The academic in the museum: the benefits of Collaborative Doctoral Awards

York Minster. Caption reads "York, See Britain by Train"
British Railways poster “York: Gateway to History” by E. H. Spencer, 1955

Sophie Vohra is a CDA student at the University of York in collaboration with the National Railway Museum. Her research examines the commemorative cultures and making of railway history. 

At the beginning of this year I started my Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA), with one of my main goals being to use the skills and knowledge I acquire through this process to further my prospects in the heritage sector. Moving through my stages of higher education, I have increasingly become a strong advocate for disseminating the historical knowledge generated in institutions of higher education for public consumption, i.e. public history. Therefore carrying out a doctorate that would bridge the resources and knowledge of the University of York and the National Railway Museum for a topic I had almost accidentally fallen into loving – commemorative practice – seemed silly to pass up sending an application in for. Drawing on my experiences so far, I’m going to discuss what these CDAs bring to the parties involved (the university, the partnered institution and the student) and how this relationship is an important and enhancing process for knowledge development and exchange.

According to their Scheme Guidance document, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the funder of the scheme, wants CDAs to allow students to “gain first hand professional experience outside the university environment“. As such the programme should give students “real opportunities to develop career enhancing skills in addition to an academic qualification“. I have had the opportunity to actively take part in tasks around the museum, such as pest-checking railway carriages with the conservation team, and attending meetings where decisions are made about what is carried out and why, including what objects come in and are loaned out of the National Railway Museum’s collections. This is important because I can dip my toes into various aspects of working in a museum without having to commit fully to an area I may not find is my niche.

Furthermore, one of the key aspects of the partnership is that the student has the resources, support and guidance of their university alongside the cultural heritage partner. I am able to use and learn from the expertise of those within the university to increase my skills as an academic. This includes various elements of developing my thesis such as research techniques, structuring and writing styles. This relationship is also important for forging a career in academia with opportunities including teaching undergraduate students, training sessions on getting my work published, and various occasions to deliver papers for academic audiences. Additionally, many of the academics at York are actively engaged with projects that utilise their research both within and outside the university, for example consulting for both factual and fictional television and film.

Crucially, these partnerships are also very important for the institutions the students are bridging. The AHRC highlights that they want partnerships that exist to be solidified and new ones to be formed through this experience. Though I can only comment from a student’s point of view, I believe that these links mean that knowledge exchange can take place between groups that may not have otherwise come together or may not have found an innovative way of pooling their resources. The CDA may also allow for the opportunity to nourish students to assist in developing new and exciting research and skills for the benefit of both partners. Finally these links could then branch out to other institutions. For example, both the Universityof York and the National Railway Museum have links with other universities and railway museums in Europe. This could allow for partnerships that bring four institutions together or potentially a crossover of links such as between the University and the European railway museum.

But it has to be remembered that not every CDA works as is intended. One aspect of this partnership that did not come to mind initially when I applied was how much of the timetable should be allotted to contributing to museum projects alongside the thesis. In opening conversations with fellow CDA students from all years across the country, one of the first topics that quickly crops up are horror stories of how other students were over-employed by their partnered intuitions, being swept up by cataloguing projects, and when the clock struck twelve on the funding at the end of the three years, they still had not completed writing up the thing they ultimately had set out to do – their thesis! This does not suggest a healthy partnership between the the student’s university and the institution, nor between the student and their supervisors. In fact, the AHRC states quite firmly that “applications which appear to be requesting interns will not be considered favourably“. However, I have found that this overload can be combatted by ensuring that the research that is being carried out for the thesis already has a benefit for the cultural heritage institution as well. This ultimately has to come in the planning stages of the application summited by the university and in this case the museum. My research will hopefully be used to inform part of an exhibition and I will also be actively engaged in the exhibition planning. Therefore, aside from the experiences I am encouraged to or I ask to do in the museum, my research already has an output that benefits myself, the university, and importantly the partnered institution.

Overall I believe CDAs are important for a number of reasons: they allow students to develop essential experience over an extended period of time for their professional and academic development; it means that academic research in universities can be translated for public consumption, where the researcher can be actively involved in how this is carried out; they allow strong partnerships to develop and solidify between universities and cultural institutions for essential research to be carried out in future; finally they encourage symbiotic relationships between these institutions to become the norm where research coming out of universities can be used for the enhancement of the public’s education outside of places of formal learning. I therefore hope that the number of CDAs can increase for the benefit of universities, their students, the cultural heritage partners and, most importantly for me, for the general public.

Experience: An Essential Addition to a History Degree

2014-05-21 18.37.43Dan Johnson is a PhD researcher in the Department of History. His research focusses on public understandings of crime history in museums.

As MA not-quite-graduates are entering the summer and beginning to write their dissertations, a dark shadow of uncertainty is creeping in. The majority of students are faced with the huge question of what’s next. For most, they have spent the last 4 years of their lives focussed on passing modules, writing papers, and conducting research. While some, like me, will decide to continue their courtship with academia by embarking on a PhD, many will begin their search for careers outside academia. Having a postgraduate degree in history provides a great foundation to move into many sectors of the workforce, however, one area that is in high demand where a master’s degree is less important is in heritage. Almost a year out of a Public History MA, I have seen some colleagues flourish and begin their careers strongly in the heritage sector while many are left floundering and struggling to find work. As they all have postgraduate degrees in history, I wondered why some are doing so well while others are not. Here are a few of my thoughts.

From speaking to other public history alumni, as well as museum practitioners and from my own experiences, I can determine that simply earning a Public History MA does not necessarily equate to a better chance of a job after the degree is finished. The course here at York trains students in the theory behind the inner workings of many aspects of the field including museum education, oral history, curation, history in the media, and much more. The research standards are just as rigorous as our more traditional history counterparts and we are trained to apply our historical interests into practical settings. On paper, we should be prime candidates for careers in museums, media, historical organisations, as well as many more areas in the heritage sector and beyond. So why are there many public history postgrads still searching for work, or even giving up on their heritage dreams? The answer is simple: despite attending every seminar, passing modules, and earning honours in a postgraduate history degree, the best candidates for heritage jobs will also bring a hefty amount of real world experiences to the interview table. Do a simple Google search for any museums/heritage job and experience will always be present in the ‘essential’ traits column.

I am writing this post because so many people wonder how they are supposed to gain these experiences while entrenched in a rigorous postgraduate degree. To those people, I argue that York provides many opportunities to gain this highly valued experience that employers are longing for. The Public History MA requires its students to do a placement during the spring term, which is a great step in the door for future voluntary and work opportunities with historical organisations across the UK, however, a few months work experience as part of the course may still fall on deaf ears of employers. Beyond the mandatory placement, there are opportunities for summer internships that not everyone  takes advantage of. Yes it is during the summer when students are slaving away over dissertations, but again, this is an amazing opportunity to gain experience and make connections with historical organisations that are so valuable in the field that we are trying to get into. It also demonstrates that students are capable of balancing multiple responsibilities at the same time, a highly sought after trait in a heritage sector that is increasingly gutted by funding cuts and relying on a limited number of full time employees to accomplish an ever-growing list of tasks. In addition to the placement and internship opportunities, the university has strong connections with many of the museums in York, which are always looking for volunteers during the year. Volunteering with an organisation a few times a month over the course of the year is vital to showing commitment to potential employers, demonstrates long term experience, and also allows students to get their names and faces recognised by potential employers when job interviews arise. If volunteering for sometimes mundane tasks in a museum are not interesting enough, the university has a number of opportunities to present research papers, organise public events, and gain funding for reading groups and conferences through the Humanities Research Centre and our many interdisciplinary research centres such as the Centre for Modern Studies. All of these provide valuable practical experience for history postgrads to bring into job applications and interviews.

What has become clear from looking at alumni with the same or similar degrees from higher education institutions across the UK and USA, that if you want a job in a museum or in the heritage sector, earning a degree and showing educational competency is not enough. The students that have taken advantage of the many opportunities that York has to offer have thrived, while those who showed up for seminars and wrote their research papers are struggling to find their way in this competitive and over-saturated field. If you glance at the graduate profiles on our website highlighting some of our most successful alumni, you will find that every one of them stresses the importance of gaining experience and putting your education into practice outside of the classroom. The University of York’s Public History MA offers every opportunity for its students to be fully prepared to be ideal candidates for careers with historical organisations; it is the responsibility of students to make the most of their time beyond the ivory tower of academia while completing their degrees. It is important to remember that if students truly want to get the most out of their public history degree, not all learning will happen in the classroom.