How to PhD: Guest Post by Nathan Bossoh

When I finished my undergraduate degree in music performance back in 2014 I was sure that I was done with University. Three years living and studying in Guildford (UK) was great and all but the thought of being a “student” again was quite horrifying. I was now a fully-fledged adult, free from the shackles of the educational system. Skip forward to 2021 and things have not turned out exactly as planned. I’m a student again, yet, contrary to what 2014 Nathan might have thought or said, I have very much enjoyed my time back at university, albeit in a very different context.

Having grown up in a Christian family and church background, I was slowly drawn into studying the history of science and religion for a relatively standard reason. I had always heard about the common notion of conflict between science and religion, and although confused by it, I would say that I largely bought into it. Questions about dinosaurs, evolutionary theory, and the possibility of multiple universes had sat in my mind for some time and I wanted to understand if, and how, Christianity addressed these topics.

To cut a long story short, as I continued to work as a full-time musician, I spent my spare hours studying philosophy, theology, science and history trying to find answers. Overtime as I began to find those answers, I eventually made the weighty decision to reverse my roles. I made music part-time and went into academia full time. Many factors led to this role reversal (too many to mention here) but suffice to say, that switch brought me to my current status now as a third year PhD student at UCL studying history. My focus being the exploration of science and Christianity through the life of a British polymath known as the 8th Duke of Argyll.

University College London

Learning to PhD as a history student has certainly been an experience and a half. When I began I, of course, knew how to read a history book, but I had little idea about what was required to actually do history. I was barely aware of what it meant to do archival research – a core component of doing history. (My supervisors have been instrumental in fixing that). There is also the issue of tacit knowledge where academics sometimes assume that you know more than you really do. I’m sure most PhD and early career scholars are familiar with the classic tactic of ‘fake it till you make it’.

One thing I have come to realise is that doing a PhD is in almost no way about becoming really smart (this won’t be much of a revelation to academics). Doing a PhD is rather about learning a certain set of skills…and learning them really well. For example, as a history student, aside from the actual thesis that one has to complete (which is a core skill in itself), one has to learn how to properly network, present at academic conferences, write academic book reviews, publish at least one paper in a scholarly journal, and learn and navigate the academic funding landscape which will probably shape your future career. All this ideally before one finishes their PhD.

With all this in mind I can say that the journey so far has been difficult but rewarding. And fortunately, along the way I can say that somehow, I’ve managed to tick all above boxes whilst retaining work as a part-time musician. I’ve networked, I’ve reviewed, I’ve presented and published, and I am now in the long-haul process of putting my post-PhD project together whilst searching for funding. This latter point leads me to the final part of this blog post.

In my first year as a PhD student, when I attended history conferences (prior to Covid-19 shutting everything down) I was always aware that there were not many – and often not any – other black scholars around. I did wonder why this was, but ultimately it didn’t really bother me that much at all, I just thought “this is just how it is”. Of, course the murder of George Floyd drastically changed all of that. Issues of racial disparity and the problem of historical amnesia came to the forefront. All of a sudden, what was once largely implicit – at least mainly to me – became extremely explicit.

My current thesis is on a wealthy Scottish Victorian aristocrat and it involves important aspects of race and empire interwoven into science and religion. I hope to be able publish a book from my thesis at some point because I think that the role of aristocracy within the history of science, religion, and empire has been somewhat overlooked to date. However, further to this, there is still a big gap for more global research in the history of science and religion. As a result, two of the locations I want my future research to focus on are West Africa and Japan. My interest in West Africa has developed due to my own family background, over time learning about the lives of my parents and their own migration stories from Ghana to Britain. My interest in Japan has developed a little more unconventionally – through my unapologetic love of anime and the Japanese language 🙂 (Click here to see my post-PhD research project ideas).

Earlier this year I was listening to a YouTube video on economics and at one point the lecturer spoke about the ‘science’ of economics vs the ‘art’ of economics. Applying this to history, this concept makes a lot of sense of my current position as a PhD student. The ‘science’ of history is about learning the fundamentals of how to do history. On the other hand, the ‘art’ of history comes when one has mastered the science and is now able to express historical principles in their work more freely and intuitively. I am definitely currently in the former stage but the aim over time is to shift to the latter. That journey itself will certainly be interesting and I can only wait to see what types of twists and turns, difficulties – and more positively – opportunities it will manifest.

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