Degree Reviews Opinion

Degree Reviews: The reality of DPhil History

This post is part of a series of articles that The Oxford Blue will be publishing about Oxford degrees. First person, in depth, and critical accounts of an Oxford education are hard to find online and open discussions about what our University doesn’t get right are needed outside the confines of salty Oxfesses. We hope this series will be useful to prospective students, and resonate enough to spark real change about the issues addressed.

My name is Chloé, and I am a year and a half into what is theorised to be a three-year DPhil in History (Late Antique and Byzantine Studies). It is promising that my supervisors and I are both aiming for three years, meaning that it might actually happen (which, given that I have funding for three years, would be awfully helpful).

Within the History Faculty, there are a lot of chronological subdivisions and the geographical focus is Euro-centric. It is therefore either laughable or unfortunate (depending on how much humour you can find in the situation) that I don’t really fit into the History Faculty, either chronologically or geographically. Potentially chronologically: I fall into the broad sweep of post-Rome that is the Late Antique and Byzantine period. Geographically is a bit less likely as my thesis focuses on Egypt, which somehow manages to be its own entity. 

I hadn’t actually studied a degree with ‘History’ in the title before my DPhil. My BA was in Oriental Studies (Egyptology) here at Oxford, and my MA was in Archaeology at Liverpool. My DPhil focuses on material in Coptic, the last phase of the Egyptian language and the liturgical language of the Coptic Church. That is a bit off the beaten track but, fortunately, a range of languages call Late Antique and Byzantine Studies home, such as Greek, Syriac, and Arabic, to name just a few. 

Doing a DPhil is, I think, much less stressful than doing a taught degree (especially at Oxford). I only have to complete a hundred thousand-word thesis over three years. And, unlike science-based DPhils, while doing this I have no research group or close supervision. At the moment, I’m meeting one supervisor every fortnight and the other supervisor intermittently. This freedom enables me to take several additional language classes, mainly alongside MSt/MPhil Late Antique and Byzantine Studies students.. It is a lot of work, but I do have the comfort of knowing that I’m not going to be examined. My supervisors are all for doing extra things, although I do worry them by doing quite so much. 

There are many opportunities open to postgraduate students. Some of them are open to all postgraduates, such as organising conferences and giving papers. I help with the Oxford University Byzantine Society’s annual postgraduate conference, and this year will be presenting a paper. I also gave a few papers last year at other postgraduate events. 

There is one opportunity that is open only to DPhils. We can teach undergraduates (and postgraduates, if you know where to look). Generally, you’re supposed to complete departmental training before doing any teaching, but I had already been teaching for almost a year in the Oriental Studies Faculty before being trained in the History Faculty, which was an advantage of having studied in a different faculty for my BA. We can also do division-level training, which is nationally accredited and basically necessary if you want a teaching position after your DPhil. 

So, that’s the fun stuff that a DPhil student gets to do. But there is also the administration. And, this being Oxford, it is presented to you as simple but unfortunately, it gets more complicated once you’re actually trying to navigate your way through it. For instance, DPhil students, despite what it says on our Bod cards, are not actually DPhil students when we start our courses. We start off as ‘Probationary Research Students’, and only become DPhil students once we pass our Transfer of Status. This consists of written work, a presentation, and a viva that proves whether or not our thesis topic is viable. DPhils have to complete Transfer at the latest within Hilary Term of their second year, but History DPhils complete their Transfer in Trinity Term of their first year. A Transfer in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies also brings with it the complication that we are given the impression that we are administered alongside the Early Medieval History DPhil students, when actually we are not. This led to additional stress for us in trying to find out who was supposed to be examining us and when our vivas might happen.  

The other stressful element of being a DPhil student is funding. Unlike most of my DPhil friends, I am not fully funded, which would pay my tuition fees and give me a decent stipend for living costs. I am the current Deutsch Scholar in African History at St Cross, but that covers only my tuition fees with a little left over. So, I have had to once again turn to Student Finance England and undertake the Doctoral Loan. Still, this does not quite cover my living costs, and a combination of generous parents and ad hoc work makes up the rest of what I need. I suppose it should therefore be emphasised that, while not getting full funding is not the end of the world, it does necessitate creativity.

Now, having made this huge commitment of time and money, you’re probably wondering what I’m going to do with my DPhil once it’s over. Well, even half way through my degree, I’m still not sure whether I want to stay in academia. I’ve never not been in education, so I can’t help but think that it would be healthy to work in the ‘real world’ for a while, perhaps in a museum. 

Ultimately, I am glad that I returned to Oxford to do my DPhil because of the range of learning experiences and the opportunities to teach that are available here. I can conclusively say that a DPhil in the humanities is a liberating experience, and is ultimately what each student makes of it. 

Chloe Agar

Chloé (she/her) is an Egyptologist who, when not studying obscure ancient languages, writes fantasy and sci-fi fiction and non-fiction articles on education and the arts for The Oxford Blue, The Oxford Student, and Coronavirus Tutoring Initiative.