Life is not over after you finish your master’s. Most history students end up in a wide range of professions, from journalism to IT. Yet a few cannot say goodbye to the academic world and they want to get a doctoral degree, or ‘PhD’. I asked PhD students Stefan Penders and Marlisa den Hartog what it is exactly that they do all day.

What subjects are you researching?

Stefan Penders

Stefan: I am now in the fourth year of my PhD research on imperial ideology in Roman North Africa. I examine how certain Roman virtues that are often associated with the emperor are presented in inscriptions.

Marlisa: I started last January and I am focusing on sexuality in Italy during the Renaissance. I examine opinions about sexual identity and sexual desire by looking at many different sources, like chivalric romance, pornography, and medical texts.

What does studying for a PhD mean exactly?

Stefan: Usually, a PhD means you are working full-time on your research project for four years and you have to have completed your dissertation by the end of those four years. I only work four days a week, so it will take me five years to finish my research. Besides doing research, I teach bachelor’s students. This semester I have created my own course, centred around my research topic, for the first time. Finally, I feel like an expert!

Marlisa: I’m also taking five years to finish my PhD and it says in my contract that I have to teach at least two semesters. 20% of my time is reserved for receiving training or providing teaching. Receiving training means for example that I follow a course to improve my proficiency in Latin. I started last January, so I haven’t yet had the chance to teach.

Why is your research important?

Marlisa den Hartog

Marlisa: Sexual identity is a very topical subject. Take, for example the development of gender neutral language. My research gives us the opportunity to reflect on our current values. Is it – in a historical sense – ‘normal’ to treat sexual identity the way  we do today, for example? My research on Renaissance Italy provides us with a mirror to question ourselves.

Stefan: My research is important fort the question ‘What are the things that keep an empire together?’ Insight into this question gives us a better understanding of history. We can also learn from the answers and try to apply those lessons in a modern context, like the European Union. Maybe I should write Juncker a letter with recommendations at the end of my PhD!

You both chose to work four days instead of five and extend your PhD by one year. Why?

Stefan: I wanted to have time to do something else besides my research. I am not sure I want to stay in the academic world after my PhD and I wanted to strengthen my CV with other work experience. At the moment, I’m doing freelance editing, mainly in the cultural sector and in IT. The latter may seem far removed from my own knowledge, but it’s still editing texts. In addition, I think it’s  important to share scientific knowledge outside of the ivory tower of academia. That’s why I also work as a volunteer at Romeinenweek [Week of the Romans], a cultural heritage event held every year in May that draws attention to Roman heritage in the Netherlands, together with a bunch of other organisations.

Marlisa: Before I started my PhD I was working four days a week and I just liked the time off! Not only that, I too want the possiblity to do something besides my research. For example, I started the Leiden Medievalists Blog this month, together with a couple of colleagues. The blog is a forum for researchers from various disciplines to present their knowledge of the Middle Ages in a way that’s accessible for a wide audience. You may not realise it,  but the Middle Ages is an interesting period for everyone!

What is a normal day for you?

Marlisa: Actually, there isn’t really a ‘normal day’. My research is developing in phases, and in each phase I do different things. I work from source to source. The first two weeks, I try to figure out a source for myself, then there is a week of organising the information I have gathered. After that, I’m reading secondary literature for two weeks, often going back and forth between the source and the literature. Finally, there’s another month of writing and fine-tuning the material.

Stefan: I work in phases, too. When I started my PhD, I gathered a lot of raw data and created a database to organise all the material. Now, I’m mainly analysing the data and writing up my findings. You get a lot of freedom to determine how you want to divide your time, especially when you have your own project as I do. When you’re part of a larger project, there are more restrictions. In addition to my research, a lot of time is spent preparing  the courses I teach, particularly when a semester starts or when you have to mark student essays.

Is a PhD a calling or a job?

Marlisa: Both. It’s a job because you get paid for it and there are certain requirements and expectations you have to honour. But at the same time you need to be passionate about your research. You have a lot of freedom. When you are hired, they’re actually saying: “Here is five years of pay, now write a book!” The rest you have to figure out for yourself. You need commitment to your research to keep you motivated and focused in that sea of freedom.

Stefan: You definitely need passion, but your research doesn’t determine who you are. You also need to be wary of taking on a commitment that is too heavy. Because it is your own project, some PhD students tend to work far more hours than they are hired for. The project is completely your responsibility and that can make it hard to take a break for a while. A rather wise man once told me: “A PhD is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. It is no good using up all your energy in the first few kilometres.”

What are your plans for the future?

Stefan: My plan is first to finish my PhD!

Marlisa: I hope to find a position in the academic world and I don’t really have a plan B. I could work project-based at a research institute, but that is an unsure career path.

What does ‘PhD’ mean, actually?

Marlisa: No idea! Is it Latin?

Stefan: Hmm, philo… philo.. something? Philosophum doctum?

Marlisa: Philosophiae Doctor! Doctor of Philosophy. Great! Finally my course in Latin has come in handy!