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.

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8 Responses to PhD Help!

  1. Chris Williams says:

    The Hodder series I was talking about is the Writing history one, but the general volume seems to have a more historiographical tone. Despite the era gap, it looks like it might be worth getting hold of the EM one and reading it to get a good idea of methodology:

    Writing Early Modern History
    Edited by Garthine Walker
    ISBN: 0340807792
    Published: 27/05/2005

    Arnold – do a C19th and a C20th volume. I’d order them.

  2. Cuccu says:

    A lot of lecturers read your blog Sharon so can I add a request of my own?

    British universities are taking in a lot of postgraduate students from Taiwan, China, Korea and Japan. As these students are paying astronomical fees their supervisors need to be aware of the way that their cultures affect their behaviour as students. East Asian males will usually not talk to their supervisors when they are having problems. They come from cultures where academics are unapproachable demi-gods. There is also the difficulty that comes with having to face the ‘shame’ of missing deadlines and being behind. I have seen quite a few cases where these students have plucked up all their courage to tell their supervisors that they are having problems. However they usually fail to stress how serious the problem is. Academics in Britain need to be aware that a student who says he’s ‘a bit behind’ may be about to drop off the course. This isn’t really an issue that concerns historians as these students tend to follow more business oriented courses. However, as I said, I think you’ve got a high readership so if I’ve made one person think about this issue then that’s all for the best.

  3. Kate says:

    Why the hell didn’t anyone tell me about this website earlier? Bloody fantastic. I’ve been floundering about in the dusty halls of my museum (I’m an archivist, lucky me) wondering just how to go about applying for a PhD (when I’ve polished off this MA – two weeks to go and only 15,000 words to write, arghh!) and low, this website comes to me as if in a dream.
    On a serious note, very, very useful – despite getting top grades I entered a frankly shabby research proposal to the AHRB for my MA and am now lumbered with a huge bank loan and extended overdraft. I had no idea what was expected of me and rather arrogantly thought I could rely on my grades – not this time – thanks to your advice!

  4. Chris Williams says:

    Did it again. [ed: fixed]

    Hey Kate, I thought that archivists were in demand.

    What do you want to do yr PhD on?

  5. Cuccu says:

    Don’t feel bad if don’t get funding. So many people apply that you’re more likely not to get it because of the numbers involved than because of your proposal. Make sure you are with the appropriate supervisor for your subject as that can make a difference.

  6. This is obviously not applicable for Kate, but one of the things no one told me when I was applying is that MA students in the US hardly ever get funding, while PhD students are much more likely to be funded. Although I was sure I wanted to go for the PhD, I only applied to MA programs, because, well, you do them in order, right? I was extraordinarily lucky that the Director of Graduate Studies at Graduate U called me and asked if there were a reason I’d not applied to the PhD program. I explained myself, and he said, “so you are saying you want to apply to the PhD program?” “Yes” “Let me just write that on the application … all right, now that that’s done, I have been authorised to offer you four years’ fellowship, with a fifth year pending acceptable progress …”

    I tell this to all my students, because it was such a lame thing to have happened!

  7. Sharon says:

    ADM (and other American readers): so, in the US, how many people do in fact do an MA before a PhD? Given the extent of the taught part of an American PhD, does an MA add anything in particular? My advice to British students would always tend to be to do the MA first, because in a British PhD you’re dropped straight into a big research project and that’s very hard going straight from undergrad study, even now that some research training in the first year is pretty much standard. Even if you do have to fund your own MA, it’s the best opportunity you’ll get to prepare yourself for a PhD (and if you find you hate it, you might save yourself money and stress in the long run…).

    Cuccu: you’re quite right. Only a minority of humanities PhD students get funded, and there are many really talented students who have to pay their own way – all the more reason to think very hard about why they want to do it and make sure they get the most out of it. (And with the AHRB and ESRC the application process seems to get more tortuous every year. I saw last year’s forms; they seemed to be about twice as long as the ones I did back in 1999. Eek.) All of the advice I’ve given at this site over the last year or so has been about trying to increase people’s chances of being the fortunate ones – but no guarantees.

  8. I don’t know, since I did the combined program — the MA came when I defended my PhD thesis prospectus. If a person didn’t pass comprehensive exams, an MA thesis was required for the terminal MA degree. I think at my school, even people with MAs had to do a bit of coursework, but maybe the Cranky Professor would know better.

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