Faking It? The Experience of a Part-Time Postgraduate Student

I crossed a line last week when I did my first public talk on a historical subject. I’d been invited to talk about the air raids on Newcastle upon Tyne by the Warkworth branch of the Royal British legion after attending a talk there earlier in the year on Bomber Command by Martin Farr, who is one of my PhD supervisors.

I have struggled with the discomfort that I feel when discussing historical issues with other historians as to be honest, I feel a bit of a fraud and am certain I am going to be found out. The truth is, I am a middle-aged professional scientist who has come into formal historical research late and constantly feel out of my depth. I have been a member of the Royal Air Force Historical Society for years, but have always felt more of a spectator than a participant has.

Although I have informally studied history for over thirty years, my qualifications and career path took me down a route into industry and it wasn’t until I inherited some money in 2010 that I had the opportunity to consider the structured study of history.

A visit to a courses fair at Newcastle University was of little help, and it was not until I arranged an appointment with the leader of the Conflict in European History MA course that something began to happen. This was Claudia Baldoli, and an hours chat with her ended with an invitation to a bombing workshop she was running at the University with Richard Overy, who even I had heard of and whose books I had at home.

This turned out to be a workshop for the AHRC funded ‘Bombing, States and Peoples’ project, and while I found the papers interesting, people kept talking about strange subjects like methodology and historiography, so I just listened and kept my mouth shut. Claudia was kind enough to come and speak to me a couple of times, and the following week emailed me to say she would support my application for a place on her course despite having no history qualifications based on the conversations we’d had and the fact that my BSc and MSc had both been gained through part-time study.

On of the reasons that I chose Newcastle University over other local institutions was that they offered the option of doing the MA part-time over two years. As I was about to start a position with a new company, I made sure that the contract was flexible to accommodate the seminars that I needed to attend. The first year was a bit of a whirl, especially when we were told that we should choose assignments based on our special interest areas, since I was not aware that I had any. By the end of that year it was becoming clear that air power was the dominant theme of my interests, and to further this I applied to attend an Air Power workshop at the University of Birmingham, organised by a certain Ross Mahoney.

At this point, I was totally out of my depth. The place was crawling with PhD students, academics and authors and I just sat there listening and hoped that I wouldn’t get found out. At one point, I nearly put my hand up to comment, but thought better of it because if my argument had been challenged I did not think I had the knowledge to defend it. I should point out that the atmosphere was genial, which enabled me to relax slightly at the drinks reception at the end of the first day. I managed a brief conversation with Seb Cox, the head of the Air Historical Branch who had previously cautioned me on reliability of the Aircraft Movement Cards held by the RAF Museum, and admitted to him that they had not been of much use. He was able to point me in a different direction that actually had positive results and really helped my MA dissertation.

I then got into a long conversation with another person, who was also doing a MA, who agreed that those kinds of events could be very daunting. We ended up sitting at the same table for the course dinner that night, and it gradually became clear that I was talking to Rob Owen, who is the official historian of 617 Squadron. We actually managed to have a conversation about the wartime commanders of 617 without me feeling too far out of my depth. This still made no difference to me during the seminars the following day – still too worried about not being able to defend my argument. I subsequently corresponded with Rob who sent me a lot of material that helped with my MA.

During the second year of my MA I took a more active part in the course seminars, and although my final mark meant that I managed a merit overall, I felt that my dissertation was a missed opportunity. At this point Claudia began to persuade me that I should pursue my studies and research the Luftwaffe bombing operations over the UK after the Blitz. She tried all ways to get me to go full-time with my PhD, but as the AHRC were unforthcoming with funding, and I had found a permanent job by this time, she reluctantly accepted that part-time was the best option. My argument was that no one was going to touch a 51 year old new PhD (which is how old I would be been when I finished a full-time thesis) for any academic position, so if I wasn’t going to make a career out of history I needed to maintain my current employment.

I do not think that I would have even considered the PhD if it had not been for Claudia Baldoli. I managed to hit onto a subject that has not been studied in depth, and since I had access to one of the top experts on bombing in the country (and probably in Europe as well) it seemed like an opportunity that could not be passed up. Over the past year, I’ve spent the time researching the attacks from May to December 1941 in the National Archives, but have never found enough time to look at everything that I needed to. When you live up north and only get 25 days holiday a year, archive time is by definition difficult, although having in-laws that live in London does help. Some documents do exist as reprints (notably the MLRS series), and there are some available online, but unfortunately there isn’t really an alternative to physical time in the archives, which I suspect is going to become an issue as I move through the research process.

I also attended another workshop at Hendon on Air Power and Archives in March of this year, and by this point, a common theme was emerging. Amongst the speakers were Richard Overy (for the third time), Seb Cox and Peter Gray (for the second time) and a familiar look to the attendees as well. I was under strict instructions from Claudia (who was away on a fellowship in Rome) to make myself known to Richard, who then kindly introduced me to one of his PhD students researching the bombing of Exeter. I still was not comfortable when it came to asking questions in the seminars, but felt a lot more at ease in the more informal situations. I was toying with the idea of writing a paper on the end date of the Blitz, and during the breaks a discussion with a couple of people convinced me that I should go ahead with that, which is now undergoing peer review for Global War Studies. I also got into a debate, although I may have actually started it, about the Turbinlite fiasco in Fighter command, and was slightly overawed by the audience that attracted.

Therefore, in conclusion, what have the last three years taught me? My MA taught me historical methodology and an appreciation of Eric Hobsbawm and Richard Evans. I have gradually become more comfortable in ‘academic situations’, but am still not quite there yet. As to the future, I do not really think that I have one. Realistically I am going to be 54 by the time that I finish my thesis, and no university department is going too interested in me. I will probably end up researching and attempting to get an article published once a year, and that will be as far as my involvement in history will go.

By Stephen Moore, PhD Candidate, Newcastle University

Stephen Moore is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University. His thesis is entitled, ‘After the Blitz: Luftwaffe Operations over the United Kingdom after May 1941′, under the supervision of Dr Claudia Baldoli and Dr Martin Farr. This study examines the continuing operations of the Luftwaffe and challenges the conventional view that subsequent attacks on the UK were insignificant.

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3 responses to “Faking It? The Experience of a Part-Time Postgraduate Student

  1. Very interesting, Stephen. I’m in a similar situation, although not as advanced as you and a bit older. Having had a reasonably successful career I could, with some economizing, retire and pursue my lifelong interest in Russian/Soviet military history. I already have one Master’s Degree in an unrelated field and, like you, I have no illusions about anyone wanting to hire a new PhD in his late 50s, even assuming I could even get into a program in the first place. So basically the education would be for my own pleasure and to make me a better researcher and writer. Of course, I don’t need a degree to retire and study military history, in fact I’ve already had a couple of articles published, but those letters after one’s name do attach a certain amount of respectability.

    • Stephen, your blog resonates with me. I completed an MA in British Second World War History at Birmingham a couple of years ago and have always wanted to progress my studies by starting a Phd. The main hurdles are time and money. As a fully employed father and middle aged man I simply do not have the time to invest the effort and I see myself letting this drift until I retire and then, possibly, carrying on the work I started and still dabble in.

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