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From proposal to page: the realities of taking on a collaborative PhD

Postgraduate research
Registrars programme

In this second in a series of blog posts, Stuart Bowes talks about his experience of negotiating the unique opportunities and challenges presented by a Collaborative Doctoral Award.

'How do ethics influence the development policies for accessing public collections which are essentially restricted by law: A case study of the Royal Armouries'. These twenty-four words will govern my working life for at least three years as the title of my PhD.

Unlike the majority of doctorates, however, this study was not originally my idea. Instead, as a Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) it was conceived as a joint venture between the University of Leeds and the Royal Armouries. I then applied to take on this pre-existing project as you would with a regular job vacancy, complete with an application form and interview process. Therefore, my first encounter with this PhD was actually when I viewed its fully-formed project brief rather than any eureka moment on my part.

The ready-made nature of a CDA means my experience of developing a PhD over these initial months has differed in some respects from that of a typical postgraduate researcher. On the one hand, I started in a particularly strong position as the partner organisations put considerable thought into considering the direction and wider value of the research before the project was advertised. On the other hand, it has required joining an existing team with their own ideas about the project that have not always necessarily been identical to mine.

Fortunately, this has proved more of an opportunity than an obstacle. I have found that collectively discussing our expectations for the research has been a rewarding exercise which has exposed me to important new insights and approaches.

School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies. Photo by Stuart Bowes.

My CDA is the culmination of a decade-long collaboration between the University of Leeds and the Royal Armouries, so naturally I have worked closely with my supervisors from both institutions throughout the planning process. Our conversations have been pivotal to my preparations for Transfer, an assessment towards the end of the first year of a PhD that determines whether a project can be completed effectively within its allotted timeframe. Demonstrating the originality of the research is one of the key criteria for success here.

To fulfil this requirement, my main preoccupation for these first six months has been to develop my own interpretation of the project from its synopsis in the project brief. During this process I have strived to make this research definitively my own without losing sight of its original purpose as intended by the project partners. I have thus formulated investigative strategies that seek to satisfy both claims, shaping my key questions to reflect this accommodation:

• What are the regulatory frameworks that govern access to collections of arms and armour, and how have their shifting parameters shaped the operations of the Royal Armouries?

• What does the development of collections management at the Royal Armouries reveal about the field’s current assumptions and practices, and how do its registrars utilise this inheritance to facilitate access to the institution’s restricted collections?

• How have ethical principles informed the efforts of registrars at the Royal Armouries to reconcile the often-conflicting requirements of external regulation and public access, and what does this suggest for the management of restricted collections in future?

These questions summarise the main approaches I will use to investigate collections management at the Royal Armouries, drawing on the knowledge I have gained while developing the project’s literature review and methodologies.

They establish the three major themes that will form the broad structure of the project – regulation, access, and ethics. They signal my intention to embed this research in the daily practice of the institution’s registrars, highlighting their essential role in enabling much of the Royal Armouries’ public programming. They also disclose my plan to examine the historical development of collections management at the institution to better understand its current practice, a methodology not initially envisioned in the project brief.

Overall, I feel that these questions strike the necessary balance between putting my own stamp on this study and remaining faithful to the original aims of the partner institutions.

To finish it feels appropriate to return to the concept of collaboration, as it has played such an important role in shaping this project so far. As a result of our ongoing reciprocal dialogue, this PhD has developed in thought-provoking ways that neither I nor my supervisors had initially foreseen. Collaborative PhDs are therefore undoubtedly a worthwhile endeavour given the rich and innovative investigations they can generate.

After all, more opportunities to produce pioneering research must surely be a good thing.

More information

Find out more about Stuart Bowes’ research here.


Royal Armouries entrance hall, 2015. Photo by Andy Lord.