Category Archives: PostgradHelp

PhD Help!

I want to paste the following from the comments at the last post here so that they aren’t just hidden away there, to add to the various posts I’ve done before on getting into PhD research. I think it might be useful to some of you thinking of starting a PhD this year or next:

Anna wrote to say:

I am thinking of doing a phD at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine ‘A social history of dementia’ – not early modern history I’m afraid, twentieth century. I haven’t officially started it yet, but submitted a proposal which my ’supervisor’ has come back to me with.

She has said my proposal needs a ‘firmer grounding in sources’. What does that mean and how can I find them? Are there any institutional records which might help me throw light on this social history?

She has been really helpful and given me a plan to work to for my proposal, which other people might find helpful, but I have some questions that people might be able to help me with about her points.

There are 5 sections:
1. The proposed subject. Themes to be covered; questions to be explored. try to take this analytically [But what does ‘analytically’ mean in this context?]
2. Brief survey of the existing literature; where the project fits and extends this
3. Archive sources [what are these and where can I find them/help on this?]
4. Methodology/approach, including historiographical framework [don’t have much of a clue about this. Where can I get help on this?]
5. Training and preparation. [presumably she means research training I can do, but how do I find out?]

Many thanks

My thoughts:

Firstly, if you check the rightleft! left!-hand sidebar under favourite posts, you’ll see several links to posts I wrote earlier for students thinking of doing PhDs (Planning a PhD, etc). Do check those out for general advice if you haven’t already.

[Update: Ah, the pitfalls of changing the design of your site... that sidebar disappeared long ago! Instead, you can find all those posts gathered together under the category Postgrad Help.]

What libraries and resources are available to you? What I’m about to suggest probably requires access to university libraries – or public libraries with good Interlibrary Loan facilities – and specialist (sometimes subscription-required) electronic resources. You should try to get access (in print or electronic form) to the important journals like Social History of Medicine, if you possibly can.

Survey of the literature: you should do keyword searches of bibliographical databases etc to make sure that you know what’s out there that’s relevant to your topic. You don’t have to read all of it yet (!), but you need to know the arguments and approaches of what are considered the key texts, and what the most recent research is doing etc. (Review essays – the type that cover several books – in history journals are extremely useful for getting up to speed on the ’state of a field’ quickly.)

Then you can really sit down and think about how your research would do 3 main things: 1. fill gaps in empirical knowledge, be a resource for other researchers; 2. contribute to developing ideas and interpretations of the subject; 3. take issue with existing ideas, be prepared to argue a different line. Ideally, a PhD thesis should along the way do all of these things. Mainly, it should do 1 and especially 2, but sometimes it should do 3 as well.

Reading the literature will also help to clue you in as to what primary sources and methodologies historians are using. You have to start reading like a researcher rather than an undergrad: look more closely at the primary sources in footnotes and bibliographies, pay attention to the methodological sections in introductions. Also, it may help to find out what other PhDs on similar topics are in progress and recently completed.

Useful resources:

Wellcome Library resources
MedHist (a key resource for history of medicine)
Recent and current history PhD theses in UK universities
IHR Reviews in history: history of medicine
RHS online bibliography of British and Irish history

From Chris Williams:

Remember that most academics (even the lucky ones working for the Wellcome) like to supervise intelligent, interested, and prepared students. You’re in demand, if you play your cards right.

1. Analytically – essentially this means, don’t tell the story, unless absolutely necessary. Instead, try to answer some bigger questions. You need to think of some. On the other hand, you and your supervisor ought both to be aware that after 6 months you might need to revise some or all of them.

2. Survey – what it says on the tin. Are you really sure that nobody’s done this before? Get a list of all the books and articles on the topic, via the British Library website and various journal article databases. What are the three closest bits of work to it that exist? [NB - get hold of a copy of Michelle Winslow’s thesis about Poles and ageing, and search the bibliography of that. University of Sheffield History Dept 2000ish].

3. Sources – this is the big one. You need to find at least one but preferably less than 4 bodies of primary sources which between them can answer your questions. Go and find 2 of these, ideally take a look at them directly, then go back to your prospective supervisor and ask her to suggest any more. She is bound to know far more about this than you, so treat this as an intelligence and initiative test more than anything else.

Where you start looking for sources really depends on a whole bunch of things that I haven’t got time to list right now … But the best place to start is in other people’s bibliographies, and the NRA,* A2A and Archon websites.

4. Methodology . . . derive this from something else, preferably some work you’ve already done. Hodder Arnold have put out a range of books about this sort of thing recently…

5. Training – you ought to be aware that you’ll need some, and that the institution will be providing some. For they have an obligation to. If you want to read up on that, check out the websites of the ESRC and the AHRC. But assessing your training needs is something that they ought to be doing after you’ve started your PhD, not before, IMO. Their mileage may vary, though. Perhaps they are looking to see how far you are willing to go to sell yourself to them. If you see what I mean.

And if you have anything to add to our ideas, leave your comments here!

……..

*To American readers: National Register of Archives. Not that other NRA.

The final hurdle: getting through the PhD viva

The PhD viva (oral defence of the thesis) is the final rite of passage for PhD students in Britain and elsewhere (although I get the impression that it doesn’t happen in the US at the very end, but there are other stages of the PhD process – the defence of the thesis proposal – that involve something very similar?). But there has in the past been very little to help them prepare for it, making it an even more nerve-wracking prospect. It’s long been a rather mysterious ritual, held as it is (in Britain) behind closed doors. (Our department has very recently introduced mock vivas to help counter this; I suspect it’s part of a wider trend in which increasing emphasis is being placed on good preparation and support to help students survive.)

It should not be that scary. It should be a positive and rewarding experience, an opportunity to rabbit about your pet obsession of the last three years to a captive audience. And it should not be a confrontation, but an exploration of the stuff in your head that underlies the words on the page (apart from anything else it is, of course, testing that you did the hard work of research and wrote those words yourself). There may well be some questions, say, about why you did X rather than Y (part of your viva preparation should be thinking about the weak spots and how you might respond to questions about them), but unless there’s something very wrong with your thesis, you should not be and should not feel under attack. It’s much more about establishing that you’ve understood your material and its significance to a wider field of study. A PhD thesis is a kind of apprentice piece. It’s meant to show that you’ve learned the essential skills of the discipline; and at the same time, have contributed something worthwhile and new (in some small way) to that discipline.

Nearly everyone who gets this far ‘passes’. It is not a rubber-stamping exercise, however; far from it. Nearly everyone will also have to make corrections of some kind; in some cases, more substantial than others. Things can go horribly wrong (more likely than failure is to have to rewrite substantially and resubmit, or, possibly worse, be awarded only an MPhil with no option to resubmit), but this is unusual. It can also go a little awry if the choice of external examiner is misjudged, by the way; it’s important to find someone with the right expertise and who will be broadly sympathetic to the subject and the approach taken. (You don’t want to spend two hours being grilled over a perfectly valid methodology which that examiner happens to dislike or even miscomprehend; that’s not what it should be about.)

Anyway, in the run up to my own viva in 2003, I found a certain amount of online material that helped me to understand better what was likely to take place, to focus on what I needed to do, and which made the process of preparation a good deal easier. There seems to be considerably more available now, so this list is really just a selection (google “phd viva guidance” for more). None of this relates specifically to history PhDs, but this experience is one that is much the same across disciplines.

The final hurdle: preparation for the PhD viva examination
Preparing for the research viva
Preparing for a viva
In the dark? Preparing for the PhD viva
Survive your viva

Grantsmanship

This post is for three main groups of people, primarily in history but also in other humanities (and possibly social science) disciplines: MA students applying for PhD funding (in the UK where a PhD is all about research from the word go); newly-fledged or nearly-there PhDs applying for post-doctoral fellowships; and, to a lesser extent, novice faculty applying for small to medium-sized research grants for individual researchers as opposed to large group projects (for such things as paying for the expenses of a key research trip or research leave).

That is to say, it’s about the part of an application, after all the preliminaries (important though they are!), where you have to set out the research project you want the money for, where you really have to sell both yourself as the researcher and the research.

It may be useful to some others applying for grants of various kinds, or situations where you have to persuade decision-makers (say, publishers) to accept your research ideas even if there isn’t actually any money in it. But it is a specialist interest: it’s really aimed at the strange obsessives like me who want to pursue academic careers (so if you’re already thoroughly disillusioned with academia, I don’t recommend it).

What makes a successful grant proposal? I’ve written a few, including something that looked quite like this, and I’m still not really sure (especially as pretty much the same proposal was unsuccessful in several other competitions). But I can try, based on that experience. (I also got both my MA and my PhD funded by the AHRB, by the way.)

It simply does not matter how good your ideas are if you can’t convince the committees in charge of those pots of money, through your writing, that it’s better than the X per cent of applications that will go in the bin. It’s about good ideas and research but it’s also about persuasion and strategy. Like it or not, you’re taking part in a competition. It’s what Jacob Kraicer calls The Art of Grantsmanship. He’s talking about science, but this is, I think, just as true of history and other humanities or social science fields:

…the difference between success and failure often results, not just from the quality of the science, but from the quality of the grant application. In all probability, the quality of science of the applications in the 10% below the cut-off for funding by an agency is not significantly different from that in the 10% just above the cut-off. “Grantsmanship” can make the difference.

The art of “grantsmanship” will not turn mediocre science into a fundable grant proposal. But poor “grantsmanship” will, and often does, turn very good science into an unfundable grant proposal. Good writing will not save bad ideas, but bad writing can kill good ones.

Let me stress, too, that this is not about advocating lies or bad faith. You should always be as honest as you possibly can about what you intend to do (bearing in mind, after all, that a proposal is all about predictions of what you’ll do at some point in the future…).* And you have to care about it, to believe that it matters in some small corner of the universe that you get to do this.

Time for a hefty dose of reality before going any further (success at these things probably tends to make me unreasonably over-optimistic, I’m afraid). Kraicer mentions success rates of less than 50%. Well, he’s talking about the sciences, and certain types of funding within the sciences. Many funding competitions in the humanities are much harder than that. As I recall, about 1 in 4 applications to the AHRB for PhD funding is successful, and it’s much, much worse for post-doc funding (I don’t know the rates for small research grants; they’re probably better than the latter, but not necessarily the former). You can do your best to maximise your chances, but there’s still a strong element of luck, and of being in the right place at the right time. So you have to be practical and think about alternatives (yep, you may well have to get a real job, or study part-time), but don’t give up too soon; how long you persevere is a personal decision. But the only way to be completely sure of not getting what you want is not to try in the first place.

Think of writing a research proposal as being very like writing a research paper in some ways. When you want to convince readers that your analysis of a historical subject is sound, you take care to construct your argument logically, to make the most effective use of your evidence (and other intellectual tools available to you), to show why this is a particularly good way (not the only way, but perhaps, at least, the best way given the current state of knowledge) to understand something better. You focus, revise, get feedback, revise some more. ‘Facts’ don’t just speak for themselves.

A good research proposal is constructed along similar lines, and using the same sort of skills. This is not superficial, it’s not sleight-of-hand. The ability to write an excellent research proposal strongly implies that you have what it takes to be an excellent researcher. Besides, it’s (to begin with, at least) the main piece of evidence the committee will have to make decisions about you. (There may be subsequent stages of evaluation based on interviews and/or more substantial examples of your previous work, but you’ve still got to get shortlisted on the strength of that proposal first.)**

Back to some basics. You have an idea buzzing around in your head. Perhaps you’ve already done a small piece of research (an undergraduate or MA dissertation) which has set you thinking about something bigger. Or you want to expand your PhD research in new directions. You’ve identified what you think is a serious gap, or a flaw, in existing research and you think you have a way of doing it better, of asking new questions and filling some significant holes. And from the beginning, it’s not enough to pile scorn on the existing historiography: you have to have a clearly articulated strategy for doing better. You need to think about the sources you want to use – as a historian, it may even be the case that you’re starting from a body of neglected source material you’d like to get stuck into – and what concepts, theories, methods, you’re going to use to interpret them. Start scribbling down notes. Make sure you’re as up to date with the relevant historiography as possible, so that you can be clear about where you will want to place your ideas in relation to it.

You need to refer to why you’re dissatisfied with the existing state of play, but be positive too: in setting out where your research will ‘fit’ into the field and the contribution it’s going to make, try to use metaphors of building rather than destruction. For one thing, the former are nearly always more accurate; there are few violent revolutions in academia, however ground-breaking you think (in your enthusiasm) you’re being. (Please don’t fall into the trap of over-hyping the importance of what you’re going to do. You’re not a superhero and you’re not going to save the world, okay?) And secondly, remember, the committee might contain ardent supporters of the approach you’re busily shooting down in flames. Don’t make unnecessary enemies at this stage. (And on re-reading this it strikes me that you probably don’t want to mix your metaphors quite as promiscuously as I’ve just been doing either…)

Then you need to start to clarify and to organise those scribbles. Now go and read section 3.6 of Kraicer’s Art of Grantsmanship, carefully. (You should also look at section 4.) Bearing in mind that he’s addressing science researchers, not historians (we don’t, for example, tend to talk about ‘testable hypotheses’…), what he says there is essential reading and adaptable to the different emphases of other disciplines. It sets out pretty clearly what you should be doing to turn your rough ideas into a convincing argument to put to a funding committee. So I’m going to save myself some time here by not repeating it.

But do start by asking youself: What are the big arguments? You might have to divide a proposal into different sections starting with a synopsis: this is a good place to summarise the key themes in as punchy a manner as possible. Even if a synopsis isn’t required, try starting with an introductory paragraph doing this anyway. There may be hundreds of proposals competing for this funding; you need to grab readers’ attention fast. You can elaborate on how you propose to go about your investigation in subsequent sections. (Not that you can elaborate on anything that much. There is never enough space for what you really want to say. But this is A GOOD THING. Seriously. It forces you to focus, to edit ruthlessly, distill it down to the very essence. In the process, you should gain a clearer sense of what you’re aiming for and how to say it succinctly and effectively. Don’t waste words. Learn to love your red pen.)

Then there’s the feedback and revision stage. From whom, will depend on what stage you’re at. If this is a PhD proposal, then you should at least have a number of teachers to whom you can turn for advice (and perhaps other postgrad students you know too). By the end of a PhD, however, you ought to have a small network of people who can advise you: supervisor and other staff in your department (and possibly your external examiner, depending on how positive your viva experience is), along with your fellow PhD sufferers; and other academics and research students you’ve established friendly contacts with along the way (IRL or online). So asking for feedback on a draft of a proposal (or papers, or chapters of your thesis) is simply a more elaborate, slightly more formal version of the discussions you should be having with academic friends and mentors anyway from the earliest stages. It can be intimidating approaching ‘real’ academics for things like this at first, but ask politely and bear their gruesome workloads in mind, and you’ll generally be pleasantly surprised at how kind and generous they are. (They’ve all been there too, don’t forget.) If you’re going to be a ‘real’ academic too, you need to get used to asking – and giving in return – favours.***

Getting advice from those with more experience will help with some of the difficult balances that have to be maintained: between confidence in the value of your ideas and awareness of the problems; between going over old ground and originality and impractical speculation; between coherence and rigidity (you never know at the outset quite where your research will lead). Gauging what’s manageable without being too ‘small’ and narrow isn’t easy either. Moreover, other readers – experienced old hands or not, and whether or not they’re familiar with your particular field – will bring fresh perspectives, a little more objective distance than you can probably manage at this stage. They can spot problems you haven’t noticed, things you haven’t communicated very well. (“Um, what exactly are you trying to say here? Have you thought about such-and-such? Is this bit really relevant?”)

Eventually, you will have a working nearly-final draft that you can use as a template for different applications. I say ‘nearly-final’, because you need to be prepared to revise it depending on the priorities, and requirements, of the different organisations you’re likely to apply to. Some will give you a little more space than others; some will want applications structured in different ways. In any case, it will need periodic revision if you aren’t immediately successful with it, to refine it further if possible, but also to ensure it doesn’t become dated.

And you have to be prepared for rejection. It will come sooner or later, and it will hurt. Not just because of the practical worries (“What now? Can I find alternative funding? What will I do instead? Eek!”), but also because of the emotional investment you’ve poured into it. (“How can they do this to me?! My baby, my baby!”). All you can do is pick yourself up and try again. A rejection (or even a few rejections…) doesn’t automatically mean that there’s anything wrong with your project or with the proposal. Remember, the next committee may love you.

………………..

* Although sometimes a little cynicism is a Good Thing. For example, Rob was concerned about the AHRB’s apparent expectation that applicants for MA funding should already have clear plans for their PhD, which seems on the face of it rather unreasonable. As I said then, this would be one occasion when you don’t have to be entirely honest:

I think that they want to see that you’re thinking about it and that you have constructive ideas for the future. I really don’t think that if your subsequent PhD proposal looks rather different, anybody’s going to turn round and say, Aha! Liar! Get lost! It just won’t matter by then. So think of it in terms of what you could use the MA to go on to do, put something that sounds good in the form and then – forget about it.

** There will often be another section on application forms that needs careful work: the one about what you’ve been doing lately. If you’re applying for a post-doc, they’ll probably want to know about your PhD research. Chances are that there will be strong links between that and what you want to do next; so write up the outline of the PhD in a way that highlights those connections. Show that you have a Plan.

*** That is not meant to sound like a recommendation to approach strangers out of the blue and ask them for detailed comments on your pet project, by the way. That would just be rude. And only cranky old professors can get away with being rude.

Funding postgraduate study and research in history

As a follow-up (though later than intended) to earlier posts about doing a PhD and MA courses, this is about how to go about acquiring the financial wherewithal to do your post-grad and post-doc study and research – or at least to cut down on the burden on your own pocket as far as you can. It isn’t easy. It requires hard work and focus; and I’m afraid that there’s an element of luck, however good you are.* But at least you can avoid making unnecessary mistakes and increase your chances of success by going about it in the right way…

I’ve decided to split this post in two since I started it: this one will be about the basics of where to look for funding and the application processes, the second will look more at strategies for writing research proposals.

NB: I have in mind particularly students and starting-out post-docs in history (and related fields), by the way, rather than faculty looking for, say, grants for research leave and replacement staff, although some of the principles are the same. And as ever, when I focus on details I’m looking at the British system with which I’m familiar.

The sources of funding

You need to start by finding out what funding might be available in your field, for your course/study programme/research project. The ideal is, of course to get a substantial award that will cover as much as possible of your various costs: tuition fees, living expenses, research expenses. If you can only get partial funding – say, tuition-only grants or small bursaries – you may have to think hard about where the rest is to come from. But some is always better than none. Similarly, the fewer strings attached, the better. Some universities offer Teaching Assistantships for PhD students (though they seem much rarer than in north America), for example; you’ll need to look carefully at the workload that goes with this. Or (but this is much less common than in sciences) there are sometimes PhD studentships attached to larger research projects, but then of course you’re tied in to somebody else’s research agenda rather than being able to independently pursue your own. Make sure that research is something you really want to do.

There are various options: government funding through the national research councils; university studentships and fellowships; grants from other academic organisations; charitable organisations (usually for small grants only). For history, the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) website used to have an excellent freely-accessible database of grants in history. Now you have to buy the book (£15 + postage) to get most of that information, although a sample chapter is still available online. Yeah, thanks guys.

Jobs.ac.uk regularly advertises studentships and post-doc fellowships. Right now, for example, there are Masters and PhD studentships on offer at Cardiff University’s School of History and Archaeology (deadline 1 June 2005) and Research studentships at the Open University (deadline 1 March 2005). If you already have an idea of what university you want to go to, find out if it has its own studentship schemes on offer. The IHR itself has a range of competitions for post-grad and post-doc grants (which you can find in that online chapter). The British Academy runs an annual post-doc fellowship competition, amongst other post-doc level grant schemes. The main sources of university postdocs are Oxford and Cambridge colleges (where they are called Junior Research Fellowships); these are also advertised at jobs.ac.uk.

Postgrad history students in Britain will be looking at one of two research funding bodies, depending on what kind of historical research they want to do:

The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB)

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Application essentials

Read the requirements and all documentation provided for guidance, eg for AHRB Research Grants. Check, to start with:

1. Whether you personally are eligible to apply (eg, nationality or residency restrictions)

2. Whether what you want to do falls within the competition rules. Don’t apply to the AHRB if you want to do heavily statistical history, or to the ESRC if literary analysis is your thing… Don’t ask for £2000 for a small research grant if the top limit is £1000… And so on.

3. When the deadline is, and prepare well in advance accordingly. For most studentships for entry next autumn, you need to be preparing NOW, even though the deadlines are not until next spring (and the forms may not even be available yet). You need to have an offer of a place from a university before you can apply for grants; and moreover the universities will want to have your AHRB/ESRC form before Easter, so that they can complete their sections in time for the deadline (which is in early May).

The rules for the AHRB and ESRC postgraduate studentship competitions – and consequently the application forms – seem to become more complicated every year. Also, the AHRB rules have changed in recent years; they no longer fund stand-alone Masters (the ESRC made this change some time ago), only Masters’ courses explicitly intended to prepare students for PhD research. The research training and support provision by universities has become much more important than it used to be, and is likely to be a key part of your application.

Writing a strong research proposal

It’s not enough to have a good idea for research (whether postgrad or postdoc). You also have to be able to write a good proposal, one that will stand out from the crowd and convince committees that it’s a project that deserves their money. Only about one in four or five applications for AHRB/ESRC studentships is successful; the competition for postdoc and junior research fellowships will be even more intense. As I say, I hope to come back to this in more depth soon. In the meantime, you might want to read these:

ESRC: How to write a good application

The Art of Grantsmanship (this is written for scientists and with large-scale research projects in mind, but contains much of value at any level or scale (or field) of research)

——

* If you follow the advice here and have no success, don’t sue me. I’m not making any guarantees.

Planning to do a PhD in history?

I sometimes get emails from prospective history PhD students seeking advice. This seemed a good time of year to gather together and set out some of my usual responses in a post.

NB: What follows is geared specifically to the university system that I’m familiar with in Britain. Only some of it will also be relevant to the very different PhD programs of the USA (and other countries); feel free to add further thoughts based on your own experiences there and elsewhere, or useful links.

You should take your time and do plenty of homework. If you’re contemplating doing a PhD (or, indeed, a Masters) next autumn, you do need to be thinking about it now, especially if you’ll be applying for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) or the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (and you probably should, even if you don’t think you’ll be successful!), which have strict application deadlines in the spring and complicated application procedures.

What is a British PhD?

The British PhD, essentially, is the PhD thesis (in American terms, you are ABD – ‘all but dissertation’ – from the word go). It is usually defined as a substantial piece of independent research, which should make an original contribution to an academic area or discipline. The PhD thesis is 80-100,000 words in length; the notional period of registration (standard period for funding) is 3 years full-time, and it usually must be completed in 4 years (the funding bodies set this deadline, and they get stroppy with departments that don’t achieve it with the majority of students…); for part-time students, it’s usually 5-7 years. (An MPhil is shorter, with less emphasis on ‘originality’, and many departments initially enrol students for this, ‘upgrading’ them after the first year if progress is satisfactory.) You will probably need at least an upper second class undergraduate degree in history or a related subject and/or a relevant Masters degree to be considered for a place.

Why do a PhD?

Perhaps the very first question you should be asking is if you really should do a PhD. It’s hard work, expensive if you don’t get funding, will eat several years of your life and probably drive you half-crazy in the process. Don’t go into a PhD simply because you can’t make up your mind what job you want or are having difficulty finding one, or because you aren’t keen on working 9 to 5 in an office or wearing suits (all that will seem even less appealing after three years as a research student). If you’re burning with desire to work on a particular topic then you might do it purely for its own sake, but you still need to think about the costs. If what you want is to be an academic historian, then it’s an essential qualification (though not a guarantee of employment; far from it). But otherwise? There are probably better ways to get a well-paid job than doing a history (or humanities generally) PhD. Yes, completing a history PhD will equip you with many skills beyond knowledge of the subject itself, which have value in the workplace beyond academia; the question is how much it really adds that you wouldn’t get simply from doing a Masters degree. Think it through very carefully.

A British PhD is an intensely personal, individualised experience. The only taught element will be research training in the early stages; that may involve a few exams or assessments, but the essential core of the PhD is independent research for the thesis itself. You will (nearly always) choose your own topic (unlike the sciences) and be responsible – with guidance from your supervisor – for designing and structuring the research. Some key issues follow from this.

Where to do your PhD?

The first is: it is not the overall prestige of a university or even a department that counts when deciding where to study. The first and foremost question you have to ask is: is this the right place for the research I want to do? If you can’t simply pack up and go where you please, because of, say, family commitments, don’t assume that you’re stuck with the nearest university whether you like it or not. Look into distance learning options (including the Open University). Think about whether you could commute once a month or so for meetings while using locally based library resources and inter-library loans. Unlike taught courses, it’s not necessary to be close at hand all the time, although you will miss out on some social aspects (and, perhaps, teaching opportunities). Some universities have quite strict rules about postgrads residing within a certain distance of the university; others seem to be more flexible.

You have to start, essentially, by looking for a department with at least one lecturer who will be a suitable supervisor (sometimes you will have more than one, especially if your research is interdisciplinary): someone who has the expertise to guide your research and, equally, someone you can feel comfortable with for three years plus. You’ll be spending a fair bit of time in intensive one-to-one discussions with them; you want someone who will both guide and challenge you, take your ideas seriously, treat you like an adult. There needs to be respect both ways. The precise nature of the ‘ideal’ relationship will depend on your own needs: how independent and mature you are; how much external stimuli you need to meet deadlines; how confident you are when it comes to developing your ideas (but remember, it’s not your supervisor’s job to massage frail egos or nag you into getting work done).

On the academic side, finding someone suitable is relatively easy. In Britain, you can check out the Institute of Historical Research’s list of academic historians, and visit departmental websites; where more specialised MA courses related to your interests are offered (this database is very good), that implies there are staff with the expertise to supervise PhDs. But you should already have an idea from your previous study and reading of historians whose work you respect and enjoy reading. Look them up. They aren’t gods just because they’ve been published. And they do not necessarily have to be specialists in precisely the narrow area in which you want to research (particularly if you’re doing something new); a supervisor who knows too much can actually, I think, inhibit the development of your own ideas. You don’t really want to end up doing their research for them, or feeling that you can’t approach their work critically where it relates to your own.

The personal side is harder. I was fortunate; I knew my supervisor well as an undergrad, I knew he was conscientious, highly knowledgeable and moreover that we were on the same wavelength. (I also knew several of his recent PhD students.) Not everyone can be in that situation. But this is something to emphasise: don’t walk into your PhD without having made personal contact. Don’t just fill in the forms, accept a place and turn up hoping that you’ll like it and they’ll assign you a good supervisor. Doing a PhD will require a lot personal initiative: get in some practice right at the beginning (OK, you can’t just demand a particular supervisor, but you can do a lot to make sure that the person you want chooses you…). If you can, go and meet potential supervisor(s) in person and also take the opportunity to look round the university’s facilities and environment too; if not, pick up the phone and write emails.

Get the insiders’ view

And not just to the staff. Perhaps the best way to find out about a supervisor – and a department and university generally – is from existing students. You could ask them questions like: How often do you get to meet your supervisor, and is it easy to get an appointment? Do you feel comfortable turning to the supervisor about problems like writers’ block or (say) family or work pressures that hold up your work? How long does it take to get work returned? Do you get constructive feedback? Are you encouraged to keep writing (conversely, do you feel under too much pressure to perform, too many deadlines)? Does this supervisor seem to care about their supervisees? And broader questions: What’s the library like? The computing facilities? The research training? Do you feel happy and at home in the department, or do you get treated like cash cows, ignored or condescended to? I don’t think that many prospective research students do things like this – but they really should if they’re planning to go to an unfamiliar institution.

How do you get in contact with students? If you can visit in person, then find out where the postgrad facilities are and go and talk to them. Otherwise, you may need to do a bit of work. Institutions don’t always provide the kind of information that helps to locate research students – unless they’re also on the teaching staff. But there is another way with history students in Britain. You can track them down through the IHR’s list of theses in progress (although it tends to be a bit out of date at this time of year); once you have names, you should be able to get email addresses – or write a letter c/o the department if the university doesn’t have an open-access email directory. The list of theses in progress (and the lists of theses recently completed at the same URL) is an important resource for prospective PhD students in another way: you can find out about the latest doctoral research in your topic area, potentially avoid replicating too closely someone else’s research (remember that ‘originality’ element of the thesis!) and, moreover, find people doing related work who you might want to strike up contacts and share ideas with.

That might be particularly helpful if you’re looking at studying in a department with few research students. Small departments and/or small PhD cohorts have advantages. Firstly, you’re more likely to get more personalised attention and not get lost in a crowd; individually, you (and the fees you pay, to be practical here) are more important to that department; your relationships with staff are likely to be closer and less formal. The thing is that they may well need to be, since there won’t be a large postgraduate community to fall back on for support, sharing of academic ideas and socialising. It’s something else to think about.

NB: check out the research training and facilities

Look at what’s offered in terms of research training – especially if you plan to go straight into a PhD from undergraduate study. Largely because of the demands of the funding bodies, some kind of RT programme is now pretty much ubiquitous. Some, I suspect, are better than others. Ask whether there is training geared to your particular needs as a historian (individually tailored training seems now to be the emphasis of the AHRB, while the ESRC has tended to more uniform approaches), or whether it’s a more general programme taking in students from across the university. Again, get actual students’ opinions (you really don’t want to know what we think of parts of the training in place at Aberystwyth over recent years…). It’s not the most crucial issue – though, frankly, don’t even look at a place that doesn’t offer some kind of RT – but, like library and computing facilities etc, it’s something that might tip the balance in a final choice.

Oh, and it’s worth checking out accommodation costs in the area (both university-owned and the local rental market), since these vary hugely around the country.

I hope to follow up this post with something on how to play the funding game (which is another reason to start communicating with potential supervisors and others who can give you advice that will help you in writing grant proposals). A final reiteration for now, however: don’t rush into anything. For autumn 2005, think in terms of spending from now until Christmas preparing to make your applications. Look around at different places, consider the possibilities open to you. Think hard too about what you do want to do a thesis on, what sources you would use and what facilities it would require. These are things that will need to go into a grant proposal.