MA in Biography

Entry requirements: Please see the entry requirements tab below 
Full or Part-time: Full-time, Part-time
School: School of Humanities

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Course outline

This cutting-edge programme is unique to Buckingham. A course with wide appeal, it is aimed at anyone who has an interest in biography or in researching and writing biography for themselves. The varied mix of backgrounds and interests that students bring to the course, the experience and commitment of the programme director and the friendly small-group setting allow a lively, enjoyable and intellectually rigorous exchange of ideas. Graduates have gone on to publish their own books, and to win prizes. Some have embarked on further research for the MPhil or the DPhil in Biography.

When it was founded in 1996, the Biography MA was the first of its kind. Since then Life Writing has become part of the postgraduate menu, but the Buckingham course has kept its distinctive edge. Unlike most Life Writing degrees, it is not linked to Creative Writing, and there is a strong emphasis on research and historical biography. The programme is consistently rated ‘excellent’ by external examiners and inspectors.

Course structure

Students have a choice between following the taught MA, or opting for the MA by Research. The taught MA gives an opportunity to produce written term papers on a variety of topics as well as a dissertation of up to 20,000 words. Students accepted for the MA by Research are required to produce written work which includes an extended dissertation of up to 40,000 words. All students produce coursework for the Research  Methods module: an annotated bibliography and a short biography, with supporting material, produced according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography format.

Guest seminars on the course are led by leading biographers, critics, publishers and agents. Teachers and speakers on the course have included Andrew Motion, Kathryn Hughes, Frances Wilson, Frances Spalding, Jeremy Lewis, Rupert Shortt, Caroline Dawnay, Andrew Lownie and Miranda Seymour.

Research support

One of the distinctive features of the programme is the value attached to the supervision which is provided for students working on dissertations. One-on-one supervisions are held every two or three weeks during term. While the dissertation must be the candidate’s independent work, it is the supervisor who offers advice on refining the topic (if necessary), on primary sources, on secondary reading, on research techniques and on writing the dissertation. Regular group discussions between research students at all degree levels (MA, MPhil and DPhil) allow the exchange of research experiences and mutual support.

Programme director

Professor Jane Ridley founded the Buckingham Biography MA in 1996. She is an Oxford-trained historian and biographer, and her publications include The Young Disraeli (1995); The Architect and his Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens (2002), which won the Duff Cooper Prize; and Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (2012), for which she was awarded a research fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust. She has contributed widely to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and she is a regular reviewer for publications such as the Spectator, the Literary Review and the Times Literary Supplement.

Watch a lecture by Professor Ridley on “The Thrills and Spills of Writing Biography”, given to the Swan and Pen Literary Society in June 2013.

Modules available on this course

All students on the MA Programme – both taught and research – are required to attend the weekly seminars, as are MPhil and DPhil students in their first year. These classes are one of the most distinctive and valuable elements of the MA and take place as follows:

The modules on Biography and Autobiography are designed to combine the study of classic biographies and memoirs with contemporary writing. In addition, the Research Methods module provides an invaluable and innovative training, especially devised for biographers.

  • Autobiography
  • Dissertation
  • Research Methods
  • Special Paper in Biography

Full information in the University Handbook

Recent news

Entry requirements

The minimum entry level required for this course is as follows:

  • a first or second-class honours degree from a recognised university or,
  • a recognised professional qualification with relevant work experience

Mature students

Age is no barrier to learning and we welcome all applications from suitably qualified students.

International students

We are happy to consider all international applications and if you are an international student, you may find it useful to visit our international pages for details of entry requirements from your home country.

The University is a UKVI Tier 4 Sponsor.

English levels

If English is not your first language, please check our postgraduate English language requirements. If your English levels don’t meet our minimum requirements, you may be interested in applying for our Pre-sessional English Language Foundation Programmes.

Selection process

Candidates apply online, sending in their supporting documents, and will be assessed on this basis by the Programme Director.  The Programme Director or Admissions Assistant will be happy to answer any enquiries.


Claire Prendergast

Humanities Research Secretary

Read more →

Terms and conditions for prospective students

When you are offered a place at the University you will be notified of the terms and conditions between the University and students on our courses of study. When you accept an offer of a place on the course at the University a legal contract is formed between you and the University on the basis of the terms and conditions outlined in your offer letter. Your offer letter and the terms and conditions contain important information which you should read carefully before accepting any offer. Read the admissions terms and conditions > >

Quality teaching

We offer high quality, traditional Oxbridge-style teaching, which leads to our degrees being recognised around the world. The standards of degrees and awards are safeguarded by distinguished external examiners – senior academic staff from other universities in the UK – who approve and moderate assessed work.

High calibre staff

Most of our academic staff teach for three terms out of four, with the remaining term used for research. Because of this, we have no difficulty in attracting high calibre, highly respected lecturers, many of whom also have a background in business or industry and can offer networking opportunities for students.

Teaching methods

Candidates spend a considerable part of their studies undertaking supervised research, at the end of which they submit a thesis embodying the results of that research. This thesis must demonstrate familiarity with, and an understanding of the subject, its principal sources and authorities. It should display critical discrimination and a sense of proportion in evaluating evidence and the judgements of others. The subject should be dealt with in a competent and scholarly manner.


Teaching takes place at the Art Workers’ Guild (
6 Queen Square
+44 (0)20 7713 0966


The course offers entry points in September and January and runs for a calendar year if taken full-time. Teaching takes place on one day a week over three terms running from September to December, January to March and April to June; the term from July to September is devoted to independent research. The programme may be followed part-time over 2 years. In the first year part-time students follow the taught courses and the second year is normally devoted to the dissertation. Suitably qualified students with a major research topic in mind may be accepted for the higher degrees of MPhil (two years full-time/four years part-time) or DPhil (three years full-time/six years part-time).

Graduate employment

We have a high graduate employment rate, The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) ranked Buckingham top for graduate employability with 98.1% in July 2015.

Our graduate prospects are excellentOur graduates have gone on to further study at most of the world’s leading universities, including Harvard, London, Oxford and Cambridge and secured jobs in senior positions around the world. Among our alumni we have a graduate who became the head of his country’s civil service and one who became a leading Formula One motor-racing driver. Another secured a position as the Minister of Sabah and one female law graduate became the first British lawyer to become a French Advocate.

What our students and alumni say

“I came across an advert for the Biography MA, one afternoon, whilst idly trawling the internet at the magazine publishing house where I was working. I had graduated in English from Bristol University in the previous year. Though the magazine work was interesting, it was the research that interested me most and I was desperate to write something longer than 100 words. I eventually decided to do an MA but I didn’t want a course that just felt like a continuation or a development of my first degree. So when I saw the advert for the Buckingham course I was immediately intrigued. As an avid reader of biographies I was excited by the prospect of studying the history and development of biography writing and, more importantly, by the opportunity to write a biography of my own, under the guidance of a respected and prize-winning biographer.

“I was not disappointed by my decision. Very early on I decided to do the MA by research so that I could write a larger dissertation, rather than as a taught course with a number of smaller assignments. In 2007 I was upgraded to MPhil because of the quality and extent of my research. And in that year my biography was shortlisted for the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize.

“Jane Ridley is incredibly friendly, knowledgeable and supportive. As a published biographer she knows the business of writing and publishing biography inside-out and as a historian she encourages thorough research, good writing and an academic engagement with the subject. My fellow students were a fascinating mix of people, both younger and older and from all walks of life. The course has given me access to agents, publishers and many well-known biographers. I am so glad that I made the decision to study Biography at Buckingham, I now have a book that I’m hoping to publish. The course is fascinating and I would strongly recommend it to anyone wanting to do an MA, but one that’s a little bit different to the rest.”

Anna Thomasson

“After twenty years in the Army, I set up a ships’ crewing business to employ the Gurkha soldiers with whom I’d served. I settled for a while in Buckingham and took the MA in Biography from 2001-2002, attracted by the course’s unique melding of history and literature. Highly stimulating and great fun, the course offered a perfect balance of theory and the study of an eclectic range of biographies, giving students scope to study subjects of their choice. I found the dissertation subject I had chosen was of such interest that I carried on with the research after gaining the MA and turned it into a book. This, The Butcher of Amritsar, a life of Brigadier Reginald Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, was published in 2005.

“The Biography MA gave me the tools to launch out on a career as a biographer: the theoretical framework; a knowledge of the major biographical figures, texts and techniques; an exposure to British research resources and an introduction to agents and publishers, one of whom published my book. Above all, it gave me a thirst to write.

“As a result of launching my book in Hong Kong, where I now live, I was invited in 2005 to become a moderator for the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, and am now a member of the Festival’s Authors Committee. I review regularly for the online Asian Review of Books and occasionally for other journals. In 2008, with others, I founded and still chair the Hong Kong Tongzhi Literary Society, a group dedicated to the fostering of local literature in both English and Chinese. I am still writing, and am now working on a life of Leslie Cheung, a hugely popular Hong Kong film and pop star.”

Nigel Collett

“Bernard Shaw once remarked that youth is wasted on the young, and much the same can be said for education. I managed a Third Class degree in English from New College, Oxford, and then spent thirty years properly educating myself in preparation for an MA in Biography at Buckingham. Where there had been stress, here was pleasure, where there had been intellectual pride, here was genuine curiosity, where there had been tortuous essays on Donne, here were enjoyable bibliographies to compile.

“Jane Ridley’s gently sardonic approach, combined as it is with an understated rigour and first rate academic proficiency, makes the course agreeably sociable as well as intellectually stimulating. Indeed, in many ways it is perhaps as close to a Platonically ideal notion of what being at university is for as it is possible nowadays to get.

“I applied in order to be made to write about my father, Huw Wheldon; this was initially a need, not a want, but the unfailing support and encouragement I received from Jane and from other tutors (and fellow students) made it less an act of piety than an act of literary endeavour (though I hesitate to go so far as to say an act of scholarship).

“I heartily recommend this course to anyone with an interest either in themselves or in someone else: it will demonstrate that biography is not simply a way of seeing an individual, but is also a way of seeing a world.”

Wynn Wheldon

The tuition fees quoted are for the degree (e.g. if you start a degree at Buckingham in January 2017, you will pay the same termly fee for the duration of your degree – you will not be affected by the price increase in September 2017). Fees are normally paid in termly instalments.

Postgraduate loan scheme

A new system of postgraduate loans for Masters degrees in the UK will be introduced from 1 August 2016 with support from the UK Government. The loan will provide up to £10,000 for taught and research Masters courses in all subject areas. The loans can be used for tuition fees, living expenses or both.  Find out more >>

Postgraduate first class scholarship

From July 2015 a first class scholarship will be available to both home and international students following a taught postgraduate degree at the University. The scholarship will reduce tuition fees by 33%. The scholarship will be automatically awarded to applicants who already have a first class honours degree that is recognised to UK standard.

Details of other scholarships can be found on our main Bursaries and Scholarships page. You should make an application to study at the University and receive an offer letter confirming our acceptance of your application before applying for a scholarship.

You may also find it useful to visit our External Funding page.

*The University reserves the right to increase course fees annually in line with inflation linked to the Retail Price Index (RPI) to take account of the University’s increased costs of delivering educational services. If the University intends to increase your course fees it will notify you via email of this as soon as reasonably practicable.

Due to the mode of study on this course you will not normally need a room in University accommodation during your degree.

However, if you require short-term accommodation in Buckingham we would be happy to provide a list of local bed and breakfast or hotel accommodation. Alternatively, please contact our Accommodation Office for advice.

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