Over the past few months, I’ve been getting some enquires from people thinking about doing a PhD in history. I’ve found myself repeating the same thing in many cases, so I thought I’d set it out here in case it’s helpful for current MA students thinking about the possibility. In most cases, there are important personal factors to consider, but I think there are a few pieces of advice that apply more generally.
Note, however, that as an ‘early career’ academic, there is still plenty that I’m learning about the whole process, despite having finished my own PhD over five years ago. Your own thoughts would be very welcome.
Don’t do it!
Obviously I don’t believe that or I wouldn’t be writing this post, but I think there are lots of good reasons to not do a PhD right now, the most important being the terrible job market for new humanities PhDs. As innumerable blog posts and articles have said before: even if you are extremely smart, original, hard-working and self-sacrificing, there is a decent chance that you won’t be able to find a permanent academic job. If you are aware of that, and want to do a PhD anyway – perhaps because you’re not doing it to get an academic job, or perhaps because you are young, carefree and willing to roll the dice – then please read on…
From my experience, the most important factor during the PhD is the supervisor. You need a mentor, an editor and a friend all rolled into one. Obviously you also need other mentors, editors and friends to help you along the way – often in the form of your fellow students – but you still want someone who has time for you. You’ll want to make a list of possible supervisors at various institutions – I had about six on my long-list and three on my short-list – and find out as much as you can about them, their work, their reputation (because they’ll be writing references for you for years to come), and their more general character (because some very bright, influential people are terrible to work with). Most importantly, make contact with them directly before applying. Even if it is just via a few emails, you’ll learn a lot about them and the way they work just by talking to them. I was very fortunate, but one hears plenty of stories about incommunicative, unsupportive supervisors.
Choosing an institution is certainly important too, especially when it comes to a post-PhD career as you’ll want to have gone somewhere that potential employers will recognise. In other words, if a great potential supervisor is at No-Name University, you probably should cross them off the list. That said, I still think the institution is secondary to the supervisor: I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge because at the time there was no one there I wanted to work with, and I don’t regret that. In other words, the institution doesn’t need to be the top of your field, but it should probably be in the top ten or twenty.
The physical location is less important for a PhD than for a BA or MA, at least in history, because you don’t actually need to be at the institution every day. Though it certainly can be helpful to have a desk somewhere on campus, most of your research and writing will probably happen elsewhere, whether at distant archives or on your couch at home. I know several people doing PhDs at London universities that live hours away and only go in once a week or so. Places like London, Cambridge and Oxford have some real advantages for research thanks to all their resources (libraries, seminars, etc.), but they are also often bloody expensive places to live.
As I’m at Birkbeck, most of my students are part-time. This has real advantages in that you can work whilst studying, rather than going deeply into debt, and allows you to keep a solid foothold in the ‘real world’. On the other hand, it also means that it often takes five or six or more years to finish a PhD. Moreover, if you hope to go into academia, I think some form of doctoral funding is almost essential. PhD funding is very competitive, but there are lots of possibilities. In the short term it is helpful because, after all, it is nice to have an income. In the long-term, it can be even more helpful as employers will be looking at your success in getting funding when you are applying for post-PhD jobs. I wouldn’t say that it is necessary to have ‘full’ funding throughout your PhD – I was only part-funded for my first year – but having some kind of substantial grant or scholarship on your CV by the time you finish is definitely important.
As I said at the beginning, I’m far from an expert on this. I think it would be really useful to ‘crowd-source’ some wisdom on this, so please offer your own advice, corrections or questions by commenting below.