By Hugh McDonnell |

A fundamental question when considering a PhD is the kind of project you would undertake. Typically, there are two routes to PhD funding: one allows open applications for a project conceived of by the applicant him or herself; the other involves set, pre-conceived projects, which complement the research of faculty.

I considered both options, and indeed applied for lots of positions of both kinds. I ended up working on the ‘Europeanizing Spaces’ project at the University of Amsterdam, which I enjoyed immensely, and where I completed my PhD in 2014. I say ‘ended up’ deliberately here, as my own application process, and the thought that went into it, was impossibly muddled. In hindsight, though, I think there are a few points worth thinking about when deciding what kind of PhD project might work best for you.

set project

PhD vacancies for a pre-existing project might not coincide exactly with topics that most captivate you. Similarly, you might feel a lack of ownership of the research, in the sense that you are working on someone else’s brainchild. That said, my experience was that within the parameters of the project I was involved in, there was a great deal of flexibility to mould it according to topics and approaches which most interested me. Flexibility within projects presumably varies, however.

If you’re already at the stage of wanting to do doctorate work in history, it is likely that your curiosity and intellectual appetite are such that deciding on one very specific thesis proposal by yourself is a significant challenge. This is the great advantage of set projects. Certainly for me, it was better to be presented with a thesis topic in this way, since I would have otherwise endlessly vacillated between my own proposal ideas.

A potential pitfall, however, is committing to a set project only for the sake of doing a PhD. You need to think through whether it is actually something that can sustain your interest for three to four years. Doing a PhD can be fantastically fulfilling, but I’ve seen instances where it becomes an albatross around the necks of students whose hearts aren’t really in their respective theses. On the other hand, don’t dismiss project vacancies you see because they’re not exactly what you had in mind. It would be unusual that a project would be so constraining as to curb students connecting its broad focus to his or her pre-existing interests.

Bearing these points in mind, contingency often plays a large part of what you end up doing. Certainly there is no harm in applying for both kinds of positions and seeing what happens, but ideally with more forethought than was the case in my own experience!

Hugh completed his PhD in 2014 at the University of Amsterdam, where he worked between the department of European Studies and the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis. He is currently a postdoc fellow for the ‘Greyzone’ ERC-funded project based in the in the School of Political and Social Science at the University of EdinburghHe is the author of Europeanising Spaces in Paris, c. 1947-1962.



(Cover image (cc); Image 1 (cc); Image 2 (c) Liverpool University Press)