like Trinity, Peterhouse, St Hugh's Oxford, to mention a few ), or just looking at the history of the places you visit when you’re travelling on holiday – there’s history all around you. Read outside the textbooks – try and look at new topics that interest you. All of that will show that you’re actually enthusiastic and engaging in the subject beyond what is called for at school.
For general overviews of content, Cambridge itself does a whole series of texts on basically everything, ranging from Latin American economics to religious reforms. While they’re always quite weighty, they can be good as a fairly abstract non-partisan study to dip into. Although you by no means need to read cover to cover, they might prove useful to flick through and gain a rough understanding of a new area.
What was being in the final year of the course like?
It could be rather melancholy, because it was a lot of ‘last things’ – whether that be on essays, society events or socials, but it was exciting as well! It became a bit more intense in Easter term, I suppose necessarily, given that it’s your finals, but Christ’s really kept up a community feel throughout. It was different to previous years, I suspect because the time for extra-curriculars, in my mind, was primarily the first and second years. That was the period when you could apply for everything in the Freshers' Fair (where there are stands for all the different societies and clubs), whereas in third year those activities fell away. The degree itself became more central to my time at Cambridge than it had previously been.
What papers did you study this year?
You study five papers in third year, first and foremost of which, for me, was my dissertation. It ended up being on an extraordinarily niche topic, examining this Indian proto-nationalist in mid-19th century Bengal who wrote a travel journal while wandering the countryside. Since no one else has really written about the guy, I suppose I’m technically now the world expert! Interesting too, because my speciality was on the fields of ‘Empire and Nation’ where he, as a subject of the British Raj, was at the cross-section of each of those things, and an intermediary between them.
Another paper explored Latin America, which I adored for its remarkable fast pace – there’s always a lot going on. I also studied Victorian Political Masculinities (about men in parliament), which is really interesting. It was another facet of why political agents ultimately acted why they did, and the influence of masculinity on policy outcomes.
What was the most enjoyable thing that you worked on this year?
Hmm, I’d have to say my dissertation, just because it really is a chance to do something unique. The whole concept is you have to contribute to an area of study, so not only are you building off the ‘shoulders of giants’ as it were, but you're also pushing the field forwards and trying to approach your own conclusions. Whilst of course you’re encouraged to consider or challenge world experts and consensus views throughout your degree, I’ve never felt more legitimate in doing so that in my dissertation. You really build a strong case to engage with these titans of historical study, and it’s so exciting!
"Not only are you building off the ‘shoulders of giants’ as it were, but you're also pushing the field forwards and trying to approach your own conclusions."
Was your timetable different to previous years?
You essentially design your own timetable for History since there aren’t that many contact hours – the supervisions make up the bulk of your study, but a lot of it is independent reading. In the first and second year I did organise things differently because I did a lot (perhaps more than would be advised!) of extra-curricular societies, whereas in third year my study rhythm became focused on curricular work. Of course, there’s no single way to be a Cambridge student, and I would imagine that the timetables of others would look very different.
In first year things were… hectic. As a result, every evening I would usually write out all the things that I had to do and try to fit them into my timetable, working out how important they were and sorting them. The main thing that makes up the bulk of the work for History is the weekly essay, so you’re always trying to allocate time to reading the texts, planning the argument, and then actually writing the essay. The main thing that changed in planning terms for third year is that I became a lot more efficient at reading. Whereas in first year, I was trying to read texts cover to cover and getting nowhere, you learn by third year that you can flick through books, pull out what’s important and extract the information more efficiently. You know your own abilities better and so you are able to more specifically organise the work you are doing in your day. That makes quite a difference.
"The main thing that makes up the bulk of the work for History is the weekly essay."
Have you been able to manage a reasonable balance of work and other things you wanted to do?
I would emphasise that we all have different approaches to these things and different needs and preferences. In first and second year I think, mine was a manageable balance and I’m incredibly glad I did as much as I did, but work did probably take a back-foot to the extra-curricular stuff I was doing. I’m content that was the case, because those extra-curriculars were incredibly important to my time here, deeply enjoyable and were some of the activities I wanted to get engage in at Cambridge. In third year, the balance definitely became more manageable because I had more time. I was able at that point to restrict my non-work timetable to the things that were relaxing, whether that be running or going dancing, rather than extra-curriculars representing tasks to plan for in themselves.
How did you approach exam revision?
Exam revision can seem daunting. The important thing is just that you plan well in advance, that you remain aware of the days you have available and, all of a sudden, it becomes a little less formidable because you know it will fit into the time you have. You know when particular tasks are going to be dealt with. It also offers a level of satisfaction, as you get closer and closer to the end. The problem with revision is the lack of any sense of completion. Unlike with an essay, it’s a job which technically could go on forever. Keeping track of the days, and your activities for each of them, is the best way to resolve that. Although third year was more stressful than I had found in previous years, I did manage to stick to my plan, so even if there was a rocky moment or too, as there may well be for everyone, I managed to get through!
What have you most enjoyed about your time at Christ’s?
Probably my time in the JCR: I was on the students union for all three years, (I was fortunate enough to be the president in second year!) and it was just an enjoyable thing, because you’re basically working for your friends, providing enjoyable things for them to do and trying to improve their student life. There’s also the political aspect of things: I quite enjoyed the contrast with debate. I did some debating at the Cambridge Union (university-wide debating society) so it meant that it incorporated all the things I enjoyed. I was also on the committee with all my friends as well, which all meant it was quite an enjoyable exercise.
The pastoral care in College has also been really great; my tutor in particular was ever-available if the need arose. You meet at the beginning and end of every term, and if I was ever feeling a bit down or a bit uncomfortable at the way things had gone, they were always there to address it and pull the right levers to make sure those problems were addressed.
Where is your favourite spot in College?
In the Fellows' Garden you can get quite a lot of peace and quiet. There’s a bench right the end, just past the mulberry tree, which no-one ever seems to pass by. It's so serene that whenever there were moments in Easter term where everything got a bit too stressful, that was a place of serenity that I could visit.
Although the College doesn’t seem that big from the outside, there’s a lot of nooks and crannies where one can go to relax. It honestly feels like you're in the countryside – the walls of the garden are so thick you can’t really hear any outside noise, so it’s just you and the squirrels in there.
I was really also lucky with my room. I lived in Staircase C, a Second Court room that was superb - there’s a double bed, big kitchen, and an ensuite, which is the dream. Not to mention a fantastic view of Second Court, leafy trees and all. I shared the corridor with some great friends too!
Did you enjoy the time after exams?
Yes! I attended the Christ's May Ball, which was amazing, and also the Emmanuel June Event, which my sister joined me at. Such wonderful events. It’s a really nice counterbalance to exam term – it's work hard, play hard– you get to really let your hair down (if I had enough hair to let down) and enjoy yourself.
Looking back over your time at Cambridge, what do you feel like you have gained from being here?
Oh so much! I suppose it’s the case with any university, but with Cambridge in particular, it’s three or four critical years of your life. Those years encompass such important developments - of your character, your academic understanding, and your political views of contemporary problems. All of those things, both in the faculty and beyond, are challenged and expanded at Cambridge. In my experience, all of my friends and I have come out feeling more confident people, more sure of ourselves, and more ready to face the world after university.
"In my experience, all of my friends and I have come out feeling more confident people, more sure of ourselves, and more ready to face the world after university."
What are your fondest memories?
Ah you’re going to make me feel melancholy now. One highlight would be an afternoon in the summer of second year, following the end of exams. My friends and I went out punting to Granchester, full picnic and all, not a care in the world. The pollen floating by, which they called the ‘summer snow’, created this beautiful setting which still comes to mind so well.
Is there anything you would change about how you tackled life here?
This is an interesting question, because I often hear people saying that they regret that they never did this activity, that paper, or some society. They say that they regret not taking in all Cambridge had to offer. The trick here is that Cambridge has an impossible breadth of experiences to offer. Ultimately, as long as you plan to a reasonable degree, whatever activities you did pursue are just as valuable as any other. Taking a lie-in instead of going for that 6am run is just as legitimate an experience of the place. It’s all part of the university experience, and you shouldn’t necessarily regret missing out on some small facet or another.
What will you miss most about Christ’s?
The people. Perhaps that’s the obvious choice, but there’s a reason why everyone says it. It’s such a diverse mix of talented, kind, and exuberant folk. Following graduation, they’re all off to the corners of the world, and it might be some time until I see some of them again. I'm going to miss them more than anything else.
What support is there at Cambridge for careers?
Cambridge career support is excellent: the Careers Service are an absolute godsend. Amongst other things, they have expert advisors for every employment sector, and offer mock interviews for specific roles. I was initially looking at the consulting sector and finance, and though ultimately I didn’t go for it, they supported me through every step of the way. For example, they provide records of interview questions previous Cambridge students have experienced at whatever specific firm you’re applying to, and all the difficulties they encountered. It all accumulates into a massive advantage when you’re going into a competitive interview situation.
Do you have any plans for what you’ll do post-graduation?
There's quite a range of what the historians in my year are doing, one is going off to be a musician, another's going into journalism, some are continuing with academia, whilst others are taking a year out just to muse on the future. One was even the founder of an explosively popular memes page and is heading out into public relations, since it was the best way he thought he could turn memes into a career!
I’ve joined the civil service - in October I’ll be beginning my time with the fast-stream grad scheme, the first of several rotations of placements. In August they’ll tell me where my first role is, and what department I’ll be working with. Until then I have no idea: it’ll be an adventure!
"I’ve joined the civil service - in October I’ll be beginning my time with the fast-stream grad scheme."
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