WRITER AND RESEARCHER
You run Unspoken Assumptions, a website “where history and foreign policy meet”. Why did you decide to create your own outlet rather than write for a third party?
I’m really interested in how events of the past inform many foreign policy issues or problems today. It seemed to me there is often a division between history and current affairs which doesn’t make sense. For example, you can’t fully understand the current situation in Afghanistan without having some knowledge of the history between that country and Britain. While there are a lot of outlets to write about foreign policy or history, there are few places where you can write about both. Hence, Unspoken Assumptions.
Also, I wanted the freedom to be able to write about what I wanted to. Which is a little self-indulgent, but after the constraints of the PhD, it felt like a luxury being able to write whatever I felt like with nobody to question me! I very much enjoy thinking of what might be informative, but also interesting and popular.
You have just completed a Phd on Bolshevism, Islamism and Nationalism: Britain's Problems in South Asia, 1918-1923? Why did you decide to do a Phd and is it something you’d recommend to readers?
Initially I planned to go into academia – so I wanted to become a lecturer in history and hence needed a PhD. My career plans changed during the PhD but not my interest in history and foreign policy.
In terms of recommending doing a PhD, I would advise thinking carefully about why you want it. And talk to current PhD students. Experiences can also vary by subject and university. So for example, apart from meetings with my supervisor (and these can vary in regularity depending on how hands-on the supervisor wants to be) I was left entirely to my own devices. I had no classes I was obliged to attend on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. Whereas my sister, who is doing a PhD in Biology, has to go into a lab every day. So our experiences of a PhD have been quite different.
From my own experience, a PhD can consume you. You take ownership of it in a much bigger way than other study or work, because you devise the topic, you are responsible for arguing a certain point, and when someone criticises the dissertation it can be hard not to take this personally. You feel like a failure if your PhD is not going well. In this way, it can become a part of your life (if not your whole life!) in a way nothing else does really. The plus side is the sense of achievement when you are finished. And of course, those two little letters at the start of your name!
What are you planning to do with your Phd?
I’d like to get the dissertation published as a book. I think it might be of interest to others looking at this area – especially as some of the tensions I talk about between the British government in London and Delhi haven’t really been focused on by other historians. Other than that, I don’t really know. I think the experience has given me skills and abilities that I will use in life, be it in research, writing or other areas.
What were the hardest and best things about doing a Phd?
The hardest thing was the isolation. The things you take for granted when doing a BA or MA and even being in an office environment where I work now – being surrounded by people, having casual talk about people’s days and lives, collaborating on projects – are the things I probably missed the most. I tried to combat this isolation by doing volunteering, running the PhD seminar at my university and teaching. Ultimately though, only you and your supervisor may know the true extent of the work you do, the minutiae of research that is the PhD and this can be quite difficult.
The best thing is the sense of achievement. Even now I occasionally look at my dissertation and find it hard to believe that I wrote that. My supervisor told me when I very first started that I would become the expert on my PhD subject – which at first seems like nonsense, when you feel like you don’t have a clue what you’re doing! But of course, by the end you have spent so many hours with the resources that you really are the expert.
You also write for think tank Future Foreign Policy. What is the role of writing in your career?
Writing is hugely important to me and one thing during the PhD that I learnt how to be better at. It also solidified how much I enjoy writing. It is a fundamental bridge between what we know and how we communicate this to others. So my aim is to do this as much as possible – although how exactly to make a career out of writing, I’m not so sure about yet! I’m also taking a proof-reading course and I do some editing work for a charity (Legasee Educational Trust) which I really enjoy.
How did you become interested in foreign policy?
I’ve always been interested in foreign relations in terms of history – so how countries such as Britain and Russia interacted with the world in the early twentieth century, for example. As I said, I think the division between the past and today is false. So, just as it’s hard to fully understand a country today by seeing it in isolation with the world, so it is hard to understand current foreign relations without knowing how such countries interacted in the past.
While doing your Phd, you co-founded Winning Words, a writing competition that encourages PhD students to write about their research for a non-academic audience. Why is it important?
I have read academic papers where I have not understood a word the writer was saying. Which to me is bad writing. There are some fantastic writers in academia, but the skill of being able to write well, about a subject that might be quite complex, is not taught (at least it wasn’t with me). For some years, academics only wrote for other academics and so did not have to worry about being engaging or simplifying their language. Today there is more emphasis on public engagement in universities; which is great, but if PhD students are not taught how to write well for a non-academic audience, this will not work.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Looking for the evidence is probably a key skill that I picked up from the PhD and carry today. Which is particularly pertinent in foreign policy I think. I learnt in the PhD that I couldn’t say anything without having sources to back this up. Even now, when I read certain articles or documents, I am always challenging what the writer is saying, looking for the evidence. Which can’t be a bad thing I think. Of course there is also writing. At least, I like to think that I am a decent writer now!
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
To believe in my knowledge and abilities. The world is full of experts on any given subject and it can be hard to have your voice heard. Knowing that I have something important to say, something to contribute to the debate was a process I learned through the PhD and carry with me now.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
The PhD process in terms of the emotional challenge, as opposed to the intellectual. The latter was hard, but the former was harder. I didn’t like the isolation. And this was tough because although I created ways to try to satisfy my social side, when it came down to the PhD work itself, it was just me and a laptop.
This was hard to tackle because it’s inherent in the process of doing a history PhD. But I learnt a lot I probably didn’t know before about myself. I realised I don’t mind being alone to work but only for short periods at a time, and also with the feeling that the work I am doing is useful – so somebody is going to read it, it may affect somebody’s opinion or policy directive.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I am actually most proud of my grade in my degree. For me it was a turning point and I know the Masters and PhD was only achieved because I was able to get the grade I aimed for in my degree. A lot of people believe that to have a PhD you must be smarter than average, and thus the act of achieving the PhD is easy for a clever person. Maybe there are some people like that but it wasn’t the case for me. I only got my academic achievements because I worked really very hard for them. And that all started with my degree grade and seeing that by working hard I could get what I aimed for.
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
I don’t particularly. There isn’t anyone I particularly want to emulate, be it career-wise or personal life. Instead, I think I like to see the best-bits of many different people and hope I can somehow blend them together in me! The person I would most like to be like is probably my Dad – which sounds so cliché! But in terms of kindness and intelligence (which I value hugely) I wish I was more like him.
Dr Heather A Campbell | Writer and Researcher
Three years' experience
CV in brief
Studied: Phd in History at Queen Mary University; MA in twentieth century history at Queen Mary University; PGDip in in Russian language at the University of Glasgow; BA in history at the University of Aberdeen
Previously worked at: Queen Mary University
Find her online
"In terms of recommending doing a PhD, I would advise thinking carefully about why you want it. And talk to current PhD students. "