Between degrees: history outside academia

Detail from the the Rochester Bestiary (BL Royal MS 12 F XIII, f4r)
Detail from the Rochester Bestiary (BL Royal MS 12 F XIII, f.4r)

Tim Wingard is about to begin a History PhD at the University of York.

I finished my Masters in Medieval History at York in September 2015, and within weeks I was already desperate to return to academia. As things turned out, I now look set to return to begin my PhD research on late medieval sexuality and animality in October this year. The intervening months have been something of a liminal zone – I have needed to continue research necessary to write funding applications, research proposals, conference papers and blogposts, but have done this without formal institutional backing. It is my intention to use this opportunity to talk about my experiences – very much the definition of ‘doing history in public’ – and outline how modern technology makes it possible to participate in academia outside of a formal programme. This is of course merely a snapshot of my own particular experiences and not indicative of everyone who engages in alt-ac research; nevertheless, I hope that I can provide encouragement to current students who are facing the dilemma of applying to further study.

The most fundamental challenge facing the student outside academia is finding the time to do research at all. Since completing my Masters, I found that balancing the demands of working a 9-5 job and then returning home to work on proposals and papers has been tricky to manage even with all the privileges I have benefited from in terms of being able to live with my family, and I have immense respect for peers who tackle this challenge alongside the additional demands of caring responsibilities, ongoing mental or physical health problems, or erratic and unpredictable work schedules due to zero-hours contracts or multiple part-time roles. And, of course, these practical challenges will be a reality for many currently in universities studying while disabled or already undertaking part-time courses alongside work.

Perhaps equally as uncomfortable to acknowledge is the truth that without institutional affiliation, the budding historian faces significant restrictions on access to the material. Much scholarship still remains behind journal paywalls or in prohibitively expensive and hard-to-find books. However there has been a growing movement towards open access scholarship, entailing greater availability of the fruits of historians’ labour to all, and hopefully this trend will continue. In the meantime, open access provides opportunities for learning and research even without access to the full resources of a university. Many researchers, especially younger ones still in the earlier stages of their career, are beginning to make part of their research available for free through sites such as academia.edu. When I was writing initial applications to potential supervisors for instance, I always made a habit of looking up their profile on the site and reading through any of their research which they had published on here.

Open access isn’t just limited to secondary scholarship. Many archives and libraries are beginning to digitise and make available their manuscript collections so that anyone can read the primary sources of history for themselves. Globally, some of the biggest repositories are the British Library, the Danish Royal Library and the National Library of France. For my own research into bestiaries, I found that all three had a number of digitised manuscripts that were invaluable for drawing upon material for my conference papers – see for instance, the British Library’s beautiful Rochester Bestiary. Other ambitious projects seek to make professional, annotated translations of major medieval works available online, such as the Online Froissart Project or the Aberdeen Bestiary.

But ultimately, what was perhaps even more important was to retain links to the academic community and to continue to feel part of the wider body of students and researchers. And that is where the internet really comes into its own, in the form of the connections offered through social media. During my months out of university, Facebook and Twitter enabled me to keep in touch not just with friends from my course, but also with peers and colleagues from around the world. In terms of practical support, it means being able to ask for advice, guidance and reassurance from people who have already navigated the system, which is especially helpful when you may not have access to the formal guidance of a supervisor in the same way as you do during a degree.

Twitter in particular is a great resource for the researcher out of academia. Anecdotally, I have heard that many newcomers can find it intimidating to approach, with all its unfamiliar culture and traditions– but overall, I have found the niches of Twitter devoted to my field to be incredibly friendly, welcoming and helpful. Getting started is a matter of learning the most popular hashtags for your field – in my instance, #medievaltwitter – and starting to follow relevant people. It’s an incredibly diverse, if informal network – undergrads, postgrads, lecturers, archivists, experts in heritage and amateur enthusiasts all intermingle and talk to each other! I cannot overstate how important the site has been to me over the last year.

Overall then, my experience of being a student between degrees has been largely positive. It is hard work, and trying to fit research around the demands of non-academic employment is challenging – and it will make you truly appreciate the resources that are available to a scholar in a university environment. However, modern internet technologies enable the ‘alt-ac’ researcher today to achieve far more than was possible in the analogue era. Crucially, I want this post to be a message of encouragement to current students who are thinking of applying for further study, a position I was in barely a year ago. Don’t feel rushed into applications while you’re still studying! It’s natural to fear that you’ll ‘fall out of the loop’ if you wait until you’ve finished your current study, but the benefits of taking time out from university (another blog post all on its own) combined with the ability to stay connected mean that you should seriously consider it as an option.