What’s it Worth? The Value and Potential of the Collaborative Doctoral Award


Conference report


contributed by: Jade French, WRoCAH CDA student University of Leeds Halton Speak Out and The Bluecoat

As the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) scheme reaches its 10th year, a group of enterprising students all undertaking this PhD route ceased this opportune time to organise a conference in order to evaluate its progress and explore, what’s it worth? The conference What’s it Worth? The Value and Potential of the Collaborative Doctoral Award took place on the 27th July 2015 at the British Museum and comprised of presentations, a round table discussion and a panel for which I was invited to speak on representing the student experience.

Although growing in popularity, CDAs remain a minority amongst the WRoCAH cohort. I’ve often felt a bit of an anomaly as a CDA student – a fellow AHRC recipient but not fully eligible to partake in all of the opportunities the rest of my WRoCAH cohort can. In short, the CDA scheme differs from a traditional doctoral studentship in that they require students to collaborate with an organisation outside of higher education, which has resulted in many partnerships between universities and a host of museums, galleries and heritage sites. This collaboration aims to bring students rich doctoral training in gaining first-hand experience of work outside the university environment therefore enhancing the employment-related skills. However, along with this award comes a unique set of challenges for students and indeed – all stakeholders – a hot topic of discussion at the conference.

“How does a student’s ‘unique contribution to knowledge’ …
figure into a study which has been pre-designed by others?”

In October 2014 I began my own CDA with The University of Leeds and two non-academic organisations; a self advocacy group Halton Speak Out and art centre the Bluecoat. My own journey in securing a CDA however differs considerably to other students on the same scheme, for which I was invited to sit on the panel offering a different insight into the CDA. After finishing my MA at The University of Brighton I decided to peruse a PhD however I went looking for models in which I could continue the my collaborative and practice-led ways of working. I was attracted to the CDA because of its ability to support collaboration however CDAs are intended to be designed between institutions – not students. Undeterred I decided to instigate an application resulting in a successful bid.

My experience of designing my own CDA as opposed to applying to take part in a advertised study, in a way foregrounds one of the main concerns expressed by students which attracted much discussion at the conference. How does a student’s ‘unique contribution to knowledge’ – a defining aspect of a PhD – figure into a study which has been pre-designed by others? Ian Lyne, Associate Director of Programmes of the AHRC expressed that the ability for students to have their own voice within the institutions application remains a key criteria for it being funded in the first place. However how well this translates into practice is still contested which was evident in its lively audience participation, which raised a number of other important questions, including:

  • How supervisors/students can navigate the co-supervisory component of the degree: what happens if supervisors give contradictory advice, for example?
  • Whether CDAs provide money, time, labour and expertise that museums can no longer acquire elsewhere?
  • What happens to the collaboration when the award ends?

Other unique challenges that CDA students face including the difficulty of finishing within its three year strict funding timeframe when they are expected not only to produce academic work, but also produce work for their host organisation such as cataloguing or archiving. There was talk at the conference by AHRC representatives of extending the CDA completion timeframe from 2016, recognising the difficult circumstances CDA students are in, but this does little to help CDA students like myself experiencing the predicament now.

Despite the challenges this type of PhD presents, the conference attendees whole heartily praised the brilliant work that is produced because of the hard earned collaborations. For me, the CDA provides an exciting and relevant model for doctoral training due to the immediacy that work is able to reach the public domain via its non-academic organisations. This direct access to different audiences crucially ensures that the CDA research has a life beyond the academy.