So you think you want to do a PhD?

‘You’re brave taking on a PhD,’ says my cousin Les, ‘I spend more time talking people out of them than into them.’ Les should know what he is talking about; he is a practising GP, has an MD and is Professor of General Practice and Head of Department at a New Zealand University. He reads my proposal, pronounces it ‘fascinating’ and gives me advice about the viva voce examination of an interdisciplinary thesis. But the viva is the last thing on my mind at the moment – I’ve barely started. Or perhaps not. A lot of effort has gone into getting my PhD proposal off the ground and accepted (and funded) as a going concern.

It is not too great an exaggeration to say that getting to this point has been the culmination of a lifetime’s journey of learning and study. I’ll start with a (very) potted history of my academic background to date and how it relates to my family and working life which will explain some of the reasons why I find myself on the springboard of this new research project.

I was at school in London in the 1960s and 70s. I had intended to pursue a career in medicine but, having spent too much time during my A levels playing rugby and engaging in amateur music-making, my A level grades were not as good as I had hoped for. In 1976 I found myself at the University of Swansea reading Part I subjects in zoology, botany and biochemistry. By the end of the spring term of that first year I was completely disillusioned with my studies and homesick and so I returned to London and joined the Metropolitan Police. And that’s where I stayed – for the next thirty years. However, my academic aspirations were not completely dissipated by life as a London detective. In 1987 I took up studies with the Open University. Balancing work and family life I dipped in and out of further OU courses in mathematics, art history and philosophy and when I retired from the Met in 2006 I found myself halfway towards my BA. Having relocated to the coast of west Wales, in 2008 I launched myself back into OU study and I have completed a 60-point module each year since then, leading to a BA(Hons)(Open) in 2010 and an MA(Mus) in 2013. But what next? Being ‘retired’ from the day job, I find myself in the fortunate position of being time-rich but (I’m not pleading poverty) relatively cash-poor. To self-finance a research degree would have pushed the family budget to breaking point. I am not looking to start a fresh career in formal academic teaching, but to gain a research degree to give me the ‘authority’ to pursue further research and to publish in my chosen field, neither of which activity can be considered a money-spinner. So, I decided that I would undertake a PhD if I could secure funding or not at all. That, in short, is why I want to do a PhD. But a PhD in what?

Choosing a research topic
Books and online articles about this are legion and the references at the end of this post will point you in the direction of some that I have found useful. Some general advice culled from the literature says something like this: you are going to spend at least three years of your life engaged full-time with this topic – it had better be something in which you are very, very interested! But ‘interesting’ is not enough. The topic also has to be something which adds significantly to the sum of academic knowledge in your field. At this point one might expect to look in the mirror to find Curie, Einstein or Hawking staring back. But genius is not a requirement. This is how I arrived at my research proposal.

I have had an interest in the philosophy of music for many years and, even before studying the subject formally, had read many of the ‘standard’ texts on musical aesthetics and ontology. After my first degree I had considered studying the Open University’s MA in philosophy but I was rather put off by its emphasis on ethics and political philosophy. The prospect of a whole year of immersion in John Rawls’s Theory of Justice was more than my soul could bear. It was the OU’s head of music, Dr Bob Samuels, who persuaded me that my interest in the philosophy of music could be properly catered for within the music MA programme and so I signed up. The first assignment of the second year of the MA programme (A871) required an essay on the ontology of the ‘musical work’ with extracts from Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works being one of the set texts. It is fair to say that this was not most students’ favourite assignment, but it was my cup of tea. It was this assignment essay which led me to consider a broadly philosophical approach to the extended piece of work which constituted the examinable component for A871 and to research a music / philosophy topic for my final MA year’s dissertation in A877. Those two pieces of work are, respectively Indexicality: meaning in the Wagnerian leitmotif and The Mycelium as a Metaphor for the Metaphysical Meaning-Space of Music. By way of preparation for further research, last year I plucked up the courage to present my work to two audiences; firstly at a symposium at Oxford Brookes University, Mastering the Mix and then at the OU’s Music MA study day in Milton Keynes. I have also attended the last three conferences of the Royal Musical Association’s Music and Philosophy Study Group at King’s College in London. It was at that conference last year that I took the opportunity to run my putative PhD proposal past Bob Samuels again (and so, for his sins, he’s been privy to the gestation of my project for about four years now). Some of the talks at the RMA study day in the Department of Music at Oxford University in November 2013, Researching music as process: methods and approaches convinced me of the general area for my proposed PhD research. That day was a good opportunity to talk to the OU’s Dr Jason Toynbee, whose work has been influential in informing my own view of musical ontologies. One of the other influences on my proposed topic has been the work of Dr David Roden, an associate lecturer with the OU’s philosophy department whose research is in the area of trans- and post-humanism, which considers, inter alia, the effects of technological developments on the nature of what it is to be human and who has a book coming out soon, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. David is also a musician and has an interest in the aesthetics of trans- and post-human societies, which is very broadly the area of my proposed research, an area which remains very much under-theorized at the moment. And that is the thread which runs through the development of my proposal: from Goehr’s discussion of the normative and regulative nature of the canon of musical works, through an interest in trans- and post humanism and, therefore, the impact of technological developments on the nature of musical ‘entities’. So, by Christmas-time 2013, the working title for my research proposal had emerged: Cyborg Music: A Future Musicotechnographic Aesthetic.

Supervisors and funding
In the past, public funding for research degrees was provided to individual universities who themselves decided on which students would receive awards. In this funding-year, the main grant-awarding body in the UK for arts and humanities research, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has decided that blocks of research funds would be awarded to groups of universities who had formed themselves into consortia called Doctoral Training Partnerships and that the funding would be allocated by those consortia in an open competition for would-be research students. There are 11 of these DTPs in England, Wales and Scotland. It is permissible to apply to any or all of the DTPs for funding. The application procedures vary from partnership to partnership. I applied to two of them, the South, West and Wales DTP (SWWDTP) and the Consortium for Humanities and the Arts South-East England (CHASE). If you are thinking of applying to any of the AHRC DTPs you would be well-advised to visit the websites at an early opportunity and to register your interest for email notifications and so on so that you are aware of application deadlines, which are pretty rigid. It would be nice if there was a common application procedure for all of the consortia – but I am afraid there is not. For example, the CHASE consortium required applicants to have been accepted for a PhD by one of their constituent institutions prior to making the funding application to the consortium. That meant a research degree application to the Open University, followed by an interview and acceptance and then the completion of the funding forms which were submitted by the OU to CHASE. The SWWDTP had a different approach. They required applicants to register an interest on a central database (maintained by the PG admissions folks at the University of Bristol on behalf of the whole consortium). They encouraged attendance at an open day in Bristol in January and then the procedure was to seek out potential supervisors from amongst the affiliated institutions. The online application form required applicants to identify their preferred ‘home’ institution (in effect the University where they would be registered for study, irrespective of the fact that they might have a joint supervisor at another institution). I’ll briefly outline the SWWDTP process from my perspective, but remember that the CHASE application was proceeding in tandem.

One of the OU’s associate lecturers, Dr George Mowat-Brown, being aware of the general subject areas of my intended interdisciplinary research suggested that I should approach Professor Amanda Bayley at Bath Spa University as a potential supervisor of the musicology aspect of my work. I emailed Amanda who responded with interest within half an hour and we had a phone conversation where she agreed to consider my draft proposal. I subsequently had a brief chat with her at the Bristol open day and then a follow-up meeting at the campus in Bath. Amanda was happy to supervise my research. I was also in need of a philosophy supervisor. I approached a number of academics at the consortium’s participating universities and had a positive response from everyone. It was Professor Michael Hauskeller at Exeter who recommended that I should speak with Professor Christopher Norris at Cardiff. Chris has written widely on many philosophical topics, but, pertinent to my work, on musical aesthetics and ontology. I sent him my provisional draft and had an instant positive response. Chris invited me to come to Cardiff for a chat. On a cold January evening I did so. Professor Norris agreed that he would be willing to supervise my project. He invited me to come along to that evening’s postgraduate philosophy colloquium and to outline my proposal to that group. With some trepidation I delivered the gist of my proposal to them extempore and had good feedback. So, with Professors Bayley and Norris lined up to supervise my project it was time to complete the online application process. Success in the online procedure would determine which candidates would be invited for interview by the consortium’s subject panels. The process required a research proposal in fewer than 2,500 words and a ‘personal statement’ in about 500 words. Additionally, two academic references were required, about which more below. At my meeting, Professor Bayley had suggested a useful methodology for my ethnographic data-gathering phase, which I incorporated into my draft proposal. There followed a period of a few weeks before the final submission deadline when drafts flew back and forth between myself and Amanda and Chris. I must put on record my immense thanks for the hard work and encouragement which they demonstrated during this process. I never had to wait more than a day for a response to a re-draft and Chris once sent one back to me at 5.00 pm on a Sunday, having received it just after lunchtime. My paperwork was submitted with a week to spare before the deadline. I was invited for an interview before the music selection panel in March. In early April I was told that I hadn’t been successful. I hadn’t been especially pleased with my interview. Formal interviews have never been my forte. Both Chris and Amanda expressed their disappointment and wished me luck with my parallel application through the OU, which was still awaiting a decision.

This was the CHASE procedure through the OU. The initial application to study for a PhD had to be submitted to the university by 31st January 2014 (the deadline was later for students not seeking funding). I received advice on drafts from Dr Bob Samuels, Dr Catherine Tackley and Dr George Mowat-Brown. Although the OU proposal was not absolutely identical to the SWWDTP application, it was broadly similar and the two discrete applications undoubtedly fed off each other during the gestation phase. There then followed an internal OU Music Department interview, conducted by Dr Tackley and Dr Helen Coffey. Unlike the SWWDTP interview, which was something of an ordeal, the OU interview was less formal and actually provided me with instant feedback and proposals to strengthen my draft if selected to go forward to the CHASE consortium’s selection panel. I was informed that the Music Department had accepted my proposal in principle and that it was necessary to complete the CHASE application process. This required that the research proposal be condensed to be no more than 10,000 characters (including blank spaces!) I found this to be something of a tall order, especially since my interdisciplinary proposal had to introduce two academic disciplines. I am indebted to Bob Samuels and Catherine Tackley for the time they gave and their patience in considering a number of drafts. But there came a point when I had to take ‘ownership’ of the document and hit the ‘send’ button. The OU’s procedure was to have a sift of each of the departmental proposals at the Arts Faculty level. I was very pleased to be informed that my proposal was accepted by the Arts Faculty for submission to the CHASE consortium. There were no further interviews by the consortium and so it was with absolute delight that I received notification of my acceptance as a CHASE scholar just a week after the disappointment of the SWWDTP rejection. I formally start on 1st October 2014.

Academic References
Wherever you apply you are going to need references. My two referees were Dr George Mowat-Brown, who has followed my MA work over the last couple of years, always with encouraging feedback. My second referee was Dr Adrian Hull who was my tutor on the undergraduate module (now sadly defunct, Words and music, AA317). This long-suffering pair had to complete three documents each, one for the SWWDTP, one for the OU application and yet a third for the CHASE consortium. My especial gratitude to them for their time and trouble.
My general advice regarding referees is to approach people who are familiar with your work. They will be able to write more convincingly about you than anybody else. Approach them in good time, the earlier the better. The application deadlines will not wait and your referees are busy people.

Qualifications / CV
Having said above that genius is not a requirement for undertaking a research degree, it is worth noting that most universities will have some criteria which you will have to meet before being accepted onto a PhD programme. Most require you to have a first or upper-second as the classification for your first degree. Most specify a distinction or a pass with merit in a taught master’s level degree. Of course, one or other, or preferably both need to be of direct relevance to your chosen sphere of doctoral research. These requirements are not always set in stone. It is worth discussing your individual position with the admissions staff at your chosen university if you do not obviously meet their professed entry requirements; you may have other relevant experience from other study or work / life experience which is acceptable to them.

General Points
This is an account of my personal experience. In addition to the links in the above text, below are a number of external links to documents and websites which I found useful in my two applications. Obviously the ‘official’ prospectuses and websites of the funding bodies and the universities are where you should go for authoritative (and up-to-date) information. The procedures will change over time. But some general advice will not change:
• Think about your proposed research as early as possible. Register for email alerts from universities and funding bodies. The deadlines are inviolate, don’t miss them.
• Discuss your thoughts with academics in your chosen discipline. They will be pleased to help
• LISTEN to those academics. Their feedback is invaluable. They have all been through the process themselves and they KNOW what selection panels are looking for in a research proposal.
• Think early about potential supervisors. They too will give you invaluable advice about the viability of your proposal
• Read around your proposed topic. Who else is working in your area?
• Go to relevant conferences and seminars
• Think about setting up a personal page on one of the academic websites such as Academia. I have found that site extremely useful in terms of networking and identifying material relevant to my research proposal (it’s free!). My Academia page is here
As I have said, this is my personal account of an application for a funded, full-time PhD. You may not need funding or you may wish to extend your research over more years by part-time study. Whatever your choice, I hope that some of what I have said will be of relevance to you. There’s a deal of work to be done before you formally get to start your PhD proper. But as Dr Tackley pointed out to me at an early stage of the process, the application, particularly that aspect of it which relates to honing and refining your proposal, is really actually part of the research itself.

Open University Research Degrees Prospectus
Open University Music Research
AHRC funding opportunities
AHRC Doctoral Training Partnerships
CHASE DTP (funding applications)
CHASE (applications: sample guidance notes)
CHASE (sample application form)
The Research Student’s Guide to Success
Doing Qualitative Research: A Practical Handbook

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2 Responses to So you think you want to do a PhD?

  1. kitty says:

    hi, I read your blog with interest, but when I got to the part where you said that the SWWDTP interview was an ordeal my heart sank, as I have one in two weeks. Why was it an ordeal?

    • Tom Hewitt says:

      Oh, it wasn’t so bad, with hindsight. I don’t think that the interviewers were particularly keen on my topic. I also hate interviews. You will be fine. Good luck! Thanks for reading my blog.

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