Jumping into a PhD…

Why do a PhD?

It has been suggested that keeping a regular journal of research and thoughts about a PhD can be a useful tool – both for writing and consolidating information into a format that is not directly related to the research and output itself.

One of the first questions asked of people doing a PhD is – WHY? Why put yourself through years of stress, worry and strain. Why do you think it’s important to do this?

Well, the why needs to start with the where. Where do you see yourself in 5 years? My vision of Erin in 5 years is quite simple. I see myself heading towards final phase of my PhD, working as a professional genealogist and managing both as well as I can. I see myself writing more regularly for magazines and doing more talks and vlogging.

A PhD will help solidify my expertise in a single area of English History and will allow me to broaden my public speaking topics and vlogging topics from generic genealogical subjects to more specific subjects of asylum history and life of individuals in such institutions during the 1800s.

I feel my MSc has taught me a lot about how to approach independent research, as well as my own research and working methods – strengths and weaknesses. I need to ensure I am disciplined enough to continue working regularly and not leave things to the last minute.

So, here I go. Jumping into the world of the PhD. I’m reading every book that I can find about doing research projects, PhDs, writing theses and improving research methods. I want to be prepared and organised. But, is there such a thing as over-preparation? Can a researcher focus too much on the format of their research and project, when they could (and should) be doing the actual research?

This is me. They even got my hair right.

I’ll admit I’m a bit lost. I know what I need to do (the final output – a thesis). I know what I want to do (the topic). I theoretically know how to do it (get off my arse and read, read, read). But what I don’t know is how to begin. What is the very first step to take? Which article or book to I first read to prepare my literature review? Do I read and keep adding to the list of things to read as I go along, or do I go through all bibliographies in sources I’ve found, keep adding to the list and then go through everything once I have it all? How will I know if I have it all? When is enough? How much is too much?

I guess the important questions to ask are: Am I overthinking all this? Should I just get off my proverbial arse and start somewhere?

Family History or Time Travel?

When I was younger, and getting to know people (generally boys or girls I was attracted to and wanted to woo), I would give them a list of 20 questions and ask them to answer them all. It would either be done in person, on the phone, via a letter or more recently, via email/chat. These questions would be all about getting to know the other person better, find commonality and hopefully present myself as somewhat mysterious, enigmatic and far more intellectual than I am.

Which time period would you most like to live in and why?

Very important question I would ask people I fancy

My answer to that question would often depend on their answer (because, remember, I was trying to get them to fancy me, so I had to be as similar to them as possible. Yay, psychology!) and I’d say anything from “Ancient Egypt” to “200 years in the future”. I wasn’t really thinking about it. Sure, I was interested, but my answer was generally not genuine.

Being a genealogist, I get to look into the lives of so many different people, from different backgrounds, places and times. Whilst most of the research I do is in the British Isles, one county to the next can provide completely different customs, events and names. Add time to this and these lands present an immeasurable amount of genealogical and historical variety.

Looking at the rest of my family and where they’re from, we need to add Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Eastern Europe into the mix.

Gold miner’s cottage at Hill End, NSW, Australia. Photograph: Bernard Holtermann

To pose that question to myself today means I need to really sit back and think. Sure, I could answer something glib like “Oooh, the roaring twenties” or “the middle ages” – but what does that really mean? When we think of those two eras, in particular, we probably think of Flappers and Knights/Damsels, respectively. But we know that to think of an era in such a simplistic manner is to completely gloss over what was really going on then and what life would be like were I to time travel and spend the rest of my days there.

Would I be able to ignore my modern way of thinking and take on board the beliefs and desires of people in the 19th century?

Would I want to live in Shetland in the 1800s, when my ancestor, Robert Scollay, was forced to leave and travel to New Zealand due to poor economic opportunity, land clearances, and agricultural failures? What would it be like experiencing poverty, uncertainty and fear? Would I want to get on a ship to travel to the other side of the world – not knowing what I would encounter, and knowing I would never see my family again?

Would I be a strong pioneer in New Zealand? Would I be able to build a life from nothing. Find land, build a home, scrounge together a living from whatever I could do or find?

Would I want to do the same with my ancestors in Australia? Could I force first peoples from their land in order to build colonies of New South Wales, Victoria or Van Diemen’s Land? Would I keep my head down and ignore what was going on around me? Would I be able to ignore my modern way of thinking and take on board the beliefs and desires of people in the 19th century?

Or perhaps I’d like to travel to Sweden in the 16th century? Live and learn about life and the seasons with my family in Västra Götaland and Skåne. Spend my days on the farm with the cows and sheep and work from dawn to dusk helping to maintain the household?

Robert the Bruce facial reconstruction

I could go to another time, the 13th century, back to Scotland, and the Bruce clan, with my ancestor Matilda and her brother, Robert, who would become known as Robert the Bruce. What would my life be like as the daughter of a Baron and Countess? Living in a land in turmoil, with in-fighting and threats from England? Knowing that my position and life could be used to determine the course of political and personal life for so many in the land?

These are questions I now often ask myself when I am doing research (for myself or clients) and it is why I find it so terribly important to put as much context into my research as possible. Looking at my tree while I write this article, I see so many names, so many dates with lifespans, marriages, and other events. They are all part of who I am and have created a legacy that will last, but who were they? Really?

Family history is time travel. We don’t need a magic spell or a set of standing stones to be able to go back through the years and discover what life was like. We can find so much information from our ancestors and incredible research done by so many genealogists and historians. Adding to this body of research is so important and will be invaluable to future generations. I am proud to be a part of it, and vow to do more.

From this point, when I go over previous research or do further research into my ancestors, I will not move on to another generation until I have exhausted all possible avenues and repositories of information for the people in the current generation being researched. I want to create the story of how my family became to be and that starts with the families that went before.

I will be reproducing some of that research here, and in the coming months will be publishing papers on my ancestors from Shetland, along with information about the people over the years who lived in one house in Sussex.

(A huge thank you to Janet Few for inspiring this article.)