Bygone needles: An unexpected journey through the fabric of history

In this blog, mature student Melanie Marsh reflects on her journey through two History degrees at the University of Northampton, and her successes in winning funding for a PhD project.


My Undergraduate degree:

I was one of the oldest mature students in my undergrad intake, and had a disability. I had a lot to prove to myself. To my surprise, having been out of education for thirty(ish) years, I graduated with a first. And still sometimes can’t believe it. I’ve since been told this is ‘Imposter syndrome’, and there are internationally known historians who still suffer from it.  I’m pleased I demonstrated mature students were as capable as the bright young things.

Mel 1

My Study helper


Being a mature student has its pros and cons. We tend to treat study like work, probably reading and writing for more hours than the average working week. This is a practice that can benefit all students. Our longer (and possibly) wider life experience also helps our understanding of modern history in particular. We worry. About everything. Much more than the tutors do about us.

Jim Beach was my PAT, and spent the first year telling me he wasn’t worried about me, and laughing. Considering how far I have come, I am sure he is still laughing! One downside is family commitments, and finance can also be a struggle. Several of my cohort were parents, two students had their second child during their degree. One of whom won Best Overall Academic Performance and Best Dissertation.


My Masters:

People however kept asking, ‘what are you going to do with your degree?’ Good question. As I’d spent three years hitting goals I hadn’t thought I could reach, I didn’t want to stop. So I decided to see if I would be accepted onto the Master’s History course. As I was applying to UoN and they knew me, I could wait until I had my result to apply, but generally, as this helpful web page suggests, it should be completed much earlier. There may be competition for places, so contacting the tutor in charge to discuss the course or admissions criteria might be helpful.

I enjoyed my MA so much more than my degree. The seminars were in the evenings, (not the best time for me, due to my disability), providing access to the course for those working during the day. I chose the full time course, so was in every week. One of the modules was so far out of my preferred historical period and comfort zone, that I spent the first three weeks consistently saying ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand that’. By the end of the module, I managed to work out how to transfer one element of it to my seventeenth century dissertation subject.


Mel 2

17th century quilt made by Priscilla Tavenor, held in the collection of the V&A


I hated researching and writing my undergrad dissertation, despite being told that students usually enjoy the dissertation most. I felt completely out of control even with support, because it was so different to an essay, and had to be based on my own research. Despite the odds, I gained a first for my work. I felt much more relaxed with the MA dissertation. I loved researching and writing about a subject that was very close to my heart – women’s needlework in the 17th century. And it was also a subject that I knew about.


Mel 3

 I had to do maths!


To accomplish as good a grade as possible, I attempted to work out the best ways of utilising my time, and abilities. I have a few tips here:

  1. Ensure you have really good Disabled Student Allowance support.
  2. Schedule in time to rest, and relax as well as work. Good planning is essential, and everyone needs support to get through the course.
  3. Proof read each other’s work. Input from others can improve grades.
  4. Articles provide more concise information than books, so become Nelson aficionados.
  5. Make Genine O’Neill at inter-library loans your new best friend.
  6. Contact historians from outside the university. Google to find an academic email address, politely introduce yourself, and ask their advice.
  7. Follow Twitterstorians. Start networking.
  8. Attend research seminars at different universities.
  9. Start thinking about what comes next as soon as possible. If you decide on a PhD, start researching now.

So, Master’s degree complete, and with the grade I wanted, I still got asked ‘what are you going to do now?’


My PhD:

I discussed things with my dissertation supervisors, Tim Reinke-Williams and Matthew McCormack, to ask if they felt I was capable of a PhD. Before applying, you need to have an idea of your thesis proposal, and where you want to study, or who you want to work with as your supervisor. I chose to apply to Birmingham and Manchester Universities. Both university websites have so much useful information on them, there are postgrad open days, and all sorts of information, from how to write a proposal, to how to fund your PhD. You can find that information here and here.

Funding can be problematic, and Google searches can suggest alternatives. I applied for Arts and Humanities Research Council funding, doubling the application work. This covers your fees, and provides a yearly stipend. Competition is fierce, but I knew my thesis proposal was rooted in fairly new and expanding fields of history. I wrote two proposals, two university, and two research council funding applications in approximately three weeks. Bad move, try to allow a lot more time, and follow guidance on the above websites.


Mel 4

Writing my first (short, thank goodness) research paper for this Seminar. So scary!


The offer of places at both universities came through while I was away with a friend. Thrilled, we toasted it with champagne. By April, though I was notified I had failed to gain funding for Birmingham, I had won it for Manchester. And as Tim told me, ‘follow the money’! I readily admit I cried when I was notified, and that rarely happens.

Obviously I am excited, nervous and anxious to get started. My story simply goes to show that you never know where an undergrad degree might take you. Whatever your age, it can sometimes be only the start of an amazing and unexpected journey.


Melanie Marsh, former BA and MA student at the University of Northampton


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