Tuesday 18 November 2014

Exercises in Greenwich Mean Time Confluence: PhD from a Distance

About once a month, I wake up at 04:00, make myself a terrifically strong cup of coffee, and settle down at my desk. This is not out of a misguided form of self-flagellation, but rather, for the privilege of academic work with which presumably all New History Lab readers and attendees are familiar. I’m enrolled as an overseas PhD student in American history at Leicester, based in the United States, working full time as an historical researcher for the State of Pennsylvania. While I have the tremendous boon of close proximity to archival sources in my favour, I also have a 5 hour time difference between myself and the university, and most importantly, my supervisors, with whom I regularly schedule 06:00 Skype meetings. While this situation is certainly unique when compared with how most postgraduate students pursue their degrees, it’s also a method that’s becoming increasingly common, thanks largely to readily-available social technologies.

This May, I was able to attend and give a paper at the School’s Postgraduate Conference, while another overseas-based student delivered her research via projection of a Skype call in the conference room. While I was there, and since, many people have asked me about what it is like to conduct degree work from afar. Truthfully, most of the time, my work as an off campus student is conducted likely in much the same fashion as most campus-based students. I communicate with my supervisors via email, I visit archives, compile research, read articles, and write. During the day, where the activities for my day job are not all that different from what I pursue outside of the office, I spend most of my time conducting biographical research on individuals who have served as Representatives or Speakers of the House throughout Pennsylvania’s long and storied history. The most significant difference in my own attempts at postgraduate historical research is that supervision meetings are conducted via Skype, but, when possible, I visit the campus for brief full-immersion academic ‘retreats’, as I did this May, further diminishing the distance distinction. Even when seminars and workshops cannot be attended due to distance, I’ve found the staff in the School of History to be tremendously helpful in accommodating students like me by linking to Powerpoint presentations and uploading webinars.

Technological advances aside, for humanities researchers, there is one element that could pose a real problem for the distance researcher (aside from lacking access to a computer with an internet connection), and that is a strong library resource. Not all libraries are created equally, and it is crucial to have access to the literature necessary for your research at large and to conduct your historiographical review. It’s best to make arrangements with a nearby Inter-Library Loan department that can request the books you need; this is particularly useful with out of print texts, and in some cases even microfilm can be requested for reading on the library’s machines.  As Matthew Wale mentioned in his recent post, most researchers are quick to tell you that pursuing a PhD is a lonely endeavour. In some senses, for the distance researcher, this makes little difference, when your modus operandi is independent data collection and interpretation. The vicissitudes of research that one must endure to pursue a PhD require much the same temperament whether one resides on the same landmass as their guiding institution, or with the Atlantic Ocean in between. Discipline, organization, time, and dedication are essential no matter the location. And the rewards of shoring up your reserves of those qualities and directing them toward your PhD are no less satisfying when you don’t have a designated office space on the Salisbury Road, lovely as those accommodations may be.

A few weeks ago, while poring over testimonies given by pauper migrants in Philadelphia in the 1820s, I came across the story of one man, an African American who had lived and worked in many locations prior to enduring the destitution that led him to seek alms-house admission in 1827. This man, Samuel Black, listed aloud to the alms-house administrators every job he had held in his adult life. Chief in this list of positions was a year and a half spent as a manservant for someone whose short biography I was scheduled to write for the state’s website the very next day: Speaker of the House for the 1799 session Cadwalader Evans. As far as I can tell, Black left no other records that have survived to the 21st century; Evans, too, is not among the best-remembered of the state’s legislative leaders. But the satisfaction of recognition that comes from two separate research pursuits colliding unexpectedly is one that is not necessarily contingent upon your own location at the moment of discovery. Synchronicities can happen anywhere, and while it can be a challenge not only building detailed work schedules for oneself but sticking to them, or locating the right primary sources and using them to their fullest analytical potential, the intellectual benefits of all of these endeavours are just as palpable regardless of location.

For anyone who is considering basing themselves away from their university for their PhD, it’s definitely worth considering (and I’m happy to answer any questions!). It’s also a great excuse to keep up via Twitter!