Academic Guidance Do history degrees need to have a focus?

Mar 2017
29
One of the Thirteen Colonies
I ask this question because when I first entered college and said I wanted to focus on history they asked me what I wanted to focus on, what period. I couldn't decide so I settled for a liberal arts degree and that's what I've been working on. But the strangeness comes when I talk to people one on one and mention that, they say a history degree doesn't need a focus, what is the truth here? Does it or doesn't it? I keep getting the runaround from my actual college so can anyone on here help me?
 
Sep 2012
1,121
Taiwan
At undergrad level you don't really need a focus per se, and getting a solid grounding in historical method and theory is probably better. No one expects an undergrad to come out of their degree being an expert in anything, so there's no real specialisation to be done at that level. But a focus on a specific area could give you an advantage for applying to certain jobs or postgraduate programs. Not essential, but potentially beneficial.
 
Jul 2017
187
Wales
At undergrad level you don't really need a focus per se, and getting a solid grounding in historical method and theory is probably better. No one expects an undergrad to come out of their degree being an expert in anything, so there's no real specialisation to be done at that level. But a focus on a specific area could give you an advantage for applying to certain jobs or postgraduate programs. Not essential, but potentially beneficial.
This is what I believe too. At undergrad, I studied for a BA (Hons) in History. Once I graduated, I decided I wanted to specialise in 18th Century History and moved onto an MA in that subject. So from my perspective, specialising isn't important until postgrad.
 
Jun 2017
3,034
Connecticut
No, they do not at least formally, although your thesis will probably be on a particular topic so you should try to become an expert/semi expert on something/a few things. If you want to continue historical studies after UG this will probably be helpful as well.

My advice would be to take classes about topics that interest you both because you'll get the best grades(which if you want to get into the best grad schools is important) and because you'll enjoy these classes more and learn more/potentially develop a specialty. I do not know if a formal historical focus is a thing, I know it wasn't where I went to UG but I guess if you're talking all your classes in one thing, you could be on a track(my Poli Sci program had this but it didn't really mean anything and wasn't even on my diploma) like European or American but I don't think it really matters and I think 99% of people you ask will agree.

I guess my argument would be whatever you write your thesis in would be your specialty of sorts. Sure plenty would disagree on that though.
 

Pedro

Forum Staff
Mar 2008
17,201
On a mountain top in Costa Rica. yeah...I win!!
Not necessarily; but the student needs to muster all the focus they can.
 
Dec 2011
1,304
That depends mainly on what kind of career one wants to get into. For a teacher, too much specialization might be counterproductive, to become an academic historian, it is highly advisable to focus from early on.
 
Jul 2010
1,374
N/A
I am the definition of a generalist. My area of focus at university was world history from a global perspective, if anything historical philosophy, and no that doesn't speak to the history of philosophers so to speak. I did my honors in cultural studies looking at the perspective of a specific subset of migrant populations. My other major at an undergraduate level was political science/international relations, the two areas are one. My minor area was English literature studies

I am a generalist researcher that knows lots of things about many and how to find out the rest about a particular subset of data as the case may need be. It does not really matter. Undergraduate studies do not particularly matter. It takes completing the foundations of a post-graduate degree (in my case honors in some cases masters) to even begin to have an intermediary say and your own voice on any particular matter anyway.

Undergraduate degrees in history are pretty much the foundations they give you to becoming a good researcher. What you want to do with those skill sets afterwards is entirely your choice.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,964
Blachernai
Take what interests you; you don't need to focus too early. That said, if you plan on going to grad school, at least think about the sort of things you might want to do so you can identify the needed languages and learn them ahead of time.
 

gladiatrice

Ad Honorem
Oct 2013
3,463
Montreal, QC
It depends what university you're attending. I'm at Concordia University in Montreal, and I'm enrolled in the Honours in History programme. Honours essentially demands that you have a certain focus that you'll pursue your third or fourth year, and they offer three streams of Honours to get into: H. with Essay, H. with Seminar, or H. with Public History (internship). I'm doing my H. with Essay, which means that I have to decide on a focal point in history and then consult with the professor whose expertise is in that era. After taking various classes on historiography, writing, and methodology, I'd write my essay on whatever topic I chose. Since I'm doing my essay on either the sociopolitical and religious atmosphere in London in the late 1670s-1680s, the so-called "Glorious Revolution", or something else on either Charles or James II, I'd be working with the Early Modern European professor.

That was rather rambling, and I apologize for that. The short version would be it totally depends on the university that you're in.
 
Jul 2010
1,374
N/A
Honours is a bit different, of course you need a focus for a thesis because by its very nature it is the question that you are going to attempt to address or the question you are going to put out there for discussion.

I should warn you that if you intend to get a good mark for your thesis that you should have a well defined question you're seeking to address otherwise your thesis has the possibility of turning into directionless ramblings. It is very difficult at an honors level to master the skill of an open ended thesis to the point where most supervisors simply wont allow you to do one.

I would suggest when you meet with your supervisor that you reduce your discussion area down to a single focal point and then choose a question within it. I most recently saw some walk across the stage for the honors with a straight pass (C Level grade). I don't want to sound snobbish but that kind of grade for an honors thesis that is supposed to show your academic ability to future potential supervisors is not really worth it.

As a result he will have to go on and do a masters degree if he wants to go any further. The point of a good honors grade is to go directly from honors to a PHD. As an A level equivalent student under the US/Canadian model I really can't reiterate how important it is to have a good first step, and how time consuming it can be if you don't jump that hurdle.