My ‘irrelevant’ PhD

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British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford, Philippa Byrne, shares her experiences of undertaking an ‘irrelevant’ humanities PhD.


As an ECR, I have a new enemy. It’s a phrase: ‘science and innovation’. It’s been going round a lot lately, e.g. the fate of post-Brexit Britain will depend on ‘science and innovation’ getting lots of lovely funding.

Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends are highly innovative scientists. But if I, a history researcher, don’t fall into ‘science and innovation’ (and I don’t, I’ve checked – ‘innovation’ means technology and engineering), what is my category? ‘Humanities and Obscurantism’?

It’s only words – perhaps I shouldn’t get so worked up. But there is a problem here: an implicit assumption that there’s a hierarchy of useful things to study, and a humanities PhD is pretty low on that list. It doesn’t do a lot for your self-image as a researcher, or improve your feelings towards your research.

The party problem

A variant of this is what I call ‘The Party Problem’. The worst part of my PhD wasn’t writing up – universities have support sessions and writing groups to help with that. It came about half way through. The scenario: at a party you meet an old, not-very-close acquaintance. They ask what you’re doing. You explain – your PhD. Still doing that? The same thing you were doing two years ago? The thing with no immediate application?

Sometimes this takes the form of advice: you’ve got a good degree, the friendly friend advises: there are loads of jobs you could get with better pay, opportunities, and – you know – doing something real.  It’s often meant well. But it’s still painful to hear if you’re several years off finishing, and if, even once submitted, you need to decide whether to stick with academia or re-train for something else.

How to feel better (maybe)

I can’t solve these problems. Instead let me repeat the best advice I got as a PhD student: it’s alright to be doing something just because it’s interesting to you.

If you’re feeling irrelevant or useless, some small things might help:

  • Print out a paper copy of a chapter or article and read through it – remind yourself you’ve accomplished something solid and tangible (and probably quite clever).
  • If you teach, think about what you’ve helped your students do this week, or ideas that they couldn’t have worked through without you.
  • Find yourself a writers’ workshop – people who will not only give tips on your writing, but help you recognise that your work is interesting and valuable.
  • Remind yourself that ‘relevance’ comes and goes. 10 years ago, a thesis on the US constitution’s emoluments clause wouldn’t have been a great conversation starter…

Philippa Byrne is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford, where she also completed her PhD in medieval history. She studies 13th century Sicily. Follow Philippa on Twitter @pjebyrne.