‘You’re Dead to Me’: Three of our PhD students take Radio 4 research placements

CMNH PhD students at the University of Brighton took three highly competitive placements for research roles on the popular Radio 4 show.

9 January 2023

CMNH PhD students landed three out of five competitive placements as researchers on the latest series of Radio 4’s You’re Dead To Me – one of the station’s most popular programmes.

Each episode of You’re Dead to Me takes a wry look at a different subject from history, from influential figures such as Julius Caesar or Mary Wollstonecraft to the origin of high heels or medieval science. Since its launch in 2019, the programme has become the BBC’s most popular podcast among under-35s and has been downloaded or streamed more than 62 million times.

The opportunity for Brighton students Jon Mason, Claudia Treacher and Rosemary Rich to take part came through their funding body, Techne, a consortium of universities supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which provides PhD students with research training and career development opportunities. When the trio saw the advert for You’re Dead to Me in one of Techne’s regular mailings, they jumped at the chance to apply.

The students’ job was to undertake additional historical research for particular episodes after an initial consultation with a specialist academic. They were assigned a new topic every couple of weeks during their placement and were also given the chance to co-write an episode. Finally, they sat in on the podcast recordings to provide fact-checking support.

Rosemary, who researches conscientious objectors in Second World War Britain from a cultural history perspective, said: “I was thrilled to see the placement advertised as I was a big fan of the podcast! It was a treat to see the whole process from start to finish, and I learned a lot. I felt a bit nervous when I was told the first episode I would be working on was Ancient Greek Democracy as I am a historian of twentieth century Britain, but it was fine in actuality. I was also assigned Njinga of Angola, a 17th-century warrior queen, and a history of timekeeping, both of which were very enjoyable.”

Claudia, whose research usually covers art and politics during the Second World War in Britain, conscientious objection, and family history, was also taken out of her comfort zone. “Some things like the Istanbul in the Ottoman Golden Age episode they assigned jointly to me because I’d done an undergraduate Erasmus scheme in Istanbul and so had already studied some modules of Ottoman History,” she said, “but I’d never had any previous research experience in Prussian history or the history of Polynesian navigation!”

Facing the unknown, Jon said, added to the enjoyment. “Part of the challenge – and fun – was being given a brief to research a specific angle on something you didn’t know anything about before and having a limited amount of time to get on with it,” he said. “I also really enjoyed contributing to the writing of the episodes. In terms of public history, that was a strong thread even from the research stages – look for what’s engaging, what’s going to catch people’s attention, and make the whole thing simple and accessible even when it’s complicated.”

The students are members of the University of Brighton’s research Centre for Design History and Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories.

Deborah Madden, Co-Director of the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories and supervisor for two of the students said: “This is a really good example of how our PGRs can use their research skills to bring the past vibrantly back to life with humour and for audiences with a much wider reach.”

While Annebella Pollen, Professor of Visual and Material Culture and Claudia’s lead supervisor, said: “Our brilliant students have so far taken up funded placements at BBC, British Library, English Heritage, Historic Royal Palaces, National Science and Media Museum, and the V&A, among other locations. These are highly prestigious sites offering postgraduates real-world, hands-on experience. It is great to see them add these skills to their repertoires and to put their academic research to public purpose.”

The University of Brighton is committed to postgraduate research degree experience that help students to understand career opportunities and prepare for them. Find out more about opportunities for PhD study in history and the humanities.

Listen to You’re Dead to Me series 5