Thoughts and thinking on graduate study at Oxford

Having been at the University of Calgary for four and a half years now, I am nearly done my degree. Hopefully it will all be good at the end of the term and they’ll let me graduate. Although I have been told by the department’s undergraduate advisor that everything is set to go, I won’t believe it until I have the degree itself. Since I plan to graduate at the end of the year it meant that I started to look around at graduate schools more seriously last summer. Byzantine Studies is a pretty limited field. Oxford is the centre of it in the Anglophone world. Birmingham has a small department, as does Belfast. Princeton has a few notable experts, and the University of Ottawa has a whole department of late antiquity people. I looked around at a few other places as well: Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario has a Byzantinist, and Toronto has a massive medieval history department, but somehow doesn’t have a Byzantinist and has very few specialists on the early middle ages. Since application fees typically run around $100, I decided to put in only a few applications. The Oxford one was due back in November. I’m currently working on the Birmingham and Ottawa applications, and the due date for the Princeton one passed quite a while ago.

To much excitement, I received an acceptance letter from the Late Antique and Byzantine Studies department at Oxford last Thursday. While I’m really going to miss skating next year as it has been a central part of my life for the last decade, my focus has been on school, and now it seems to have finally paid off. This place is the centre of the world in the study of Byzantium, so I was absolutely thrilled to be admitted. Of course, it is conditional upon graduating and getting an upper second-class honours’ degree. While the graduation is part out of my hands at this point, the grades shouldn’t be a problem. Even if I got a B- in Latin (a distinct possibility, as I haven’t studied it in three years and it is not coming back well), I should still average in at first-class honours this year. Nowhere outside of Oxford can I get the training in the physical disciplines (sigillography, numismatics, ceramics, etc.) of Byzantine Studies, nor is there such a fantastic selection of renowned scholars elsewhere. This is where people like Averil Cameron, Chris Wickham, and J.D. Howard-Johnston work and teach. The university also has experts in all of the ancillary languages (Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic) of which I’ll probably need to pick up one, as the Greek sources for the period I’m interested in are quite poor. They have some of the best libraries in the world and vast artefact collections. On top of that, I was assigned Dr. Mark Whittow to be my supervisor. His book The Making of Byzantium is easily the best survey of the Eastern Mediterranean world during the early middle ages that specifically focuses on Byzantium. On top of its actual physical and intellectual resources, the town of Oxford is incredibly beautiful, and many of its notable buildings are several centuries older than the country I live in.

Somewhat more impressive than the TFDL

There is, however, one major problem. Oxford is obscenely expensive for foreign students. At the time of writing, I’m still waiting on a college offer. I’m thinking that I’ll be getting at least some funding, but I doubt that it’ll be anywhere near the almost $24,000 CDN that tuition alone would cost per year. On top of that there are college fees, books, food, and rent. I think I could cobble together the resources to afford the M.Phil degree while only going into a bit of debt, but the issue is that the M.Phil is not the end of the road. The D.Phil at Oxford is the ultimate goal, and that would be several years of study after the M.Phil. Generally, there is more funding at the doctoral level just about everywhere (although I’m not sure about Oxford), but even then the M.Phil would have completely drained my resources. The other consideration is the EU fee status. I am eligile to get a German passport. All this would get me for now is the benefit of not needing a student visa to study in the UK, which does not seem very hard to get anyway. However, after two years of doing the M.Phil degree at Oxford, I would meet the residency requirement and thus be categorized in the Home/EU group for tuition at the doctoral level. So spending a lot now would make the D.Phil cheaper, but whether it is enough to make up the difference is unclear at this point. The last point is that the institution of my second choice, the University of Ottawa, seems to have generous funding. Between the departmental funding, a possible SSHRC grant in my second year, and TA work, I don’t think it would cost me much at all to go to Ottawa and I could come out ahead.

I now have until the 17th of February to let them know at Oxford as to whether or not I am accepting their offer. On the one hand, it is Oxford. It seems foolish to turn them down. On the other, it is very expensive and I plan on going there for the doctoral degree anyway. I got in once, and I can do it again. Thoughts on this matter would be much appreciated.

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5 Responses to Thoughts and thinking on graduate study at Oxford

  1. Curt Emanuel says:

    First, congratulations. Oxford seems like THE place for what you want to do. Second, I don’t know about the Humanities but in the Sciences the degrees from the really good places just about always pay off if you plan on a career in your field.

    Student loans stink – I had ’em – but if the repayment terms are as good as they used to be in the US, they aren’t horrendous. It’s mainly the thought of leaving school before you even have a job with a pile of debt attached to yourself (at least that’s how I felt about it). Nearly thirty years later I realize that unless you’re quite well off, debt and managing debt’s a part of life.

  2. Puritendius says:

    If you replace the word “Greek” with “Latin” and “Byzantine” with “mediaeval philology,” we are in the same boat, with the exception that U of T offers a lot of what I need, and of course I have not been excepted into Oxford, so there is that. Truthfully, I can see you taking your Masters in a school less deserving of you, but take your PHD at Oxford if you can, as you know, Byzantine studies is a small field and you need every advantage you can get, because let’s face it, if you can’t succeed, I’m screwed. But I must say, sophos.

  3. Norah McCloy says:

    Congratulations Lucas! I wouldn’t worry about funding your PhD at this point. Chances are that, with a decent Master’s, your PhD will be fully funded. In any case, the funding of your PhD will be largely dependent on the view of your Master’s so keep your focus there. Additionally, having international exposure will ultimately help your job prospects so there is upside on trying to make Oxford work from that perspective. Has Oxford offered you any financial/housing support?- if not, ask them immediately and let them know that it is important to your decision. If they have offered a little, ask for more. This is not a time to be shy. I really hope that it works out for you – it is a marvellous opportunity.

  4. Pingback: Considering the Dark Ages | From the Garden into the City

  5. Andrew Fleming says:

    Congratulations! I hope that the opportunity is working out for you! I am a sophomore this year and it’s been my dream for some years now to go on to Oxford to pursue Master and Doctoral studies in Byzantine Studies and the History of Science. I hope it all works out for you!

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