Sunday, September 6, 2015

Librarians considering doing doctorates

Following on from Eva Hornung and Mary Delaney, Brid McGrath shares her thoughts on doing a Ph.D.   If you are a librarian interested in sharing your experiences of doing a Ph.D or doctorate please e-mail me.

My Experience of Doing a Ph.D by Dr. Brid McGrath.

I strongly recommend undertaking research, not merely because of the intellectual benefits it brings, but also for the additional advantages of being part of different communities, the new roles it opens up and the personal satisfaction of publishing your research.

I had not intended to write a Ph.D., but I had such fun writing my M.Litt. that I simply wanted to go on doing research and felt, probably wrongly, that I still needed guidance, especially since I had an absolutely wonderful supervisor.  In fact, anything that I had needed to learn about historical research, I had actually learnt doing my M.Litt.  An M.Litt. is a masters degree, conducted solely by research – there is no taught element and you write a 60,000 word thesis on your own, under supervision.  Research masters are rather out of fashion, but I am a big enthusiast for them, as they teach you so much and more quickly than a Ph.D.

I wanted to do research in history, as it and librarianship are my two passions and I chose the 17th. century because I was working full-time as a librarian in the then National Rehabilitation Board (now the National Disability Authority) while I was writing it and that is the period for which sufficient published resources were available after hours; you can be a librarian nine to 5 and an historian after 5 pm., but not the other way round.  Immediately after submitting my M.Litt.;, I went to work as Humanities Librarian in the then National Institute of Higher Education, Limerick, now the University of Limerick.  I loved my time in Limerick, but it had then no resources for early modern historians (unlike now) and I was offered a grant by Trinity College to undertake a Ph.D.  So I gave up the day job but started looking for consultancy work both to bridge the gap between the grant (scholarship was really poorly funded in those days) and also to keep doing library work.  Within a year, I had a viable consultancy business and have never had a job since, but have worked for 28 years as a library and information consultant.  That would certainly not have happened had I not been writing my doctorate and I have thoroughly enjoyed the variety and range of work that consultancy has involved.

Work and having children lengthened the time it took to complete my doctorate, but I have never regretted taking 8 years to write my thesis; nor was it a problem either for my supervisor or for my university.  Nowadays doctoral theses are supposed to be submitted within three years and this often means that people choose discrete subjects which can be done in that time and do very little wider reading; I am privileged to have been able to take the time to read widely and deeply around my subject.  In addition, when I was writing my theses, there was no taught element, classes, courses, modules or other assistance, no instructions on methodology or technology.  People express surprise at this now, but these are recent innovations and an undergraduate history degree (which I had) teaches you how to do historical research.  I know that my skills as a librarian helped enormously in my research.  One additional thing I had to learn was palaeography – how to read the 17th. century hand.  My supervisor gave me a one hour session on this (few supervisors do this for their students, so I really was blessed) and I worked the rest out for myself.

So what did my research experience give me?  In the first place, enormous satisfaction; I’m still absolutely entranced by early 17th. century Irish parliaments and local government structures.  In my son Oisín’s great phrase “you know mammy, most people would pay not to do what you do.”   I’m sure he’s right.

Secondly, I got really terrific skills in research and writing; I learnt not to write anything I cannot stand over and to write very clearly to make a case.  These are genuinely valuable work skills and clients frequently comment on the clarity of my writing .  I publish at least one article, paper, report or book every year.

Thirdly, I get to do work I would not otherwise be offered; for more than 20 years I have taught information literacy as part of research methodology at masters and Ph.D. level in the School of Social Work and Social Policy in Trinity College.  The combination of research skills, a strong publications record and a background as a librarian in the health and social services areas (I was the first health board librarian in Ireland, and also set up libraries in many social organisations, including the Combat Poverty Agency) gives me great credibility with my academic colleagues.  I also conduct social research and for that I had to learn a completely new set of research skills, including ethical approval, survey design, and a different style of writing.  I bring my skills as I librarian to everything I do, including the dissemination of my and my clients’ publications.

Two years ago I was asked to teach palaeography (mediaeval and early modern handwriting) at masters and Ph.D. level in Trinity; I have learnt an enormous amount from this teaching.

Fourthly, as a scholar, I have been fortunate to be awarded research fellowships in research libraries in Ireland, Paris and I am writing this in California, where I have a two-month visiting research fellowship at the Huntington Library.  Last December I received funding to attend an Advanced Early English Palaeography Workshop at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. 

Finally, research means that I am part of both a library community and two other scholarly communities, in the social work and social policy areas,  and history. I love the contact with my colleagues in all these areas and my supervisor has become a wonderful friend, with whom I published a book.

Bríd McGrath is an information consultant, lecturer, historian and partner in McGrath Barrett & Associates.  Her publications list may be found at and her professional details at

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