Postgrad Lives: 'Our group has a fascinating mix of backgrounds'

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The Independent Online

Jennifer Holmes, 63, is doing a D Phil in biography at the University of Buckingham, an independent higher education institution that operates outside the state system. Four decades ago, she read English at St Anne's College, Oxford.

What brought you back to education at this time of life?

After finishing at Oxford, I worked for 10 years in administrative grades in the Civil Service, in various areas including buildings, environment and transport. Then I dropped out of paid employment for around 20 years, as I brought up my family. Towards the end of this period, I retrained as a genealogist, and then had a stroke of luck when I got involved in editing two volumes of letters of Isaiah Berlin. Doing that, I got very interested in the concept of biography and the different ways a life can be interpreted and presented. So I decided to look for a postgraduate course where I could explore this.

Why did you choose Buckingham?

Two things attracted me to the Buckingham course. First, that it is taught in London, which suited me; and second, that the course is very much slanted towards historical research and not creative writing. It's a course based in the department of history, unlike many other biography postgraduate courses at other places, which are based in English departments and often involve students writing about their own lives. I certainly don't want to write my autobiography.

When did you start?

I started in January 2010, intending to take two years, part time, to complete a Masters. But now I've transferred to a D Phil course, which will take a lot longer.

How is the course organised?

Because the group is so small, we meet in a private flat, once a week, for a minimum of two hours, talking about biography, and we also have sessions on research methods. And from time to time, we have outside speakers, including biographers, who come to talk to us about their own work. It's a very nice group – all fairly mature – with a fascinating mix of backgrounds. It's great fun hearing about what people are taking on themselves.

What's the subject of your dissertation?

I don't want to tell you exactly who the subjects are in case anyone steals my idea, but they are a mother and daughter whose story I hope to use to illustrate the changing pattern of women's roles in the 20th century. I started with the intention of writing my Masters on the daughter but then realised that, if I did her mother as well, I could turn it into a subject with enough depth for a D Phil.

How are you finding the course?

What I really like is the combination of intellectually rigorous discussion combined with small-group informality. And I really like research.

Where would you like it to lead?

I want to get the dissertation done and accepted and then, if it's good enough, to turn it into a publishable book, because I do think it'll make an interesting subject.

How are you funding the course?

The fees for the full-time Masters are around £5,500, and for the D Phil, of course, you have to multiply that by about three and add inflation. I'm funding it largely myself, but have been told that I'm being awarded an exhibition of £1,000 from the university.