July 3, 2020

Why study an ‘ab initio’ subject at university?


An ‘ab initio’ subject is, by definition, one that is studied from the very beginning. Such courses do not directly follow on from school subjects, however some have areas of significant overlap with A-level subjects. Many ab initio courses are offered at university and include amongst others: Medicine, Law, Engineering, Biochemistry, Archaeology and Anthropology. They tend to be vocational, meaning graduates often end up in jobs related directly to their course.

Throughout school, the subjects one studies are largely chosen for you. There is a certain amount of choice at GCSE and much more so at A-level, nevertheless you are limited to the confines of the classes offered to you by your school. Since primary school, students are taught subjects like Maths, English, History, and Science, usually at least once a day. These are, by and large, picked for you as part of your ongoing educational trajectory. There is something liberating about choosing to move outside of these well-defined and regimented areas. Granted school subjects vary and evolve as you move up the ladder of education, however, the prospect of stepping into the unknown and out of a subject-oriented comfort-zone is exciting.  It shows a certain amount of curiosity and courage to choose to study something at university that you have not encountered before. For me, choosing a ab initio course was an opportunity to move away from the subjects which I found to be in a sense, a little stale and sterile by the time I had completed years of schools exams. I was immediately enthused by the fresh reading and material offered up by the new and exciting course I chose.

Starting university is the first real opportunity you have to study something a little off the beaten track, and different to what the majority of your peers are doing. It is not just the novelty of studying a new subject that is appealing, but also the relative uniqueness of these courses at university. In general, ab initio subjects have smaller intakes. At Oxford University for example, both the English and History departments accept over 220 students every year. In contrast, subjects like Archaeology and Anthropology as well as Classical Archaeology and Ancient History both accept around 20 students or less each year. The thrill of doing something a little different to others was palpable amongst my classmates doing ab initio subjects and each individual had the opportunity to shine. 

From my own experience, I found it wonderful doing a course where the student body was small. The teaching experience was, I imagine, somewhat different to those students studying more popular subjects (when I say ‘popular’, I mean in terms of numbers, not in terms of how well regarded they are). The environment of my course department felt very encouraging and nurturing and I was given academic support not just by tutors but by many others in the department, including other students and post-graduates, which I found to be highly beneficial and reassuring.

It is understandable why thousands of students every year chose to study mainstream courses like History, English and Maths, since they are undoubtedly fantastic subjects. However, my aim is to encourage those of you who are unsure what to study, as well as those who are seeking novelty in their academic lives, to make that leap towards a clean slate and subject you have never studied before.