How I Got To My PhD Studentship

From Stay At Home Mum To PhD (via a DipHE and BA)

Finding a PhD position can be incredibly difficult, frustrating and daunting. One of the things that I feel is lacking at my particular University is support and advice for undergraduates that wish to stay on for postgraduate study, because it all seems geared towards throwing us at the job market as soon as we hand back our mortarboards to Ede and Ravenscroft, rather than supporting us in finding a place in the academic job market. It’s hard to find general advice about getting into academia, for instance it wasn’t until a chance conversation with one of my tutors that I found out it’s possible to go from BA to PhD with no MA. That little nugget of information changed my entire career plans, and it was said with a nonchalance that suggested it was common knowledge.

I have to say that conversations like that have proved more vital and informative than any amount of googling in terms of finding out how to move from undergrad to postgrad. It seems difficult for lecturers to know how much we as students understand about the academic world, with all its endless acronyms and departmental divides wrapped in red tape, and so there tends to be a large amount of information that gets lost in translation. If you’re looking into going into HE, I’d recommend making time to talk through your career plans with teaching staff because you will get to hear about different opportunities or pathways that you might not have known about.

This is a brief history of how I got back into education, and how I managed to land my PhD spot:

I finished my Diploma in Humanities with the Open University shortly after my youngest child was born. I’d figured out by that point that I wanted to go into lecturing, so I decided that I needed to go to a brick University in order to meet with people and make networks face to face. When I started looking at Universities in my area, I had a disastrous experience at an Open Day where someone from the admissions team asked if I really ought to be leaving my children at nursery when they were still so young, but thankfully I went to the University of Wolverhampton Open Day a week later, and the staff there were really welcoming and engaging, so off I went to get my English and History BA.

Within a week of starting I had decided to drop English altogether, as I felt that the modules on offer were too similar to those I had already studied during my Diploma. So I was now a single honours History student, and utterly convinced that I would go into early modern book and print history. That is, until the inevitable happened and I had my head turned towards the 18th century instead! I found myself enthralled by a visiting lecture about a Birmingham printer called John Baskerville, that was given by Professor Archer from BCU. Suddenly, all the fervour I had for the early modern book trade was transferred to Mr Baskerville and his revolutionary 18th century printing techniques.

I spent a great deal of time trying to seek out postgraduate opportunities that would enable me to dive into the printed 18th century world and learn more about the people that lived there. But… it proved quite difficult. Although I enjoyed reading about the 18th century, and I thoroughly enjoyed those modules at University, it never quite felt like a good fit. There was plenty to find about crime (I love the Old Bailey site), and other underworld-esque topics, but the lack of paper trails in other areas of life made it feel like it was hard to find social history there. Of course not impossible, but hard for me as I am tied to the Midlands.

All of a sudden, a partly-funded PhD position came up at my University (which, seriously, almost never happens in my department) for 20th century trade union history. The GFTU were looking for someone to write an up to date account of their history. I started jotting down some of my ideas, and thought that at the very least this would be good interview experience for me. After I told my partner about it, he said something along the lines of, “I’m not surprised you’re going for it. That’s the stuff you talk about the most.”

Wait, what?

So we talked about it, and came to the conclusion that he was spot on. I had massively over-read for my 2nd year 20th century working class history module, and had already considered changing my dissertation topic to something along those lines. The reason I hadn’t was because my bull-headedness about sticking to the 18th century had gotten in the way. I had already made connections with people that would hopefully get me some funding towards writing about Baskerville for my dissertation, and it was things like this that made me feel like I couldn’t change my mind. With hindsight, it makes no sense whatsoever, but at the time I felt like I was already on a path that I couldn’t change.

Now I have learnt that being an undergraduate is your time for exploration in terms of what you want to study. Some people might stick with what they wanted to do at the beginning of their first year, and that’s great, but for most it would really pay to take advantage of the opportunities that arrive to look at things outside of your usual interest. And IT IS OKAY TO CHANGE YOUR MIND! Not everyone is as bull-headed as me, so I get that not everyone will relate to this, nor find it a challenge!

The Interview

When I was thinking about how to approach the interview, I began thinking about how I approached the working class history module in my second year. I remember that I didn’t want to choose it but it was the only one I could do around my childcare, so not a great start! The first lecture was all about the rise of the Labour Party, and after lots of complicated explanations about the SDF, the ILP, the LP, the Fabians and the Communists, I had a thumping headache. The second lecture was about the General Strike, and I was hooked. Whilst researching for the first essay, I came across a photo spread in the Times newspaper showing the ‘Highlights’ of the great strike, and found it absurd that there was not one photo of a striking worker among the pictures of the middle class university students driving trains and soldiers delivering food. How and why the Times newspaper came to commemorate the 3 million workers that were locked out or striking during those nine days without a single photo that showed them was to become the impetus for my dissertation.

Although I knew it was possible to get a PhD position straight after a BA, I still felt that my chances of getting this one were pretty slim. I’d read so much about how hard it is to find one, so I just focused on getting to the interview stage. But the more I read up on it, the more I really want to do it. I had no idea if the direction that I wanted to take with it would be what the GFTU were looking for, but I had a lot of fun thinking of ways to make an institutional history about the members of the union themselves rather than the big names at the top.

I had to write an academic CV – yes, mine contained quite a bit of white space! – and a brief 250 word research proposal. I outlined my ideas and mentioned a few of the archives I would visit, and tried to make it as engaging as possible. My main point was that I wanted to write a history that was for their members, not for a select few within Universities.

The interview was quite informal, with my would-be supervisor, the General Secretary of the GFTU and another member of the teaching staff that wouldn’t be involved with the project. I was asked quite general questions about why I wanted to do a PhD and what I hoped to gain from it, and more specific questions about my ideas and about where I would go to research it. The interview is not to find out how much you already know about the subject, because if you were already an expert you wouldn’t need the PhD. It’s about finding out how you would approach it, and how aware you are of what methodology you would use.

I got the email telling me that they were offering me the studentship a few days later. Somehow, I’d gone from the 16th century to the 20th century in two tiny years, and I was getting the chance to write the type of history that I’d wanted to all along. No one was more surprised than my current supervisor, as I think I had already told him on a few occasions that the 20th century was far too modern for me. But he’s stuck with me for now!

What did I learn?

Sometimes being forced to take a module that doesn’t quite take your fancy because of nursery closing times can be a really good thing! I’d been involved with trade union activism before coming to University, but I had never really put that in the same boat as my historical interests. Now that those two universes have collided for me, I can’t imagine doing anything different.

The people that love you can help you see where you are headed, and where your strengths lie. When I’m in a rut, I can always count on my partner to make a few observations that make me say, “I hadn’t thought about it that way…”. He knew I’d made a good 20th century historian before I did.

It’s okay to try out new areas of interest and explore what is on offer. There’s a practical side to this as well, because the postgraduate offerings can be quite slim so it’s good to have a few different areas that you’re keen on. Remember that a PhD doesn’t define your further career all that strictly either.

Finally, a really important point for me: I already knew my supervisor, and I knew that I would get on fine in my department. I wouldn’t have to spend hours away from my family commuting to an entirely new department with a supervisor I was yet to get to know. I am expected to do the work, and I have no problem with that, but I also feel confident that I can hold my hands up and say that my family life has thrown me a curve ball and I need some slack, and that my supervisor will be absolutely fine with it. That kind of support is really valuable for a PhD researcher.

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