A paean to Birkbeck College

This week saw a celebratory lunch with two friends who I first met on my MA course at Birkbeck some ten years ago. Out of a dozen or so people on that course (London Studies, sadly now defunct) three of us came away with doctorates. I wouldn’t know the hit rate for people turning MA dissertation subjects into successful theses (and I’m not going to spend Sunday morning finding out) but I suspect it’s fairly low.*

So what does this mean? Obviously we were

1) Good at that shit

2) Worked hard, and

3) Had the fortune to find

i)  subjects we cared about

ii) supervisors who helped us to see the process through to the end.**

This has been done before but unoriginality never stopped me banging about something in the past (sorry Denize), so here are some thoughts on what to consider when you’re considering embarking on a PhD if you’re an old dudette or dude, like me.*** I may come back to thinking about what to consider while you’re doing The Thing ( as I referred to it until I’d finished) when I feel the urge to pontificate.

The Subject

Think very carefully about how interested you are in your subject. You have to live with this thing in your head not just for the duration of your PhD (2 years minimum, mine was 6 years) but most likely for a year or two afterwards as you try and turn it into a published piece of work. That could be 8 years of thinking about, researching and writing about the same thing ALL OF THE TIME. So if you have any doubt about whether you want to write on your subject don’t even begin.

You will also have to talk about your thesis to people who are only asking you about it out of politeness A LOT. This person may be a friend, family, your partner, your kids, colleagues or complete strangers (yeah, sorry to that woman on the plane to South Africa). If you can’t explain what the idea of your thesis is in a couple of sentences you have no coherent thesis and you have no right to bore someone else at a party talking about it. A thesis is around 70k words but it is, more importantly, an idea. Or a series of ideas (if you’re really brainy).

If you have no idea, or argument, that can be simply explained to the average civilian don’t start your PhD until you’ve found one.****

The Supervisor


I didn’t exactly choose my supervisor. I was writing about South African cricket and Hilary was the southern Africanist in our department at Birkbeck. I was lucky that we got on. This doesn’t always happen but I think it was crucial to my completing the thesis. Having a distant, unsympathetic or (and it happens) hostile supervisor will ruin your writing, and potentially ruin your life for a while.

Your supervisor may be someone you don’t meet that often but for a while they will be parent, boss and friend (or none of these if your relationship is disfunctional). They cannot make you complete – only you can do that – but they can certainly prevent you from completing.

Think hard and choose wisely. The illustration below is of a busted horsehair sofa. You will feel like that A LOT during the course of you PhD.

So I should round off as I began by praising Birkbeck again. While I may think that I’m great (though I suspect that I’m not) I know for certain that Birkbeck College is one of the most remarkable institutions in London.

If you’re thinking of studying there do that thing.


* Actually, I did try and find out but could find no definitive answer. Slate reckons around 49% of humanities PhD students complete their thesis; assuming (generously) that around 25% of MA students begin trying to turn their dissertation into a thesis that would produce a 12.5% hit rate.

** thank you Hilary, you are a saint.

*** I started my MA when I was 30 and finished my PhD when I was 40. My children were 6 & 8 when I started, they’re now both nearly grown up. I worked in two jobs throughout the process and co-managed a football team for two of those years.

**** Preferably original.

A busted horsehair sofa

A busted horsehair sofa

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One Response to “A paean to Birkbeck College”

  1. On ‘On Connaît La Chanson’ | Levett's Life in London Says:

    […] first thing, and something that I touched on in an earlier post, is how one can get bored with one’s own subject. And if you’re bored thinking […]

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