By Louise Morgan |
Having started my PhD just over a month ago, I have spent a lot of time recently meeting new people and explaining my research quickly to them. Since my research is fairly contemporary, the follow up question is almost always “What got you into that topic?” This is a question that strikes fear into the hearts of many a historian. How exactly do you explain the particular circumstances that lead to your discovery of a topic so specific that nobody has braved its study before?
The rest of my PhD cohort seem to have fairly neat stories of their interest in a field that has been narrowed into their specific topic over time, or an inspiring lecturer who drew them to their topic. In my case, I can’t explain a development from an undergraduate dissertation to my current topic. Having spent my master’s and undergraduate dissertations researching the history of homosexuality, I changed my field of interest for my PhD. Whilst I’m still based broadly in the history of medicine, my topic, sources, research methods, and chronology have all changed massively.
Before starting my PhD I knew only a handful of people who had made the jump to a different specialism. Here are some of the advantages and challenges I have come across so far for those who may be considering a similar move.
This has probably been the biggest positive for me. Whilst my previous work was something I was really interested in, looking back I realise I probably didn’t have the passion necessary to pursue it for another three years at PhD level. Taking a year out to find the field that really spoke to me and provided the perfect balance of interest and real-world applicability was vital. Not only am I returning to academia refreshed, I am coming to my research with new enthusiasm, and perhaps most importantly, with a belief that my research might have real impact.
A Foot in Both Worlds
Just because my focused research has changed doesn’t mean I have lost interest in my previous topics. The flexibility of the PhD allows me to attend seminars, lectures, and reading groups in both my current and previous research interests, allowing me to take a break from studying whilst also keeping my mind active and interested. Similarly, I can take research skills and methods I used previously to shape my approach to my new topic.
Whilst others were able to get straight into the archive when they started their PhD, I will need to spend my first couple of months really getting to know the literature of my new specialism. Ideally this would have been done in my year out, however living three hours away from my nearest university library and working full-time meant that I had to rely on open-access sources online and those texts I could afford to buy second-hand. My peers seem to have a good grasp of where they are going and what they are doing, whereas I still feel like I’m warming up for the race rather than hitting the ground running. Whilst in some ways this is a negative, having a more relaxed start to the PhD has helped me get settled in, find my feet, and work out how to navigate the world of academia.
Methodology and Archives
Having spent two years researching in a select group of archives, I felt like I knew them well enough to know where to find the sources I needed, and perhaps more importantly where to find the closest coffee shop. Similarly, I was comfortable with the theory of the field, and knew the methodological questions that might be asked of me. Within my new specialism, I feel like I am starting from scratch. I know of the sources I will use, and where to find them, but I’m not yet comfortable with them and I certainly don’t feel knowledgeable about them. I also live in fear of discovering some deep, complex methodological theory I have so far managed to miss from my ever-growing reading list. However, this is also exciting – I am learning so much as every day passes, and enjoying uncovering a new field!
Louise Morgan is Contributions Editor for Pubs and Publications. In the first year of her PhD at the University of Warwick, her research focuses on the history of orthorexia nervosa and clean eating. She can be found on Twitter, and would welcome any recommendations for good coffee near the National Archives in Kew.
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Image Two: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pile-of-books-in-shallow-focus-photography-264635/