A new initiative allows students access to archives and experience beyond Academe, says Nick Jackson

For some humanities students, the intellectual appeal of doing a PhD is tarnished by the fear of losing touch with the world beyond. With so many important collections outside universities, and a majority of PhD students not going on to become academics, locking yourself away in an ivory tower for years can seem absurd.

For some humanities students, the intellectual appeal of doing a PhD is tarnished by the fear of losing touch with the world beyond. With so many important collections outside universities, and a majority of PhD students not going on to become academics, locking yourself away in an ivory tower for years can seem absurd.

Now, a new initiative by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is taking students out of the isolation of the ivory towers and opening up new archives to doctoral research. Science research councils have long been funding doctoral research working with companies, that provide facilities and materials. More recently, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) took up the idea, enabling doctoral researchers to work alongside government. With arts and humanities research having such a wide impact on a variety of industries, from galleries and museums to publishing, broadcasting, and the media, it was only a matter of time before collaborative doctoral awards were given to arts and humanities students.

"What alerted us to the need to do this was the enormous potential relationship between doctoral research and the world outside universities," says Geoff Crossick, who, as President of the AHRC, introduced the scheme. "And the results were remarkable. What surprised us was how much collaboration was already going on. We initially thought of funding 25 awards, but that went up to 41 when we saw the enormous range and quality of the applications."

It is easy to understand why so many universities and colleges, and non-academic institutions are interested. Collaboration gives universities access to more data and expertise, and non- academic institutions access to top-notch researchers. But the biggest winners are the students. As well as an extra £500 from the AHRC, and up to £1,000 from the external institution, students get an extra base, an extra tutor, and greater access to archives outside universities. It's a chance to learn new approaches from people beyond Academe that will be particularly welcomed by the many PhD students who do not want to become academics.

The collaborative doctoral awards will be the first of their kind funded by a research council, but similar programmes are already up and running in some places, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London being one. The museum was originally founded as a school as well as a collection. In the last 22 years, it has re-established its teaching role by offering an MA in history of design in collaboration with the Royal College of Art, and has worked closely with PhD students there.

For example, while James Lindow was studying for his PhD in Renaissance palaces in Florence at the RCA, he found himself spending more time at the V&A. Now he teaches there and at the London's University of the Arts, and is looking to publish an abridged version of his thesis. He highly recommends research at the V&A. "It's a fantastic institution, I had a very good experience there," he says. "You get to work with objects directly, to touch them. And it's more vocational, which is why I chose the RCA/V&A course over the Courtauld's. It allows you to become familiar with the workings of a museum."

The V&A is now recruiting students for four collaborative doctoral awards. It will be working with a wide variety of academic institutions, from the chemistry department at Imperial College to the humanities department at Sussex University, where it is offering an art-history doctorate on international baroque from 1600 to 1770. This well illustrates how collaborative doctoral courses reward students and institutions alike. Geared towards an exhibition of baroque art planned for 2009, the course provides the V&A with first- class research while allowing students to combine an academic perspective with an understanding of exhibiting to the public. "We guarantee academic stringency, while giving students exposure to museum culture," says the V&A's Ulrich Lehmann. "Students do academic work but, being based at the museum, they gain from the collection."

Collaboration offers greater access to estab-lished collections, and a chance to delve into previously uncharted archives. One example is the British Library sound archives. Over the last 50 years, music fans have been recording performances for private collections that they have then bequeathed to the library. At present, many of these recordings are not catalogued, and are locked away from the public. A collaborative doctorate with King's College London hopes to throw some light on to the archives while developing a growing academic interest in performance. In the past, most musicologists have referred to scores. Increasingly, the focus is moving to the music as performed - the end product that attracts an audience. While studio recordings are widely available, the British Library's collection of performance recordings is unrivalled.

"It will be fascinating for us to work on unedited, live recordings," says Daniel Leech-Wilkinson of KCL. "Often, the same musicians will have recorded the same work in studios. It will be interesting to compare how musicians behave differently in the concert hall and the studio."

The British Library will have its collection fully catalogued for the first time, while the doctoral student and KCL will get access to this unique collection.

While many of the new collaborative doctorates will be with big institutions such as the British Library and the V&A, there are some surprises on the list, with, for example, both Northumbria NHS Healthcare Trust and the West Yorkshire Playhouse working with universities on setting up doctoral programmes. For most of these smaller institutions, this will be their first experience of doctoral research, and in at least one case, it will open up virgin archives to a researcher. Seven Stories, a recently developed collection of children's literature in Newcastle, is teaming up with Newcastle University to offer a doctorate in post-war children's literature. Seven Stories has only been collecting since 1997, and has not even opened to the public yet, let alone to any academic research. But it has already developed a significant archive, with tens of thousands of documents from writers such as Philip Pullman and Peter Dickinson, as well as the influential Puffin commissioning editor Kaye Webb. The collection is such new territory that one of the student's main roles will be exploring research avenues, and establishing which parts of the collection are most valuable for research.

"It's part of a drive to open up access to our collection," explains Sarah Lawrance at Seven Stories. "Because we're a new collection, it can be hard to tell what is most valuable for research, so it will be very interesting for us to work closely with the researchers."

Discovering and realising research potential is what the collaborative doctorate awards are all about. By encouraging new researchers, opening up new archives to doctoral research, and allowing that research to have the greatest impact beyond Academe, the AHRC hopes to encourage further collaboration in the arts between academic and non-academic communities.