Postgraduate Spotlight: Dawn Jackson Williams

IMG_7920aDawn Jackson Williams grew up in a small hamlet near a small village near a small town in the middle of rural Suffolk, which perhaps explains why the small town of St Andrews feels like a veritable metropolis to her. From an early age she was interested in history, particularly in moments of drama and tragedy, ghoulishly absorbing every book about the Titanic disaster and the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Mount Everest in 1924 that she could get her teenaged hands on, foreshadowing her current twin interests in the history of landscape and the history of emotion. She undertook her undergraduate degree in History at Oxford and completed the MPhil in Early Modern History at Cambridge, before coming to St Andrews to undertake her PhD under the supervision of Dr Bernhard Struck. She likes to joke that not only has she managed to collect the three most ancient universities in the British Isles, she has also done so in order of foundation. This was a complete accident, but she is very happy that it has resulted in her ending up at St Andrews.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1655-1660; hardly an image of 'mountain gloom'.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1655-1660; hardly an image of ‘mountain gloom’.

Dawn’s PhD research is focussed upon European reactions to mountains and mountain-climbing before 1750. When she first became interested in the topic she was struck by the tension between the current commonly-held belief that people in early modern Europe found mountains distasteful, and the number of sources from before 1750 – or even before 1650 – that attested to significant levels of mountain activity and, indeed, appreciation. However, the embedded perception of early modern ‘mountain gloom’ has meant that relatively little research has been done to recover the ways in which people actually thought about or interacted with mountains in the early modern era. Dawn is therefore interested in asking a number of questions in order to reconstruct a picture of the relationship between people and mountains before 1750, including: what did people know about mountains, what did they do in mountains, and did they perceive them as having any utilitarian and/or aesthetic value? She finds the topic fascinating because it requires her to interrogate and step outside of unspoken and often unconsciously-held ‘modern’ ways of thinking. For example, her MPhil research on a related topic suggested that although the early moderns often perceived ‘usefulness’ as a quality which imparted aesthetic value to an object, the modern perception that utility and beauty are distinct or even mutually exclusive had led many historians to disregard any positive comments about the utility of mountains as irrelevant to the question of whether or not they were visually appreciated.

Team-members of the 1924 Everest expedition.

Team-members of the 1924 Everest expedition.

Dawn’s other research has included an edition of the letters of Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), an early Anglo-Saxon scholar, and a study of the cultural preconceptions of Tibet as expressed in the sources relating to the early Everest expeditions (1921-1924), both of which she ultimately hopes to publish. She feels strongly that academic research should be disseminated beyond the real and metaphorical walls of the academy, a conviction which she recently used to excuse the immensely enjoyable process of writing a chapter on Chinese history for a forthcoming edited volume entitled A Game of Thrones and History. She will also shortly be giving a lecture on her research to the Alpine Club in London.

Beyond her research, Dawn is both the co-convener of the Early Modern and Modern History Postgraduate Forum, and the Communications Intern for the School of History, which means that most people in the School probably know her best as the person who gently nags them either for copy for the blog or paper proposals for the forum. Running the EMMH Forum – which is intended to provide postgraduates with a space for supportive academic discussion, as well as opportunities for socialising – has proved to be a particularly satisfying experience.

Outside of her academic and administrative duties, Dawn pursues a somewhat eccentric variety of hobbies. She is a member of the St Andrews Renaissance Singers, plays for the ‘Snidgets’ (the university Quidditch team), and attempts to write fiction, recently participating in the month-long challenge of NaNoWriMo. For slightly less active relaxation she watches sci-fi, and detective shows with her husband. As the topic of her thesis might suggest, she is also a keen hiker and – when time and funds allow – occasional mountaineer.

Dawn blogs about PhD life at The Historian’s Desk.

St Andrews History PhD Places (with Funding) 10 January Deadline

Students Pier

The School of History invites incoming PhD students to apply for studentships funded by either the AHRC or the University.  The number of scholarships available, and their value, has not yet been finalised but it is thought at this stage to be considerable. Updates will be posted here.

Scholarships will be distributed on a competitive basis, and the only criterion will be academic quality.  The School will base its decisions on the materials supplied when you apply to study as a PhD student.

In order to be considered in the scholarship competition, you must have submitted your PhD application *and had it accepted* before *Friday 10 January 2014*. The School of History recommends you apply as early as possible.  You must also e-mail indicating that you wish to be considered for the scholarships, and declaring whether or not you are eligible for the AHRC awards.

AHRC eligibility:
Successful UK applicants will receive fees plus a maintenance allowance (currently in the region of £13,500 per annum) for 3 years.  EU students are normally entitled to fees only unless they meet specific residency criteria, and non-EU applicants are normally ineligible (again, depending on residency criteria).  For further details on eligibility, and definitions of residence, see the AHRC’s regulations:

University-funded scholarships are not restricted by residence or nationality.

Applications to the university are made online – for details of what documents are required, and how to upload them, see

In order to ensure that your application is processed in time, and bearing in mind the Christmas holiday, we recommend that you submit the necessary materials well in advance of the deadline (and advise your referees to do likewise).  You should also be in touch with your prospective supervisor about your application so that they know to expect it and can process it as soon as it arrives.

Dr Jamie Stuart Cameron Award
Applicants intending to study topics in Medieval Scottish History c.1100-c.1550 will automatically be considered for the Dr Jamie Stuart Cameron Award. This award provides £1,000 in additional research expenses.

For a current research student’s perspective on PhD study at St Andrews, see: