Part three: being ESRC at Durham and the Durham University postgraduate experience
I’ve had an interesting, varied summer, and spent my “+” weeks – after finishing the Masters dissertation and waiting for the PhD to begin – at a conference in Khartoum. More on that in another post though – first I’ll finish my 3-part post on being an ESRC student. This will be a short one, but I just want to sum up some personal points that I didn’t make in the more practical earlier posts.
This last year hasn’t really felt like a Masters course in the way my other friends described theirs. As well as the workload being less intensive and completely interdisciplinary (see my previous posts – one and two), I was also free of the impending job hunt and funding worries of my contemporaries – I knew my PhD was secure.
This meant two things. Firstly, it was pretty awkward being a 1+ socially. Funding is generally immensely political, depending on a huge range of things including the current sexiness of your topic, your supervisor’s clout and interest, the amount of fight your department puts up for funding opportunities – and obviously other students. Declaring that I’d already got funding to people who’d missed out, were worried about it, or had applied for my place was pretty awkward. But as one kindly woman put it: “your topic is weird, isn’t it, and the competition is easy for ESRC rather than AHRC.” Cheers!
On the other hand, I consistently felt that I should be getting on with my course, and that I should know more (or everything) about my area, weird as it may be. As my supervisor gave me a pretty free rein, and there was little other departmental contact other than one History module, I was on my own, one of three historians in a Social Sciences inter-departmental ESRC training pool of hundreds. While studying very broad epistemological theory-led topics, I simultaneously felt like I knew nothing about my specific topic.
Basically the challenge was to turn what felt like a ‘limbo year’ into something productive and positive, recognising the usefulness – even if it was often tangential – of the stuff we covered in the key ESRC-led modules, while engineering essays to fit the very specific parameters of my particular topics of interest, and motivating myself to do some of my own research, writing my own paper (even if it wasn’t particularly great!) and organising my own trip to South Sudan to give me confidence in the place I’m going to be spending a lot of time in, hopefully. This year posed some tactical and personal challenges: from the vastly broad and theoretical course, the social and political strangeness of not doing a specifically ‘history’ MA and already having funding sorted, and the desperate feeling that I should be using the year more strategically.