Biomedicine in museums

Joint university and museum PhD programmes is a great idea — but what about pre-specified phd projects?

Joint university and museum PhD programmes is a great idea. But what about pre-specified, detailed project announcements? I thought about this when I saw an announcement on the Mersenne list this morning about two Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) PhD studentships in history of science, technology and medicine.

The posts are announced as collaborative research projects between on the one hand the Division of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds and on the other hand the National Maritime Museum and the Thackray Museum, respectively. Great, internationally acknowledged institutions, no doubt about that. But what wonders me is that the project descriptions are so detailed in advance.

For example, the project with the Thackray Museum is called “Industrial Illness in Cultural History: ‘La Maladie du Bradford’ in Local, National and Global Contexts (1875-1919), and the student is supposed to

investigate the impact of woolsorters’ disease or anthrax (as it later came to be known) on the Bradford community where the disease was first identified in the nineteenth century. Drawing on a range of archival and material resources at the Thackray and elsewhere, the project will also seek to assess the development of national legislation in response to the disease; place the disease in a global cultural context, especially that of the British Empire and Continental Europe; and map the interplay between the disease’s local, national and global contexts

(The museum connection is that the student “is expected to create a virtual exhibit of project-related materials and also to contribute to local, national and international meetings”).

That’s a pretty precise project description! (Note: 1875-1919, not even 1920!) But is this a good idea? (It’s not a rhetorical question, I’m really unsure about this.)

Several of my colleagues here in Denmark have rather negative experiences from too pre-specified projects. Students who don’t formulate their own projects tend to drop out, my colleagues say, because they realise after a year or two that they aren’t really motivated.

This has been my intuition too. All my PhD-students have crafted their own projects, and they are now wonderfully independent scholars and professionals—which sort of speaks against pre-specified projects. But is their independence attributable to the fact that they followed their own vision? The negative side of the independently formulated project coin is that such projects are usually delayed — only two of my PhD students completed their projects in time; the others spent one, or two, or even three extra years. And then again, all these theses were great, almost all are either published or submitted for publication. So there may be pros and cons.

Leeds seems to have positive experiences with pre-specified projects, however, since this is the third collaborative doctoral project between the Leeds HPS division and the Thackray Museum. And I’ve heard about other predetermined projects in our field. In fact, it looks like it has become more common in the last decade or so.

Do other institutions have any experiences with this? Any opinions out there?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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