Continuing education – Thoughts on an Archive PhD

In this feature post, Victoria Stobo from the University of Glasgow describes her experiences as a PhD student.

I never considered doing a PhD until I ended up doing one. I know that sounds absurd, but I’ve managed to undertake a PhD without really pre-planning it.

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I did my undergrad at art college, and I spent quite a lot of the first semester of my archive masters genuinely terrified that my tutors would realise I had no academic potential whatsoever, and that they would quietly ask me to leave after my first assignments had been marked. Obviously this didn’t happen, so how did I end up doing a PhD?

First of all, I didn’t write a proposal; I’m in the slightly odd but not unusual position of not having chosen the general scope of my study. Like some of the Collaborative Doctoral Awards you may have seen advertised, the title and scope of the PhD had already been decided, and I simply applied to be considered for the post.

I had landed a full-time job towards the end of my MSc in Information Management and Preservation at University of Glasgow, and I was working as a short-term project archivist for a business archive while trying to write my dissertation. I’d been really excited to get a job so quickly and get on, but I was surprised (and a bit worried) to find that I didn’t really enjoy the cataloguing work I was doing. I began looking for something completely different, but still related to archives.

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Something completely different turned out to be working as a Research Assistant in CREATe, the Research Councils Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, a newly established research centre within the School of Law at University of Glasgow. The project I worked on explored the Wellcome Library experience of managing copyright and the risks associated with making digitised archive material available online during their Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics project. When CREATe advertised a PhD studentship on the subject of Archives, Digitisation and Copyright, I was surprised to find that I was annoyed at the thought of someone else continuing the work that I’d stared with the Wellcome Library, so I applied. Only when I was accepted did it really dawn on me that I was going to do a PhD.

Through my work I’m exploring the effect of copyright legislation on the digitisation of archive collections. You may have seen the sector-wide survey I ran at the end of 2014 (or received a direct invitation to participate, in which case, thanks so much for being so patient and kind!), or the free conference on Archives, Copyright and Risk that CREATe organised with the Wellcome Trust in 2013. I’m lucky to be working in this subject area at this time; copyright legislation in the UK changed significantly in 2014, and I’ve had a lot of interest in my work as a result.

Working on a PhD in a research centre like CREATe has lead to incredible opportunities, and my confidence in myself has improved. I no longer feel like my art degree means I don’t have academic potential, or that I can’t talk about the law because I don’t have a law degree; in fact, these are positives to be traded on. I’m encouraged to go to conferences and events as much as possible, and the amount of professional networking I’ve been able to do is one of the main benefits I would associate with doing a PhD. My supervisors, Professor Ronan Deazley, and Dr. Ian Anderson, are extremely supportive and a joy to work with, as is the rest of the team in CREATe. I’m also part of a cohort of PhD students, and I’ve been able to avoid the isolation often associated with postgraduate study.

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There are interesting projects to work on in addition to my own; last year I worked as a research assistant on a project which investigated the value and creative re-use of materials in the public domain; an area I feel very strongly about as an archivist, given that we are often the gate-keepers to public domain materials. I’m an editor on the site, which aims to make the law more accessible to creators and users. I helped my supervisor develop a new optional 20-credit module for the MSc in Information Management and Preservation called Law and Cultural Institutions, and I’m now in the slightly surreal situation of teaching on the course I graduated from three years ago.

I want my PhD research to be of use; I’m not spending three years of my life writing a 100,000 word thesis for it to sit on a shelf and occasionally be referenced by other academics. Since the start of my study, I’ve worked with my supervisor to deliver free copyright training for the Scottish archives sector; we’ve made our research papers freely available online; when I publish in journals I will apply for article processing fees to make them open access; and I’ll disseminate the results of my research in a variety of formats. Most of all, I would like to develop best practice guidelines to ensure that copyright law doesn’t have to be a barrier to access, and to support archivists in making decisions about copyright and access confidently, with the fullest knowledge of the law and the likely consequences as possible.

If you’re thinking about applying for a PhD, I would seriously consider a Collaborative Doctoral Award, or undertaking your study within a specific research center. CDAs are funded because there is a recognized need for that research, and you often get good practical experience out of the post, as they’re usually associated with a particular institution. Specialist research centers can offer a lot of support and opportunities that you might miss out on if you’re part of a larger school or college within a university. I know of PhD studentships that have been re-advertised because applicant numbers have been disappointing: I know they’re few and far between, but there are funding opportunities out there if you look for them. Obviously, hard work got me onto this PhD on merit, but the fact that my supervisors know me and know my work, can’t have hurt my application. Making contact with potential supervisors is essential, and if you can do this in person, at a conference or event: even better. If you can find a short project to work on as a research assistant in a related area, again, this will also help your application.

I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to hold a full-time scholarship and a generous stipend; I don’t know how other students get through a PhD relying on part-time work and teaching to pay their fees and the cost of living, and I feel nothing but respect for such a life-changing commitment. I know that I couldn’t do what I’m doing without the support that I have been so fortunate to find.

If you’re interested in the outputs of my research, I make as much as I can available at

One comment

  1. Robin

    This is really interesting. I’ve never thought of myself as PhD material so it’s great to read an account by someone who wasn’t on a PhD track from undergrad.

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