As I have written before, there are people whom I came to know during the course of my PhD who left a lasting impression on me. I thought it would be nice to catch up with one or two of them, particularly those who left before me, and see how they were getting on. One of these is my friend Julia P, a Canadian academic who graduated six months before myself, and who very kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog. Being further along the post-PhD experience than myself, and being a resident on another continent, I thought that she might have some interesting things to share with you. I asked her a few questions and, a few hours later, this response popped into my inbox. I thought it was too good not to share, and so, with the greatest pleasure, Just Higher-Ed presents Dr. Julia, in her own, very honest, words.
1. What was the subject area and topic of your PhD?
My PhD was done at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, and the title was “Dressing Ghosts: Museum Exhibitions of Historical Fashion in Britain and North America”. I thematically followed the development of exhibitions of antique costume from their beginnings in the 19th century to today.
2. How did you end up doing a PhD? What were the circumstances, histories and personal desires which sent you in that direction?
I’m a lot less directed than people think. I didn’t come out of the womb wanting a PhD, for sure! When I finished my BA (getting that degree was always in the cards, my family is very pro-education), I cast around for options, and settled on doing an MA in the history of design and material culture in the UK. The thinking behind that was that it was a one-year program (unlike the two-year programs of North America), and if I decided the field wasn’t for me, I would only lose a year before getting a “real career” as an accountant or an engineer, or a circus acrobat, or something. But in the end, I loved it, and when I came back to Canada at the end, I realized I really wanted and needed to go further. Somehow, the MA left me at once over- and under-qualified for the sort of work I wanted to do. The proof for me was when I was passed over for the permanent version of a job I was already doing because I didn’t have a doctorate (even though I had already started studying as a DL at that point). So part of the motivation to get a PhD was personal interest in the subject matter, and part of it was purely practical from a career-building perspective. I should note that I was determined to only do the PhD with funding, and was fortunate enough to receive a doctoral fellowship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada; that made it possible for me to study full-time (more on that below).
3. You were originally a costume/art historian, is that correct? What lead to your choice to focus on Museum Studies, and which do you think is more significant for you and your academic work?
Actually, although my BA major was art history, I minored in Museum and Heritage Studies, so the museum strand was there all along. In fact, I wanted that minor even before I became an art historian: I dabbled in religious studies and English before that, but always had the MHST minor declared. I’ve loved museums since I was a child, and although my initial motivation for doing that program was one of amateur interest, I started working at the university art gallery, and it transformed into a realization that I was really interested in museum work and the issues around the work. My MA was more directed towards my costume interests, but I also studied the formation of museum collections as part of that work, so the museum strand was always there.
4. What made you choose to study at Leicester?
After completing my MA work (published as “‘The habit of their age’: English genre painters, dress collecting, and museums, 1910–1914,” Journal of the History of Collections Vol. 20, No. 2 (November 2008) ) I decided that I wanted to spend more time looking at museum representations of costume. Coming to Leicester was a practical decision; I wanted a degree that would give me the flexibility to work in a museum or an academic environment. If I had done a costume-related degree, I probably would have felt hindered by the specificity of that. Leicester is the oldest and the best department for museum studies in the world, and they were also really good in terms of answering my questions and processing my application in a timely manner (something other places I applied weren’t!). I also liked that the department has an open-door policy: you can seek advice from faculty other than your supervisors, and that was not only indicative of the culture of the place, but also was incredibly helpful throughout my studies. I’m incredibly grateful for the support and openness of all the staff and students on the program.
5. You began as a DL. How did that differ from the campus based experience?
I didn’t intend to be a DL. In 2007, I received my SSHRC grant and was accepted into the program, and was going to start in the fall, but then I received an offer for my dream job. I decided to take it, but that meant delaying my studies and declining the funding. Most people would probably say I was crazy, but I decided that I wanted the work experience of this contract and would risk the rest. When my one-year work stint was extended for a second year, I decided to start as a DL; my rationale was that I would either finish on that timeline if I continued working, or I could transfer to FT campus-based if the contract wasn’t renewed. Luckily for me, I received the SSHRC grant when I re-applied, and was able to join my colleagues at Leicester in fall 2009 when my contract expired.
The experiences were hugely different, and have enriched how I think about the PhD journey. While I was working, it was a real effort to devote time to the PhD. Of course, I was thinking about it all the time, but actually sitting down and writing something was hard. I was fortunate enough to work at a university, so I had the library resources to draw on, and I was working in a related field, so it wasn’t like I was totally removed from it. It’s a real bonus to have work experience; it enriches your ability to find relevance in your academic research. But real life does distract you. My advice to people contemplating the DL experience would be that the easiest way of doing it is to already be based at a university, where people understand what a PhD entails, and where you have access to scholarly resources, and also to choose a topic that is related to your work, so that you don’t have to switch back and forth mentally at the end of the day!
Being a funded, campus-based student was very gratifying and a huge privilege. My experience is not the same as other campus-based students: I was unmarried, no kids, had funding (so I didn’t have to work) and lived 5 minutes away from the department. It was a sweet gig! So I really tried to make the best of it while I had the time: attending the department events, talking to other students, visiting museums and galleries, teaching and marking on the MA course, volunteering, going to training sessions, etc. I recognize that not everyone has those opportunities, even when they are available. I saw my 2.5 years as a FT student as a chance to immerse myself in my topic and my work, and now that I am working, I miss that intense concentration, although it is like living in a soap bubble. You have written about this in your blog before, and I totally agree.
6. As an international student, what did doing a PhD and living so far from home mean for you? Was it difficult? What do you think makes the experience of an international student different from that of a home student?
I hate how things always come down to money, but they do. It is probably unreasonable, but I always felt a little bit inferior to UK/EU students; everyone has heard about the scandalous (perhaps mythical) practice of universities prioritising international students because of the fees they can charge them, and there was always a suspicion in the back of my mind that my money was the reason I was accepted into the program. That’s not an accusation: I have no reason to believe that I was in any way inadequate, or that my application was looked upon more favourably because I was going to pour thousands of pounds into the university’s coffers. I am just saying that I always felt like I had to prove that I was just as good as anyone else, and that I deserved to be there on my academic merits, not financial ones.
Additionally, my funding only covered my tuition. I had to pay for my living expenses out of pocket; this meant that, like any student, I had to budget carefully. Certainly, I was always thinking about “is this a part of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is studying abroad, or will this negatively impact my future life after the PhD if I go broke?” I think that’s a common quandary!
To stay sane, I travelled home pretty regularly, and made sure to stay for at least 2 weeks at a time. But I always felt like I wasn’t ever 100% in either place. My friends and family would have to be content with my flying visits, and my Leicester colleagues were always reminded that I would one day leave! It also meant that I was often absent for important events; I only attended one of the three PhD conferences I myself had helped to organize, and I missed every one of my fiance’s birthdays back at home. There’s only so much that modern technologies like Skype can remediate in those situations! But knowing that it was a time-limited thing helped. I couldn’t afford to have the PhD drag on beyond the expiry of my funding, and I felt that it would also place an unfair strain on my personal relationships, so that motivated me to stay on track and finish on time.
7. In your experience, how does the academic world in North America and Canada differ from that in the UK? Does it differ at all?
There are certainly differences. The biggest ones are in the training process. The UK academic system is much more self-directed and to-the-point. The higher education degrees are shorter, and require significantly less contextual study. For example, as part of a North American PhD, students are expected to read widely, and then pass exams based on that literature; they also have to attend intense graduate seminars on a variety of related and/or mandatory topics. I think the benefit of this is that a North American PhD student is much better rounded and better-versed in the academic debates in their field. However, the UK PhD student, who has to seek out this information for themselves, and has more opportunity to immerse themselves in their research, is much more self-sufficient and probably has a more focused and deeper understanding of their own research.
In terms of the work world, I have to differentiate Canada from the US; the differences aren’t evident to UK audiences (and indeed, to US ones) but the Canadian context is different, so I am not going to speak globally of North America. Canada has far fewer universities, and a much smaller population than the US; our funding model is much closer to that of the UK. In a sense, although we don’t have the cut-throat competition and hierarchies of the US, we still currently have the worst of both worlds. Our government is also cutting back public spending, so that the onus is on universities to scramble for increasingly limited public funding, or to court private enterprise (with all the ethical implications of that). Less funding means less secure jobs: I am working as a sessional instructor (paid per course, only during uni semesters, with no vacation, and no pension), and there are very limited vacancies for more secure positions. Although teaching fellowships are becoming more common in the UK, I don’t see as much of that insecurity there. But then, I could be wrong – the grass is always greener on the other side of the pond!
8.You graduated from your doctorate this January. What did you expect or hope life to be like after the PhD? Has it matched these expectations? How has it differed?
Because I maintained some of my Canadian life during my PhD, I was able to step back into it upon my return. That largely applies to my private life: I have now become engaged and am able to plan a life together with my partner here at home. I was also fortunate enough that my former colleagues hadn’t forgotten about me, and it was through them that I was able to secure employment, which I was very keen to get back to! So I suppose my transition back to civilian life has been pretty smooth; however, my perfectionistic expectations mean that I am a little bit disappointed that I don’t have it all yet! I just have to come to terms with the fact that I am not a prodigy! I also really miss my UK friends and colleagues; it’s not practical for us to see each other regularly, and although we still keep in touch via various social networks, I wish there were more opportunities for us to keep working together.
9. What are you currently up to?
As I mentioned above, I am a sessional instructor. My main employer is an art college, and I teach classes in art history, visual culture, humanities critical theory, and material culture there. I also teach an undergraduate class in my old alma mater’s museum studies program, which I myself finished. This last winter, I also taught a course in dress and culture at the uni where I worked before coming to Leicester. Last year, I wrote 7 new courses! That didn’t leave any time for things like conferences and publishing, so I am looking forward to getting back into that this year. I really love teaching, though, and enjoy interacting with my students. My colleagues have been spectacularly supportive, as well, so I’ve been very fortunate.
In other news, I am planning a wedding, and hoping to establish a more settled personal life with less commuting and more predictability. At this point, my limited income and under-employment has somewhat hindered me from achieving these goals fully (the vagaries of doing all this as a 25-39 year-old woman are a topic for a different discussion), but I remain hopeful that things will resolve themselves.
10. Obligatory cheesy/predictable question – where would you like to be in 2023?
This is the sort of question I am terrified of being asked in a job interview; I could probably answer “if you were a salad, what kind of salad would you be?” more effectively. (Answer: fruit salad.) Ten years is a long time! I would be proud if, by 2023, I had published a book, attained a permanent faculty position in a related and interesting field, maintained an involvement in museum curation, and led a healthy, happy, and financially secure personal life. My goals are pretty unambitious; you have to be careful what you wish for – when man plans, God laughs, as the saying goes!