Thinking about doing a PhD: who, where and how?

Brodie Waddell

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!

When a PhD goes horribly wrong, it often turns into a nightmarish snake-cat that stalks you in the library...

When a PhD goes horribly wrong, it often turns into a nightmarish snake-cat that stalks you in the library…

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…

Who?

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.

Where?

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.

How?

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.

Further suggestions

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.

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7 thoughts on “Thinking about doing a PhD: who, where and how?

  1. Thanks Brodie – this is a really useful summary packed with excellent advice. On the How?/ funding side of things, it is probably obvious but it is worth doing a fair amount of homework on your options here. There is no standard arrangement across different institutions or funding councils, so you can maximise your chances of funding by spreading the net wide. It also means that your preparation or application might need to change.

    Many Universities will have ‘in house’ funding/ fellowships that you can find out more about on their websites or jobs.ac.uk, and research councils these days can have quite complicated arrangements. For example, the Arts and Humanities Research Council allocates their funds to consortia of universities grouped together in Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs). The one that the University of Exeter belongs to (South, West and Wales) requires students to identify TWO supervisors, each at a different University in the DTP. I’m aware that sounds complicated, but that’s sort of my point – when you contact potential supervisors, ask them about the funding available at their institution, and they will be able to provide guidance on these sorts of issues.

    • Good points, Laura. It certainly seems like the funding for PhDs has become much more complicated in the last few years. I’m not sure if it has actually declined overall, but the various routes have multiplied. There also seem to be more PhD fellowships on specific topics funded by external grants. This usually means less independence for the student, but it can be helpful to have a ready-made topic and the funding is obviously very important. Most of these are advertised on jobs.ac.uk. However, as you say, the best policy of all is to talk to potential supervisors (and the department’s research student administrator/director) early and often.

  2. I recognise the issues facing young would-be academics but I hope my experience might encourage maturer students to embark on academic research, and maybe my experience might be of some relevance to anyone considering academic research, . I have the luxury of being able to fund a part-time Ph D after a 40 year career teaching at A level. My initial idea was simply to work as an independent scholar, as my main aim was to eventually write a book.

    I tested that my area of research was feasible in terms of three processes: checking the availability of source material; compiling a literature review and assessing my own capabilities and motivation by using the British Library for several months. I also attended a couple of academic conferences and contacted several academics for advice. I was surprised at how approachable some academics are – they are so easy to contact as their email addresses are available on their university websites. Two eminent historians not only gave me detailed advice but even found time to read and comment on my old (by 30 years!) MA dissertation which was related to my proposed topic. Eventually I was pointed in the direction of an excellent supervisor, who evn helped me refine my research proposal before I was formally accepted. I now feel part of a team to which I am beginning to make a contribution. I have also been able to present a paper at a very convivial postgraduate conference .

    I agree that the choice of supervisor in the key factor but it is so important to ‘test the water’ first,

    • I couldn’t agree more, Andrew. One of the great things about teaching at Birkbeck is that I have many students who both have a real dedication to their research topics and, because they are self-funded and/or part-time, have somewhat more freedom to pursue their true interest rather than worrying about ‘following the money’. However, I also agree that in these cases it can be extremely helpful to ‘test the water’ to make sure that you’re ready for the long-process of completing a PhD, or even an MPhil.

      It’s great to hear that you’ve found that most academics are very approachable. I’ve always found the same: many of us may be pressed for time, but we’re nearly always able to at least write back with some ideas or feedback on a particular idea. It is always worth trying to get in touch with historians whose research overlaps with your interests or who would like to work with.

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