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Advice and support for your academic journey.

A former history MA graduate, Jim Hulbert, recounts how he went from traveling to working, and returning to academia. After some years of working, he decided to pursue a PhD, a journey that was jumpstarted during the COVID-19 pandemic when he was furloughed from work.

When I finished my History MA back in 2015, I was fairly certain I didn’t want to do a PhD. I was feeling pretty done with academia in general and despite encouragement from various lecturers to think about applying, it was pretty clear in my own head; it was a no from me! I stuck with my plan of going travelling for a year in Australia and had an amazing time.

Towards the end of my time in Australia I started thinking about what I wanted to do for work when I got back, and the thought of doing a PhD re-entered my head. I had a few Skype calls with potential supervisors and worked up a very rough proposal in Melbourne’s public library, but my heart wasn’t really in it and after receiving some pretty honest (and accurate!) feedback from my potential supervisors about the likelihood of my proposed project getting funding, I made the decision to shelve the application easy. The intention was to come back to it and improve it for the following year, but as soon as I got back from Australia, I got a job and the application swiftly went to the back of my mind. I enjoyed earning a bit of money for the first time in my life and a return to academia felt a long way away.

A few years went by and although the idea of a PhD was still knocking around my brain, it was definitely on the backburner; I was progressing in my job and it felt like it would be a massive change. However, when COVID hit in March 2020, like many other people, I was furloughed from my job. Although this was fine for the first few weeks, increasingly I started to get more and more bored and frustrated, and I began thinking about what I actually wanted from my career. I was feeling a bit stuck in my current job, and although my employer was great, the sector wasn’t one I wanted to work in for the rest of my life.

The thought of a PhD began to gain greater prominence in my head, and with encouragement from my partner, I had some exploratory calls with my former supervisor at Leicester. Between us we came up with what we thought was a workable project and I started working on it during the summer of 2020 with an aim toward applying for funding later that year, in large part to pass the time while I was still furloughed. Because I was totally dependent on getting funding in order to do the PhD, I was consciously not getting too excited about the prospect.

As everyone is told, with good reason, applications for funding are really competitive. So whilst I wasn’t particularly confident about whether the application would be successful, I was content to work on it and do the best I could on the grounds that it would either be good practice for a future application, offer me good transferable research skills, or simply tell me that this wasn’t the right path if I wasn’t successful!

The process of drawing up my application was challenging, despite having plenty of time to think and work during the lockdowns. The main difficulty was actually getting access to academic papers, which wouldn’t have been an issue had I applied when I was still a student during my Masters year! Five years later and I obviously didn’t have access to the university library, and visits to public libraries were all but impossible in the climate of COVID. Through asking around, I managed to get access to the odd paper through friends sending me PDFs, and eventually through access to a friend’s JSTOR account.

This was by far the biggest hurdle; there were so many occasions when my potential supervisor would suggest reading a certain paper which I simply couldn’t access for free, or that wasn’t available via my piggyback JSTOR account. Google Books and other free resources help, of course, but they only go so far. This meant that I had to lean heavily on review articles, which were much more likely to be open access, and which allowed me to build my proposal and gain an overview of the relevant literature.

If I had my time again, I would have asked everyone I knew if they had access to an academic library login; thinking about it now, at least a few of my friends were in the latter stages of PhDs and might have been open to sharing the occasional PDF. I think that part of the reason I didn’t do this was due to COVID and the massive contraction of social engagement that this entailed; it simply didn’t occur to me to reach beyond my immediate circle of friends and family to ask for assistance.

My application was successful and I’m now 6 months into my PhD at Leicester. Whilst I found the application and interview challenging because of my long-term absence from academia, in some ways I think the experience I gained from the world of work was crucial in my application being successful. I was able to point to a track record of delivering to deadlines in my previous job, of working under pressure, and of being organised, all of which are relevant criteria to a funding body which is keen to see a return on its investment in you. Applying when I was 27 also gave me a more rounded and mature view of what a PhD would entail; I was going into it with my eyes wide open.

I’ve really enjoyed coming back to academia but it’s definitely been an adjustment after so long away. I work almost exclusively from home, like many other PhD students, and have found it really useful to maintain contact with peers via WhatsApp or email to bounce ideas, concerns or simply moan to them! The main concern I had returning to academia was that I would have forgotten how to write in an academic style after five years away. I’ve made a conscious effort to write as much as possible, even when I think its complete nonsense, and have definitely seen an improvement.

There are also lots of training courses and workshops offered by the university and my funding body which have been really useful; I think it’s worth doing as many of these as possible in the early stages of your PhD. One unexpected benefit of being accustomed to a ‘normal job’ is that I’ve found it easy to stick to a morning routine and work fairly standard hours each day; this won’t be for everyone, but for me it allows me to separate a workday from a weekend or annual leave much more effectively, which in turn allows me to ‘switch off’ almost completely from my project on weekends. I’m sure this will get more difficult as I progress, but I always found it helpful to separate work and home life in my previous job, so I will endeavour to do the same with my PhD.

Overall, although I worried about whether I would be able to write a good application and how I would adjust to the PhD work process after time out from academia, none of these hurdles were insurmountable. Although the application writing process was challenging, I felt more comfortable in an interview process being able to draw on my professional experience. Now that I’m studying again, the skills I built up in my previous job are invaluable for time management, organisation, and simply keeping myself sane.

If you’ve had some time away from academia and are considering applying for a PhD, then do it!
It’s definitely possible!

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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