Peter Halton: An MA student at MBS2015

Peter Halton

Peter Halton

Peter Halton is an MA in Intellectual History at the University of Sussex. He is currently writing his dissertation on the Marxism and utopian thought of William Morris. On Twitter: @PeterHalton

An MA student at MBS2015

As someone in the process of finishing a Masters degree and who wants to continue in the future with a PhD and more, MBS2015 was a learning opportunity for me in two senses. Firstly it was a chance to experience an academic conference for the first time. Secondly it was a chance to see what sort of work is being done by historians of modern Britain, and to remove myself from the world of my current dissertation project.

Overall, whilst I had my ups and downs during the three days, it was I feel a valuable experience and I want to thank here at the beginning the organizers for all their efforts.

I want here to think about the workshop held on the Wednesday morning, but to think about it from my own perspective as someone not yet on a PhD programme, and perhaps pose a few questions in order to continue the conversation.

At the start of the second half of the session, we went around the room and introduced ourselves, what our institution was and what we were working on. Whilst I perhaps could’ve got away with not mentioning the fact, I felt I should mention when speaking that I’m still an MA student and frankly felt a bit out of place. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one, and was encouraged that there were a few people at the conference yet to even start their MA.

Understandably, given that the vast majority in the room had already completed or were in the process of completing a PhD, little was said about the transition from MA to PhD or about the state and purpose of MA courses. A lot of conversation centered on the difficulties faced by those early in their academic career: pressures of teaching; meeting public engagement criteria (I’m still unclear as to what actually counts as public engagement); finding enough employment to simply subsist; and in the case of some people having to shift the focus of their studies after starting. Frankly, as we neared the end of the session I was pretty pessimistic about what lies ahead for me.

All of these issues raised questions for me about the PhD application process. I’ve been told by many people that one of the most important things to do is to find someone who you think would be a good supervisor and get in touch with them to discuss ideas and the such like. Whilst this is important advice, some of the problems raised in workshop left me wondering if that was the most important thing anymore.

It seems possible that you could end up with the perfect supervisor but working in an institution that doesn’t care about you or your wellbeing. Would it not in some situations be better to compromise more on your specific research interests in order to be in a more healthy and satisfying working environment? How am I supposed to know the ins and outs of different universities and what its like to be an ECR there? There are only so many people I can talk to for information.

All of this is in many respects secondary to getting funding. Follow the money: useful analytic advice at the same time as being a practical necessity for many trying to make a start in the profession. Application deadlines vary between institution or if the position is part of a specific project. Many are quite early in the academic year. I’m sure there are some people who know what they want to spend three years (at least) researching whilst only 5 or so months into an MA, but I certainly didn’t, I was still unsure what I wanted to do my dissertation on.

Many such as myself combine studying full time with working part time, purely in order to fund travel and study costs (not to mention fees). Even if I’d known what I wanted to research and perhaps contacted a potential supervisor, I’m not sure I would have had the time and effort to formulate a decent proposal that meets the requirements of the funding bodies.

So, even though I still want to continue with a PhD, I will be having at least a year break after finishing my MA. This raises the question of what resources are available on that year out for formulating a successful proposal. Obviously I’ll be able to contact supervisors and lecturers from my MA course. It was mentioned that many universities are allowing those finishing a PhD an extra year of library access in order to help with their early career. It’s perhaps too much to ask for this to be extended to those finishing an MA, but access to material, both print and online, is something I’m worried about looking forward to the months ahead of me.

Towards the end of the workshop, Catherine Hall asked us to think about the question ‘what is a history PhD for?’ I think the question also needs to be asked, what is a history MA for? Just as not every PhD student goes on to or even wants to go on to a career as an academic, not every MA student goes on to a PhD.

On a funding issue, it’s fairly well known that funding for MA courses isn’t in a great state. I was only able to afford my MA course (not at Birmingham) due to a scholarship that reduced the fees to a little under half the full amount, the remainder I paid for out of savings I’d made working for a year before my undergraduate course. I have noticed a few universities increasing the amount of scholarships available and whilst this is welcome, it does feel a little like papering over cracks.

I don’t know how relevant these thoughts are to the conversation MBS rightly wants to continue. Although a firm believer in the power of pessimism and anger, I feel I should end on a positive note. The workshop left me a little confused and worried, but I thought about Catherine Hall’s question and I guess my answer came over the next two and a half days. I want to do a history PhD because I enjoy history and think it is important. If the social side of the conference terrified me and maybe left me dispirited, the academic side left me feeling positive and stimulated. I enjoyed the panels, papers, and plenaries I attended and left perhaps a little more positive than I felt at lunch on the Wednesday.

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