When undertaking doctoral research, you are of course influenced by a number of academics whose books you have read, but are never likely to meet. My PhD was on the impact of the car on middle-class suburban London between the wars. Two authors I admired on a long reading list were Matt Houlbrook (@tricksterprince) and Sean O’Connell. Matt’s work on an alternative history of the mid twentieth century capital Queer London, was beautifully written, exhaustingly researched and really different. Sean’s groundbreaking social history of driving The Car in British Society sparked my interest for my PhD project.
Unlike younger doctoral students, I had worked in business, specifically sales, for many years and this definitely influenced me in the way I supplemented my research by asking the authors I admired for some help. In the business world, if you want to meet someone or to find out something, it is usually possible to get in touch to arrange a short meeting. So, when I was busy with the early stages of my research, it seemed normal to me to get in touch with academics whose work I admired. I now know that some people in the academy might think this approach a bit weird, or unseemly, or pushy. Well, perhaps, but senior academics are generally pretty grown up and capable of looking after themselves. If they don’t want to be bothered by an upstart student they can just say they are too busy. I found that a carefully written email was enough to get a meeting and that I did not need to use a plea from my supervisor.
My approach was to write to Sean and Matt and say could I meet them for a cup of coffee for 45 minutes to discuss my work. I’m pretty sure Sean thought this was odd because he worked in Belfast and I was in London. Still, it was £50 on a budget flight well spent as far as I was concerned ( I understand that not everybody has £50 spare). Sean kindly accepted my offer of a coffee and we spent an hour together talking about my thesis. It was great to talk to the expert in my chosen field and I came away with lots of solid advice. In fact, one small thought transformed my research. I had been using The Autocar as a key primary source and I didn’t know, but Sean told me, that there was an index to the magazine, which not all libraries had with their copies. This nugget transformed by research, focussing me in on my topics instead of endless reading through copies of the magazine.
I met with Matt at his rooms in Magdalen College in Oxford, again for 45 mins. I was interested in discussing Kate Meyrick the infamous owner of many of Soho’s illegal nightclubs in the 1920s. Matt was full of good advice, and also wanted to discuss my research, which was of course flattering and great. Two things happened as a result of this meeting. Firstly, Matt was one of the organisers of an interwar history discussion group and he asked me to join. This allowed me to meet lots of big names in the field and present papers and generally build my confidence. Secondly, we were able to join up our research in a small but interesting way. Between us we were able to establish that parties of queer men visited suburban roadhouses for a night out in the 1930s. The queer liaison history was new to me, and the roadhouse stuff new to Matt. This one small research gain has had a big impact on my future work and is one of the reasons I am still researching and writing about roadhouses.
Experienced academics are usually open to a brief meeting as long as you explain why you want to meet them and you are clear that it won’t last too long and that the least they will get out of it is a cup of coffee. The benefits of expanding your network in this way will surprise you.