My trip to Nottingham
Notes from a lecture - Applying to doctoral programs
With the potential of a first female president in the public discourse, I applied to doctoral programs before I had completed my masters. As part of that application process, candidates write up a research proposal. So I wrote one - not knowing what it was supposed to look like with only a word count limit for guidance - about sex and politics - or royal mistresses and politics - or courtesans and politics - or something to do with sex and politics. (The Clintons, remember?) And I thought I would compare this undefined sex and politics thing at the Scottish, English, and French courts. I later realized this was much too broad a subject for meaningful research.
Multiple emails, phone calls, and visits to U.S. universities near me were fruitless. One university said I was too old. They just were not interested in my application or research interests. Or, perhaps not interested in dealing with someone who had no idea what she was doing. This turned out to be a very good thing because, during my application process I found out that 80% of the students that start a doctorate in the Humanities in the U.S. do not finish. Those that do finish take an average of 8 years. In the UK, 94% of the students who start doctorates finish them and the longest allowed time for completion is 4 years.
The numbers have likely shifted since 2004, but I would guess not that much. I decided it would be wiser to enter a system where the success was the norm, not the exception.
In a fit of frustration, I sat on my bed in Connecticut one Sunday afternoon and searched for U.K. universities that had BOTH history and gender departments AND where the application process was completely online. (rarer in 2003 than today) I applied to five universities that day. But the University of Nottingham accepted me and offered a scholarship before the other four universities told me I had been accepted. I later found out that the University of Nottingham is a member of The Russell Group, an elite ivy-league-like consortium of research universities. Feeling suddenly very special, I put our house on the market and bought a ticket to England.
When I arrived in Nottingham, I reported to the School of History building and met the most useful person at the school - at least to me - the postgraduate secretary, Amanda. She made me a cup of tea and then gave me a tour. My acceptance letter had included the names of two supervisors. As we toured the historic building, Amanda showed me where these people's offices were. Pointing at the first door she said, "This is Dr. So & So's office. He doesn't admit he has a gender. This is Dr. Ellis's office. It's the largest in the building." Decision made. Dr. Ellis it was.
This decision was further confirmed when in our second meeting she pulled from her shelves a copy of Elspeth Morrison's Companion to Dorothy Dunnett. I don't remember mentioning Dunnett to her but clearly something I had said had made it clear that I was a fellow fan. She was neither a gender nor a Tudor historian but she was perfect for me. She retired after my first year but kept me as a student through completion of my degree.
This is how I ended up living between Maid Marion Way and the Castle in Nottingham. My flat was conveniently located three blocks from the oldest pub in England, Trip to Jerusalem, built into the side of the cliff wall under the castle. In the picture below, you can see the castle battlements at the top of the frame. Founded in 1189, it is alleged that King Richard the Lionheart and his knights gathered here on their way to the crusades - hence the name. I would walk down Friar Lane to shop at Marks & Spencer's for groceries, or head to the town square for the very German Christmas market. More importantly, there were tons of cafes to linger in and people watch while pretending to read.
I never went to the "Robin Hood Experience" tourist trap, but I did take a day out to what's left of Sherwood Forest, wander through the reenactment of a medieval village and watch some jousting and hawking. But, while I was there, the university established a masters program in Robin Hood studies. At the inauguration of the program, the Sheriff of Nottingham presided in full regalia. To my delight - the Sheriff at the time was a woman!