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.

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.