Hertford historians go on to pursue a very wide range of occupations, in politics, journalism, the civil service, teaching, the arts, the law, finance, research, charity... One Hertford historian is a professional party organiser, another is a jazz saxophonist. But as our former students explain, History at Hertford helped them, and continues to mean something to them, whatever they went on to do.
Views of former students
Alice Thornton (2008-2011)
I didn't choose History with career prospects in mind but because I enjoyed it. However it proved a lucky choice. I had always been interested in social issues and not only did I have the opportunity to study these in their historical context, but I also had the flexibility to get involved with tackling social issues in Oxford. I started volunteering with numerous community projects and encouraging other students to do more to reach out to people outside of the University environment. I learnt a huge amount in the process and my volunteering experience led directly to my first job in the non-profit sector.
I am now Policy and Research Manager at a medium-sized charity called Student Hubs, which supports more students to tackle social and environmental issues at university and beyond. I've found - perhaps paradoxically - that my degree has become more useful, the more my career has progressed. The experience of writing my undergraduate thesis (about the development of humanitarian thought in the 20th century) taught me valuable skills in research, and remains a key asset on my CV, demonstrating my academic interest in the sector.
Tom Brodie (2006-9)
I studied history as an undergraduate at Hertford and I enjoyed it so much that I stayed on to do a masters degree in 2009/10 and then a doctorate from 2010 to 2013. In 2013-14 I was a research fellow at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam and in 2014 I'm starting a lecturing post at Leeds University. For my doctorate I worked on the Catholic Church in Germany in the Nazi period. Now I’m working on the changing place of war in German religious, especially Protestant, culture. My undergraduate training at Hertford has served me in good stead as I have developed as a graduate historian; above all the encouragement to develop individual arguments, to defend a position in discussion and not to shy away from criticizing orthodox interpretations. This has helped me to feel comfortable presenting my research at a variety of academic conferences in the UK, Switzerland, Germany and the US.
Kaye Wiggins (2005-8)
I will always remember, during fresher’s week at Hertford, finding an essay question in my pigeon-hole. It asked me to analyse the military and financial policies of King John.
I had to start with the basics. “Who was King John?” I asked an equally terrified-looking fellow undergraduate.
There followed a week of (among more enjoyable freshers week pursuits) sifting through heaps of information, trying to find the relevant details and frantically – with a deadline looming – distilling them into what I hoped was a well-evidenced and well-argued piece of writing (it almost certainly wasn’t).
That weekly routine, which continued in almost exactly the same vein for the next three years, taught me to learn quickly, form judgements and construct an argument: vital skills in my job as a social affairs journalist now. More useful still, I learned to assert and defend those arguments during weekly tutorials with some of the world’s top academics. Once you can do that, there are very few people with whom you couldn’t confidently hold a conversation. Studying history at Hertford taught to be inquisitive, analytical and confident, and – perhaps its most valuable lesson – to challenge and question everything.
Kaye Wiggins is a senior correspondent at the Local Government Chronicle, where she writes about social policy issues including education, health, child protection and social care.
Tom Fletcher (1994-97)
A History degree from Hertford is about much more than the words a student is able to dredge up in the surroundings of the Examination Schools. It does not give the history graduate the ability to reel off dates or events, or the words to say something smart on an anniversary or when passing a monument. A Hertford history education is not all mouth and no trousers.
Instead it equips the student who seizes the opportunity to pursue to the maximum his or her talents. Through curiosity about the world; through healthy scepticism that questions and challenges orthodoxy; and through the confidence that comes from knowing that you have had the most rigorous intellectual workout yet designed for a three year degree. Hertford History tutors like a good argument, and they want their students to argue back. That’s why Hertford history graduates go on to pursue such a range of roles - from my era alone including politicians, spies, journalists, bankers, academics, mandarins, TV presenters, teachers, stand up comedians and entrepreneurs (some in more than one category ...). We have all gained that curiosity, purposeful scepticism and confidence.
In my case, the curiosity provided by a Hertford history degree has taken me to most countries in the world, and to homes in Nairobi, Paris, Beirut and beyond. The scepticism has - I hope - given me an independence of spirit when it comes to policy making, and a greater readiness to take risks. And the confidence has - I hope - helped me to challenge assumptions, and to take on roles I would not previously have contemplated. Hertford is no academic conveyor belt. Satisfaction in league tables always comes after satisfaction in other achievements. The Hertford History tutors have never sought to churn out androids. Their students’ academic success has never been because they were taught exam technique, nor the intellectual short cut. Hertford history students have instead been offered savvy judgement and rigour, with a healthy dose of humility. They answer back, and do not accept the world as they find it. Long may this be the case.
After Hertford (1994-7) Tom Fletcher joined the Foreign Office in 1997, and became Private Secretary for Foreign Affairs to Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and Foreign Policy adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron. When he took up his position in Beirut in August 2011 he was Britain's youngest Senior Ambassador. He was made a CMG in the 2011 New Year Honours.
Jeremy Quin (1987-90)
Nearly 25 years on from Hertford I work for Deutsche Bank combining a management position with occasionally advising the UK Government when it undertakes corporate transactions; the latter role is a natural follow-on from an interesting time spent as Senior Corporate Finance Adviser inside HM Treasury. My term coincided with the financial crisis: it’s a rare privilege to be a fly on a wall as history is made and I was extremely fortunate to see the crisis “close up”.
I wouldn’t dwell on the fact that historic analogies peppered the commentary on the crisis: many chose, in appropriately concerned tones, to reference the 1930s, occasionally the 1906 banking panic and even (for the well researched) the Overend and Gurney collapse of the 1860s. At one point a civil servant with considerably more stamina than most, in a rare break from immediate concerns, produced a discussion-piece chart showing national debt as a proportion of GDP going back to the War of the Spanish Succession. However no one would suggest that understanding seemingly analogous phases and past responses are prime benefits of reading history, far from it. Distilling detailed information from different sources; presenting that information orally and in written form that can persuade and carry an argument; thinking on one’s feet. All of which have provided powerful groundings. A syllabus that takes one outside the “known world” of recent British history, in order to appreciate the different attitudes of cultures separated by time or geography, is a broadening experience for a modern world in which peoples and forces far distant have extraordinary direct relevance.
Churchill, famously, was comfortable with how history would treat him on the grounds that he intended to write the history himself. As an individual who had a small part to play on a very large canvas, the most interesting aspect for me was that source of endless historic fascination – the interplay between huge forces and individuals. I was pleased and reassured to be able to conclude that whatever the great tides of history, at the end of the day people can determine outcomes.
Jeremy Quin (Hertford 1987-90) is a Managing Director in Deutsche Bank’s UK Management. He has worked for Deutsche and its predecessor organisations, primarily as a Company Adviser, since 1990. He served 2008-2009 on secondment as Senior Corporate Finance Adviser, HM Treasury. He has previously stood for Parliament as a Conservative candidate and retains political interests.
Carol Sennett (1982-85)
A degree in history is a wonderful launch-pad for a wide variety of careers. Three years of struggling with the competing claims of narrative and analysis, all the while making sure that the target audience (or tutor!) was engaged, was the perfect grounding for a career in television. But three years studying history at Hertford offered far more. In tune with Hertford’s long-standing commitment to broadening access, my cohort of Hertford historians was, with one exception, entirely female, and predominantly state educated. The tutorial system offered all of us, from the most diverse of backgrounds, the opportunity to engage one-to-one with the best minds in the world. I recall, with chilling clarity, one particular tutorial for which I arrived grossly unprepared, due to a forthcoming orchestral concert. The tutor calmly destroyed the entire premise of my argument with just a few well-chosen words. In the agonising hour which followed he forced me to defend an untenable argument about a subject I knew little about. In moments of doubt I still recall his closing words: “You can argue anything now”. He gracefully added that it was vitally important I continued working on my music. Hertford dons have a knack of seeing the development of an individual far beyond the purely academic.
And so it was the confidence and intellectual rigour, provided by a Hertford History degree that enabled me to pursue the career of my dreams in the audio-visual world of BBC radio and television. I have had the opportunity to commission and produce hundreds of hours of programmes in all factual fields. Those extraordinary three years at Hertford gave me the inspiration and the skills to help bring to life, for a mass audience, Macaulay’s dream of creating a history which is not only “received by the reason but burned into the imagination.”
Carol Sennett (Hertford 1982-5) is currently responsible for the acquisition of factual programmes for BBC Television. Her critically acclaimed credits include the Emmy-award winning series 1914-18. Carol had a strategic role in the launch of three BBC channels: BBC FOUR, and BBC HD and History, and shaped the European Commission’s policy on supporting archival-based programmes.
Ali Smith (1979-81)
Being a deadline junkie and sounding plausible: the world of essay crises and bluffing one’s way through tutorials is so close to journalism it’s a wonder all Hertford historians don’t end up in the trade. Reading history was great for any number of careers because the flexibility of the timetabling gave lots of scope to pursue other interests. “You need to be on parade for just an hour or two every week, but come prepared” pretty much captures it. Reading essays every week to a tutor was good for discouraging a pompous or florid prose style. History also provided lots of practice at matching information with the space available. For anyone who has ever summed up Aristotle’s political thought in a 45-minute essay or wrung every conceivable nuance from a tiny ‘gobbet’ of text, the prospect of writing any article to the length of the Editor’s choosing holds no fears. More important than any of these is this broader lesson: spending your time in any worthwhile occupation you enjoy is a desirable end in itself.
After Hertford (1979-81) Ali Smith became a Fast-Stream Civil Servant in the Home Office in 1982. Her Whitehall career included being Private Secretary to the Leader of the House of Commons. In 1989 she became a journalist at The Sunday Times. Subsequent roles at the Financial Times have included Political Correspondent, writing for the Lex comment team, UK Companies’ Editor and leader writing. She is currently the FT’s Chief Corporate Correspondent.