By: Toni Beaton (First-year MI Student)
Charlie Hook is a second-year student in the Master of Information (MI) program. She is excitedly looking forward to some big upcoming changes: beginning her PhD program at the University of Leicester in England! Charlie has been accepted into her PhD program as an international student with all tuition fees waived. I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlie to learn more about her journey to the MI program, her specific interests within the information management field, as well as her experience with PhD applications and advice for current students.
Please tell us a bit about yourself. What drew you to the Master of Information (MI) program?
My name is Charlie, I’m 25-years-old, and this is my third degree. I started out at Kings back in 2016 (which feels like a lifetime ago!) and my original goal was actually to become a paramedic. My parents insisted on university, so I chose Kings for the Foundation Year program. I ended up staying there and completed my first degree as a Combined Honors in Early Modern Studies and English, with a minor in History of Science Technology. I had always had a big interest in academia; however, in my final year when I was writing my undergraduate thesis, I was told academia was a dying profession… As an alternative, the museum sector and research was a booming industry. I ended up applying for a program at the University of Leeds [in Leeds, England] called “Curating Science,” which focuses on Museum Science & Technology. I went through the program and had a tremendous time there. In March 2020, I moved back to Halifax and finished my program online. When it came time to find a job, I discovered that the museum industry in Canada is not actually booming… they aren’t quite as well funded as they are in the UK. You need to know more than just how to put an exhibit together! I wasn’t able to find a job [in that sector], and was working as a Research Assistant at Mount Saint Vincent on EDIA in Science Education from Pre-K to Grade 12. I decided to go back to school. I realized that the Master of Information program is actually perfect, because libraries and archives are in the same industry as museums, and I would be able to gain more experience in archives, as well as cataloguing, classification, and collections management.
What are your interests within the information field?
One of my favorite parts of this semester has been cataloguing and classification, which is a bit nerdy to say! I’m very much approaching the MI field from a museum perspective. My goals in life are to work in collection management and heritage, specifically with respect to human remains within museums. An ideal career would be a lot of contract work at first, such as providing advice to museums with collections of human remains on how to deal with those, helping to evaluate heritage sights or collections, putting together exhibits here and there… I would simply adore to work for UNESCO, even for a 6-month contract period. Those are my main interests, which have been mostly about collections management. I’m also very interested in libraries and the way they function. I’ll probably try to find a position in the library to help finance my PhD. Archives has been great so far as well! Collections management is really my one true love, but I’ve been interested in many things as I’ve gone through [the MI program].
Please tell us more about the application process for your PhD program.
In the last semester of my first Masters degree, I was already in the process of applying for a PhD (draft nine of my proposal); that dream was put on hold for a while due to the pandemic and illness. My dream had always been to work in the UK, but at that point I wanted to work for a few years in Halifax first. I had always wanted to get a PhD; I had a very difficult conversation with my parents about re-applying [for a PhD]. I was originally going to apply at the University of Leeds. Over the summer, I found out through Twitter that the University of Leicester was offering fee waivers for students looking to pursue degrees in a variety of different subjects. The fee waivers for the School of Museum Studies included human remains in museums, which is what I wanted to study! I found out about this in early August, and the application was due on September 14th. I had done a lot of research from a Reading Course I completed over the summer, so I did have three months of research behind me which made the process easier. I submitted the application in the knick of time, and was very anxious about it. There are many people who study human remains in the UK specifically, and one of the top scholars, Dr. Gemma Angel, was one of the supervisors available for the fee waiver projects. She is very intimidating to me! She knows quite a lot, and has done extensive work in this area. I heard on December 14th that I got accepted, with coverage for tuition fees for international students. This turned the whole thing from a pretty neat idea to something that is actually very achievable. It was fabulous news, and we celebrated many times throughout Christmas holidays!
What inspired you to pursue a PhD program?
I developed an interest in human remains during my first Masters degree. We learned by doing [in my Museums course] and I worked with four other students in my program to put together an exhibit on Women’s Health in Victorian Leagues. It involved a lot of collection items from the School of History of Science and Technology [at the University of Leeds]. Part of what we wanted to do was have real case studies to back up and put these objects into context. Because Leeds had a medical school in the Victorian period, we had [access to] many journals in the archives. I was hunting for anything to do with women’s health; there was one case in particular which was quite complicated. She came to her doctor with symptoms of pregnancy; the gist of it was that she had an ectopic pregnancy… not sustainable in any way, shape, or form. However, the doctor decided not to tell her or do anything about it, just to see what would happen. We ended up focusing on that case as well as questions of consent. It got me thinking about how these collections exist; in the UK, if galleries contain human remains, there are disclaimer panels outside the exhibit room. I had never seen this before; partly because we don’t really have that many human remains in Canada, or it isn’t really a consideration. I had questions about how we collect them, what are the rules about access… that’s kind of where I got this idea in the first place.
What will your PhD be focusing on?
A lot of the courses I took with Dr. Jamila Ghaddar allowed me to explore this idea further, specifically with Indigenous human remains which represent a significant portion of human remains held in private institutions across Canada. My PhD proposes to look at provenance of human remains collected during the colonial period of expansion in the UK. During this time, a lot of human remains came into collection from various places. The question of returning those remains is quite a big topic in the news at the moment. The guidelines in the UK for the care of human remains suggest that provenance, or how an item came to be in a collection, is not an important factor for whether or not an item should be returned. They argue that the main reason to return something would be based on the meaning of that set of remains to the community of origin, and whether or not you can prove they came from that community in the first place. This brings in different ways of knowing; for Indigenous groups, it depends on things like land and spiritual connections. In the west, we don’t really see that as a “legitimate” way of proving things. I’m essentially trying to prove that if human remains were acquired unethically or were stolen, that might actually diminish or nullify the claim that museums have over these remains and therefore play a bigger role in whether or not they should be returned. If I am successful at proving what I’m trying to prove, this could have a huge impact for Indigenous people trying to get their human remains back from museums across the world.
What advice would you offer current MI students who are hoping to pursue a PhD?
I think the first piece of advice I would give is that PhD’s are goals in and of themselves. Depending on your career goals, they may be a necessary step or requirement. I wouldn’t recommend pursuing a PhD just for the sake of pursuing one, because it’s a huge investment in time, money, effort, energy, and resources. If there’s something you are really passionate about, absolutely go for it! Make sure you pick a subject that you really want to work with and you really enjoy. Whether you are in the thesis-based or course-based Masters, this is a great time to explore what you are interested in. I would highly recommend Reading Courses as well, because they give you the opportunity to really research something in-depth you may not be exposed to in other courses. Find mentors in the program as well; we are very fortunate to have fabulous professors in our program who care about their students’ well-being and achievements. Having someone that you trust and can go to throughout the application process is so important. A lot of our teaching staff already have or are currently pursuing PhDs, so they have a lot of insight about what can make your PhD proposal ‘punch.’
We send congratulations to Charlie on her hard work, accomplishments, and full-ride scholarship to the University of Leicester!