Ben Docherty explains why he chose to do postgraduate research, and why he decided on Leeds for his PhD.
I began to seriously consider PhD study at the University of Leeds in April 2012. Now, as autumn takes hold, I am reflecting, with a smile on my face, on my first month on campus as a new student in the School of Politics and International Studies.
My name is Benedict Docherty, I am 25 and, before we get on to how things are going on campus and beyond, it is probably best to give you a bit of background about how I came to be at the University of Leeds and why I am enjoying it.
I graduated with Honours from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow in 2008, having studied History and Politics. After a year serving as a Sabbatical Officer of our Students’ Association, which I can report is still standing due to -- or, maybe, in spite of-- my efforts, I moved to the United States to undertake my Masters in Comparative and Transnational History at Central Michigan University. As a Teaching Assistant there, I got the chance to work again with students within my discipline whilst undertaking further research of my own.
Come 2010 and my return home to Scotland, I did not have the “next step” lined up. Whilst the thought of doing a PhD intrigued me, it did not seem a serious prospect. Given my multidisciplinary background, I had lots of interests but no one project in mind. Surely, I thought, you do not choose to do a PhD and then find a topic; isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
Indeed, my main thought was that I had been in higher education for six years and could do with a breather! I was wary of progressing straight from undergraduate to postgraduate research without any other experiences of “the real world” to show for myself.
Since then, I have experienced the highs and lows of life after University. The highs were sharing a flat with friends and reading purely for pleasure; the lows were the frustration and disconnect between what I was being paid to do and where my interests actually lay.
As an Arts and Social Sciences graduate in a recession, I was joining the chase and considering the intricate world of graduate schemes. But between the job descriptions and, yes, the psychometric tests, I realised that I was running away from myself by focusing on my “transferable skills” and writing off postgraduate research as “for other people”. This eventual realisation that I wanted to pursue a career as an academic, although crucial and arguably life-changing, still left me in search of “the idea”.
So 2012 witnessed my return to the books in an attempt to trace my interests in international relations, the modern Middle East and the politics of globalisation. Initially, I was not sure whether to focus on a geographical area, a political issue or a theoretical framework. Should I go over my old notes and core textbooks again or jump straight into the latest journals? Eventually, after friendly chats with former lecturers, I made the critical step of stopping reading and putting my thoughts on paper: one side of A4, to be precise.
What I had written outlined an interest in The English School of International Relations Theory and its work around the sustainability of the international society of states. The contemporary relevance here is the tension between Western-led cosmopolitanism and the changing balance of power marked by the rise of the so-called BRICS countries.
It was the identification of my chosen theoretical framework that led me to Leeds because of the efforts here to support the resurgent English School by hosting a website for it on behalf of scholars around the world. Where better to study, I thought, than an institution with the expertise and the inclination to support my specific field of research?
Your potential supervisor and the finance involved in undertaking a research degree are surely the big two factors that influence where any PhD candidate applies, but it would be disingenuous to say that the campus itself and the wider area are of no consequence. After all, you are going to spend three years there -- maybe four!
Thankfully, Leeds scored top marks when I first visited in May to meet with my now supervisor. My impressions were, and remain, of a vibrant city but one that is not overwhelming. Leeds is both packed and easily navigable, with a character of its own yet reminiscent of my own Glasgow.
Meanwhile, the campus struck me as ideal, not just in terms of location but, more importantly, its atmosphere and identity. The University of Leeds has, to my mind, a perfect mixture of heritage in the shape of The Great Hall alongside the 1960s concrete of the E.C Stoner Building, which is often mocked yet I am quite impressed by it! As a Polis PhD student, I have shared office space in the quaint Botany House and have been lucky enough to secure a desk by a window with a view of – yes, you’ve guessed it -- The Great Hall.
September 2012 saw me make the big move down on what was my fourth trip to the city, just as the post boxes were being painted gold in honour of the Olympic success of Yorkshire’s finest athletes. I was able to find accommodation fairly easily through Unipol and have chosen to combine my research with part-time work in the Student Advice Centre of the rather excellent Leeds University Union.
In my induction, we had students from Thailand, South Korea, Germany, Nigeria, Brazil as well as across the UK. In the School of Politics and International Studies itself, I have lost count of the nationalities and there seems every kind of research being undertaken, from the decline of particular terrorist campaigns to leadership strategies within UK political parties by way of liberal interventionism – and that’s just my office!
So that is the story of how I got to the University of Leeds and, giving what I have found and who I have met, I am certainly enjoying it. Yes, there is an expectation of original research and, yes, my thesis will probably be the biggest project I ever work on. But given the help I had before I even arrived, the people I have met and my memories of starting out in new places before, I am confident I’ve made the right choice.