The PhD in History
PhD Research and Outline
What happens in the first year?
For full-time PhD students their first year is a probationary year, at the end of which they undertake something called the RAE. This is the Registration Assessment Exercise, which is held between the student, the supervisor, and an Advisor (we appoint them for you). You submit work and then have a meeting to discuss what you have submitted, in order to check that you are on track and help you continue to frame your research. This exercise should take place in the third term of study. Once registered by the Faculty Degree Committee, you are a registered PhD student; up until this point, you are a NOTAF, which means ‘not at first registered’.
The piece of work you submit for the RAE is likely to be surveying your field of research, summarising progress so far, proposing a research strategy and timetable, and indicating the original contribution to knowledge that is intended.
Although it might sound like a scary process, this is your chance to shine and show off how much work you have done during your first year and how your research is coming along! It’s also a chance to discuss any problems, issues, or worries you may have with your research in a formal setting, though you will have ample opportunity to do this with your supervisor before the third term RAE.
How am I trained in research while at Cambridge?
Often, you will be starting the PhD course with a background of suitable research training which you undertook before admission, e.g. your Masters or MPhil degree. While you are at Cambridge, you can broaden this as much as you wish with the number of different opportunities available.
You may find it useful to consult our current Graduate Training pages: http://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/graduate-students/training
You may also like to browse the Graduate Training Handbook: **COMING SOON**
These show what the Faculty has to offer in-house with Graduate Training.
There are also plenty of other options within the University, for example other Departments and Faculties, as well as University-wide seminars, workshops, and conferences held throughout the year. There is a fantastic Language Centre: http://www.langcen.cam.ac.uk/lc/index.html as well as a specialist training system: http://www.training.cam.ac.uk/cppd/.This is before we’ve even started on what may be offered through your particular college!
Your supervisor is an excellent resource to use in terms of asking what is available and if there is anything which would suit you. They will be happy to help!
What happens in the final year of the PhD?
We actively encourage all of our full-time students to complete their PhDs within three years.
In order to help you stay on track, we ask that every full-time candidate undergo an assessment exercise in the Lent Term of their third year of research. You submit a one- to two-page synopsis of your dissertation together with a timetable for completion. You then have a formal discussion with your supervisor, and sometimes the Advisor.
The major government grant-giving bodies expect all our full-time students to complete within a maximum of four years. Therefore, in order to secure future funding for its students, the Degree Committee monitors its submissions rates closely. This is why we place emphasis on your research proposal being something feasible for completion in three years, and also why we have the first and third year assessments in order to help you as much as we can.
The fourth year isn’t guaranteed, so do try to plan your topic within a three-year time span. By that time, we hope you’ll be eager to get started on your career after the training you will have received at Cambridge!
How is the PhD examined?
Once you have submitted a full dissertation, it is examined by two examiners. These examiners are appointed by the Degree Committee after consultation with your supervisor. You will then have a viva voce – an oral examination – on the dissertation and the general field of your knowledge into which your dissertation falls. The University of Cambridge does not offer any qualifying grades or credits, so you will be awarded a pass or a fail – we hope it’s the former!
Here’s a table which outlines, for full-time candidates, the registration and submission dates:
TERM (1 being your first term)
Minimum number of terms of research needed before submitting
Minimum number of terms of research which need to be in Cambridge (in order to qualify for the PhD)
End of term by which your draft dissertation must be submitted to your supervisor
Absolute final submission deadline
Maximum number of terms for which an exemption or allowance will be made following a one-year course
By Carrie Winstanley
Writing a dissertation is likely to be the biggest piece of work you’re going to tackle on your university course. To do your dissertation justice means spending a lot of your time and energy on your dissertation – and sometimes tears.
It need come as no surprise that you’re expected to write a dissertation as part of your course having been given all the information about your course when you first started. So there’s no reason for waiting until the first day of your last year to start thinking about it!
Most universities allow one academic year for students to complete their dissertation, but some university courses require a longer or shorter project. Whatever the timescale of your university or institution, a year stretching ahead of you can seem an age.
Anyone who’s done a dissertation tells you with glee that this is merely an illusion and you that you need to do some careful planning to make the best use of your time. Time has a way of evaporating like thin air – and all too soon the submission date is hanging over you like a dark cloud.
Be realistic about your dissertation deadline
Right – time for a reality check. How long is a year? ‘Twelve months’ I hear you say. ‘Nope, the year I’m talking about is four months long!’ I reply. ‘How so?’ you protest. ‘Well, it’s like this. . ’
Usually you have one academic year to write your dissertation. I say ‘academic year’ because an academic year is shorter than a calendar year. You probably start the academic year sometime between the middle of September and the middle of October, and you have to submit your finished dissertation (polished and perfect, completed and bound) in the following May or June. That’s actually about seven months in total.
Take out a few weeks for sickness, holidays and trips to the pub, and you have about six months. Now deduct the time you need for your other course work: essays, presentations and attending lectures. Also take off the hours a week you spend doing paid part-time work. On top of this subtract the time you need for keeping up with your family and friends, and the many groups you’re involved in that make inroads on the time you have for your dissertation.
Oh, and don’t forget – you also have to spend time eating and sleeping. Now – how long is a year?
Rather scarily, your ‘year’ may seem a lot less time than it first appeared. This doesn’t have to be a problem however. What you need to do is plan your time effectively and then manage your time well. The best way of managing your time is by having a timeline.
Create a dissertation timeline
A timeline is a schedule of events or a plan and it is presented chronologically. Your approach to your dissertation timeline depends on a number of factors such as your work space and whether you prefer ideas, for example, to be presented in a visual map or a linear list. A way of working out what is best for you is to think about how you like taking notes – straight prose, lists and numbered information, or using more organic lists with coloured diagrams, linked together with arrows?
You may like to create a table with overlapping lines called a Gantt chart, showing the different tasks you’ve set yourself and how the tasks run alongside one another. You can see an example of a Gantt chart in the following figure.
Make contingency plans for dissertation writing
Sometimes you find your careful plans for managing your dissertation going pear-shaped. You need to be able to cope with setbacks and salvage what you can. Aim to complete each task as early on as possible so that you have time to make any necessary changes.
You can help yourself by building enough time into your dissertation timetable to allow for mini disasters and keeping ahead of the game so that any crises don’t slow you up too much. The plans you make when crises occur differ depending on what you need to change or develop.
At this stage, you can think about what you’d most like to get done, but also think of an alternative if you run into difficulties. For example, you may prefer to distribute your questionnaire to 50 students at your university but your contingency plan would be to add up all the friends and acquaintances you have from the classes and clubs you attend and see if that would be a reasonable sample.
You may try asking a tutor if you can give out your questionnaire during a taught session. It would mean reducing your ideal number from 50 to, say, 25, but at least you have some data you can use.