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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.

Copper Sun 04-Nov-12 19:09:57

If you are in London anyway, dont forget the National Archives. They have a really good team led by Paul Carter who are busy uncovering the lives of the poor, of people in trouble, etc from among the records of bodies like the Poor Law Commission, the asylums etc. Maybe worth asking if you could have a word about the kind of sources they are working on - so much of this stuff has never been catalogued properly before that lots of areas are just being opened up for investigation.

R2PeePoo Sun 04-Nov-12 11:54:41

I have that on my wishlist Collie, I borrowed it from the library a few years ago. Very good book. I just finished two Elizabeth Roberts books on working class women which I found fascinating. The one I am reading at the moment is by Maureen Sutton. I also loved this one and this one although its about America rather than the UK.

I find myself very drawn to illegitimacy and the taboos about it, especially in the 20th century and the associated issues of honour and shame, sexual ignorance, abortion and contraception. I have found lots of contradiction and variation in the various sources I have read that I would like to investigate further.

I was asked to submit a simple statement of my interests rather than a definite research application given the short time scale.

Copthallresident Sun 04-Nov-12 11:27:17

The CollieDog My MA diss was on the theme of womens' experience of history v the official/elite versions, and how women's bodies and stories were appropriated by men for their own ideological purposes, focusing on the women in one city . OP perhaps your challenge now is to find the women you want to study, along the lines of the writers of the books you mention, or alternatively take a theme and see how it was experienced by different women? My primary sources included local newspapers, magazines and journals, local guides, text books and guides to how women should conduct themselves, fiction, biographies, municipal records. My PhD then emerged out of the fiction I studied and I am looking at a psychological/ historical theme in the context of the literature of three different cultures. It has all really emerged from the writing of one woman author who really spoke to me across the decades and different cultures. She is still responsible for the passion and intellectual curiousity that drives me on. I hope this helps you find your thing!!

Caladria Sun 04-Nov-12 09:07:36

Is there something that niggles at you? For example, you might have read that explanation for X is Y and thought 'hold on, but how does that fit with Z?' or you might have read a description of an event and thought 'why is this not getting more attention? This is weird.' Or just something that you find running through your head over and over again because somehow you feel it doesn't fit and there has to be a better way of putting the pieces together?

Think of it as a research spider sense - you won't need to know the answers for a long time, but having a sense that you're looking for something can keep you sane when digging through records and trying to remember German.

I miss the PhD. It was bliss.

TheCollieDog Sun 04-Nov-12 08:47:09

Have a look at Amanda Vickery's book, A Gentleman's Daughter, for a great local study using Lancashire archives. It's not 'local history' however, but deals with big themes. My 2nd book was broadly on women who hadn't been talked about before -- one of its themes was 'invisible women -- and the theoretical/historiographical issues around how you write about women who have largely disappeared from the record are fascinating.

R2PeePoo Sat 03-Nov-12 21:05:57


I meant Copthall, thank you for the recommendation!

I just dragged myself out of a marvellous book on sex, superstition and death in 30's, 40's and 50's Lancashire after a day with my mother and my two sugar-stuffed children, going to escape back there again!

R2PeePoo Sat 03-Nov-12 21:01:21

Lots more posts, thanks for everyone's input and recommendations.

I haven't decided yet, I've got a day or two but DH is really pushing me to take it. My gut instinct is to start the process and see what happens, but not get too upset if it doesn't happen for whatever reason. I have spent some time narrowing down my interests so thank you for that recommendation.

That book looks great Collie, I just added it to my Amazon wishlist. I just bought this, this and this so I might need to wait a bit before I can buy it! I also borrowed this from the library and desperately want my own copy.

Copthallresident Sat 03-Nov-12 13:07:57

OP just wanted to add that if you haven't read it already it sounds as if you would really enjoy "Without recourse to direct speech, Hershatter argues, these women have nevertheless left an audible trace. Central to this study is the investigation of how things are known and later remembered, and how, later still, they are simultaneously apprehended and reinvented by the historian."

Copthallresident Sat 03-Nov-12 12:02:16

TheCollieDog Your advice is excellent. I just wanted to add a personal perspective.

TheCollieDog Fri 02-Nov-12 07:28:57

Top post, copthallresident I'm glad what you say in the midst of your PhD is pretty much what I tell intending Doctoral candidates. And what I felt when I did mine back in the 80s -- which doesn't seem that long ago, sigh ...

Copthallresident Fri 02-Nov-12 01:28:48

I'm in the midst of a PhD which focuses on a subject that crosses the borders of History and Literature (and Psychology), and cultures, though the subject is narrow and focused. I would advise that you take some time to really zero in on and define closely what you want to study. You are going to eat, breathe and drink it for some time to come so you have to be absolutely consumed with curiousity and passion. I had some pressure, and promise of generous funding, to research one cultural experience (would probably have got a book deal too on the back of evident market demand!) but the more I did preliminary research the more I wanted to follow my own interests and I am glad I didn't give in. The ultimate irony for someone who was in marketing!! I never had a problem with giving my all to something I didn't fundamentally care about when I was part of a team.

It is a lonely pursuit, your supervisor is crucial, and I am lucky that academics at different institutions are helping me, but in the end it is going to be you, your research, your thoughts and your writing. You haven't chosen the right subject if anyone knows more than you about it!! I embarked on an MA partly because I valued the chance to debate my chosen field with other people and so it was a difficult decision to go for a PhD rather than throw myself back into my career ( I originally started the MA with the aim of developing new approaches in the context of a career in marketing). It was very much a case of weighing up my passion for what I wanted to research with the loneliness, relative lack of interaction with others and money and status I wonder if I would have made the same choice from the context of being at home with small children (mine are teenager/ at uni).

I wouldn't agree that you should be focusing on studying something local, unless that is where your interest lies. In these days of internet, geography is less important than it was, thankfully since most of my sources aren't even on the same island as I am! I make a lot of use of email, internet and online sources such as JSTOR. And there is the Post!!!! I obviously highlight the pros and cons of such primary research, but there are pros... Also there are wonderful idiosyncratic primary sources in caches all over the UK, even for someone researching other cultures.

Totally agree with all the good advice above.

And beware all temptations to procrastinate especially Mumsnet
Good luck!

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 01-Nov-12 09:02:44

I meant to say: the main issue I think for amazon (and all sources of print books) is cost. I'm lusting after a book at the moment, which is easily accessible on amazon but also costs over £100.

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 01-Nov-12 08:59:31

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.

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.

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 01-Nov-12 08:25:42

Will do! grin

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.

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?

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 01-Nov-12 07:06:00

Good luck with the book, collie.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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