I’m really pleased to announce that I passed my viva on Friday, at the University of Central Lancashire.
I was examined by Dr Sarah Mills from the University of Loughborough, who has done a lot of work about the history of twentieth century British youth movements in relationship to informal education and citizenship, and Dr Keith Vernon from UCLan, whose work I had come across in the context of adult education and the co-operative movement.
I talked them through my research and methodologies, at the same time as giving them more detail about how the scheme worked in practice, including the voluntary involvement of the artists involved and the ways in which the artists chose the pictures that they submitted to be exhibited. They asked me some interesting questions about the ways in which I framed my research – including the extent to which the ideas which informed Pictures for Schools were new ideas, or the extent to which they were older ideas that found a receptive environment for implementation in the post-war period; the extent to which the recent interest in post-war Britain is informed by nostalgia; and critical reactions to Pictures for Schools, and the extent to which I maintained a critical distance from Nan Youngman, despite my admiration of her as the founder of the scheme.
I spoke to several former PhD students before my viva, and the best bit of advice I was given was to try to enjoy my viva, and to bear in mind that it was a one-off opportunity to discuss my work in-depth with people who had read it more thoroughly than it is likely to be read by anyone else. I certainly felt really encouraged by my examiners’ interest in and enthusiasm for Pictures for Schools.
I recently submitted my PhD thesis, nearly five years after I started my studies. To say it was a challenge to reach this point – and that, frankly, it was a point I often thought I would never reach – is an understatement. Whilst I’ve loved my research, and spending a considerable amount of time immersed in my subject, it’s made me realise how unprepared I was in many ways to start a PhD. This is something I’ve thought about a lot and, as the 31 January deadline approaches for applications from prospective PhD candidates, I’ve written a list of reflections on my experiences for anyone who is currently considering applying for a PhD.
- Choose your university carefully
Think very carefully about the university and department you are applying for. Is it an environment where you feel comfortable, both academically and socially? Is it somewhere you can imagine spending a considerable amount of time over the next few years? Is there a strong research culture, and postgraduate support network, and are there students working in similar areas to you? Don’t get into the situation I did; I lived in a different city, and spent the train journey to each supervisory meeting trying to ward off feelings of having a panic attack, as everything about visiting the university, department and city in question filled me with such dread.
- Be aware of the financial commitment
Make sure you are fully aware of the financial commitment a PhD involves, and think very carefully about accepting a studentship that is only partially funded, or funded below the levels granted by research councils. My studentship was just £4,000 a year, meaning I felt obliged to continue working alongside my studies (outside of academia, in an unrelated field). Ultimately, spending three years working for an amount that represented less than minimum wage didn’t just present a financial challenge but a psychological one, as it made me doubt the value of my work.
- Be clear about why you are doing a PhD
A PhD is not something to be entered into lightly. Like any other kind of study, never embark on one just because you don’t know what else to do, or want to defer looking for a job.
- Make sure you are prepared academically
Having a Masters degree isn’t necessarily a requirement for being accepted for a PhD. I didn’t have one and spent the first year catching up – getting my brain back into the mode of reading academic articles, and producing academic writing.
- Don’t expect to finish in three years
Make sure you plan for the possibility of failing to complete your PhD in three years (mine took nearly five years, for various reasons). Although this varies from university to university, you could get hit by fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of pounds per term.
- Understand the conditions of your studentship offer
Make sure any promises of financial support are set out in writing at the start. When I accepted my studentship I was told I would have a £1,000 annual allowance to travel to conferences, undertake fieldwork and pay for training. Once I started my PhD I was informed it was in fact £500 per year, and that only £250 of this was guaranteed – the other £250 came from elsewhere in the university and was discretionary. Although this might sound like a lot, all of these activities are expensive, particularly when conference fees and accommodation are factored in.
- Ask about extra-curricular opportunities
Make sure there is encouragement and support for the other academic activities that go alongside your research – will you have opportunities for teaching, to present at conferences and to submit to journals? All of these are essential for finding a job afterwards.
- Understand your limitations
Be realistic about your expectations of yourself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to finish in three years, at the same time as working and undergoing several major life changes. The result was that I burned out and had to take a year out to get my life back on track – supported by my university. It made me realise that I needed to go at my own pace, both for the sake of my research and the sake of my health.
- Most people won’t understand what you are doing
Most people outside of academia don’t understand what a PhD is or what it entails. Get used to deflecting questions about how your ‘course’ is going and when you will be finishing (I used to confuse people by answering ‘how long is a piece of string?’).
- Love your subject
You are in a PhD for the long haul. Believe in what you are doing, and that you will get there eventually if it is worth doing. At the same time, don’t be offended when you find that very few other people are really interested in your research – family and friends are usually more concerned about what you’ll do afterwards, if they ask anything at all!
As I am approaching the half-way stage in my project I have recently embarked upon the PhD transfer process which marks the official transfer from MPhil to PhD stage. This involves writing a transfer report of up to 6,000 words outlining the research context, research aims, methodology, the progress made so far and possible thesis structure (it felt very early on in the project still be to outlining a possible thesis structure!) for my project. This, accompanied by a report from my Director of Studies on my progress, then led on to a transfer viva. My transfer viva was undertaken by two staff in my school, the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment. Although their fields of research differ considerably from mine, both had attended my in-school Pictures for Schools research seminar in January 2014 so had some understanding of the project. They admitted this background knowledge helped them, although they also felt the transfer report went over much of the same ground as the seminar (which I did indeed use as the basis for writing my transfer report, as I found that the act of introducing my research to a new audience really helped me to identity and focus on the most important points!).
Due to the transfer viva panel’s differing academic backgrounds, it wasn’t possible for them to ask detailed questions about the content and context of the PhD. Instead, they asked for clarification on a couple of minor points referred to in my transfer report, such as the age range of children visiting the Pictures for Schools exhibitions and filling out questionnaires, as well as whether both state and private schools were clients. They also asked for elaboration on key concepts highlighted in the transfer report, such as the importance of founder Nan Youngman to Pictures for Schools, and the significance of concepts such as ‘good taste’ I had highlighted. This enabled a discussion of the biographical aspect of the project, with Nan Youngman being seen as a central link which provided a way into exploring several different themes, concepts and influences. Although I always find opportunities to talk about my research useful and worthwhile, I found that it was sometimes difficult to answer these kinds of questions in sufficient depth before another question was asked.
Some of the panel’s questions indicated that there were still misconceptions about the way Pictures for Schools was described – for example, I seemed to have given the impression that the Scottish and Welsh exhibitions were less successful than the London shows, whereas my interpretation is that London provided a framework for the scheme to be replicated elsewhere. Also interesting was one panel member’s of the scheme as ‘superficial’, and his opinion that the organisers of Pictures for Schools represented a ‘self-perpetuating elite with their own language’, which I see to be in direct opposition to the aims of the organisers of Pictures for Schools. Other observations included mentioning the need to discuss conflicting pedagogical ideologies in a historical context, repeated references to a ‘deficit model’ of education (I wasn’t sure quite what this meant), and comments that today there seems to be a fashion for museums such as the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester to give children things to do as they go around exhibitions. Another question was raised about how the scheme influenced artists’ perceptions of art as a career, as opposed to being a hobby.
A key message from the transfer interview was that subjective assertions such as those I made in the transfer report need to be backed up by evidence rather than made as statements of fact. It was felt that the research aims and questions in the transfer report were more findings than questions, which led to a discussion about methodology and nature of historical research – I explained that my empirical findings had very much influenced the research aims as it was only after making initial archival findings, and knowing what material I was working with, that the scope of the project could be identified.
Another concern was that the scope of the project may be too wide, although it was pointed out that the transfer report very much represented a work in progress and that the final focus of the project is still open to change.
My two interviewees have submitted a report on my transfer viva to the relevant research committee at the university, and my project is now awaiting official approval.