Personal Investigation

What is the Personal Investigation?

The Personal Investigation is a 4,000 word essay, which must be entirely your own work and the bulk of which will be completed in your own time. It is a great opportunity to explore a topic that you are familiar with in more depth, to investigate an entirely new area, or to consolidate your understanding of an outline paper topic.

Personal Investigations are designed to test the transferability of the skills that you have learned on the outline paper and in the Special Subject. With that in mind:

  • Supervisors must NOT take in any drafts of part or whole of the PI for marking or correction (it must be the candidates own work and a declaration will be required to that effect)
  • Supervisors can read essay plans and discuss your work/listen to short sections of your writing
  • Pupils should not ask their friends and/or relatives to check through their work (this might lead to disqualification)
  • Pre-U Personal Investigation Guide
  • PI Mark Scheme

Identifying topics

  • Your topic MUST NOT be linked to your Year 13 Special Subject – you should check with your teacher what they intend to cover
  • Your topic CAN be related to what you have studied in your Outline papers
  • This is a great opportunity to focus on your favourite period in history, or to explore new ground
  • It is better to avoid topics which cover a very long historical period (depth is preferable to breadth)
  • The best topics tend to be those that represent a synthesis of something which interests you, of which your teacher has knowledge and where sources are abundant. Topics that don’t meet those criteria are less likely to be viable.
  • Topics that deal with the significance of or the role of an individual or particular event within a wider process tend to work well. Most topics tend to be concerned with causation or with significance.
  • If you are completely stumped, ask your teacher. Another possible source of inspiration might be the Teacher Guide for Pre-U which lists all of the topics on the outline papers – which cover most viable topics. 9769_History_Teacher_Guide_2016-2018

Formulating a question
After you have identified a topic that interests you the next most important task is to formulate a question.

  • The following question formulations will encourage a balanced argument, analysis and critical evaluation: ‘how far/to what extent/how important/how successful’; or ‘how convincing is the argument/how accurate is the view/how valid is the judgement’.
  • Your title should be in the form of a question (avoid the words ‘Assess, Account for, Explain’)
  • It is wise to avoid conspiracy theories (e.g. identity of Jack the Ripper, assassination of JFK)
  • A title with a ‘why’ can work but can, rather too easily, lead to a list of reasons (How is Elizabeth I’s decision not to marry best explained?’ is better than ‘Why did Elizabeth never marry?’)
  • Particular care needs to be taken over military subjects where candidates can all too readily be led away into descriptive accounts of campaigns or battles rather than examining explanations for success or failure.
  • Once you have chosen a question you need to complete an Outline Proposal Form. This must be done electronically. Your Proposal Form should include bullet points of main themes and a potential bibliography – see example.

Writing the outline proposal form (OPF)
At this stage your teacher is able to give you maximal help. Make sure you use it! The outline proposal is important for giving you a sense of direction. The advice you receive from your teacher at this stage is important as is any advice you may receive from the chief examiner. The Proposal must:

  • Contain your question – preferably framed as ‘How far’;
  • Outline the debate on the topic (preferably in one substantial paragraph with two sections structured as ‘on the one hand… On the other hand…);
  • Identify your initial bibliography;
  • Identify your special subject.

Finding sources
Do not neglect Wikipedia! Whilst you should avoid citing it in your bibliography its pages are often very helpful for identifying key sources and even outlining debates. Some Wikipedia articles are hard to beat for detail too. This is one of the most valuable and helpful resources at your disposal.

The best texts to begin from are:

  • the Hodder (used to be Hodder and Stoughton) Access to History series.
  • Oxford University Press A very short introduction to series
  • Cambridge Seminar Series
  • Oxford Very Short Introductions

Primary sources are also freely available on the web. See for example:

Finding articles –
JSTOR is a useful resource for finding secondary sources (and sometimes primary sources as well). Many primary sources are available on the internet – and can be found using a generic search tool like google. More specialised websites are listed on this blog under the ‘Web’ menu. This is being added to all the time.

Don’t forget History Today. Ask your teacher about the institutional access.

A quick guide to finding sources can be found here

Collecting notes and Referencing
Having identified and read your sources, it is important that you keep your notes carefully organised. Use an A4 ring binder and a notebook to help you. Keep a note of page references as you go along so that as you take notes you can refer precisely to the place you got the information or argument.

It is important that your footnotes and bibliography look professional.

The writing process
The most important skill a historian can have is being able to write. If this is a problem area then it is well worth investing time and energy on this. More resources for this can be found in the blog under the Essay writing tab.

Approximate timescales

  • October half term – 1st draft of OPF
  • Christmas holidays – practice PI (topic to be decided by department)
  • April/May – Complete and submit OPF
  • Summer term – 1st draft
  • September – Revised plans
  • October – Revised plans
  • December (start) – penultimate draft
  • January – Final Deadline

Submission cover sheet

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