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What to expect when studying humanities

If you're interested in studying a humanities degree but aren't sure what it involves, we've got the information you need with everything from entry requirements to curriculum structure.

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When evaluating your potential study options, it’s always useful to get a sense of what a programme or course may look like in practicality. Sometimes it can be hard to imagine or visualise when dealing with a subject area that has a large number of specialisations. This is certainly the case for the humanities, which is often described as a ‘general degree’. Such descriptions can be misleading however and don’t provide the detail you may need to make an informed decision. We decided to do some research for you to find out what you can expect when studying for a humanities degree as an international student.


What exactly are ‘The Humanities’?


In a nutshell subjects in the humanities are geared towards the critical study and interrogation of the human experience. This encompasses aspects of culture and society, from language through to history. The humanities cannot be described as a discipline in and of itself, but rather a broad term used to describe a field of enquiry.


When pursuing a subject in the field you’ll be making use of critical and analytical methods to explore key parts of human expression. What makes subjects in the humanities field diverge from that of science-based subjects, is both the content and the fact that an empirical methodological approach is not generally used.


However, the line can be slightly blurred when it comes to social sciences, which are often described as using both methods common to science and the humanities. They are often grouped under the humanities banner, subjects such as psychology and sociology. However, this may depend on the country in which you choose to study and individual institutions.


What are the entry requirements for a humanities degree?


For entry onto an undergraduate humanities degree, you will need to have achieved a good pass in your high school diploma, A-Levels or equivalent. If you are applying to study abroad it’s recommended that you verify the transferability of your qualification for entry.


Qualifications in the humanities will also require you to demonstrate a good level of English language proficiency and submit an English language test score. This may differ according to university or course, however, a general rule of thumb is an IELTS score of at least 6.0 with no individual section lower than 5.5 or a TOEFL score of at least 60.


It is possible to study a pre-sessional English course, pathway programme or foundation course that gets you up to speed with the academic requirements of degree study, including the English language requirements. It’s also a chance to get to know some of the subject matter you’ll be studying for your degree.


What sort of subjects are there in humanities?


If you choose to pursue a degree in the humanities there are a wide variety of subjects on offer. It can seem overwhelming, but what can help is the broad division of the subjects into key areas namely languages, literature, arts, philosophy, and history. You may also find that social sciences subjects are grouped alongside these core categories under the description of social studies. Some of the subjects you may study in a humanities degree include:



Remember that during the course of your degree you will have the opportunity to study more than one subject and so can find your niche as you develop. This can be in the form of a major or a professional degree. You’ll likely need to have a good idea of which subjects you would like to major in or if you want to continue towards a professional degree in a subject.



What can I expect to study in a humanities degree?


Institutions may have variations as to how they structure a general humanities degree, however, there are some commonalities. The most well-known degree in the field is a Bachelor of Arts, which is a three-year course of study. In your first year, you’ll need to complete several pre-requisite subject modules to progress.


Depending on the university, this will likely be between three or four subjects/modules. What you’ll find is that there will be a mandatory course/s embedded in the curriculum alongside subjects that you will be able to select, which should be a subject you wish to specialise in.


After your first year, you’ll progress to studying two to three subjects, which will be a combination of the areas that you have chosen to specialise in and possibly a broader subject choice. Universities always recommend that by your second year you should have an idea of what you want to major in as this will influence your postgraduate options and potential study route.


Your third year is the final and most demanding of your studies, with a narrowing and specific focus on key subject areas. You’ll be expected to demonstrate a comprehensive and detailed knowledge of your chosen major subjects.


A humanities curriculum is designed to develop several essential skills, including those that employers value, including:


  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Information analysis
  • Research
  • Professional competencies



What about postgraduate options?


Once you have completed your undergraduate degree in humanities, either a three-year general qualification or a four-year professional degree, you have the option of specialising in a subject area by pursuing an honour’s degree. In the majority of cases, your honour’s qualification will be in an area of specialisation from your undergraduate degree, providing continuity and a deeper focus.


However, it is also possible to pursue an honour’s or postgraduate degree in a related subject not the same as your major, as long as there is an overlap and strong foundation between the two. With humanities subjects, you can find a transferability and multidisciplinary dimension. For example, if you undertook history as a major subject you may be able to pursue politics for your honours, as both subjects draw on a similar corpus of knowledge.


There are also a significant number of avenues you can pursue in the humanities for master’s and doctoral degrees. These are however often much more focused than what you may be used to at undergraduate and honours level. They may be a combination of research and coursework or could be purely research-based. 


You’ll work much closer with academics and lecturers, including a supervisor.  With a postgraduate degree in humanities, you’ll be wrestling with the finer details of a subject, developing new ideas and trying to contribute to the field.


Now that you have a better idea of what’s involved in a humanities degree you can also read about some of the careers graduates pursue after completing a humanities qualification, the most popular humanities degrees and how to match your study and career ambitions.

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