Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History
For anyone contemplating a research career in History, perhaps the most daunting thing is coming up with an original project. Whatever your period or area of interest is, there is likely a considerable body of scholarship on it already, and in some fields the volume will look simply enormous. How, then, can you work out what remains left to be done? Even more importantly, how can you craft a PhD proposal that promises to do more than simply “fill a gap”?
After all, if you aspire to become a professional historian you ultimately need to write a thesis that can plausibly be presented as a major academic intervention. You will have to sell what you do to hiring committees in that way. That sounds scary, especially if you have only recently completed your undergraduate degree and, perhaps, are faced with the challenge of your Master’s work at the same time as drawing up applications for PhD places and funding.
The good news is that your BA and MA work will already have given you many of the skills you need, notably the ability to search the web effectively and to skim read large amounts of material rapidly. Your dissertation work should also have helped you find out which aspects of your field are under-researched.
You should also take advice from potential supervisors. You mustn’t expect them to give you a PhD topic “off the peg”, but they can certainly give you guidance that can save you a lot of time. Talk to them in person and take note when something that you say seems to strike them as intriguing.
It’s worth saying that, as you go about your reading, you will have a few gut-wrenching experiences. You think you have a great idea and then – damn! – you find a book or article that seems to do exactly what you were planning. Don’t despair, though. Sometimes you will indeed need to tear everything up and start again, but think carefully before you do so. In fact, every historian has regular experiences of coming across stuff that seems to preempt what they wanted to do, yet often reflection shows that there are significant differences. The knack is to use these disconcerting episodes as prompts to articulate clearly what exactly is novel about your approach.
At the more general level, there are a number of strategies you can use to build originality in at the ground floor, as it were. Here are five of the most important.
1. Use new primary sources. These may be ones that have just been opened up, through, for example, the standard processes by which the UK National Archives release new material each year. They could be sources in another language, and/or which are relatively inaccessible because they are in another country. Even here in Britain it is the case that there is a fairly heavy bias in favour of archives within the Oxford-Cambridge-London ‘golden triangle’, so searching for materials further afield may pay dividends. In addition to the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, the National Archives of Scotland, and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, there are many excellent local record offices. These can of course be used very legitimately for local, regional, and sub-national history, but they can also be used productively for national and global history too. Furthermore, you can potentially create your own new sources, through oral history interviewing, although naturally your proposal will need to include a credible plan for how you will select and contact interviewees.
2. Pay attention to the banal. Historians often read documents for their ostensible content; for example, they generally read Cabinet Minutes for evidence of the discussions that took place and decisions that were reached. That of course is fine, but one can also read the same documents for changes in the way that they were written and structured, and the technologies used to produce them. This in turn can be used to illuminate the evolution of the machinery of government, with possible repercussions for understanding the discussions themselves. You should refuse, then, to take accepted phenomena for granted. Ask yourself always: “What are these documents (or objects) for?” In other words, if you pay attention to seemingly trivial details that most normal people, frankly, would ignore, you may be on the road to a strikingly original project.
3. Offer new periodisation. It’s easy to use standard periodisation by default – the lifetime of a government, before or after national independence, and so on. But there is much to be gained from questioning this, for example not halting your study at the moment of decolonisation but considering the years either side. Choose a specific, unusual, timeframe and ask “What was special about this period of time?” By doing that you’re by definition asking a question that others have not and therefore are bound to reach different answers.
4. Consider doing comparative history. This can be incredibly challenging and should not be taken on lightly. It will require mastering the history of two (or more) time periods, localities, regions, or countries, and their attendant historiographies. But by bringing different themes into relationship with one another, you substantially increase your chances of coming up with new insights.
5. Take advantage of the digital revolution. Now that vast numbers of sources have been digitised, even materials that are very familiar to historians can be put to use in new ways. If you have access to a university library, take the time to investigate the full list of electronic resources that are available, dipping in and out of the various databases and doing searches on themes that intrigue you. In 1969, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie stated that “tomorrow’s historians will have to be able to programme a computer in order to survive”. That’s still not true yet, but we might say with confidence that the History PhD applicant of today will up his or her chances by showing sophisticated knowledge of digital techniques.
Professor Richard Toye is Head of History and Director of the Centre of Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter. He is keen to hear from potential PhD students in the fields of post-1867 British, imperial, and global history.