A Wonky Journey Into Academia

Before I even handed in my dissertation, I knew I wanted to do a PhD based on the records I’d been using. I also knew that I only wanted to do it through the OU.

My name’s Sophie and I’m a postgraduate researcher in the history department. My thesis is on the Victorian coroner’s court, and you can find me on Twitter if you’re into murder history @SophieMHistory.

This is the story of my bumpy road into academia.

I’m 35 now. I left school in 2002, with no A levels. I went to a grammar school, and the expectation there was that you would go to university. There was a lot of pressure to be academically successful. However, I couldn’t afford to go to university, didn’t cope with the pressure, and was infinitely more interested in boys and the pub. So I left. I fell into an NHS admin job which I stayed at for the next nine years, married too young, and we separated during my second pregnancy.

I found myself single, with two very small children, no job and few qualifications and I was livid. Livid that I had nothing to show for my adulthood so far, apart from my kids. Livid that I was now classed as a failure. Livid that I had to present myself at the Jobcentre for a biannual patronising interview.

I wanted to do something for me, so when my baby was four months old, I applied to the Open University, to do a degree in Health and Social Care. My initial plan was to go back into NHS management at the end. I was in the last cohort to get my degree paid for with means-testing funded by the university, and I started in February 2012.

During my degree, things changed. I got married again. My third child was born between my last two modules, which was hard work – sitting an exam at 36 weeks pregnant was a strange experience! I also changed my ambitions. I started exploring my family’s history and realised I had a talent for researching and building narratives around records. I also did a module on the history of medicine in 2014, and absolutely fell in love with it. By the time I graduated in 2016, I didn’t want to go back to the NHS: I wanted to do history.

So, I applied for a place on the Masters in Local and Regional History, again with the Open University. They didn’t mind that I didn’t have a history bachelor’s degree, and they didn’t mind that I had three kids and needed to be a distance-learner. I started in October 2016, three months after finishing my BSc.

It turned out that, despite not having any formal training, I was really good at history. When it came to planning my dissertation module, I wanted to write something about illegitimacy and had the idea of using workhouse records to explore it. My local archive didn’t hold the workhouse records. However, they did hold the coroner’s records and I ended up writing my dissertation on infanticide in the coroner’s court in the 1880s. While writing it, I realised there was a major absence of coroner history in the literature. Every single suspicious death went through an inquest, months before it went through the criminal courts, but virtually all Victorian murder history begins in the criminal court system. This is because inquest depositions rarely survive, leaving only newspaper evidence. Unusually, the depositions survived in Peterborough, my home city, and they survived almost completely.

I finished my MA in March 2019, and it was a difficult slog. My mum died three weeks in, I had two lots of surgery, one in each module, and two of my kids were diagnosed with autism. It was a massive achievement to get the thing written, let alone pass with merit. My dissertation was a creative outlet: writing about other people’s hardship helped me cope with my own.

Before I even-handed in my dissertation, I knew I wanted to do a PhD based on the records I’d been using. I also knew that I only wanted to do it through the OU. I  spent six months putting a proposal together with help from my MA supervisor, and then submitted it.

I heard nothing.

In December 2019, I noticed that the University were still asking for proposals, so I resubmitted. I received a reply within days apologising that I hadn’t had feedback and arranging a phone call with the department head. On 16th December, I spoke to him and on 8th January, formally submitted my PhD proposal. An interview followed, and I found out I had a place in February 2020. I was then put forward for funding, and applied to the Open-Oxford-Cambridge DTP. I was awarded a full studentship in April. When I got the email confirming my studentship, I couldn’t believe it. We’d been in lockdown three weeks, I actually had Covid at the time, and it felt like a fever dream. It didn’t feel real until induction, in October 2020.

I’m now four months into my PhD. I’m part-time, working entirely from home and homeschooling two of my children at the same time. I absolutely love my work. I love telling the stories of people who lived and died in the nineteenth century, and I love my department. I am so grateful to the OU for providing this route into further education for those who dropped the ball in their teens, and for supporting me for what is now NINE years of near-continuous study. I was wary of the commitment of starting a degree, back in 2012, and now I’m here.

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One Comment

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  1. Wow. You and your story are inspirational. At the tender of age of 36 I’ve kind of come to terms with the wonkiness of my life journey and I’ve started to embrace it but your anger which spurred you into taking your first course totally resonated with me and my decision to start my first OU degree back in 2010. Sadly, I was less self-aware than you and allowed aspirations to dip and fall away after the degree ceremony and it took me 6 more years to give myself a big enough kick in the bum to get back here and learn what I really wanted to learn. I am now so happy with my decision and I too am so grateful to the OU for allowing me to be inspired and to know that I can achieve something at an age which would never allow me to feel comfortable attending a traditional uni.

    You’ve done amazing and your research sounds fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Three cheers for wonky routes and good luck!