MPhil in Modern British History

Crowds gather on King’s Parade to hear the 1897 vote to admit women to the University


The MPhil in Modern British History offers students an exciting and intellectually stimulating course, combining research skills and in-depth understanding of the development and latest innovations within modern British history. At its core, the Mphil provides the opportunity to shape your own intellectual trajectory and questions through undertaking your dissertation in consultation leading historians in the field. The tailored, individual and closely supervised dissertation work is complemented by the importance placed in the course of group work and the creation of a supportive intellectual community. You'll emerge with excellent skills for undertaking advanced research, and a degree that will be highly valued in institutions across the world. The advanced research and writing skills gained will also be of immediate use in a wide variety of occupations.

British History at the University of Cambridge combines the study of the individual polities and nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland with the study of their interactions with one another, with the European Continent and the British Empire. It draws on established strengths across the Faculty in political thought, political history, economic history, social and cultural history and global history to consider Britain’s modern experience in the light of these broader geographical and analytical perspectives.

The MPhil in Modern British History offers taught courses and a dissertation over a 9-month programme.  Students take three courses in the first two terms – a common core course focusing on historiographical debates and thematic approaches, and two optional courses, including several comparative options, which allow students to develop their interests and/or contextualize their dissertation research.

The 15–20,000 word dissertation is the centrepiece of the course, and will be planned and undertaken through close work with your supervisor. Regular supervisions will enable the identification of key questions and ideas to address, as well as archival sources and a sense of the wider significance of your research. The supervisor will be chosen prior to admission according to your research interests, and will assist you throughout the course to make the most of the very full intellectual resources that Cambridge can offer.

Follow the Mphil in Modern British History on Twitter to find out more about our exciting work and what our students are up to: @CamModBrit

At a glance

All students will submit a thesis of 15,000–20,000 words, worth 70 per cent toward the final degree.

Students also produce three 3,000-4,000-word essays, two in Michaelmas term and another in Lent term; each essay is worth 10% of the final degree grade.

All students admitted to the MPhil in Modern British History will be assigned a supervisor to work with them throughout the course, but crucially on the dissertation. Students will meet regularly with their supervisor throughout the course.

Students can expect to receive:

  • regular oral feedback from their supervisor, as well as termly online feedback reports;
  • written feedback on essays and assessments and an opportunity to present their work;
  • oral feedback from peers during graduate workshops and seminars;
  • written and oral feedback on dissertation proposal essay to be discussed with their supervisor; and
  • formal written feedback from two examiners after examination of a dissertation.

If you have any questions, drop us a line on

Victoria Bevan
Victoria Phillips
MPhil student in modern British history
The MPhil provided a unique scholarly environment which allowed access to weekly research seminars within the Faculty and inspired my own research interests.

Aims of the Course

  • offers students who have completed degrees in which History is the main or at least a substantial component the opportunity to consolidate their knowledge of modern British history. It is particularly appropriate for those who may wish to continue on to a PhD, at Cambridge or elsewhere, in modern British history.  It is also well-suited for those who seek simply to explore modern British history at a deeper level, and to develop generic independent research skills drawing on the unique resources that a specialism in modern British history offers.
  • immerses students in an extremely rich and plural historiographical landscape. Formerly rooted in the nineteenth-century quest for a national political history, and for long fixated on Whig narratives of the rise of liberty and democracy, modern British history has more recently diversified along the lines of identity categories such as class, race, and gender, but also novel analytical perspectives privileging religion and spirituality, the role of ideas and new educational movements, migrations and transnational exchanges, new understandings of selfhood, the body and emotions.
  • draws on the unique range of expertise available at the University of Cambridge, with literally dozens of postdoctoral scholars available to advise and supervise research.
  • trains students in the use of the printed, manuscript, visual and oral sources for the study of British history, drawing on the collections of the University Library, the Churchill Archives Centre (which holds the private papers of 600 key individuals in modern British history including Winston Churchill, Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher), nine world-class museums and over 100 other libraries and archives in Cambridge.
  • provides an opportunity for students to undertake, at postgraduate level, researching and writing a piece of original historical research under close supervision by an acknowledged expert, which for many students will provide the gateway to publication.
  • exposes students to the full range of intellectual and professional experiences that can be provided by Cambridge’s very extensive historical community, including over thirty specialist research seminars that meet weekly or fortnightly, plus interdisciplinary forums such as CRASSH (the university’s centre for humanities and social science research) and tailor-made opportunities for outreach and dissemination of academic research, including work in digital humanities and multi-media.

 By the end of the programme, students will have acquired:

  1. a firm grasp of the historiographical debates in Modern British History;
  2. research skills relevant to the specific area in which they will have written a dissertation;
  3. the ability to situate their own research findings within the context of previous and current interpretative scholarly debates in the field.

The Course

Course Outline and Schedule

There are five components to the MPhil in Modern British History:

  1. core course
  2. first option
  3. second option
  4. dissertation

Core Course: Debates in British History

The core course is designed to introduce students to some of the major historiographical questions that have shaped the study of modern British history. Each class will invite you to think about important themes, classic texts, and the current state of the field. The course will present you with a range of different methods and approaches to studying the past, and will help you to contextualise your own specialist research in broader historiographical contexts. A subject specialist will lead each seminar, and students will be expected to read the assigned texts and contribute actively to the seminar discussions.

Topics for 2019-20

  • The making and unmaking of the British union since c. 1700
  • The First Industrial Nation
  • Liberalism and its Limits
  • The rise and fall of 'separate spheres'
  • Political participation and the social order in 20th century Britain
  • The Impact of Empire
  • Welfare and warfare in twentieth-century Britain

Core Course: Research Challenge in Modern British History

This programme of fortnightly workshops in the Michaelmas Term, plus a Lent Term project, aims to introduce and develop some of the key skills of historical research. Through seminars and group work, all MPhil participants will explore the ways in which modern British historians might identify and use sources of diverse range of types, as well as reflecting on what makes for excellent historical writing and analysis. The Lent Term project will further encourage the group to reflect on the ways in which historical research might engage and be communicated to different audiences.

Topics for 2019-20

  • Historical Analysis
  • Great Academic Writing
  • Building a Research Base and Using Your Sources
  • Hands-On Session at the Churchill Archives Centre
  • Exhibiting the Past

The Research Challenge will offer archive and field trips, and students will be expected to actively contribute through presentations and discussion.

Option Courses

Each year, our papers change; here are a sample of options run in recent years.

Britain in the nineteenth century was a society transformed by astonishing population growth, spectacular urbanisation, unprecedented migration and the development of mass print culture. At the same time, older political, intellectual and religious structures were fundamentally recast in new moulds as Britain moved towards mass enfranchisement and religious equality. Simultaneously, the British struggled to manage the forces unleashed by new global rivalries and interdependencies. At times the pace of change seemed overwhelming, and it demanded new institutions, new ways of living and new ways of thinking about the self. Historians of ‘modern’ Britain might understandably point to those changes as signs of ‘modernity’.  And yet in the twentieth century ‘modernity’ came to be defined as a rejection of nineteenth-century responses to each of these developments. Twentieth-century observers associated ‘modernity’ with a turn against nineteenth-century politics, social policies, religion, literature, and architecture – all were condemned as non-modern and were pejoratively labelled ‘Victorian’. So what do we mean when we speak of ‘modern’ Britain? Is ‘modernity’ a meaningful concept? This course examines a number of areas in which nineteenth-century Britons were conscious of breaking with the past as they remade their society, and thereby seeks to explore what it meant (and means) to be Victorian.

This MPhil option will focus on the intersection of, and interaction between, ways of knowing about human beings and society in twentieth-century Britain and patterns of social hierarchy and authority from the late nineteenth century to the present. The course will address general questions about the practice of intellectual history, as well as about the relationship between the history of ideas and the wider social, cultural, and political history of modern Britain. The relationship between intellectual expertise and other kinds of authority – political, cultural, familial, and so on – will be a central concern.

All seminars except the last will be based on the discussion of assigned readings. The first two classes will consider some general frameworks for thinking about social stratification and authority in modern British history, and for approaching intellectual history. The main body of the course – five seminars – will then consider a series of case studies in the history of social thought and social knowledge in modern Britain. In the final class, participants will present their work for the assessed essay to the rest of the group.

This MPhil option aims to introduce students to a range of methodological and critical approaches in the history of gender and sexuality, through examination of a series of case studies spanning roughly 1850-2000. Through seminar debates and examination of sources, students will explore how questions of gender and sexuality have been framed, approached and presented in recent scholarship. This option will provide a strong grounding in some emerging and innovative fields of historical inquiry, including queer history, parenting and childhood and histories of war. The two opening sessions will look at theoretical developments and ways of framing the history of sexuality and of feminism. A further five classes will explore different facets of the history of sexuality and gender, and a final class will allow students to present their assessed work ahead of submission.

Where were the boundaries of the British state between 1800 and 2000? Who was deemed to ‘belong’ within its bounds? Territorial acquisition, trade, tariffs, migration, slavery and war all recast the limits of the polity. Attending to these forces has, in turn, transformed the practice of British history. The result has been a series of disciplinary ‘turns’ – imperial, transnational, global, postcolonial.

Focusing especially on the history of race and empire, this MPhil option will introduce students to some of these historiographical debates and in light of recent calls to decolonise and diversify what counts as ‘British’ history. The course will be centred each week on class discussion of recently published scholarship at the cutting edge of the field. The final session will offer an opportunity to reflect on the term’s reading with a discussion of the promises and pitfalls of studying modern British history in a ‘global’ frame.

Core Course: Debates in Modern British History (weekly class x 8 weeks)

Option 1: (weekly seminar x 8 weeks)

Dissertation research and supervision

Assessment & Dissertation

Part I

Each of three modules in Michaelmas and Lent  (one Compulsory Core, and two Options) will require a 3,000-4,000 words essay (or equivalent).  Each will count toward 10% of the final degree mark, for a total of 30%.  Taken together, these are Part I, and students must receive passing marks in order to move to Part II.

The Research Challenge is compulsory but does not count towards the overall mark.

Students will also prepare a 2,000 word dissertation proposal essay due in the Lent Term. This essay will be unassessed but students will meet with their supervisor to discuss the essay and get feedback.

Part II

The Dissertation or Thesis is Part II of the course.  Each student on the MPhil will prepare a thesis of 15,000-20,000 words.The thesis will be due in early-June and will count for 70% of the final degree mark.

An oral examination will only be required in cases where one of the marks is a marginal fail.

The Dissertation, or thesis, is the largest element of the course, worth 70% of the final mark.

Students are admitted to the University on the basis of the research proposal, and each student will be assigned a Supervisor who will support the preparation of a piece of original academic research. Candidates must demonstrate that they can present a coherent historical argument based upon a secure knowledge and understanding of primary sources, and they will be expected to place their research findings within the existing historiography of the field within which their subject lies.

All students should be warned that thesis supervisors are concerned to advise students in their studies, not to direct them. Students must accept responsibility for their own research activity and candidacy for a degree. Postgraduate work demands a high degree of self-discipline and organisation. Students are expected to take full responsibility for producing the required course work and thesis to the deadlines specified under the timetable for submission.