By Tim Galsworthy |

But why are you doing a PhD? But why are you doing that particular PhD? These are questions every single one of us undertaking a doctorate have been asked. From funding applications, to the first meetings with our supervisors, to conversations with friends and family down the pub – we are regularly tasked with explaining why we have chosen this path or that topic. We are habitually probed from an earth-shatteringly profound inspiration for dedicating years of our lives to further study. I have ruminated heavily on this issue recently, following the death of American historian, writer, and journalist Tony Horwitz. It was Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” which first stoked my interest in American Civil War memory, the basis of my doctoral research. These reflections have lead me to ask myself and others a direct question, why on earth would you do a PhD? And contrary to the belief of The Daily Mash, it is isn’t “just an excuse to spend another three years arsing about.” (The Daily Mash, 26 September 2017)


That stereotypical PhD pondering pose


I appealed on social media and spoke privately with friends and colleagues, collecting an assortment of anecdotes and stories. In the course of this post I have anonymised and generalised the PhD inspirations which were described to me. While I have discussed this question with people across a range of institutions and disciplines, I wish to disclaim my inevitable biases. I am a History PhD student and I have much greater familiarity with postgraduate study within the Arts and the Humanities. However, I think that most of the PhD inspirations described below are applicable across the breadth of the academy.


Perhaps the question of why we undertake PhDs at all, rather than the ins and outs of our specific subjects, is the most difficult to answer. For lots of postgraduate students doing doctoral work seems a logic progression. Countless people I spoke to stressed that they chose to do a PhD because of previous study. They emphasised how it was their enjoyment of a particular course, a particular assignment, or a particular book that lead them towards further research. The influence of staff and supervisors in inspiring us to consider postgraduate work must also be considered paramount. For myself a combination of my experiences during my undergraduate and Masters degrees made a PhD my desired trajectory. I was incredibly fortunate that the topics and tutors I interacted with encouraged me to stay the academic course and helped me find my own specific niche.


For others a PhD seems a logical progression because of their background. Some of us are surrounded by family and friends who themselves have doctorates or are steeped in academic traditions. It is not at all surprising if your sibling has a PhD or if your parents and grandparents are teachers that you have a passion for learning and studying. However, the opposite is also true. Many are driven in their doctoral work by their status as first-generation scholars making their own incredible mark on the world.


PhD inspirations are rooted in crucial formative experiences. A number of people described to me that sought after academic “Eureka” moment. For some that moment came when they opened an archive box which scholars have never considered before. For others it was realising that they could reveal new stories, perspectives, and voices that previously had been muted. Personally, it was a research trip to Montgomery, Alabama during my MPhil which gave me my epiphany. As a worked my way through historical records – surrounded by the weight past of that historic city – I began to see my thesis argument and my intellectual contribution taking shape. It was in that instance that I released that I could do this and that I wanted to do this. I wanted to spend my life thinking about and talking about my academic interests and passions.


The Alabama Department of Archives and History, my corollary to Archimedes’ bath tub


Beyond the broad array of motivations for doing a PhD in the first place, the reasons each of us choose our specific fields and topics form a colourful and diverse patchwork quilt. In some cases postgraduate endeavours once more stem from previous study, growing out from earlier essays or research. Other PhD students apply to take part in particular projects or to undertake pre-defined research. For many, it is present-day contexts which condition their scholarly route. I was afforded a variety of accounts of how individuals looked at the societies around them – at a specific instance or injustice, or a problem they perceived – and sought to understand the who, what, when, where, and why. Contemporary politics crops up again and again in the justifications for our work. My PhD, which explores the relationships between historical memory and the Republican Party of the civil rights era, was fashioned in the cauldron of Donald Trump’s United States. As I watched the events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, I just knew I had to understand how we had got to the stage where a Republican President – a representative of Abraham Lincoln’s party – was defending neo-Nazi protestors opposed to the removal of Confederate statues.


Neo-Nazis and Neo-Confederates at the “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, August 2017


What my brief inquiry into PhD motivations has taught me is that no two PhDs, and no two PhD origin stories, are the same. There are as many inspirations for doing a doctorate as there are doctoral students in the world. Every single PhD project is personal and unique, and every single doctoral journey is personal and unique. I want all the past, present, and future PhD students reading this to hold onto one important and liberating fact – no one route to and through a PhD is more or less legitimate than any other. As a scholastic Frank Sinatra or Fleetwood Mac might say, your way is the right way.


Tim Galsworthy is a History PhD student at the University of Sussex. He serves as Topical Editor for Pubs and Publications. He has also recently been elected as one of the Postgraduate Secretaries for the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS)

Twitter: @timgalsworthy


Image 1:

Image 2: Tim Galsworthy

Image 3: