Monday, 11 May 2020

I'm a real PhD Student at long last!

It has been my ambition for many years, since completing my first degree back in 2000 in fact, to continue my studies to Postgraduate level. I finally achieved that this year with a Pass with Merit for my Masters degree in The History of Britain and the First World War at the University of Wolverhampton. 

My Unconditional Offer
With that under my belt I applied for and was accepted to study for a part-time PhD, also at Wolverhampton, and officially enrolled a week ago.  This is going to keep me occupied for the next six years.

It is funny, but way back in 1978, when I was doing my UCAS application for university, my back up choice, just in case I didn't get the grades to go to my first choice, was Wolverhampton Polytechnic.  Which is, of course, the same institution that I am now attending, if in physical form only a couple of times a year.  I can still remember the day in 1979 that I went for the interview, but not the interview itself - what sticks in my mind much more is that it was the day I bought Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell album!

Unfortunately I failed my A levels in the summer of 1979 (long story) and had to wait until 1998 to start a degree course with the Open University. I used my Radiography Diploma as transferred credit, added some history modules and graduated in 2000 with a First Class BA (Hons) Open Degree. That was enough to get me an offer of a fee waiver for a part-time MPhil at Sheffield University (on Freehold Land Societies in 19th Century Heeley, Sheffield) and a good job with prospects at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU). Sadly I wasn't able to balance work, childcare, living on the Manor in Sheffield (horrible, horrible, horrible) and research so I withdrew from the MPhil after a year.  

I continued to work at SHU until I became ill in 2008/2011. I worked my way up from a lowly envelope stuffer and tea maker to a role in the Registry working on the Student Records system SITS. During my time there I took some other OU modules, things more relevant to my day job, and these I did manage to fit in with working. After I had to finish work, due to my progressively worse ill health, I was able to take a few more history modules to complete another undergraduate degree in 2014! This time it had a subject title, a BA (Hons) in Humantities with History - Upper Second Class. Somewhere along the way I fitted in a PGCE in Life Long Learning (I had hoped to become a part-time IT tutor for the elderly), and although my illnesses meant I only completed three-quarters of the course (all the written work, but not the final full time placement - impossible with my chronic health conditions) I have a nice University Certificate from Huddersfield University (Barnsley Campus) to say I tried.

Other things had come along to interest me in the meantime, I did my first public talk in February 2013 on Researching Barnsley Soldiers in the First World War for the Friends of Barnsley Archives and over thirty others up to the autumn of 2016 at which point sadly I had to call a halt as I had become so ill that I could not guarantee I would be able to turn up to a booking.

You will have noticed that my health has prevented my from continuing or completing a few things in recent years. Since I left work I have been trying to get my (very small) pension released on the grounds that I am unable to work any more - however it seems that studying, even part-time, indicates that I could hold down a 37 hour a week job with similar duties to my role at SHU (there is no chance of that!) and that I will be fit enough to return to work within three years. I have been refused it on two occasions so far, with applications three and six years after I finished work. You would think they would have noticed that I am not getting any better and that I have been unable to work, even part time, since I left SHU. I assume there is no point me trying to apply for it again this year, my nine year anniversary of leaving SHU, as no doubt doing a part-time PhD, working at home for a few hours a day no more than three or four days a week, means that I will be (magically) well enough to go back to full time work again soon. My opinion of the panel doctors who work for the South Yorkshire Pension Fund is very low.

Then there was the volunteer work for Barnsley War Memorials Project (BWMP) and as an official remote volunteer supporting the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War, which fitted in better with my fluctuating health conditions and really got me interested in the huge number of different kinds of memorials there are and how Barnsley has a lot more than anyone who hasn't looked into it (or been to one of my talks) could ever imagine. At the last count there were 805 within the boundaries of Barnsley Borough and another 40 on the borders in villages which had, in the past, been in Barnsley.  This is not including all the memorial benches that have been installed during the Centenary - I lost count of them a couple of years ago! Sadly the above projects officially drew to a close in late 2018 and early 2019.
One of Barnsley's many new Commemorative benches - from the Barnsley Chronicle
In early 2017 I noticed that Postgraduate Loans for Masters degrees had been made available. I have no problem with Student Loans (well, their administration leaves a bit to be desired, but as they are more like a graduate tax than a debt I can't see the problem). The increase in tuition fees had made my fees on my last few modules at the OU dependent on my 'transition' status - in other words because I was an existing student I had the opportunity to finish that second degree at the old prices providing I didn't break my study. However the increase did mean that the fees for a Masters, even with the OU, were way beyond my means as a non-working disabled person in 2014.  The new Postgraduate Student Loans suddenly made it all possible again.

I chose Wolverhampton because I was following Professor Gary Sheffield on Twitter due to my interest in all things First World War. He had written some interesting pieces on the Centenary which had caught my eye. At that time I knew that my PhD subject (maybe after I officially retired) had changed to be about War Memorials as I had accumulated a mountain of information in Barnsley Archives while volunteering for the BWMP which was crying out to be written up. I knew that I didn't know enough about the First World War's other aspects - the dates of battles, the way the army was organised, why we actually went to war in the first place (when I studied the First World War as a small part of my final OU module my lack of general knowledge about it had become obvious) so it seemed a good idea to take a taught Masters course to give me a good background for a PhD and refresh my academic writing skills. 

I was able to start studying in autumn 2017, part-time, with only a few visits to Wolverhampton for Saturday Schools necessary (huge thanks to my OH for taking me to Wolverhampton and making every trip - even the one in the heavy snow - a great adventure for someone normally confined to the four walls of our home). I was part of a great cohort of mainly mature students from varied backgrounds with interests in all kinds of aspects of the First World War and enjoyed lectures from many well known historians. The cherry on the cake was a big conference at Wolverhampton in September 2018 when I met Jay Winter who has written some of the best (in my opinion) books there are on Remembrance. 

Professor Gary Sheffield
Gary Sheffield was my supervisor for my MA dissertation which was on War Memorials (of course) and I am very happy to say that I got a Distinction for that. The trouble was it was only 15,000 words and it barely scraped the surface of what I knew I could write on Barnsley's First World War commemoration and remembrance experiences. 

Gary was unable to accept me as a PhD student, he already had his quota and also thought I needed someone who had a greater experience in my particular topic. However he did promise to write me a glowing reference! His field is much more the military side of the history of the First (and Second) World War including morale and leadership, but he doesn't cover a great deal of cultural history or memory studies.  Gary became the president of the Western Front Association in 2019 (the image on the above is from their website) taking over from Peter Simkins who also lectured on our course.

Eventually, and on his recommendation, Professor Laura Ugolini accepted me as her student. She writes about the more social and domestic aspects of the First World War and is already supervising at least one student who is researching commemoration.  I had met Laura at Wolverhampton when she lectured on our course.

My PhD Student Loan is just enough to pay my fees for the next six years,  and because I am a University of Wolverhampton alumni I get a 20% discount - enough to pay for some more books, much to the OH's relief.

Last week Laura set me my first proper task - a 10,000 word literature review on the historiography of commemoration particularly concerning physical war memorials (leaving remembrance events for another time).  I wrote a first draft yesterday, mainly headers and notes and a list of some of the books and authors that I intend to discuss. That came to over 3,000 words (not counting the bibliography)!  I look forward to honing my research and critical writing skills over the next few years and working towards writing my thesis - 80,000 words sounds like a lot, but once you start outlining themes and chapters it really breaks it down into manageable chunks.  

Just a few of my newer books by the side of my bed
Cross fingers my health becomes no worse and this current pandemic situation is resolved as soon as possible. Research in Archives is out of the question at the moment, but I have lots of books to read. 

Do you see the top one on this pile? That's Laura's book Civvies. It's about  middle class men on the Home Front during the First World War. I thought I should read it as she's going to be looking after me for six years!
I am still in touch with many of the people in my MA class and look forward to seeing them all again when we finally have a Graduation ceremony.  Although your guess is as good as mine when that might be!

Thank you to Gary and all his team for the past two years, it was very enjoyable and I learnt a lot. I feel well prepared and ready for the next step.

Wish me luck and thanks for reading this.