Should I do my PhD as a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership?

The primary audience for this post are people currently deciding whether or not to pursue a PhD (in the humanities/closely aligned social sciences), and who are considering the option of applying for one of a number of recently advertised Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships. So hello to them(!), and please do feel free to get in touch.

There are other kinds of people though who are also directly interested in the subject of the CDP, perhaps because they are awarding them, or because they are researching different approaches to graduate funding, or just have a general interest in higher education. For these people I will flag some points here and there, but my primary audience remains people deciding whether or not to apply for a CDP.

First things first, this post will not help you decide whether or not to do a PhD. You can probably google that and get a bunch of different posts explaining all the things you need to consider, and I would urge anyone considering to pursue a PhD to really think about why and how it fits in with a number of different life plans.

Second thing, I have to declare two interests. My own PhD was funded as a CDP (then called a Collaborative Doctoral Award). More importantly, I am part of a supervisory team that has recently advertised a CDP between the University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland. If then you are looking for a completely unbiased assessment of the CDP, I am not the person for you (indeed the initial idea for this post was to introduce the project we are advertising more broadly, but then I saw this message from Rebekah Higgitt, which made me want to write something more general). If however you are wanting to look inside how things can/have played out with CDPs from someone with a little experience of them, then do read on.

Third thing: I am not advocating for the CDP as a method for funding postdoctoral research. I think the aims and effectiveness of the CDP are important questions, just as they are for any funding method, and should be subject to considerable scrutiny, just as any funding method should be. There are for instance good questions about rates of drop-out in CDP candidates as opposed to other kinds of PhD funding, or rates of funded projects not getting enough applicants, and of course how and who gets to decide which projects get funded. I will not be addressing any of these things here (because I have done precisely zero research on them), but they should be born in mind. If you know of statistics or work on these questions do include them in the comments.

What I will do now is guess at the kinds of questions a person looking at CDPs might have in their head, and provide responses. It would be better to have actual questions from such folks, so please do include them in the below. (If you are interested in pursuing a project at Edinburgh and have something more administrative in mind please do contact the STIS Postgraduate Admissions Adviser on  info-stsres@ed.ac.uk ).

1. Why would I want to do a project where all the content and questions have already been decided for me?

They have not been. What the final project looks like can change in very considerable respects from how it is outlined in the CDP project description. This is true of any PhD project, not just the CDP. What you end up producing can and will be very different from how you start. (This is a general rule for all research projects, PhD or otherwise!). Of course it is the case that these particular project starting points happen to be strong starting points: a group of people who care about these research fields have put considerable time and energy into building a significant, valuable, and manageable research programme. CDP projects are not easy to get funded. So at the outset you are of course committing yourself to pursuing the intellectual and collaborative agenda laid out in the project description. BUT your own input will no doubt make you want to question things like: the best cases to use; the most exciting analysis to explore; the extent to which it ought to be more cross disciplinary; or indeed something more fundamental. You might, for instance, come to question the fundamental assumptions that the project leaders made at the outset, with ramifications and implications that are far from cosmetic. Different supervisory teams will manage the students relationship with the project outline differently, just as different supervisors manage their PhD students differently, regardless of how those students are funded. Some will try and keep you to a more rigid structure of their own design, others will give you more freedom than is healthy. In this context, the existence of a project outline becomes something of a focal point for discussion and debate.

While I have just emphasised that a lot will be up for discussion and debate, it is highly likely that some aspects will not be. You will not be able to transmute a project on the history of religion and alchemy in the C17th into a project on the manufacturing of gold in the C21st. You will need to be committed to key parts of the agenda of the project, and indeed, that agenda will always have to be acceptable to your advisory team. Moreover, the C in the CDP, the collaboration, is one of the single most important things to consider. If you cannot picture yourself working closely with the collaborative partner in a range of ways, many of which will already be prescribed in the project outline, then absolutely do not apply. The collaboration is a defining feature, and often riskiest part of the CDP (offering also the chance of high rewards). If you do not think you will find a way to make a success of the collaboration (which, again, there will be many ways to achieve, leaving you room to explore and experiment) then you are best pursuing other forms of funding.

2. These projects are fine, but isn’t it better to win funding that will allow me to pursue the independent idea I already have?

It is of course always worth keeping your options open, and those of you who have the time to put together independent funding applications to support your bespoke PhD project, go for it! However, every single person who has ever pursued a PhD has had to sell that idea to a department, and in the process, it is highly likely that they have had to alter that project considerably in order for it to be accepted. The image of the independent brilliant researcher pursuing THE ONE THING that they care about and being BRILLIANT because they saw it through to the end, that person is a myth designed to make everyone feel inferior.

So you’re always going to have to negotiate a little with other people about what your PhD research will look like. Moreover, you might be the kind of person who can look at the CDP project as a challenge, something for you to take on and make your own, rather than needing a pre-existing idea of your own. I will be honest, when I applied to do my CDP, I did not give a flying F. about agriculture. What I did care about was heredity, botany, and science and society. There were enough of those elements in the CDP project that I was applying to that I was confident I could make it a success. Over the years of the PhD I came to appreciate the broader agenda of my research project, I came to see agriculture in completely different ways, and ultimately ended up being a big advocate for the pursuit of research into the history of agricultural science (in part because I used to be the kind of dunderhead who would dismiss agriculture as boring). So, even if the whole CDP project is not ideal for you, perhaps there are large chunks of it that do speak to your interests. I would not be in the least bit surprised if those interests came to play a large role in your completed PhD. Again though, as with any PhD, this would be part of an ongoing process of negotiation and deliberation between yourself and your supervisory team.

3. What do I get out of doing a CDP rather than some other kind of PhD?

The added value of the CDP comes from working between the University and the Collaborative Partner. That collaboration will be connected to most of what you do, sometimes very directly, other times a little more loosely. You will have opportunities to learn and do things that, while other kinds of PhD student are not disbarred from doing them (working with museums etc.) they will not do them in such a systematic way. Having a collaborative partner means having access to an institution that will take an interest in you, give you opportunities, completely different insights, new skills, methodological and intellectual concerns, and alternative perspectives from those you’ll get in your home department.

Another way to put the same points – from the perspective of someone who completed a CDP – is to explain what collaborative partners will get out of you. I have met a number of people who completed CDPs and we all often say the same thing: we were really really productive on behalf of our collaborative partner! In anecdotal evidence, I did hear one case where this strayed into exploitation, but thankfully that kind of thing is pretty rare (always be ready to speak to your supervisors if you feel uncomfortable with the amount or kinds of work that are being expected from you. For instance, you are not free PR for the University or for the Collaborative partner, though many motivations might lead you to do and say things that reflect well on them.) Provided these relationships and expectations are kept healthy, then pursuing a CDP really does give you the opportunity to develop tangible skills outside of the typical PhD formula which will stand you in good stead in any future path that you take, whether you intend to become an author, start a business, work in museums, become a teacher, go travelling, pursue research, or whatever.

4. My lecturer says that people who do CDPs aren’t as clever as people who do other kinds of PhD, because all that messing around with museums and collaborators takes time away from BIG THOUGHT. Surely a PhD should just be about being clever?

First, tell your lecturer to go fudge themselves (and then read a little about the ways in which “true” intelligence has been determined in different historical contexts). Second, and I will now check my privilege (because I am a straight, white, middle class man who works at a university) but I honestly think (or perhaps just strongly hope) that the pursuit of a CDP will not rebound against you going forward. I would like to say that it definitely won’t, but there will always be people who want to make a strong distinction between what they see as being “worthwhile scholarly activities” and ‘outreach’, ‘public engagement’, ‘impact’, or whatever word gets applied to the activities you become invested in through your CDP. Moreover, your collaborations will involve many things that are not the least bit ‘public engagementy’. (For instance I built an archive. I am still waiting to be asked to appear on the Culture Show).

The reason I feel confident in telling you this, is that I have only heard one person say something to the effect of question 4, and that person was an idiot who didn’t really understand how varied any kind of PhD work can be, and how important ‘outreach’ etc. are for the contemporary researcher. Yes, there are facile activities one can engage in, and I would recommend avoiding those. But if you have a clear sense of the intellectual agenda you are pursuing, you can pursue it in multiple ways, not just by reading and writing. I’d say there is zero correlation between doing a CDP and having lower academic or intellectual aptitude (but then I would say that….)

End

So there you have it folks. Sorry if those questions weren’t your questions. Please do include them below and I will do what I can to address them.

Those of you looking at the advertised CDPs, do make sure to get in touch with the people offering them. They will be excited to hear from you, so don’t be shy, and do give serious thought to whether that project can work for you.

Another thing to say is that these views are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of the University of Edinburgh or collaborative partners such as National Museums Scotland. I wrote this on my own personal blog for a reason! Plenty of people will disagree with the things I have said or take issue with my suggestions. They can write whatever they like in the comments below.

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One thought on “Should I do my PhD as a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership?

  1. For me, the draw of a CDP was the opportunity to work with the collaborating institution (in my case, the Royal Armouries). These partnerships can foster innovative approaches to the topics in question, and allow the student to develop additional skills,

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