Student Futures: a special Q&A with Molly Avery

What it's like to undertake a PhD focussing on Latin American History

Molly Avery is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History

I get to study the thing I love every day!


Molly Avery
Molly Avery

In this special interview, celebrating the launch of LSE Student Futures, students asked Molly about her research experience and life as a PhD candidate.

LSE Student Futures brings together the transformative learning experiences you can access outside the classroom at LSE, helping you to develop as a person and make an impact on the real world. You can find out more, including opportunities and resources for investigating and researching, on the Student Futures webpage:

Why did you choose to pursue a PhD and how did you know it was right for you?

I studied History for my BA and I loved it. I was already pretty certain at that stage that I wanted to keep studying, but worked for a year between undergrad and master’s to make sure I was sure. I hated working in an office and I loved the idea of being paid to keep on studying and researching, so here I am!

What are the benefits of doing a PhD in history and why did you choose Latin American history?

In terms of benefits, I have loved the chance to do in-depth archival research across several countries and travel the world with my research. In terms of pure self-indulgence, I get to study the thing I love every day!

My interest in Latin American history started with my undergraduate dissertation on the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 which got me interested in the dynamics of US-Latin American relations and the Cold War. From there, my interests shifted southwards and I’ve ended up working on the interactions between four different countries (Chile, Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador) but in a remarkably similar time period to my first foray into historical research – I focus on 1977-84.

Why did you choose to do your PhD at LSE?

I did my master’s at LSE so I was already familiar with the department and how well it matched my interests in the history of the Cold War and the twentieth century more generally. Most importantly, I chose LSE because I wanted to work with my supervisor, Dr Tanya Harmer, who is just brilliant.

How do you apply and get accepted to do a PhD at LSE and how do you secure funding?

I spoke to some of the academics at LSE who had taught me during the master’s and they encouraged me to reach out to Tanya, who was on leave during my master’s year. We had a chat about my interests and she helped me put together the application.

I am on an LSE studentship so I got my funding through the same process: each year every department puts forward some of their incoming PhD students for LSE funding and then a committee at school level make the final decisions. You can also apply for funding through the UK research councils, depending on your subject.

How easy or hard is it to decide on a specific research area? Did you have a research proposal in mind before applying?

It’s quite hard! You need to apply with a research proposal, but the scope of your project can change quite a bit once you’re actually doing the research.

My idea for my project grew out of a book chapter I had read that piqued my interest in the Argentine military dictatorship’s involvement in the civil wars in Central America. It seemed like there was room for more research in the area so I spoke to Tanya about it and she suggested also looking into the Chilean dictatorship’s involvement in the region, so I added an extra paragraph on the research proposal about Chile. I was pretty clueless on the topic to begin with but a big part of the first year of the PhD is taking the time to read up on all the literature and work out exactly what you’re going to do – it has all worked out in the end!

Did you apply to your PhD straight after your master’s or did you take a break in between?

I took a year out. You have to apply quite early in the year (I think around early January) and at this stage in the master’s I still had no idea what I wanted to focus on. More importantly, I had only just started learning Spanish – so I spent a lot of that year in between getting my Spanish up to a good enough level to do the PhD!

What does a typical day as a PhD student look like?

It’s changed a bit over the course of the PhD. Now that I’m in fourth year my time is split between writing my dissertation and teaching a second-year undergraduate course on the history of Latin America in the twentieth century. One day I might be preparing for and teaching a class, and the next I could be spending the day at my desk writing a chapter draft.

How has the pandemic changed your life as a PhD student?

As I’m in my final year, the pandemic hasn’t affected my day-to-day life nearly as much as it might have earlier on in the programme. I spent most of my second year abroad (in the US and Latin America) doing research, so it would have really made a mess of that.

Whereas, these days I am focused on writing and teaching, both of which can carry on as before, if based more at my desk at home in South East London rather than on campus!

The other big change for academics in general has been the big shift of seminars and conferences online – so over the last few months I’ve been able to ‘attend’ lectures and seminar papers from academics all over the world conducted over Zoom, which has been one of the few perks of this strange covid world.

How do you maintain equilibrium with other areas of your life when progressing through the PhD programme?

I think the key thing has been to treat the PhD like a job, not your life. So have other hobbies and limit the time you spend on it. Throughout the PhD I have had housemates working normal 9-5 jobs which has definitely helped me keep a good balance and encouraged good habits. This structure can definitely get lost when you’re away for research for extended periods but has worked well so far when I’ve been in London.

Do you feel part of the LSE student community as a PhD student?

Yes, definitely, and definitely more so than as a master’s student. The PhD Academy is a great space (with free tea and biscuits!) and the International History department does a good job of fostering a sense of community between the PhD students and the faculty members. Teaching over the last two years has also made me feel much more connected to the undergraduate side of things too.

Find out more about the PhD Academy and applying for a PhD at LSE.