The Value of Collaborative Doctoral Award Studentships – some thoughts

It’s not often that you get a chance to reflect and think about where the value in a particular funding stream lies. As a student with a Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDA) from the AHRC, I was delighted to hear a conference had been organised to do just that. What made this conference more interesting was that it had been organised by students like me, and not the AHRC, the universities or institutions who have been part of shaping the scheme.

The day was split into three, origins, innovations and legacy. The first session had Ian Lyne from the AHRC, academics Margot Finn from UCL and Trustee of the V&A, and Alastair Owens from Queen Mary University, and a CDA student, Jade French. The second session focused on the variety of projects CDAs can produce with presentations from past and present students. The final part of the day looked a legacies and had a mix of academics and heritage professionals that included Alexandra Goddard, now at the British Library Goddard focused on her work at the Geffrye Museum, Bill Sherman from the V&A and the University of York, Kevin Moore, director of the National Football Museum,¬†Farah Karim-Cooper from Shakespeare’s Globe and Eithne Nightingale a current CDA student.

More details of the programme and points for discussion can be found on the CDA Value website.

I think the organisers did very well at trying to balance out a mix of presentations and discussion and from the first session it was clear many people in the audience had questions and experiences they wanted to share.

I was interested to learn that the model for the CDA had been borrowed from the sciences and were originally designed ten years ago to meet the perceived gaps in knowledge observed by cultural and heritage institutions. In the ten years CDAs had been running it had become clear that there is no specific model for a CDA. They could be part of a heritage institution or other cultural institution, designed by the either a university, the cultural institution or by the student. Jade French was a perfect example of the project originating from the student and so able to design a process and area of study. This is very different from my experience of applying to a university to study a fairly vague topic and being given free reign in an archive.

As part of the origins discussion I thought one of the most important points raised was by Margot Finn (who raised many other important issues), that ultimately a student has to complete a PhD, and as part of this the University has a responsibility to train and prepare the student to create and write their own academic projects. At one point the audience was asked if they planned to pursue an academic or heritage career post-PhD, and the split was about 50:50. Consequently it was evident that important questions need to be asked about how well the CDA can train students for either. Though because they are all so different, I think it is important for the students to communicate their ambitions to the university and cultural institution and look for ways to develop their training.

An advantage of the CDA that was outlined was the access for students to these institutions, and from my own experience I would argue the CDA experience is partly what you make of it. Use these contacts and don’t be afraid to ask for help or training. Having said this a reoccurring theme or question that was asked was about the nature of collaboration, and even power, where did it originate and how did the student fit into this? Some CDA projects have an outline of work at the cultural/heritage institution and ideally that needs to fit with the student’s ambitions (hopefully discovered at the interview) and also be allowed for within the scope of the PhD. The funding currently lasts for three years and it can be very difficult to train in another discipline and conduct research in that time let alone write up a PhD. So yes, it is what you make of it, but this has to be negotiated within the parameters of the demands of a regular PhD workload and the needs of the institutions you work with.

From my own experience, to ensure I maintained some practical museum experience I started my PhD part time and worked at a museum alongside my research. This was useful as it gave me time to explore my research area and find my research questions and topic for my PhD, but it did give me more distractions and it felt the PhD was dragging at times. To help develop my relationship with the heritage institution my CDA was with, the British Postal Museum and Archive, I decided to undertake the Associateship of the Museum Association. This involved a work-based-project and I completed this with the BPMA. I am yet to have my professional review, so I’ll have to let you know if that was ‘successful’, though I can say it did develop my knowledge and skills in a particular area of the BPMA’s work that I wouldn’t have encountered without the AMA.

I am still working on my PhD and so I was very interested in the final session on legacies. From this discussion it was evident that collaboration and skills of working across institutions will be valuable in the future job market. I was also happy to hear that both Sherman and Moore had experience of working both at museums and academia, and that these are two careers can collide. Unlike many of the audience I haven’t decided, or don’t want to choose, between academia and heritage, and I hope there is scope for work across the two. I see the development of public history as part of this and I think it is an area CDA students should be increasingly aware. One of the main advantages of a CDA is supposed to be the opportunity for students to have an outlet to the public, to gain experience in public engagement and sharing their research with the outside world. I think that this can sometimes take some time to be realised, especially as PhDs can be slippery beings, designing an exhibition on your topic might only appear possible after you’ve submitted. However, I think CDA have a unique position standing between universities and cultural institutions to understand the challenges and opportunities of using research to engage the public.

All in all it a useful and interesting day. As JD Hill identified in his final reflection, there are still areas to be explored further. The AHRC have announced that funding for future CDAs will be for longer than three years, meeting one criticism that has followed the programme for the past decade. However, other issues around funding remain. When a studentship is granted the amount is based on the location of the university not the partnered institution. So a student could be partnered with a London based museum or archive, and so need to be based there to do research, but because their university is outside of London their funding will be without the substantial London weighting. It is also important to think about how this stream of funding can be exclusive, prominently granted to large cultural institutions with a heavy focus on heritage, where as smaller institutions could benefit as could other humanities subjects such as philosophy, law or media studies. There is also the struggle with pulling all of this new knowledge together, do we need an online platform to share resources, challenges, methodologies and discoveries?

Hill concluded with the idea that CDAs had changed the nature of knowledge coming out of universities. I’m not sure if this is true, but from my day in a room full of academics, culture professionals and students I did feel that we were at the forefront of an important shift in producing research, and that we need to ensure students feel empowered to do more with this and meet their ambitions.