History PhD- advice very much appreciated

(37 Posts)
R2PeePoo Tue 30-Oct-12 12:02:58

I graduated from St Andrews in 2004 with an MA (2.1) in Ancient History. I was desperate to do a PhD but at the time it wasn't possible and I ended up being a trailing spouse following DH around. I did another two 9 month courses with the OU (Health and Social Care in 2005 while I was pregnant with DD and Child Psychology in 2007 when we lived abroad), both times I got the equivalent of a first. DS was born in 2009 and his high needs meant I couldn't continue, but he is well enough now that this is no longer an issue.

Now there is a possibility to do a fee waived PhD and to be honest I am terrified. I have been a frustrated SAHM for eight years and I have always assumed that a PhD was completely out of reach, suddenly this possibility has just appeared from nowhere.

I read about 8 books a week, mostly social history and I would choose to do a PhD on some aspect of this, but have now got to the point where I have been asked to submit some interests and my brain has gone completely blank. I'm also concerned about the workload and the travelling (90 mins on the train/tube means I'd probably only be able to get to the university once or twice a week to tie in with finances and childminders etc. DH travels too much to be a reliable source of childcare and family can't help) and part of me is worried I have been away from academia too long and have lost all of my skills. This is such an amazing opportunity but I could do some some advice from those who know what they are talking about.

TunipTheHollowVegemalLantern Tue 30-Oct-12 12:17:38

OK well if you have the opportunity, seize it with both hands.

Your skills might have atrophied a bit but you will get them back and add new ones developed in your SAHMing (including really crucial ones like time management).
You do need to sit down and be very honest with yourself about how many hours a week you can manage. If it's less than 20 you probably aren't going to get this done; 20-40 you need to be looking at part-time. A full-time PhD does mean a full-time equivalent workload.

Getting to the university once a week would generally be fine though it will be important to arrange it so you can get to seminars etc so you don't miss out on being part of the research community. The internet makes a big difference these days, both to communicate with lecturers and other students, and to access library materials. A lot of your library work can actually be done from home anyway. Archive work now sometimes involves a quick raid to photograph documents with a digital camera, rather than weeks sitting in the archive. Though you will need to take this into account when choosing your topic and make sure you're not going to eg depend on a lot of primary sources you can't photograph or need to travel to.

Is this an opportunity with a specific department? If so, your choice of topic is going to depend to a large degree on what the people there can supervise. I would start off by looking at their research interests and seeing if anything strikes any chords with you. Also, of all these many books you've read in the last few years (the fact that you have read so many sounds promising, btw) which ones excite you most?
You're going to have to put a lot of work into narrowing down your topic before you start. I would recommend having at least some idea before you even approach potential supervisors. They're not going to be impressed by someone coming along saying 'I want to do social history but I don't know what' - you need to show more focus than that.
It can be done though! Don't panic!

Hope this helps smile

R2PeePoo Tue 30-Oct-12 12:43:47

Thank you so much for replying, the opportunity came through today and I am just a whirl of emotions. I have probably a week or so to decide to accept the opportunity or not.

DD is in school fulltime and DH suggested a salary sacrifice on childcare vouchers so DS would go to nursery three or four days a week (or more if necessary), so I could probably manage part time, maybe full time. I have family and a DH who would be happy to take the DCs away for a day or a week regularly (but only in school holidays for the family and DH can only do it when he is physically there). I have a great deal of spare time in the evenings that I currently use to read in (7-11pm most nights which is how I get so much reading done) as DH travels a lot.

Yes its a specific department at a specific university. I have had a look and there are three or four staff members whose interests match mine. I'm interested in women's history - their lives and experiences. I am interested in those who lived outside conventional society - the mentally ill, the disgraced, the experiences of nuns, the prostitutes etc and those others who found the courage to break expectations (such as explorers) . I'm also interested in the daily life of the 'ordinary woman' of all classes (but less so the upper classes), her tasks, chores, divisions of labour and how they were seen by society. I also am fascinated by female experiences such as menstruation, courtship, marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause and death and the social expectations and constructions built around them including the use of cosmetics and perceptions of beauty. Finally I'm also interested in laws specifically governing social behaviour and how they affected society e.g. the law said that women couldn't have custody of their child before 1839, but to what extent did men actually deny women custody of their children across the classes. I would say that the time period I am interested in has moved from ancient history towards Britain from 1700 onwards.

GrendelsMum Tue 30-Oct-12 13:52:44

It sounds like a great opportunity - my only concern (and I may not be right in this) is that your ideas sound very broad at the moment, and presumably you'd have to have a much more concrete proposal before you did your PhD.

I've also been told by people doing part-time PhDs that the field tends to move on very substantially over the course of your 6 years, or so, and something that was quite new when you started can be a bit old hat by the time you've finished, so you have to make an extra effort to keep abreast of the field, papers published, papers given at conferences, etc.

This sounds amazing, you should definitely go for it. To me you sound very clued up about what you are interested in - and I know a lot of students, who mostly don't sound so clued up. The issue is how wide a time period you're looking at, because 1700 onwards is wide.

Can you email those staff members with the interests you're describing and ask them what they think and whether they'd like to supervise you? If you can meet up with them for coffee or a quick meeting then you'll get a good sense of what they're like as people and whether your ideas gel with theirs.

Hopefully they will help you shape the ideas into a workable proposal (IMO this is part of the job, or so my supervisor said to me).

Good luck, it sounds like great fun!

Btw: as far as travelling goes, I don't think you need to worry. I have done my whole PhD at a considerable distance from my university (it's nearly four hours on the train). The first term I did try to go in once a week and it was punishing, but in retrospect, less often would have been fine. Since then, I go in once every couple of months and this suits me and my advisors very well.

You'll be quite independent so the important thing will be organizing yourself so you've always got the right books out of the library (you want to take a wheely suitcase in and load up with the full limit - in my case I think it's 50 books! - it looks ridiculous but is very practical). And you need good home internet access (obviously).

If you can, you'd want to be quite outgoing and actively go after the social life, or you will miss out on getting to know people and it matters that you get to know the other PhDs. But this is easy to do through facebook and online forums, and by making sure you do things like arranging to meet for coffee after your supervision.

R2PeePoo Tue 30-Oct-12 16:17:19

Thank you grendels and LRD (I have finished your book on marginal images btw, so if I could get your address to return it!)

I know the subject areas I am interested in are broad, but atm I am limited by the books I can afford from Amazon and the small local libraries around me which I am working my way though. Quite often they only have one book on each subject unfortunately. Plus as I had no idea that I would have any chance of doing a PhD I have concentrated on things that grab my attention or fill in gaps in my knowledge.

I don't have to narrow down my focus yet, apparently that will come later, just have some ideas.

I do know a little bit about PhDs already re: conferences and papers through academic family members and this is a concern which I will definitely take into account when making my decision.

The travelling thing is a relief as the journey is not fun and the trains are often unreliable so doing this without having to worry about rushing back to pick up the DCs all the time will make it 100 times easier.

I'm going to give this some proper thought, but I am feeling a bit pushed by the deadline. DH is very excited for me and will support me whatever thank goodness.

Thank you all again, I appreciate you all taking the time to share your experiences with me.

TheCollieDog Tue 30-Oct-12 16:22:21

I jokingly not really tell my PhD students that doing a PhD will ruin their life! Well, it does and it doesn't. Don't underestimate the sheer hard work of a PhD either full or part-time. It is also physically demanding (something I didn't expect). So you have to really really want to do it more than anything else.

It's not simply more of the same of course work UG or PG study. You are on your own in many ways, and you have to make the map that you then follow to your destination hokey cliches'r'us

But that said, if it's what you really, really want to do, then do it. Really do it!

A fee waiver offer is not to be scorned. With only a 2.1 at BA level, you're unlikely to be competitive in an AHRC studentship competition, so a fee waiver is a significant offer.

I have one PhD student who's part-time as she's in a profession where there can be lots of work for a few months, and then nothing. So she works full-time on the PhD when there's no paid work, and leaves it with a good conscience when there's paid work.

If you are going to a proper university, there will be a PG induction, which should help you get back into the swing of things. There should be some sort of pick& mix research methods training, as thingshave changed immensely in the last 8 years. Getting to your university isn't so important as being able to get to decent libraries and archives. Most History PhDs require intensive archive work, so you'll need to think about how you will manage that. OTOH, if you are doing a topic which is relatively recent -- say from the 18C -- then you may find that electronic resources will be available from home. The Gale Cengage British Library Newspaper collection is my godsend, for example. But you need to be going to a university which has the resources to subscribe to that, as that sort of stuff is eye-wateringly expensive.

You should also use your supervisor wisely. They will have a lot else on, so make sure that you make it your responsibility to keep in touch with them. At one place I worked, we were supposed to see our PhD students every fortnight for 60-90 minutes, at another, it's 10 times a year (roughly once a month). I tend to play it by how my supervisees work best -- although I do drive them -- I'm tough, but they do good work, and I will work with them if they show willing. I chase, but only once or twice. After that, it's up to them. In Doctoral research, the candidate sets the deadlines. I am trying to train one PhD student out of telling me that he hasn't met my deadline: I just set possible dates for them to submit the next draft to me. If they don't/can't make that deadline, well, that's their issue, not mine. And your supervisor is the person to whom you show your first drafts -- better s/he sees them, than your Examiners! Although, having said that one of my part-time re-entry PhD students, I then got 20,000 words of very bad writing every month. I had to put a stop to that, and get her writing quality, rather than quantity! It's a learning process (for me as much as the candidate).

You will need to develop a productive relationship with a supervisor - or even a joint supervision (this is increasingly the practice). But s/he is not a teacher, nor really even like a university tutor in an undergraduate sense. I travel a lot, and run a large research grant at the moment, so I tend not to sugar the pill re my students' writing: if it's not good enough, I tell them straight. Better I do so, than their examiners, though. On the other hand, I figure that if you can't take that sort of criticism at PhD level, you're probably not cut out to do a PhD. It really isn't for the timid of intellect, I'm afraid. Nor should it be, in my view.

But you will need to have a much more focussed research proposal (my UG history thesis -- 20,000 words in those days -- started as the history of the world with the boring bits left out). Here's an edited version of what I send prospective PGRs (Postgraduate Research):

>>> We ask you for a research statement. We generally ask for a statement of around 1,000 words (but 500-750 words would do -- about 2-3 pages). Your statement should focus on your research aims for the degree overall. You might include:

* the gap in the field that you have identified;
* how you will develop an original contribution to knowledge in your field* the sorts of research questions you'd like to explore through your research;
* the methods by which you'd like to explore the research questions you set out;
* the body of data you will use to answer your research questions;
* what is your current knowledge of relevant archives, or other sorts of access to original source materials?

We don't expect that you'll have definitive answers to any of your themes, questions, or proposals -- but we find that candidates who come to the degree having started to think about their research in this analytical way will do better in this sort of work. <<<<

not the last bit of advice: write early and write often! I have a new PhD student who writes a blog, and then sends an edited summary to me once a week, via email, and we have supervisions face to face about once every 3 weeks (I'm actually on sabbatical, but we all still have to supervise, no going to Tuscany or spending every single day in the BL).

Whew! Hope this is useful. I'm kidding myself that writing advice to strangers on the internets is more important than hacking through the next bit of my next chapter ... So you see, self-delusion endures even many years post-PhD.

Is it OK here to link to another website? here's a good discussion: www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbarchers/NF2693944?thread=8256951&skip=0#p109764759

poozlepants Tue 30-Oct-12 16:36:57

This might sound arse about tit but instead of choosing a subject you are really really interested in you should choose something where the records that you are going to use as your primary sources are close at hand- especially as you are tied to a family base. With my history pHd a lot of the records were in local record offices and libraries and I ended up spending weeks away from home or having to travel every day. The rest of the time was spent in the big records office in Edinburgh which was luckily where I was based. I chose my subject by talking to the staff at the University who pointed me in the direction of the area that hadn't been worked on.
Have a gander at the footnotes of some of the books on the area your interested in and check out the collections and where they are stored.
IME a history PHD is not something where you can work from home much unless you are at the writing up stages.
If you want an academic career after the pHD it will be very useful to be in the department as much as you can as networking counts as much as academic preformance IME.

I am posting this as a very minor and probably very obvious response to what collie says, not as a disagreement because she knows immensely more about this than me: but although a 2:1 does stack the chances against you for AHRC funding, it may still be worth trying for it if you can. They can only say no! I do know several current PhDs who have AHRC funding and a 2:1 and/or no distinction at masters' level (I guess that's what a 2:1 MA is though I am not very familiar!).

Just thought I would say, but I am not really disagreeing at all, just making a tentatively hopeful observation based on anecdata.

TheCollieDog Tue 30-Oct-12 16:54:18

No disagreement from here, LRD about applying. I guess that in my field, it's very competitive, and applicants need a 1st and a Distinction at Masters to be competitive.

(I said I was straight-talking! grin )

It doesn't mean that candidates without those results are not qualified or wouldn't make excellent doctoral researchers. I only got a 2.1 and went straight to a PhD -- nowadays my career couldn't have even started.

Applying for AHRC funding can be a good thing to do after one part-time year (ie equivalent of 6 months f-t), as you could write a cracking application: particularly matching the "Person/place/project" mantra that you need to nowadays.

Ouch. grin I am glad I am in my non-competitive field (and three years in). I'm not History but my funding is through history because it's medieval, so with luck, the OP and I should be in the same boat and perhaps this can give her a bit of hope.

TunipTheHollowVegemalLantern Tue 30-Oct-12 16:59:31

I had a 2.1 and was funded by my dad self-funded to start with then I got AHRC - exactly as you said CollieDog, you can write a much better application once you've started.

Poozlepants is right, too. Finding out what's in your local area could be a really useful way to start working out what to look at.

VintageRainBoots Tue 30-Oct-12 17:20:30

Go for it! I started a PhD program when my daughter was 3 years old, and I've never been happier in my life.

mignonette Tue 30-Oct-12 17:31:25

I wanted to research the lives/experiences of women who left their children at London's Foundling Hospital. Their 'Threads of Feeling' exhibit was deeply moving. The hospital, now a museum, has strong links with Hogarth who was a trustee and actually incorporated some of the fabric tokens left with the children by their mothers into his series of paintings 'The Rakes progress'. Vivaldi was also inspired to fund raise in a similar way after hearing of Hogarth's efforts.

In addition, the foundling Hospital was at the vanguard of the new upper classes' interest in fund raising and charity and was one of the first places to exhibit art.

R2PeePoo Tue 30-Oct-12 19:02:05

Wow! Lots more responses, thank you and lots more to think about. I'm wrangling tired DCs right now but I wanted to reply.

Just a bit of clarification about my degree. St Andrews do four year courses and you do a dissertation in your last year. The final qualification gained is an MA (hons). I was predicted a first, but I'm afraid that I was immature and distracted by wedding planning (my own not other peoples! I got married the month after graduation) which is a source of immense irritation and frustration to me even now.

There won't be any difficulty getting to archives and libraries and things but I take on board the wise advice to choose something with less distance to travel!

Thank you for your long post Collie, I've copied a lot of your post onto the Word document I am formulating my ideas on. Due to circumstances I don't yet need to have a focused research proposal, but I intend to start working on one as soon as I have made the decision to do a PhD. As I said, this opportunity was offered to me literally hours ago and I am under a little bit of pressure to make a decision! I'm trying to gather as much information as possible. My only experience thus far is with a close relative doing a science PhD which is obviously a different kettle of fish.

googlenut Tue 30-Oct-12 23:43:21

If you are disciplined enough to read every night between 7-11 then a Phd will be no problem. Go for it. Hardest thing I've ever done but once you've got it, it's an achievement that stays with you for the rest of your life.

TheCollieDog Wed 31-Oct-12 07:48:20

St Andrews do four year courses and you do a dissertation in your last year. The final qualification gained is an MA (hons).

I'm familiar with the Scottish system: I've been an external on various universities' QAA reviews in Scotland. I like the system: the Australian system (where I did my BA) is much the same. But a Scottish MA is not the same as a research Masters, the main purpose of which nowadays, is to prepare you for the independent research that is the PhD. An undergraduate degree -- even with a longish diss is really not the same as a PhD.

If you were coming to my Department, I'd probably require/recopmmend that you enrol for an MPhil or MRes, and then convert/upgrade to PhD after 18 months or 2 years (assuming part-time registration). An upgrade requires that you have a substantial first draft of something -- around 8,000 words -- just to show you're writing and have a plan and a structure.

If you jump into a PhD, after 8 years out of formal education, be prepared for feeling overwhelmed. This is normal, and happens/ed to all of us. If you're someone who likes structure and deadlines, you'll need to develop the discipline for yourself, or talk with your supervisor about how you'll keep up the momentum. Use your supervisor (one place I worked at had a research development seminar for PhD candidates called "How to get the best out of your supervisor" -- I love that! I asked if I could go, but they wouldn't let me. < grump >

I hope you do do it -- it sounds a great opportunity and you're ready for it. Good luck. Oh, I do like starting a new project (maybe because finishing this bluddy book is making me sweat blood, hence multishirking here).

TunipTheHollowVegemalLantern Wed 31-Oct-12 09:28:23

How To Get A PhD has some good advice on getting the most out of your supervisor.
In fact it's a fairly useful book all round IME though you have to be aware that some of the advice is a bit social sciencey and it won't be quite the same for history.

Good luck with the book, collie.

Bonsoir Thu 01-Nov-12 07:09:55

I think that it is much more likely that you are going to be constrained by all the other demands on your time than by the atrophy of your skills. Sometimes it can feel as if ones skills have declined but in fact you are just trying to achieve something you used to achieve over a long period of time, with nothing else occupying your brain, in a much shorter space of time and with other things happening. Does that makes sense?

TheCollieDog Thu 01-Nov-12 08:20:44

Thanks, LRD. If you see me around here a lot, just yell at me to turn of the internet.

Will do! grin

mummytime Thu 01-Nov-12 08:52:11

For history I really would suggest you spend sometime thinking about something which interests you and ties in to your local area. You should be using a lot of primary and secondary sources, not tertiary like books from Amazon. The closer you are to some good primary sources the better, although it is good that so much is available on the net nowadays.
Also if you can find a good source of primary sources you are less likely to be superseded by advancing knowledge/ideas, and having done the groundwork you shouldn't have to expend so much effort to tweak it for new theories.

I don't know what a tertiary source is, but amazon is quite good for decent secondary sources, and for editions of primary sources. A lot of primary historical sources are online, depending on the period.

Btw, sometime I'm finding more and more is that if you can get to know a really strong network of other PhD students, you will all be able to help each other track down primary sources. Increasingly it's allowed to take photos in special collections rooms, and we can all email each other, so sometimes the issue of being at a bit of a distance from one or other of your source archieves isn't so huge a problem as you might think.

I do agree strongly with the other posters that it's a good idea to work on local sources - I think it strengthens funding proposals as well - but I just wanted to say that IME it is less difficult to access remote material than I think it used to be.

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