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Humanities: The Ultimate Subject Guide

Humanities subject guideThe humanities are one of the most important, yet often underrated, fields of study. Humanities subjects encompass a wide range of disciplines including history, philosophy, religion and art. A comprehensive understanding of the humanities is essential for developing a well-rounded perspective of the world. 

This guide will introduce you to the basics of humanities subjects and provide some resources for further exploration. If you're considering pursuing a degree in the humanities, this guide is a great place to start. 

Humanities: a brief history

The humanities and Europe have a long, illustrious history together. Today, this can be seen through their universities’ worldwide rankings. The top two universities in the world for Philosophy and History are both European (in fact they’re both in the UK, being Oxford and Cambridge Universities according to the QS World University rankings). Many of the universities have been around since the Medieval period, meaning institutions like the University of Oxford in the UK, the University of Bologna in Italy, or the University of Paris in France have been teaching their subjects for over 800 years! 

But where does this excellence come from? Europe has long been seen as the centre of the world for many of these subjects – we have Greece, the birthplace of Philosophy, Rome, home of the Vatican, and where better than to study English Literature than the home of the language itself? Europe is where people such as Voltaire, Kierkegaard and Kant were born and educated, where the remains of the ancient cultures that historians study can be found, and where Shakespeare’s works can be seen performed on their home turf. Europe is full of opportunities to study humanities at a postgraduate level, no matter what your subject.

But enough about Europe... What exactly is a ‘humanity’, and why would someone study it? Generally, humanities are defined as the branches of learning that have a cultural character. Any subject that covers, in some way, human culture, can be considered a humanity.This includes the history of art, classics, history, literature, performing arts, philosophy, theology and even anthropology.

What are the humanities? 

At its core, the study of the humanities is about understanding and interpreting the human experience. The humanities approach subjects from an interdisciplinary perspective, examining how different facets of society interact with one another. A deep understanding of the humanities can provide invaluable insights into our culture, our history and ourselves. 

The disciplines that fall under the umbrella of the humanities can be divided into two broad categories: arts and sciences. The humanities arts include fields such as music, theatre, and visual arts. The humanities sciences (sometimes known as social sciences) include history, philosophy, religious studies, law, and many other areas of study. 

Humanities subjects

Generally, if a discipline explores what it means to be human, it falls under the umbrella of the humanities. Humanities subjects include, but are not limited to:

  • Humanities subjects – PhilosophyForeign languages

  • History

  • Philosophy

  • Literature

  • Archaeology

  • Anthropology

  • Human geography

  • Law

  • Religion

  • Performing arts (theatre, music and dance)

  • Visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography and filmmaking)

 

The importance of studying humanities subjects

In our increasingly globalised and technologically-driven world, it's more important than ever to study the humanities. The skills gained from studying the humanities – such as critical thinking, communication, and analysis — are essential for success in any field, making a humanities-based degree extremely useful and versatile. 

A comprehensive understanding of the human experience can help us build empathy and compassion for others, two qualities that are essential for creating positive change in the world. One of the things that makes the humanities so unique is that they allow us to see the world through different lenses. For example, by studying history, we can gain a better understanding of how people in different cultures have interacted with each other over time. Similarly, by studying literature, we can get insight into how authors from different cultures and eras have viewed the world around them.

Outside of the academic world, there are many advantages of postgraduate study of the humanities. The amount of commitment and work expected of you at this level of study is more than expected during an undergraduate degree, and employers will respond accordingly. That, and having a postgraduate degree in the humanities will equip you with a whole host of skills – including, but not limited to the ability to engage with new ideas quickly, to consider and organise information, and to be able to reason your way through difficult situations. 

So why choose a humanity?  Some people choose it simply to continue studying a subject they loved dearly at an undergraduate level – others are excited for the chance to specialise.

Outside of the academic world, there are many advantages of postgraduate study of the humanities. The amount of commitment and work expected of you at this level of study is more than expected during an undergraduate degree, and employers will respond accordingly. That, and having a degree in the humanities will equip you with a whole host of skills – including, but not limited to the ability to engage with new ideas quickly, to consider and organise information, and to be able to reason your way through difficult situations.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the specific subjects that fall under the heading of ‘the humanities’.

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Skills you’ll gain from studying a humanities subject

A postgraduate degree in the humanities can open up a lot of doors for you, both professionally and personally. Here are just a few of the things that you might gain from studying the humanities:

  • Specialist knowledge in your subject area
  • Improved communication skills
  • Greater critical thinking skills
  • A better understanding of different cultures
  • A deeper insights into your own personal values and beliefs

 

Of course, this is just a small sampling of what you might gain from studying the humanities. Ultimately, what you take away from your studies will depend on your own interests and goals. 

How to get started in the humanities 

If you're interested in pursuing a degree in the humanities, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Firstly, programs at different universities will have different areas of focus, so it's important to find a school that matches your interests. Secondly, because most programs require students to take courses in both arts and science disciplines, it's a good idea to explore different subjects within the humanities to figure out which ones you're most passionate about before committing to a specific program.

Humanities Ultimate Subject Guide

Study a humanities subject

Art    Classics      History      Literature   Performing Arts    Philosophy    Religious Studies

History and classics

Classics and History both involve the study of the past, but they do differ in their approaches. With Classics, you’ll be focused on the ancient world – often the Greeks or the Romans – and you’ll immerse yourself in their languages, mythologies and literature, as well as studying how their world worked. With History, you’ll study a wider range of societies (though you’ll still specialise) using a variety of sources, interpreting records and using critical thinking to assess current theories of the past.

Postgraduate history courses

Literature

Literature is the study of the written word, including drama, poetry, prose and more. You’ll look at how literary works vary along with the societies that produce them, consider the language itself, and cover important intellectual movements such as postmodernism. Studying in Europe will give you a chance to look at English Literature in the places that spawned it, and allow you to truly grasp the culture it comes from.

Postgraduate literature degrees

Philosophy

Philosophy comes from the Greek ‘philosophia’, meaning ‘the love of wisdom’ – it addresses questions such as ‘what is consciousness’, ‘how can we tell if something is moral’ or ‘what is belief?’. It has a systematic, rational approach, and in studying it you’ll look at both the history of how philosophical concepts came to be and the concepts themselves. It’s a broad subject, touching on politics, science, and art, and it’s one that has a long, ingrained history in Europe – starting all the way back with Plato, in Ancient Greece.

Postgraduate philosophy degrees

Theology and religious studies

Theology and Religious Studies are slightly different, and so you should consider what areas you are most interested in when trying to make a decision. At a postgraduate level, theology is very often the study of Christianity, and it can be taught in both a pastoral (i.e with the intention to lead into working in the church) and general way. You’ll look both at the texts, the history and modern conceptions of Christianity. With Religious Studies, the field is far broader – it will cover many religions and even the general idea of religion itself. It is much more the study of religions, than the study of an individual one. In particular, you will be less focused on ideas about the object of faith, and more focused on the religion as a whole.

Postgraduate theology degrees

Postgraduate religious studies degrees

Performing arts and theatre studies

The term 'Performing Arts' covers a very broad area, including theatre, dance, music and all sorts of other things. In general though, studying performing arts or theatre studies will allow you to consider the history and methods behind your chosen area, to hone your craft, and to learn about the social impact of these areas. There will be a mix of practical and theoretical elements, and it will allow you to understand your craft at a much deeper level.

Of course, these subjects aren’t the only areas you can study. Each university will have a variety of different courses included in their humanities department – for some, you’ll also see anthropology, the history of art or music. These, and more, are among the humanities subjects offered by many European universities today.

Postgraduate performing arts degrees

Visual Arts

The most significant part of a masters in Visual Arts will normally be a final project to be completed and presented at the end of the postgraduate course. Students will work throughout the one or two years of their course conceiving, refining and constructing their project; they will receive tailored tutorials to help their project and will be expected to produce progress reports throughout the course. Visual Arts students can specialise in one of several areas of the visual arts, including: Fine Art; Animation; Photography; Film; Digital Media; and Games Design.  

Postgraduate visual arts degrees

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What is involved in a humanities postgraduate degree?

Humanities subject guideNow that we’ve looked the humanities in the abstract, let us turn to more concrete things – namely, just what a postgrad degree involves. Firstly, what types of postgraduate degrees there are? There are masters degrees, both taught and research. A taught master’s is like an undergraduate course with exams, regular classes, lectures and so on. It will also include a dissertation, although sometimes you can skip this and get a Postgraduate Diploma instead.

A masters by research is far more like a dissertation overall – focused around producing a thesis with the help of a supervisor. These generally take a year or two full time, longer part time, to complete.

After this, there are PhDs. For a PhD, you research a topic under an academic supervisor with the intent to produce a thesis of around 100,000 words. These generally take three to four years full time, or up to six part time.

How are humanities subjects taught?

If you choose to do a taught masters, your learning experience will be similar to an undergraduate course but do not expect it to be exactly the same. There is far more reliance on independent study, and the freedom of topic choice can often seem overwhelming. For a research degree, these points are even more important – you will be writing on a particular area of study, and, over the course of the degree, working with your supervisor to come up with something interesting and well-researched. A challenge, certainly, but a worthwhile one.

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Tuition fees for humanities courses

Next, the fees. As this article is attempting to cover most of Europe, the figures here will not be too explicit but they are intended to give you an idea of just what to expect. In the UK, the average fee for postgraduate study is around £8,740, though this can differ across universities for home students.

As for the rest of Europe, many countries do not charge EU students – Finland, Greece and Norway are examples of this. Some charge per semester – for instance, German universities are around €500 a semester. Others have registration fees, rather than tuition fees. As you can see, the expenses are varied. Bear in mind, this is only the tuition fees – there are also living expenses to accommodate! There is funding available, though much of it will require a lot of research to find. Some notable examples are scholarships given by individual universities, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (the AHRC).

To get an understanding of how to fund your humanities program, check out our postgraduate funding guide.

Entry requirements

Thirdly, the entry requirements. These will, as with the fees, vary from university to university, but generally they require a 2.1 or equivalent, or some professional experience in the area. It’s best to look at each course individually to find out. As the courses are taught in English, you are also required to either have an IELTS scores of 6.5–7.0 or equivalent, or to have done your undergraduate degree in English.

Career prospects

A degree in the humanities can open doors to many different careers. A humanities degree can prepare you for a wide range of jobs in fields like education, business, law and more. Here are just some of the many careers you can pursue with a humanities degree.

  • Social worker
  • Teacher
  • Business owner 
  • Lawyer
  • ​​Government roles
  • Non-profit sector roles
  • Public relations
  • Social media
  • Writing and editing
  • Recruitment
  • Advertising

 

If you find studying a postgraduate degree only makes you love your subject more, you may consider moving into academia – either with further study, teaching or research. Still, if you’d rather leave the academic life behind, you’ll find a postgraduate degree prepares you for anything involving some level of knowledge of human culture – governmental work, advertising, or law. You could move into museum work, start up a business or go into publishing. The skill sets gained during a postgraduate degree are broad enough that you could apply them to many fields, and be successful.

With a postgraduate degree in the humanities, the possibilities are vast.

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What humanities students say

Humanities studentRachel, a Classics student at the University of Cambridge, says,  “By the end of the course, I will know more about [her topic] than pretty much anyone else, other than a small handful of experts. That makes it worth it.” 
​​​​
Humanities studentLorna, a postgraduate student at university in Sweden, says of her course,  “You are surrounded by interesting people, often in a more international atmosphere than at undergraduate level, and all of you are in some way or another at a juncture in your life which makes for an important learning experience both inside and outside of the classroom.” 

Humanities studentAndrew, a Theology student, describes his course as,  “...combining both teaching and research, by providing regular tutorials and seminars in the first two terms, then giving me the independence to work on a 30,000 word thesis on any topic within the field that particularly interests me.”

Humanities studentRachel, a Classics student, says, “The independence is dizzying...and the nice thing is that the freedom, while terrifying, is also so liberating.”

Humanities studentCatherine, who did Area Studies, says,  “I knew that a number of options would open themselves up to me as a result of doing the master’s, making new contacts and writing a dissertation.”

Humanities studentTim, a Theatre Studies student, explains,  “The greatest benefit [of doing postgraduate study] has been the mind-broadening aspects of the degree rather than the content itself: I've learned about the breadth of different forms of art, as well as the use of art in other spheres of life, and I didn't realise how lacking my knowledge of British history was before. I've also acquired some transferable skills, like assessing my own skills and academic writing.” 

Conclusion

If you're considering studying the humanities at university, hopefully this guide has given you a better sense of what to expect. The humanities are a vast and diverse field of study that can be both immensely challenging and immensely rewarding. So if you're looking for an educational experience that will broaden your horizons and help you develop as a critical thinker, then the humanities may be just what you're looking for.

 

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