What’s it like doing a history honours?

History honours student Francesco Di Zazzo


I’m Francesco Di Zazzo, a Bachelor of Arts (History) (Honours) student at Flinders University, and would like to share my experience while I wait (frantically) for my grades to roll in…

How my passion for history developed

I’ve always been a bit of an old soul. The History Channel was always on at the Di Zazzo house. My parents used to take me to museums as a kid and I would just get all wide-eyed and they would inevitably lose me for the entire day.

I am also a pretty curious person so history gives me the perfect opportunity to explore how the world works and understand human nature.

What made me do an honours degree

Honours was always a necessary step in the right direction for me. As someone who is looking to pursue a career in history, this year was my first opportunity to really sink my teeth into research and write on a topic that truly fascinated me.

During my undergraduate at the University of Adelaide, I would pick and choose courses that were designed to be broad and expansive. Honours gave me the chance to truly focus intently on one historical area and learn about it inside and out.

Why I switched to Flinders

Funnily enough, this was a decision that was five years in the making! My mum has been cutting Dr Andrekos Varnava’s hair since I was in high school, and he kept tabs on my progress through my undergraduate degree.

Andrekos got me into contact with Dr James Kane, another lecturer at Flinders who broadly specialised in my historical area. What is more, James wrote his PhD at a university in England that I have always dreamed of studying at, the University of Cambridge.

We grabbed coffee towards the end of my undergrad and started building good rapport. The next year I decided to make the move to Flinders. So, thanks, mum!

Inspirational academics

All the history honours teachers I had were extremely knowledgeable people whom I learnt a lot from. I especially enjoyed Dr Evan Smith’s Critical Theory class. One thing I admired about Evan was his inclusive teaching style.

In class, he would bring all the tables together, crack dad jokes, allow students to direct the class with their questions and always tried to simplify the complex theories we explored. I hope to emulate his style (and jokes) when I teach my first classes.

My honours project

My honours project focused on Early Modern Italy, specifically 16th-century Florence. It explores the lives of Duke Cosimo I de Medici and Duchess Eleonora di Toledo and how they used art as a manifestation of authority and prestige.

I have always been inspired by this period and the era’s profound connection between art and politics. For Cosimo and Eleonora, art was inextricably linked to power and influence in their Machiavellian world. They used it to craft a semi-divine image of themselves and their duchy from the early 1540s to the 1570s.

Their story gave me an excuse to just stare at amazing Renaissance paintings and statues all day – not a bad way to spend the year!

Top 5 expectations people have of a history honours degree + the actual reality of it

Let me tell you it’s not what you’d expect:

  1. Expectation – You will spend all your time lost in the library.
    Reality – The library’s online database will be your saviour. There is an endless supply of digitised sources so you can achieve a lot just from your laptop.
  1. Expectation – You will spend the entire year writing your thesis.
    Reality – For me, the writing part took up significantly less of my time. What I spent most of my time doing was ordering books from interstate, reading key chapters and consolidating ideas, theories, and arguments.
  1. Expectation – You need an excellent memory to remember dates and events.
    Reality – Take it from someone with the memory of a goldfish – this isn’t true. Understanding historical events and their implications is far more important than what year William the Conqueror set sail for England.
  1. Expectation – You won’t get a job out of history.
    Reality – Again, untrue. Past Australian Prime Ministers have arts degrees. Famous journalists studied history. You can work in museums, archives, schools, universities, trusts and agencies with a history degree. Also, there is nothing wrong with learning for the sake of learning, life is too short to not follow your curiosities.
  1. Expectation – You’re not smart enough to write an 18,000-word thesis.
    Reality – Yes you are! Forget the imposter syndrome and just dive into the research. The more books you read, the more your confidence will grow. Take extensive notes and discuss these ideas avidly with your supervisor. Pretty soon you’ll know so much about your period that you become the expert in the field.

Francesco Di Zazzo

My average day as a history honours student

You awake in the morning after a blissful dream and then reality dawns on you that you have an entire chapter to write in a couple of weeks’ time. Racing to the kitchen, you have your (first) coffee of the day and hop into your car to make the odyssey to Bedford Park.

On the way there you blast Eye of the Tiger determined to get this thesis done and dusted. You attend class and share survival stories with your fellow classmates, realising that they are the only people in the world that truly know your struggle.

You drop by your supervisor’s office for a pep-talk and to hear those three magic words: ‘we’re nearly there!’ You walk into the library, collect your document-delivered books and strut out 10 kg heavier.

You get home, two-minute noodles at the ready, and dive into your stack of books. You spend hours just lost in your topic and contemplating what it would be like to be a time-traveller…

After making a decent amount of progress, you shut away your books and decide to treat yourself. Chocolate, Spotify, podcasts, running and the gym become your best friends.

You crash to bed, but you’re still in a caffeine-induced high, so you spend the night dancing to 70s disco music in your room.

Extracurricular activities

As mentioned above, I love running. I honestly don’t think I could’ve gotten through those intense study periods without some sort of physical activity.

I am also an avid music fan. I play the guitar and probably have a serious Spotify addiction. There were many nights in which Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Fleetwood Mac and John Mayer got me through it all.

My advice would be to not give up on your hobbies when you’re writing your thesis as they are necessary and enriching outlets for you.

Top tips for prospective honours students

  • Look after yourself. It’s not wasting time if it’s building morale.
  • Don’t do what I did and start research for your thesis halfway through the year. Order your books at the library early so you aren’t still waiting for them while writing.
  • Sign up for a gym if you can and incorporate physical activity into your routine.
  • Don’t get addicted to caffeine.
  • Pick a topic that you are obsessed with.
  • Lessen your hours at work when you hit thesis crunch time.
  • Remind yourself regularly that it’s a privilege to dedicate a year of your life to learning.
  • Listen to your favourite music when it all gets too much.

Where to from here?

As things stand, I am taking a gap year from study. Five straight years of intense study can take a toll on you, so I think I’ve earnt a break! The plan is to spend the year learning Italian, fitting in a bit of travelling and pursuing my hobbies.

I will then apply for masters overseas and work towards a career in history lecturing. Although I have not finalised a PhD topic, I do like the idea of building off my honours thesis. Duke Cosimo and Duchess Eleonora’s story was an absolute joy to study and unpack. Their art, statues, and buildings still determine the Florentine cityscape today, yet they are relatively underappreciated in the Renaissance discourse.

My ultimate dream is to one day teach in the great city of Florence. Its history and culture have totally charmed me and there’s no looking back now.

Keen to do an honours degree yourself?

Read up on which honours opportunities Flinders has to offer.


Author: Francesco Di Zazzo

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