Rachel Kowalski
Rachel Kowalski

Student focus: from selling PPI to a writing a PhD

Matt Pickles

Many of the stories on Arts Blog focus on research in the arts and humanities, but what about the students who are taking their first steps into research? In a new series, we hear the stories of some of Oxford's brilliant students.

First up is Rachel Kowalski, who started a PhD in Irish history just a few weeks ago. Professor Karen O'Brien, Head of the Humanities Division, says Rachel's story 'shows how remarkable our Humanities doctoral students are'. 

'People often find their true passions later in life, but few have the courage to make sacrifices to pursue them. Since Rachel made the leap into academia, she has achieved so much in a short space of time, and she is a great role model for other people who are interested in learning later in life.'

Now over to Rachel...

Tell us a bit about your school education and why you didn’t enter higher education?

RK: I went to a very normal state school. The school was neither brilliant nor awful. I did reasonably well at school, and actually started a degree in History after my A Levels, but left after a couple of months because I felt utterly unprepared for higher education. I felt at a total loss when it came to using primary material, and was pretty poor at writing coherently.

What did you do after finishing school?

RK: After leaving my degree I got the first job I could within walking distance from my family home, because I was unable to afford to buy a car or pay to commute a long way to work. So I spent four years working for my local branch of Barclays Bank in roles including Cashier, Banking Hall Coordinator and finally as a Personal Banker. I enjoyed the role, but hated the sales pressure as I felt it led people to sell products irresponsibly in order to hit targets.

After this I managed to secure a job working for the University of Oxford in IT support for the Finance Team. I felt relieved to be out of sales, and for the first time found myself sufficiently stress free to reflect on what I wanted from life. I decided to take up studying again, part time at first, in order to achieve a degree. The plan was to spend my time as a student working out what career I wanted, and to use the degree I was setting out to obtain as a launch pad for change, for instance, by getting myself onto a graduate training scheme.

My part-time foundation certificate in Modern History, at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education gave me the necessary grounding in History, and confidence I needed to leave my full-time career in IT in order to finish my degree in just a further 2 years of full time study. I applied to a few institutions, but chose to accept my place of second year entry onto the History BA course at King's College London (KCL).

What made you decide to apply to KCL to study history at the age of 26? Was it a hard decision to make?

RK: My tutors at Continuing Education, Dr Christine Jackson and Professor Tom Buchanan, recommended Kings College London to me, when I failed my interview to get into Oxford to finish the degree full time. Whilst, as I have already said, the foundation certificate improved my writing and research skills, I was still lacking confidence in my own ability and so the interview scenario and the degree system which would have followed were not appropriate for me at the time.

My decision to leave my career, and plunge myself dramatically into debt, was a little daunting. But I felt it was worth the risk as the grades I was achieving on my foundation certificate were consistent. I am very much of the mindset that you only live once and should live the best life that you can. My education was my gift to myself, and has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.

Do you think you worked harder as an older student than you would have done at 18?

RK: I absolutely am working harder now than I would have at 18. As a mature student I feel I have a stronger work ethic; developed through my time spent working in the private and public sectors. I also have a greater understanding of the ‘cost’ of my studies. By this I mean that I know what it will feel like to pay back to make monthly loan repayments when earning a salary. I also think my sense of pride and shame are more acute than at 18. I now quite simply could not hand in a piece of work I am not proud of. Whereas I think 18 year old Rachel just might have done.

Tell me a bit about the ‘breakthrough’ that led to your undergraduate thesis being published in a journal?

RK: The piece scored 84, and my supervisor, Professor Ian McBride [now the Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford University] suggested I revise it for publishing. Both he, and another academic Dr Huw Bennett, gave me feedback on the piece and helped me choose a suitable journal to apply to.

The piece was peer reviewed and accepted for publication with just minor amendments. So, really the breakthrough was simply having a supervisor who believed in me and encouraged me to push for something I never imagined would be possible for a piece of undergraduate work.

The most exciting thing about the speed with which the piece was published was the fact that I was able to footnote myself in my Masters dissertation.

What is your research proposal?

RK: I am researching the nature of the Provisional IRA campaign during the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ between 1969 and 1979. My project will synthesise the findings of original quantitative and qualitative research in order to gain a deeper understanding of the organisations’ agenda, methods, accuracy and impact.

I am collecting new data on their daily activities, successful and unsuccessful, to disaggregate the campaign and understand the influences which shaped it. I will be considering their target discrimination policy primarily; determining who they deliberately targeted, as opposed to who was injured or died as a result of their actions.

I am learning to use GIS software to map the macro picture of my findings, and then will be moving onto conduct micro studies in a few disparate regions to establish snapshots of the PIRA’s activity and external influences in different times and places.

I will be drawing conclusions about the organisation, and extrapolating the findings to discuss the study of political violence and asymmetrical warfare more generally.

Are you working on any other projects at Oxford?

RK:I have founded a seminar series called ‘The Oxford Seminar for the Study of Violence’. It is an exciting interdisciplinary seminar series which runs fortnightly at Wolfson College. This year we are covering a wide range of topics. For instance, Dr Jelke Boesten is talking to us about Gender Based Violence in Peru; Dr David Skarbek is presenting a paper on the social mechanisms which reduce prison violence between gangs in the American prison system; and Dr Simon Prince is talking to us about the intimacy of violence in the early period of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

What do you want to do after you finish your PhD?

RK: I would very much like to stay in academia so will be looking for Post-Doctoral positions and eventually a full time academic job. It is a very competitive field, however, so am very open minded to other career paths such as research roles within my field, publishing, or teaching.

How are you financing your studies and why do you think is it important that students in the humanities have access to scholarships?

RK: I am very fortunate to have been awarded a full scholarship for my DPhil; The Wolfson Scholarship in the Humanities. The scholarship is awarded solely on the merit of the student and the quality of the research proposal submitted at application.

Scholarships are so very important in the humanities because quality research is by no means commensurate with the personal wealth of the researcher. Many students cannot afford to pursue higher education in the face of ever increasing university fees, yet alone the cost of living. Scholarships thus contribute to eroding the inequalities in our education system by supporting those who have succeeded academically regardless of whether they have received a private education, or have come from a privileged background.

I certainly would not be studying for a PhD if it were not for my scholarship. What is more, had my Wolfson scholarship not been so generous, I would not have had the time to launch my seminar series or dedicate myself fully to my studies. Rather, I would have had to resort to working part-time, as I have had to do all the way throughout my full-time undergraduate and Masters studies at Kings College London.