NRN Blog: Transitioning from MA to PhD

 

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For our next installment in the NRN Blog Series, we’re delighted to feature committee member Ella Hawkins! Ella is a first-year PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon. Her research focuses on the representation of Elizabethan England in 21st century stage design for Shakespeare, and is funded by the Midlands3Cities AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. 

 

‘How’s the PhD going?’

What counts as things ‘going well’ during the first months of a PhD? Getting out of bed before 10am each day? Finding some sort of routine that facilitates productivity? Reading three books per week? Writing something (anything!)?

I’ve now been a PhD student for exactly one term. I attended my first welcome event ten days after submitting my MA dissertation, and I’ve spent the last couple of months trying to figure out what it means to be a doctoral researcher. My usual response to the question above is ‘Okay! I think…?’. This blog post offers a more detailed insight into my experience of transitioning from MA- to PhD-level study.

Out with the old, in with the new

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Welcoming the new student cohort with tea and cake

Unlike many, I stayed on at the same institution for both my MA and PhD. This has brought some continuity to my transition, and meant that I had a head start in settling in to my work environment. I already knew the staff and (most of) my fellow PhD students, I was familiar with the library and the various resources available to Institute students, and I could head straight to my favourite coffee shop in Stratford-upon-Avon to get stuck into some reading. I even had some crossover in terms of supervision. My MA dissertation supervisor became my second PhD supervisor, so I didn’t have to worry so much about building new academic relationships as I moved on to a new course.

Despite all this, I didn’t realise how different my surroundings would feel at the turn of a new academic year. All my MA friends disappeared, and were replaced by a new cohort. My familiar routine went on without me being a part of it. Students trooped in to their seminars – modules I’d known and loved – while I was left to figure out how to work alone. The new students seemed like a great bunch, but I’d lost the support network that helped get me through my Masters. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the way that I had just a few weeks previously.

Imposter syndrome

Feeling insecure, unworthy, and out of place is an issue that can affect PhD students at any stage of their research. For me, continuing directly from MA to PhD led to some serious imposter syndrome – particularly during the first few weeks of my new course.

Having submitted my MA dissertation just days before beginning my PhD, I didn’t receive my final results until I was almost a month into my doctoral studies. What if my work wasn’t good enough for me to be moving on to doctoral research? Would my supervisor be disappointed by what I’d produced? I had used my MA dissertation as an opportunity to begin exploring some of the ideas that would be key to my PhD research; if it didn’t go down well (I told myself), there would likely be serious repercussions for the success of my current project. Although post-deadline despair has been a familiar feeling throughout my academic career, it seemed like the stakes had never been higher.

Finding my feet

Happily, things turned out well on the MA results front. As the initial wave of imposter syndrome retreated, I knuckled down and got to work on my first bit of proper PhD research. Figuring out exactly what’s expected of me as a doctoral student was the next twist on the transition rollercoaster.

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Mind-mapping one’s way to productivity…

I always knew where I was at during my MA. A module lasted 10 weeks, and was worth just over 10% of my overall degree. I had to turn up to seminars, do the prescribed reading, and complete the assignments. At the end of each term I could cross a couple of modules off my mental to-do list and know that I was one step closer to donning a graduation robe. Then dissertation season came along; I had a monthly meeting with my supervisor, and at the end of the summer I needed to hand in a 15,000-word document. It wasn’t an easy year by any means, but I always had a good indication of my progress and performance.

A PhD is more… freeform. I have monthly supervisions (as I did while completing my MA dissertation), and there are a couple of interim deadlines that I need to stick to, but other than that my schedule is largely up to me. What do I feel like researching this month? Where would be a logical place to start? PhDs are big. They’re huge. Finding a way to divide things into more manageable chunks is something I’m still learning about, as well as the volume of material I’m expected to produce between supervisions.

Looking forwards

Although I find it hard to answer the inevitable ‘How’s the PhD going?’ enquiries, I’m feeling excited about the prospect of working in this way for the next three (or, realistically, four) years. Thinking about my topic gives me warm fuzzy feelings. It’s my little slice of the theatre pie, and I crafted it myself to include all the things I love most about Shakespearean performance. I’m developing a way of working that works for me; it feels good to organise my own schedule and find ways to be productive each day. Getting to know a new cohort of students is fantastic, and it’s even better to be supported by such an esteemed supervisory team and funding body.

I know that I’ll likely fall in and out of love with my project as I hit obstacles and opportunities along the way. But I want to remember the positive feelings I’m feeling right now. I’m doing what I love, and exciting times are ahead.

 

Twitter: @EllaMcHawk

WordPress Blog: https://ellahawkins.wordpress.com/

Midlands3Cities Research Profile: http://bit.ly/2fLaODv

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