Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Blog IX: Getting a British Ph.D.

The ninth entry in this blog is another guest contributor. James P. Levy, an assistant professor at Hofstra University, offers up another view on going to graduate school in the United Kingdom. Before going to graduate school in Europe, he earned his BA from Hofstra and then earned his MA from The New School in New York, New York. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wales Swansea. He is the author of two books: The Royal Navy's Home Fleet in World War II (2004) and Appeasement and Rearmament: Britain, 1936-1939 (2006). Here is his guest blog:

Let me start with the Historian’s best friend—the caveat. What follows is largely anecdotal. It is my hope that it will help any person considering a jaunt to the UK for graduate study in history. The moral, before the story, is to be patient and persistent, and you’ll have the time of your life.

Strangely enough, I had no intention of getting my Ph.D. in the UK. It came about via a letter sent with little expectation that an answer would follow. But I got lucky. The letter was sent to Paul Kennedy at Yale, a man whose book, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, was an inspiration to me. I had an idea for a dissertation, an operational history of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, for none existed and I wanted to read such a book. It seemed only natural to me that Kennedy would know what to do with my idea. So I took a shot in the dark.

Ten days later, a very fancy envelope arrived from Yale. In it, Professor Kennedy gave me some great advice: sounds like a good idea, he said, and I know a man, Michael Simpson, at the University of Wales Swansea, who’s doing interesting work on the RN in WWII; write him, and tell him I thought he’d be perfect for such a dissertation. So I wrote Michael, who said he’d be in the States, and we could meet for lunch to talk about it all. The next year, I was in Swansea busily writing under Michael’s exceptionally able direction.

What can one glean from this story? Well, before we get to the nuts and bolts of how I turned an idea into a career, you should consider the following: how much do you really want to get a Ph.D.? Britain is a quite different and frustrating place for most Americans, so don’t go on a lark. Also, have you got an idea, or are you truly taking a stab in the dark? Changing continents in hope of inspiration is a dubious undertaking unless you’re independently wealthy. But if you’ve got an idea, and if Britain appeals to you, you may be on the right track. Most importantly, you must read books and articles by those you are considering studying under.

Notice that I have not mentioned picking a university. That is because graduate school is primarily about relationships, not institutions. This is largely true in the US, and absolutely true in the UK. You’ve got to find someone whose work intrigues you and whom you feel has a lot to teach you. You’ve also got to understand that in the UK an advanced degree is mostly an exercise in research and writing, with often few course requirements. They assume you studied the basics as an undergrad and are ready to hit the primary and secondary literature in your field with little reference to materials outside your specialty. This can be a problem if you decide to move back to the US and get a job here, so be aware of that possible handicap. The exception, for no good reason other than prestige, are degrees from Oxford or Cambridge—they have tremendous snob appeal here but their grad students don’t have any much more broadly-based training than at Leeds or London. Also, watch out for the D.Phil., which is a common “doctoral” level degree but one inferior to the Ph.D. that normally involves a shorter dissertation.

Practically speaking, understand that most British universities are accredited by the US loan system and that you can get educational loans, even from Sallie Mae, to pay for your degree over in the UK. The process can be frustrating, but one can secure loans. Also, remember that Britain is a highly bureaucratic society, but if you make the right friends many doors will open for you and much red tape cut. You have to be patient, treat everyone with courtesy and respect, and don’t try to rush the locals. You’ve got to walk the line between polite, which they like, and obsequious or overly friendly and familiar, which Britons normally don’t. You have to know that everything takes too much time, involves standing in lines, and can appear opaque at first. Don’t be fooled by the propaganda. Britain is absolutely a foreign country. If you can remember that this is not your country, but the people there are usually willing to forgive you for not being British and give you a fair shake, you should do nicely.

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