A group of students in discussion at a museum.
Knowledge Exchange: Historic England Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student Bronwen Stone shares her work with fellow PhD researchers at the British Museum, September 2022. © Benedict Johnson.
Knowledge Exchange: Historic England Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student Bronwen Stone shares her work with fellow PhD researchers at the British Museum, September 2022. © Benedict Johnson.

Just What the 'Doctor' Ordered

Examining the activities, angsts and achievements of doing a collaborative PhD with Historic England.

Doctoral research delivered in partnership with UK universities makes a significant contribution to our work at Historic England. All our activity is underpinned by knowledge and evidence and there is much to investigate.

Can documentary filmmaking help us to address the emotions surrounding archaeological loss in coastal areas? How can engagement with minority religious communities offer a more diverse understanding and representation of historic places of worship? What could an analysis of big data from large-scale archaeological excavation tell us about the effectiveness of geophysical survey? These are questions being answered by PhD students currently delivering collaborative research with Historic England and UK universities.

Researching Together

Historic England may not be the first name that springs to mind when thinking about PhD training, but our programme is as broad as our organisation’s purpose to improve people’s lives by championing and protecting the historic environment and is essentially collaborative and applied in nature.

In 2005, the Art and Humanities Research Council introduced a new kind of funded doctoral research degree. Collaborative Doctoral Awards took PhD research beyond its typical university setting and out into the professional world of heritage and culture. The Awards bring together universities and cultural institutions to support student-led research targeted to the ‘real world’ problems or scenarios that arise in the day-to-day work of the cultural sector.

From 2013, Collaborative Doctoral Awards became integrated into training programmes that are organised and funded across multiple research organisations. Doctoral Training Partnerships are groups of Higher Education Institutions or universities that deliver PhD degrees with the support of industry partners. Historic England is participating in eight Doctoral Training Partnerships, such as the Midlands 4 Cities, and for these initiatives we can offer career development opportunities, industry placements and occasionally co-supervision.

However, our main doctoral programme is the Art and Humanities Research Council-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership - a scheme where cultural and heritage organisations work with Higher Education institutions and universities to develop PhD projects that directly respond to cultural sector agendas.

Historic England’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership is managed jointly with our sister organisation, English Heritage. Between the two organisations we have 17 current students and 13 alumni and have worked in partnership with twenty universities working in areas ranging from heritage science and technical conservation to the relationships between heritage and climate change, wellbeing and inclusion.

In April this year we received the good news that our funding bid to the Arts and Humanities Research Council to support further PhD studentships has been successful. From October 2024, we look forward to welcoming three new students each year for three years, providing nine new opportunities for innovative doctoral research.

Mutual Benefits

Engaging with doctoral research is beneficial for Historic England. The Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme contributes to a rich portfolio of four-year, in-depth, collaborative projects that extend beyond what we could deliver alone.

It is a chance for our historic environment specialists to connect with scholars and doctoral researchers to produce fresh perspectives, solve problems and generate new knowledge whilst building closer relationships between academia and heritage institutions. In addition, the Collaborative Doctoral Partnership reflects our commitment to support heritage sector skills and careers by training early career applied researchers who can work flexibly between academia and heritage policy and practice.

Our students too have plenty to gain. During their PhD, our Collaborative Doctoral Partnership students benefit not only from academic insight delivered by the university partner, but also from Historic England’s practical expertise in understanding historic places: how and why they are significant and how they are cared for, investigated, interpreted, managed and conserved. The students learn too about the role of the historic environment in creating a sense of place and the connection between past, present and future in heritage-led planning. Each Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentship includes a programme of training, mentoring and a three to six-month work-based placement, either with Historic England or with another cultural or heritage sector organisation.

In career development terms, our Collaborative Doctoral Partnership students become a new generation of flexible doctoral graduates who can move between the dual languages of academia and practice. Alumni careers are a witness to this, with our graduates holding positions that range from academic research management to project delivery, finds liaison, and conservation and archival roles within national, regional and local historic environment organisations and museums. Some alumni may go on to work for us: former student Sam Rowe is now our North West Science Advisor working from Historic England’s Manchester office.

At the end of the journey, students have acquired skills in applied research, whilst at the same time delivering outcomes that have genuine public value.

Healthy Outcomes

Anyone who has completed a PhD will tell you that the road is not always smooth. Managing your own four-year research project typically brings with it doubts, sleepless nights and changes of direction as you build the know-how and confidence to become an independent researcher.

For collaborative PhD students there are additional challenges. Our students have four supervisors – two from their university and two from Historic England. Students liaise between these organisations, often working across disciplines whilst mindful that their applied research must lead to ‘real world’ impacts. They may, for example, be required to blend theoretical thinking or experimental techniques with the practicalities of operating a commercial archaeology unit, or to translate the outcomes of their 80,000-word thesis into a briefing document for policymakers or into a tool or guidance note for managing an historic High Street.

Support is available from university and Historic England supervisors and staff, as well as from our heritage sector networks. And just as there are added challenges, there is also the reward of seeing your research make a difference to the understanding, care and enjoyment of the historic environment.

In this sub-section of Historic England Research Magazine, three current doctoral students tell us about their own collaborative PhD research.

  • Alphaeus (Alfie) Lien-Talks and Bronwen Stone are students in our Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme. Alfie explores how digital datasets produced by diverse organisations can be collectively accessible to support the future planning of historic High Streets.
  • Bronwen’s analysis of monastic window glass is providing a better understanding of the development of the English medieval glass industry whilst also assessing the best imaging methods to capture decoration and monitor changes to degraded medieval glass.
  • Sadie Levy Gale’s studentship is the result of our partnership with the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. Sadie’s work examines visual representations of healthcare between 1920 to 1950, drawing upon Historic England’s photographic archive and producing new interpretations that will open up collections to wider audiences.
  • We also hear from Adam Vamplew, our Historic Environment Advice Apprentice Research Co-ordinator, who talks about his own role in supporting postgraduate research. Together these articles illustrate how our collaborative doctoral programmes, with their focus on knowledge, evidence, experience and insight, contribute to ensuring that our work at Historic England remains in the best of health.

About the author

Name and role

Jo Byrne

Title and organisation
Research and Academic Partnerships Manager at Historic England
Jo Byrne is Historic England’s Research and Academic Partnerships Manager. Her role involves developing external research collaborations, supporting research funding bids and co-ordinating Historic England’s postgraduate programmes. She completed her own Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded collaborative PhD with the University of Hull and Hull Maritime Museum in 2015. Jo’s career has spanned practice, research and research management in the cultural, heritage and higher education sectors. Her research interests include critical heritage studies, oral history, cultural geographies, maritime heritage and port-city cultures.

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