DPhil in Architectural History
'My professional life, beginning with a Law degree and then spanning the Foreign Office, Investment Banking, and Book and Archive Conservation (the latter being the subject of my Master’s degree), had never entailed any involvement with the technical or historical aspects of architecture. Yet I had always nurtured a private passion for the history of buildings which began when I was in my teens, but it remained just that - private. As my children grew older I began to have more time to devote to visits, reading and lectures around the subject of architectural history, seeking to develop a consistent framework within which to ask ‘Who built this? Why? Why here? Why in this style?’ The real impetus to take the subject further, but on an academic footing, came when my husband and I tackled the restoration of a listed house, where several important decisions had to be made which needed be informed by detailed research beyond the preliminary work which I had done. I enjoyed the research process and produced some interesting findings, but became acutely aware that if I wanted to broaden out my efforts or to extend it to different and new topics, I needed the application of both some guidance and some academic rigour. I was therefore delighted to find that it would be possible to work at doctoral level on a part-time basis, particularly because the Oxford community contains a wealth of highly-regarded historians who were available to supervise this course.
Returning to study at this level was potentially daunting, not least the need to learn, to think and to write in academic modes somewhat removed from the skills required in my previous careers. The research student, working alone, needs to be resourceful and self-reliant. However, the Department is set up to assist with these challenges not just at the beginning but throughout the years of study, and the network of academic staff, which extends beyond your Supervisor and Course Director, is very accessible and provides constant encouragement. The two-way termly reporting system between student and Supervisor is an ideal mechanism for monitoring progress: it takes the form of a self-assessment followed by a dialogue commenting on progress and suggesting specific skills training.
Just as fascinating and worthwhile as the obvious opportunity to learn from the academic staff at Oxford was the chance to meet fellow part-time students researching allied but different subjects and compare their perspectives and approaches, which were informed by their own previous careers. It is, I feel, one of the compensations of being a mature student.
I finished after six years, which is the expected timetable. I won’t pretend that this was not a long haul and occasionally it was a struggle to maintain focus and not be side-tracked: this is where your Supervisor’s advice is fundamental. But it was a hugely enjoyable and fulfilling experience. I know that during this time I have built a body of research that goes beyond what was required for the thesis itself, and provides the themes which I want to follow in the independent research which I am now pursuing. During my six years of study I was accepted onto the OUDCE part-time tutor panel and have given papers at two study weekends and hope to teach on future weekly courses; I became a Trustee of the Georgian Group, the buildings conservation charity, where I am also involved in Education projects.
To anyone contemplating embarking on a part-time Architectural History DPhil I would say: first and foremost every DPhil student approaches it in a different way and you have to make the experience your own. Do not underestimate the commitment and sheer amount of work involved, and ensure that your family understands this too; prepare for moments of doubt along the way but do not forget all the support which is available, not just from staff but from fellow students too; and while you are a student take advantage of all that is offered to you, which is considerable. If you can do all that, when it is all over you will be astonished at what you have achieved.'
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