This is my first post for British Naval History; I hope and trust it will not be my last. My intention is to post about once a month, more or less, on a variety of topics – from naval or military history, to current events, to conference, grant, and fellowship opportunities, to advice to those pursuing graduate degrees – the field is open and I’m happy to consider suggestions. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, or disagree with anything I write. I encourage discourse – as long as it’s civil! Thanks.
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On 22 August 2016, I received the communication every PhD student ardently desires: a letter, addressed “Dear Dr Anderson” (my first clue) saying, “I am pleased to inform you that you have satisfied the examiners in the examination for the Doctor of Philosophy in War Studies.” After nearly five years of hard work, I had finished my PhD at King’s College London. I was done. I was happy (to say the least). I did not go out and celebrate – I had done that when I had passed the oral defense of my thesis some months earlier. Instead, in the several weeks since receiving that letter, I have found myself in a reflective state, thinking about the experience, what it was like, what insights I had gained, and what it means to have achieved a PhD. These are some of my thoughts, insights, and suggestions that others might find of use or interesting (some of all of which may be obvious or not novel):
Start out right
You need to know before you start a PhD program that you have a good topic for your research. Do enough research and ask enough people about your intended topic to determine that it is an area ripe for study and in which there is the proverbial lacuna in the research. Make sure it is a topic that you are prepared to live with, 24-7-365, for years. If you have even the slightest hint that the topic is not massively interesting for you, find some other subject. The work is difficult enough without it being on a topic in which you have lost, or lose, ardor.
Equally important is who the primary supervisor for your project is. If you don’t have a primary supervisor who (a) thinks you have a good research project; (b) is someone you can get along with well and can take advice from; and (c) is going to be there for the duration of your project, find someone else! Your supervisor can make or break you and the experience. Take the time to meet with prospective advisors before you even apply to a program. You have to “click” with your supervisor. I think finding the right supervisor is more important than the institution in which you enroll. If your supervisor does not like your topic, or you cannot get along with him or her, it will not matter how prestigious a university or department is in which you are working. The chances that you will not finish will be increased.
It should not to be a lonely process
Many people told me before I started down the road to a PhD that it was a lonely, isolated process. Indeed, one can easily become so immersed and focused on one’s research that you almost lose sight of reality. It reminds me of when I first started practicing law years ago. Someone gave me a cartoon clipped from New Yorker magazine. I saved it. The caption says, “Remember, Anderson, the law is a jealous mistress.” That caption and sentiment is equally applicable to working toward a PhD, if not more so. Your research project will be a jealous mistress, demanding your attention all hours of the day, even when you want to sleep. It will possess you as much as you possess it. It will demand your devotion and obedience to the fullest. It will seduce you – if you have chosen wisely.
Your spouse or significant other must be understanding and must learn to share you with your mistress. Having a patient, sympathetic, indulgent, supporting, and tolerant spouse or mate is critical. Do not hesitate to share your ups and downs and twists and turns throughout the process. You cannot do it alone.
Not only was I fortunate to have a spouse with all (and more) of the attributes listed above, but also I made friends with fellow travelers on the journey early in the process. My fellow PhD students became sounding boards, folks to commiserate with when an area of research was proving more difficult, and a source for sharing research pertinent to my area of study as well as theirs. Some of us found areas of mutual entertainment completely unrelated to our research – like certain television programs. I made great friends on the way, and it would have been a more difficult road to travel without them. Do not be a hermit or a monk studying in some cloister. Comrades and comradeship are vital.
Persistence is essential
There are no gold, silver, or bronze medals awarded for a PhD. As my supervisor often reminded me: the objective is simply to get across the finish line. And to get there, you have to be persistent. A large percentage of individuals who start working toward a PhD never finish. They quit or stop at some point. You have to be tenacious, working diligently regardless of any bumps, ups, downs, or problems that are thrown your way. Once you embark on the journey, insist to yourself that you will finish and reach the end. No other result counts.
I lost nearly a year during my work after I decided to see what it felt like to stop the spinning wheel of a boatlift on which a 2500-pound boat was dropping into the water, using my right index finger placed between a spoke on the spinning wheel and the gearbox. Needless to say, it was not pleasant. At least I did not completely sever my finger. But when you cannot use your right index finger for months, it is very difficult to type. That was a frustrating time. I persevered, however, and just worked through it. I had to “press on.” That sort of attitude is important.
Research is fun; writing sucks
Researching – especially in archives – is fun. I recall well tromping up the 89 steps in the Round Tower to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle during a pounding rainstorm on my appointed day to conduct research. Upon arrival, quite wet, the staff wondered how I had made it there through the storm. I visited many archives on both sides of the Atlantic while working on my PhD. Many, especially those in England, were in magnificent locations. In nearly all, the archivists were extraordinarily helpful. Being kind to the archivists is essential. They can make your work so much easier. Most will go out of their way to assist a graduate researcher. Nothing matches the feeling you have when you locate a document or documents that reveal something new on your chosen topic – something no one else has found and which causes your supervisor to say, “I didn’t know that.”
You must be organized with your research. Plan it out in advance, not only where you need to go but also consider the order in which you visit archives. What you find in one archive may point you toward some new location. Use technology to the fullest. I found the app “DocScan HD” for use on my iPad to be (in my opinion) the greatest application for creating PDF scans of documents ever designed. With it, I could scan (using the camera feature) hundreds of pages of documents a day, store them on my laptop in addition to my iPad, and upload them to my Dropbox account (thereby ensuring that my work product was saved in multiple locations) with ease.
At the same time, know when to quit researching and start writing in earnest. One can easily become almost addicted to researching – to visiting that “one more” archive to make sure nothing as been missed. Know when you have enough material for your thesis. Especially if you are limited to 100,000 words, too much research can overwhelm you or cause you to be unable to grasp fully what you have found. Do not allow yourself to drown in your own research.
Realize that while researching is fun, writing sucks. I was a practicing lawyer for many, many years (far more than I care to admit). I was used to writing 15,000 word briefs in a matter of mere days. I thought writing a PhD thesis would not be that difficult. But writing up the results of your research, and forming it into a cogent and coherent narrative and argument, with citations, is hard. It was harder than I thought it would be when I started – especially when you spend hours searching to find that one reference you need and know you have but cannot find! There will come a time during the writing process in which you become depressed about ever finishing – about ever getting that next chapter or section or subsection done much less into good form. Accept that it will happen. Press ahead. Sometimes just getting words down on paper, even if you then delete it all because you have realized a better path, is all that is required. Remember, persistence is key.
Conferences, conference, conferences
One of the best things I did throughout my PhD experience was to propose and present papers at numerous conferences. These were opportunities for me to “try out” sections and chapters that later appeared in my finished thesis. I was able to obtain useful feedback and insights from commentators and others who heard my presentation. There are many conferences every year. Some offer travel grants or award prizes to graduate students. Look for them. Use them as a means not only to “test” arguments, but also to meet others in your field. Conference presentations were an important opportunity, and they forced me to write down my thoughts and arguments on parts of my thesis as I completed my research.
Grants and fellowships
As with everything else related to one’s PhD project, you have to be persistent in applying for grants and fellowships. Your department or school or university may have grants in different sizes for graduate researchers. Many are for funding to assist in research travel or to present a paper at a conference. Many of these funds go wanting because individuals never apply or present a half-baked application. But you must apply, apply, and apply; and take every application seriously.
For larger fellowships, it is even more important to keep applying. If you do not succeed initially, try again. I received a major pre-doctoral fellowship after I had applied twice for the same grant and had submitted applications for every possible fellowship I could find. Once you receive some funding, no matter the size, use that fact in applying for additional funding. Nothing breeds success like success, especially when applying for grants and fellowships.
It’s never too late
As perhaps suggested above, I decided to pursue my PhD rather late in life (I will not tell you how late). I am glad I did. I thought military history was my passion, and it is. I should have been a historian from the get-go. I do not regret my career as an attorney, but I do wish I had taken the leap to get my PhD sooner. Clearly, it is never too late to pursue your passion. And working toward a PhD should be your passion – or it better be – because without that passion, it will be a long, tiring, frustrating experience, and one you likely will not complete.
What does it mean?
So, what does it mean, now that I am officially “Dr Anderson”? In some respects: not much. I do not feel particularly different or more learned. But I do know, that in my small area of expertise on which I wrote my PhD thesis, for at least some period of time, no matter how brief, I know more about my subject than anyone else in the world. That may not be saying much, but upon reflection, it is a pretty damn good feeling.