Work-Life Balance and Our PhDs: Decision, Dilemma, and Determination

Mrunal ChavdaBecoming a Post-Doc is one route into an academic career, but how do you secure one? Mrunal Chavda shares his academic journey and what he felt helped get him the position. Mrunal is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow in Sociolinguistics at the University of Cape Town (South Africa). The project ‘Sociocultural Documentation of Gujarati in South Africa’ is funded by National Research Foundation (South Africa) and is supervised by Prof Rajend Mesthrie. Mrunal holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Exeter (England). His ‘home’ India and research interests are theatre and performance studies, the Natyashastra, and Indian diaspora in Africa, the UK (so far), Gujarati language, literature, and Bollywood film studies. Mrunal volunteers as a Language Champion with Oxford Gujarati Living Dictionary and writes for their Blog in Gujarati.

Kabil Bano! Kaamyaabi Jakh Marke Piche Ayegi! (Pursue Excellence! Success will chase you!) – Three Idiots

Once upon a time in India, I worked as a lecturer in the General Department, Government Polytechnic, Himmatnagar (Gujarat). My appointment was permanent with two years’ probation. Before finishing the probationary period, I resigned despite family members’ pressure, financial instability, and insecurity! There are strong reasons. Let me recall my first day of the job. My Head of the Department specialised in Chemistry and welcomed me to the department. As usual, he inquired out of curiosity what I ‘now’ plan to do. I suggested that I wish to pursue a PhD. He laughed and implied that why do I need a PhD once I have got a government job. His idea for me was to ‘relax and enjoy life’ and forget about a PhD! He provided me with an example: he told me he possessed a ‘Gold Medal in Chemistry’ and could make more than a hundred chemicals before getting a job in government! Erasure of knowledge in these times might lead to nowhere! Therefore, I decided to quit my job. This decision was not easy as my wife was registered as a PhD in Linguistics at the Gujarat University and my 5-year old daughter needed schooling. Sooner I was to realise that this was the best decision I have ever taken! It was a calculated, well-thought and conscious risk. As a result, I was to invest four years in academia. My advice to students, especially mature ones in such circumstances, would be to examine the pros and cons of the decision to start a PhD and then evaluate both sides before joining any doctoral programme.

PhD or no PhD?

Being aware of the time, money and our family stakes, my PhD story is an exciting journey of tremendous learning. It seemed like climbing the Himalayan peak as I chose to study theatre instead of English literature. We (I mean my wife too) performed on the stage (one-act and mime) but never studied theatre academically. There was already a PhD scholar in the family: did we really want another one? This was a real dilemma. It meant both of us having to sacrifice time for the family, invest money into academia (sacrificing all the savings) and putting our child’s future at stake. We would be leaving our home for ‘the undiscovered country’, as Hamlet famously put it. I discussed this issue with my immediate family, my possible supervisor, and colleagues. I was fortunate that all gave me a balanced and honest advice. I – or, rather we –  decided to overcome this dilemma by treading this path.

PhD se Bada Koi dharma Nahi Hota! (No religion is bigger than a PhD)

Starting a PhD at the University of Exeter brought hundreds of challenges as an international student, be it social, cultural, or economic. However, I believe that if you wish for something so passionately, the whole universe conspires to make it happen! My property owner, my supervisory team (Prof Graham Ley, Prof Jerri Daboo, and Prof Cathy Turner) and the Exeter Hindu community all helped me in one or the other way to achieve what I commenced. Studying the Natyashastra, an Indian treatise on performing arts written in Sanskrit, on my own, learning academic writing, and then writing a thesis required true devotion. Four years’ hard work finished just like that! I could not imagine that my PhD viva would last less than an hour discussing and clarifying a concept or two from the project. February 2015 flew like a kite in a gust of wind and childlike curiosity made a wonderful flight landing back home in Gujarat in March 2016. I was aware of the long to-do lists along with my wife’s PhD viva in India. I realised that PhD toh trailer tha, Film Abhi Baki hay mere Dost (the PhD was just a trailer, the film is yet to start). As soon as this realisation happens, it is good. Engaging in academic activities such as Learning and Teaching in Higher Education-LTHE, University of Exeter’s Grand Challenges and Academic training modules during these four years not only prepared me to complete my PhD in four years but also exposed me to disciplines other than mine. These academic activities, I must say, were not immediately relevant but in the end, they should be attended to seriously! They help you listen to voices outside your discipline.  Meeting the PhD fraternity allows you to realise that everyone faces the same problems, but that each one of them solves them differently, and such gathering follows only one religion: Doctor of Philosophy.

Jo Dar Gaya Woh Mara Gaya (he who is afraid is dead)

Publish or Perish might sound like a death threat to young scholars, but for me, it is like Jo Dar Gaya Woh Mara Gaya (he who is afraid is dead). Fear of rejection, fear of loss, fear of stagnation will never work for you. Soon after the PhD, I applied to British Academy, Leverhulme and Wellcome Trust (the UK) and Fulbright-Nehru (the USA) and DRS Post Doctoral Fellowship (Germany) with ‘an interesting’ project but somehow I could not get into the last round of interviews! However, I continued to attend conferences and symposiums selling ‘our’ research. Though I was tired of applying, I was patient as well. I knew that I have a list of projects with substantial feedback from scholars working in the field. I knew that I would receive a reply to these conversations eventually. So, do not be afraid of rejections and keep a diary (I keep a One Note) with the list of projects and wait for the opportunity. In the meantime I write, write and write.

Hamara Post Doc Ayega! (Our Post Doc will come!)

As I mentioned, I am married to a research scholar and we have a child. My wife submitted her PhD and she joined me in Exeter in January 2014, simply waiting for her viva. I finished and extended my stay in Exeter for a year in order to get some opportunities. During this time, I only wrote an article, a chapter and project proposals for various post-doctoral positions. On my return to India, I worked as a volunteer actor, director and Gujarati language champion on weekends and worked for a school on their content development program for disadvantaged children. This provided me with an opportunity to work with all ages including young children and seniors. This social and creative engagement was the result of my training in Grand Challenges and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter where I explored enthusiastically what possibilities existed beyond my PhD. I never thought that my working on this Gujarati language project with lots of public engagement activities would result in a post-doctoral research fellowship in linguistics! My next advice is to seek out volunteering opportunities because an opportunity might knock on the door.

Meanwhile, my wife passed her viva without any corrections! She did it! We were on the top of the world! We were now Dr Vinu Chavda and Dr Mrunal Chavda. Now, we needed fool-proof research projects for both of us – if possible in the same country and in the same university. For this, I was ready for three things: 1) being open to broad fields such as South Asian studies, 2) being open to interdisciplinary fields such as cultural studies and literature, but I hadn’t thought of linguistics, and 3) being ready to dig into people’s lives, organisations and public institutions. These three approaches were quite different from my own approach to my doctorate. This taught me the value of niche and broader research interests.

‘Kehte hain ki agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaaho to puri kayanat usey tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai’ – Om Shanti Om

 “When you really desire something from the heart and soul, all the universe conspires you to achieve it”- Paulo Coelho, the Alchemist

Attending conferences is one of the ways you can market your research and somehow, I did attract some attention. I thought one of the main reason was my approach toward the Natayshastra (an Indian treatise on performing arts), which developed an apparatus to examine theatre productions highlighting limitations of semiotics models. I approached Mahesh Dattani, a contemporary Indian playwright who knows the Natyashastra inside and out, during his dramatic reading of Dance Like a Man at the Kings College. I was one of the participants in this conference focusing on South Asia from multi geopolitical perspectives. During the tea break, Prof Rajend Mesthrie, Professor in Linguistics at the University of Cape Town, and I conversed on the current research project that my wife and I were working on. I had never thought that within a year, we would receive offers of post-doctoral research fellowships.

BRICS Initiative funds South-South connection node research especially in the field of science technology, administration and public policy with some funding for cultural studies. My wife was part of this funding application in September 2016 and fortunately, she got funding from this important initiative between South Africa and India. My project, ‘Sociocultural Documentation of Gujarati in South Africa’ was then sponsored by National Research Foundation, South Africa as a part of South African Research Chairs Initiative for Migration, Language, and Social Change. Although our funding is only for a year, the erasure of Asian languages (especially Indian languages and its documentation) has provided us with a good platform for multidisciplinary learning. This was a perfect blend of work/life balance we always sought! Currently, I am writing a monograph from my PhD thesis and my second monograph proposal has been accepted!

So for PhD and Post Doc aspirants, I would provide three points of advice:

  1. Write. Write. Forget about rejections and write.
  2. Find your niche, but do have a broader research horizon.
  3. Be ready for change and embrace it.

Have you secured a Post-Doc? Do you have any tips on what you felt helped you get there? If so, why not write for our blog…

A New Way Showing: a showman recalls his recent experiences in gaining a PhD by publication, practice and Ebook

Tony LidingtonTony Lidington explains his unusual process to a PhD in Drama. Tony has been working as a showman for over 30 years and is well-known for his exploration of British popular entertainment forms. In the past, he has worked for many well-known venues and companies, combining accessibility and innovation. Each Summer, he scratches a living with “Uncle Tacko’s Flea Circus” (irritatingly fun!) and performs as The Raree Man with his peepshow (an Eighteenth Century form of itinerant storytelling ). Currently he is directing ‘Dick Whittington’ for Exeter’s Northcott Theatre. You can follow Tony’s work on or Facebook “Promenade Promotions”.

I’ve been peddling my old nonsense for 35 years: on streets, beaches, car parks, green field festivals, field events, agricultural shows… in the open, under canvas, bus shelters, on the pier, on the bus, on the deck of boats, in quarries, on the banks of rivers and community orchards. I have run companies, venues, festivals, events, projects and stuck my oar into arts politics and the strategic development of illegitimate arts. I perform, research, teach and broadcast and in the process, I have become a specialist in the vernacular, the unusual, the bizarre and the kind of work that seldom accrues any cultural value… so if you want to know about Pierrot Troupes, Flea Circuses, Peepshows and Pantomime, then I’m your man.

But of course, people seldom ask about such topics, because they aren’t as hip as the current vogue for circus or physical theatre that almost every NPO seems to be encouraged to explore, so they sit, forlorn and almost forgotten as part of our intangible cultural heritage. Everyone knows what a Flea Circus is (or at least they imagine that they do as they shudder at the thought), most have a notion that a Pierrot is part of a kind of twee European clown tradition, and everyone knows about Punch & Judy and Pantomime, but give little thought as to why they have remained so phenomenally successful cultural influences in the British psyche.

For years, friends and colleagues have urged me to put my experiences and thoughts into some sort of structure, whereby these popular entertainment forms might start to achieve recognition and offer me a new strand of earning potential: “You should do a PhD!” they cry. But as a practising artist in the kind of work that earns relatively small amounts rather erratically, “How on earth can I afford to do that?” I’d respond. I have taught modules at Exeter University and been the lead artist on a few AHRC projects, but a PhD… everyone says it takes years and years, that it’s horribly dry and that it costs thousands a year. Given my Herculean efforts over decades to keep the household going and a young family just about clothed, through my work as a freelance artist producing my ‘weird shit’, the task seemed pretty huge.

However, dear reader, there was a way: I had worked with Professor Jane Milling on an AHRC project on pierrots some years previously and periodically we had lunch together to gossip, ruminate about our mutual areas of interest and to hatch plans of various sorts. It was Jane who first suggested that there might be a way to do a doctorate using my current practice to demonstrate the theory behind my thesis and to use my BBC Radio 4 broadcasts and other media-related publicly-available presentations (eg videos and documentaries) as the publications by which my work was validated. This meant that I would be able to present my various recordings as publications and my current work with community pierrot troupes, the flea circus and the peepshow as the demonstration of my thesis; so rather than a large amount of written text (usually around 100,000 words), my thesis simply needed to knit together my existing frame with a theoretical methodology – a task of some 20,000 words only! Here was a potential means to present a PhD that could be achieved in a shorter space of time (cheaper) and that used my current practice (I could keep doing the stuff that paid the bills).

We decided that we would try and find a new way of presenting the materials: for years, PhD students have presented their practical work and recordings as piles of VHS tapes or DVDs. Our plan was to use an interactive Ebook that would have embedded video and sound archives which illustrated points within the text, galleries of still pictures and footnotes that would pop-out when clicked on. No-one had done this before at the University of Exeter, and yet it is a much more accessible way of presenting the ideas for any practising artist. There’s no way I had the technical or digital skill to achieve the graphic design or elegance of format that was required, but the technicians at the department (Jon Primrose & Chris Mearing) were keen to help – thank God! They also wanted to find a way of presenting work in a more accessible way for the future, so that the mechanisms for presenting their materials and the speed of the process meant that it would be increasingly attractive for practitioners to apply to become PhD students.

The process of writing the PhD was not horrible! There were times that it was a struggle and I was pushed to the limits of my capacity to absorb theory, but like many others, I suspect the worst bit was simply trying to work-out what configuration of citation and bibliographical reference was best… should that bloody comma go before or after the closing parenthesis? Aaaaarrgh! So, despite many late nights whilst the family slumbered and snatched hours when I might otherwise have taken the dog onto the beach, I thoroughly enjoyed attempting to provide more objective rigour to my former ramblings and found the overall process of research, writing and appraisal, to be both rewarding and empowering.

I am told that I am quite a driven, obsessive individual, but with the prods, pokes and cajoling of Professor Milling and the endless patience of the technicians in the department, it also only took me fourteen months to submit the final Ebook version: the next problems were to get the Ebook into a format that the University could process and getting the viva organised. Astoundingly, this took a further five months! I submitted the Ebook on a series of memory sticks, together with some explanatory notes about what programmes were necessary to ‘read’ the thesis in that format… this proved especially difficult because not all the examiners owned Macs (the best operating system with which to read Ebooks). I ended-up fielding calls from the university, my supervisors and even one of the external tutors as they tried to work-out how best to read the material. So what was intended as an accessible format, turned out to be difficult to distribute.

I passed the viva, but was required to make major corrections: these I delivered in three weeks, but a further problem ensued because I was forced to represent the corrected thesis in an ordinary Word document alongside the Ebook (but minus the video, audio & interactive elements), so that my amended work could be judged more easily. The doctorate was duly awarded, but although the Ebook resides in the University’s thesis archives, the Ebook itself is not accessible to the public because of concerns over the ownership of the copyright on my various BBC broadcasts, which were accepted as the published part of my thesis. Although I had written the material for broadcast and presented the material for broadcast, the BBC retain copyright on the broadcast programmes themselves – it’s a grey area, but the University were anxious and so have placed an embargo on the availability of the Ebook. (However, if you want me to send you a copy for private use, just let me know!)

The whole process took me twenty months from start to finish, although the thesis is really the culmination of three decades of practice. I am now a Doctor of Philosophy – which fits my performing soubriquet of Uncle rather well, for now I am DrUncle. I am hoping to find a way of continuing my academic research alongside my performance practice by applying for early career research fellowships and the occasional part-time post as a researcher/lecturer. The process was hectic, but rewarding. As much as anything, I learned how academia works – how it has its own language and protocols. I am very proud of my qualification and I am very privileged to have had such a supportive team behind me – both personally and academically. For now, I continue showing my Flea Circus, directing Pantomime and next week I give a talk about Peepshows to Cambridge University… plus ca change!


Thanks DrUncle!

Have you taken an unusual route to a PhD or MA? If so, we’d love to hear from you…

Top Tips: 5 PhD practices you’ll thank yourself for later

Kate Holmes gives the top 5 tips that helped her through her PhD. Her research explores the celebrity of aerial stars of the 1920s and early 1930s using approaches that range from examining spatial performance practices to female physical culture, and draws upon her experience as an amateur aerialist.

Completing a PhD requires focus, concentration and determination especially when life has a habit of getting in the way. If you’re starting a PhD or an MA, this post is most especially for you.

Here are five tips that could make your life a little easier. I am certain future-you will thank present-you for reading this post.

1. Reading Summaries

I owe my supervisor credit for this one: the day before every meeting I’d send a reading summary through to her which formed the basis of our early discussions.

It really is as simple as it sounds: write a summary of everything you read. Note down the core argument and what you agreed or disagreed with. Make clear in your summary what is their thought/argument and what is your response.

Why is this so helpful? Reading is a huge part of research, and I challenge you to remember every argument of everything you read in your first year, three years later.

So, what happens when you need to write or edit your literature review? Well, if you have a reading summary you can use rely on this and be sure you’ve incorporated everything you’ve read. Studies have also shown that reflection increases your engagement with, and recall of, materials.

You may already have heard the tip that you should write every day to increase your productivity. This is because your brain is like a muscle that needs regular exercise. The good news is that this counts towards that everyday writing. It is also a great place to practice because it is pretty low-risk writing as it is for your eyes only!

Sub-tip: Now I’ve finished my PhD I still want to draw from this material on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, it is locked up in separate word documents but I need this to be accessible and searchable. My current solution is a spreadsheet that includes column’s listing keywords and fields as well as the description. Ctrl F and filters are now my friend.

Reading summary spreadsheet

My new reading summary spreadsheet.

2. Reading Fiction

You are reading so much in the day, how can you possibly think about picking up another book for fun and how can it help? I initially felt this way but felt the urge to read for enjoyment, so I started deliberately picking up the type of fiction that was easy to consume or enjoyably escapist. For me, this was anything from urban fantasy to youth fiction or a good crime thriller. Picking something that didn’t require any kind of pressure to ‘analyse’ was key.

Academic writing is frequently dense and unwieldy. This type of commercial fiction has to engage the reader and take them on a journey or it doesn’t sell. Your examiner, or someone reading an article you write, would enjoy the experience more if your writing mimicked some of the attributes of commercial fiction. One of my examiners remarked on how readable my PhD was and emphasised that this wasn’t always the case when reading PhD theses. Some might argue the popular nature of my topic helped, but I think reading fiction helped me too.

3. Reference Management Software

Reference Management Software

Reference Management Software

I won’t be the first or the last person to recommend this one. Every time I read something I put it into the reference management software. Every time I referenced an archival source it went in. Although, you’ll notice most software doesn’t do archival sources well. It doesn’t really matter. You can normally fudge it using a generic form.

What you’re doing is giving yourself the ability to create reliable bibliographies at the click of a button. You are saving time and off-loading that particular mental labour. This means that when your thesis is one big document that every reference will be in there. So what if you need to edit some of the formatting? Hurray! You have a comprehensive list to start from.

It is a bit of an old one, but the thesiswhisperer has a great post on reference management software.

4. Invest in a Whiteboard

I love my whiteboard. I’m a planner and it helps me plan. For me, it predominantly helped me with writing and keeping track of big deadlines. (Don’t worry if you’re just starting your PhD, you shouldn’t really be expecting to generate that much writing for a few months.)

The whiteboard helped me see how writing such a big document could be reduced to manageable tasks. I worked out I could write approximately 500 words a day and would plan out when I thought I’d have a written chunk ready for my supervisor. I would always build in contingency (we all have bad days) and days for editing. As things progressed I’d put the chapter plan on the left and include a tally of words. That way it always felt like I was chipping away at the beast. It really helped me keep motivated because 200 words is always 200 words closer to the bottom threshold for a PhD thesis.

Sub-tip: for you, the beauty in a whiteboard might be in brainstorming and visualising difficult concepts. For me, a notebook did this job…

5. Harness the Power of Social Media

I completely understand if you want to keep professional life separate from all the other stuff. But, for me, social media was a way into some great resources.

For one, there are the fantastic blogs from the thesiswhisperer and Pat Thomson. I found these really helpful in picking up writing tips or even ideas that helped with teaching. These people are doing pedagogical research and offer advice on all the aspects of writing a thesis that you are going to encounter.

Social media also helped me establish a network and put me in touch with people before attending conferences. Through Twitter I found out about a new network being set up to bring together people working on circus. My field is pretty disparate, so being part of this network has been a great resource. Through the network I even got the opportunity to interview a circus performer I wouldn’t have encountered any other way.

Sub-tip: most universities offer some kind of online researcher profile that you can keep up-to-date throughout your studies. Having a link on Twitter or in your email signature that describes you and your research helps you make the most of those online connections. (And, if you keep it up to date from the start, it can help you generate an academic CV easily.)

I’m hoping this post might prompt other people to share a few of their tips, as I certainly haven’t done everything right…



Marking (Your Own) Time: Carrying On Post-PhD

4449_98983101457_7986272_nNRN friend/ex-Committee member Nora Williams reflects on a year of being an ECR and how to plan for the future. Nora is an independent scholar and theatre-maker currently based in the United States. She is working on her first monograph–Shakespeare, Social Media, and the Archive–and a large-scale practice-as-research project called Measure (Still) for Measure. More information about the latter can be found at

Let me start with a story:

A year ago, I was on top of the world. I had just graduated with my PhD, and I had a job offer in hand. Not just any offer: a three-year postdoc in my field with a research allowance. That’s like winning the academic lottery.

But very shortly after I accepted the position, problems began to crop up. I needed approval for a visa in order to take up the post. I know now that I should’ve been a better advocate for myself; at the time, I trusted the university’s HR department to take care of my visa application. They do it all the time, right? But problems began piling up and, four months later, I learned that I didn’t have a job after all.

Since then, I have had six different “day jobs”. But I’ve also finished my book proposal, presented at two conferences, and had an article accepted for publication. My practice-as-research project has taken off and now has interest from some major partners.

Have I been as productive, academically and creatively, as I was during my PhD? Probably not. But given the circumstances, I think I’ve done a pretty good job. So I’m sharing my story not as a pity party, but (hopefully) as an opportunity to help some of my fellow postdocs “on the market” navigate those first months out on your own.

Here are my tips for staying productive and continuing to write when you’re an independent scholar.

1. Be Strategic.

Not all jobs are created equal. If and when you can, think carefully about the kind of work that is going to allow you the time and space to meet your academic goals.

When I started working at a chippy last summer, I was also writing up the corrections on my thesis. The work was physical: I was on my feet, beating batter, slinging chips, and hauling stock up and down a flight of stairs. I was physically exhausted at the end of my shift, but I found writing and research easier than expected. My mind was still sharp, even though my body was tired.

In contrast, when I worked in an admin role this past spring, I found writing so difficult. I was sitting at a computer all day, and even though the job wasn’t intellectually taxing, I just couldn’t convince myself to sit at a computer for several more hours after work. I actually started reading on a low-speed treadmill in the evenings, just to be on my feet a little. It wasn’t a sustainable situation for me.

Everyone’s needs are different. Sometimes, you just need to take the first job that comes along. If that means taking a writing break, too, there’s absolutely no shame in that. But if you want to keep researching and writing alongside your “day job”, then think strategically about what kinds of jobs are going to make that possible for you and target them.

2. Make a plan; change the plan.

Both parts of this tip are equally important.

You’ve got to make a plan. Even if you’re not a planner. Even if you’re not really sure what your job / home / goals will be in six months. Even if you think you don’t need one. Make a plan and write it down.

If you’re applying for postdocs and grants, they’ll want a written plan of action detailing what you’ll be doing during each of the months in which you want their money. Trust me when I say that this is a lot easier to do if you’ve thought about it before you sit down to write the application.

But more importantly, a plan helps to give you a sense that you’re heading towards something, which is absolutely crucial in the first year after you’ve worn your floppy hat and insisted that everyone call you “Doctor”. You had one major goal for a long time, and no doubt you worked doggedly to achieve it. Give yourself some new goals, or you’ll want to tear your hair out.

This brings us to the second part of this tip: change the plan.

Your first plan will most likely be a pie-in-the-sky, everything-goes-right kind of plan. That’s okay—you need those, too. But every time you change the plan, you’ll make it more achievable.

Do not marry yourself to the idea that you’ll get your second article published and your book proposal finished and your giant grant application done within three months of graduation while also working another job. It’s great to be ambitious, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t complete everything at the speed you’d hoped.

Make a plan, then make another one, and another one. Never be without a plan, but always be ready for the plan to change.

3. Find your people and be nice to them.

You’ve seen how brutal the market is: you are almost certainly not the only one in this position, making these choices, or climbing these hurdles. Find the others, and embrace them.

Read their stuff and give them good feedback. Not “good” as in uncritically positive; “good” as in thoughtful, generous, and genuine (see this previous NRN Blog post for some advice on that front). Ask for their feedback on your stuff, too. Receive their critiques generously. Build a cohort of people who rely on each other for quality peer reviewing. Create lovely intellectual communities together. You’re going to need each other for the road ahead.

To put it bluntly: there’s no point in being nasty and competitive with your peers. It doesn’t help anyone, and it will make you miserable. Be kind and cultivate great relationships with them instead.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

This is a tip that I’m still working on myself.

I am very lucky in that I have good friends who were willing to help out in those four months of precarity between graduation and visa decision, and in the six months since. I also lived with my parents for a while, and I’m lucky that I have parents who are financially able to help in that way.

If I’m honest, I sort of resent that I needed that much help.

But I also recognise that asking for help when you need it is really important. This applies across the board: financial help, emotional support, a place to crash while you figure things out, or even just a PDF link to that article you’ve been wanting to read. Everyone needs help sometimes, even the most fiercely independent among us. There’s no shame in leaning on the people who genuinely offer assistance. Besides, the world turns ’round: you may have an opportunity to help them, someday, too.

While we’re here, there’s no shame in reaching out for professional help, either. We know that the rates of mental illness among academics are scarily high, and being in a precarious job situation certainly doesn’t help if you’re prone to depression or anxiety. Needing help is not the same as failing.

5. Investigate your local resources.

I recently checked out a book of Walter Benjamin’s essays from my local public library. A quick Google search hooked me up with the alumni library access programme at my former institution. On Twitter, #icanhazpdf can work wonders if you’re struggling to get your hands on an academic publication. Most academic libraries have some kind of access scheme for “the public” and/or their alumni available. There are resources out there to help independent scholars if you go looking for them.

Losing library access is the worst, but it isn’t a death sentence for your research. You’ll just have to hunt a little harder. Investigate what’s available locally, take advantage of your networks, and keep trucking.


remember that choosing a different career isn’t a failure, either. If there’s something else you want to try, and you’re just plain sick of the academic market, go for it! You can always come back, and no one decent will think any less of you for it.

Good luck!

A part time PhD: With a little help from my (full time) friends …

clairereadClose NRN friend, Claire Read, tells us about her experience of feeling more at home as a part-time PhD student. Claire (Roehampton) is concerned with the use of technology, specifically live streaming, as altering the relationship between performance and documentation. Her research looks at the media work of Katie Mitchell as well as the development of NT Live. Claire has published with the International Journal of Performance Art and Digital Media and has contributed a co-authored chapter in Documenting Performance: The Context and Processes of Digital Curation and Archiving, Ed. Toni Sant (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama – forthcoming). She is a member of TaPRA and was a committee member for the STR’s New Researcher’s Network between 2014-2016. Claire is currently an Associate at the University of Surrey.

I’m not saying I speak for everyone, but I find it weird thing going to a conference and speaking with others who work full time on their thesis. I feel out of it, like an imposter who attends and ‘plays’ at being an academic for a weekend. Upon leaving the conference, any thoughts or inspirations are soon extinguished as I return to my day job, envious of those who can pounce on new found ideas and keep the conversations going. It’s even more peculiar attending events as a lone student – being part time and working I’m rarely on campus and so don’t really have a group of ‘PhD friends’. So trying to integrate with not just another researcher, but a circle of researchers and established friends, makes the task of meeting all the more difficult. Over the years I have had to force myself to ‘network’: an expression and concept I hate, probably because I feel so out of any network that I’m ashamed that I’m trying to gatecrash.

A few things happened over the last few years to help. (As a part time researcher another thing that makes my work separate to others is that the project is on a very slow burn. The amount of people I have seen start and finish their PhD in the time I’ve taken to write a few chapters is astonishing; inevitable, but astonishing. So yes, it has been years). Joining SCUDD seemed like such a simple thing to do but really helped. Getting emails from academics makes me feel part of the world even when I’ve been tying karate belts for the last hour (one of my day jobs). There are other mailing lists as well pertinent to my research that hone the sometimes random calls from SCUDD. Joining TaPRA and the mailing list for my working group was another great move and was the first time I made ‘PhD friends’. When the call for an interim event came I gladly applied. As the TaPRA interim events are usually only a day its easier to finance with no funding (that’s why I’m part time, after all). They’re also quite intimate, and a good place to foster relationships ahead of the annual conference.

The other thing that really helped was joining the NRN, and being part of the committee (although it must sound like a shameful plug, as I’m now blogging for them, the following is absolutely true). Live streaming lectures for the STR forced me to talk to established academics and I was previously very scared to do this, mainly as I had so little experience. (I once responded to a question about my ‘area’ with ‘Bracknell’. I am the walking facepalm emoji). Joining also had the advantage of ‘ready made friends’ – even last week I started talking to a friend of a committee member. Finding a way in to talking takes away the apprehension of starting a conversation and makes networking feel like friend making, and that’s what I really miss as a part time postgrad.

There are good things that come with part time study. Even though your time is precious in balancing research around other jobs (at one point last year I had four occupations and not enough boxes to list them all on my tax form), I get time to consider my research and see it grow. I can also afford time to be a committee member, in addition to joining a network. I can be a member of SCUDD rather than a SCUDD digester. In a way this sets me up for a life in academia. From what I can gather there isn’t always room for collegiality in the working environment due to time constraints and being pulled at from every direction. Maybe in this way being part time and having to juggle responsibilities is a nice dress rehearsal.

I don’t think there’s a magic way to get through a PhD regardless of whether you engage as a full time or part time student. I am still a little jealous of the full time (and funded students) as the collegiality seems built right in, although perhaps this is just me thinking that the grass is always greener. I know that the stress levels are right up there. But these are elevated by good working relationships, so if you are lucky enough to have ‘academic friends’, or people who now you just call your ‘friends’, cherish them. They may be your colleagues in future, helping you out with form filling and admin tasks or even co-authoring chapters and books, but they’ve been through something with you and more than that, they made your path a bit easier. And please remember that if you see a random person at a conference they will appreciate you taking the time to speak with them and make them feel less lonely. It was lovely people like that who made this part time student a full time friend. (They’ll disown me for being so sickly sweet though, I’m sure).

Do you think your experience of making your research work might be helpful to others? Take a look at our CFP and get in touch.

What next? Life After the PhD

Acatia FinbowHere at the NRN, we’re very lucky to have great members who write for our blog and attend our events. The lovely Acatia Finbow has combined two of those things by writing about our latest event. Acatia is a third year Collaborative Doctoral Award student at the University of Exeter and Tate. She was attached to the two-year AHRC-funded research project ‘Performance at Tate: Into the Space of Art’ (2014-2016), which included generating case studies around both historic and contemporary performance works taking place across the spaces of the museum, which have now been published online. Her own research considers the value of performance documentation in the contemporary art museum, and she is particularly interested in generating new models for documenting works institutionally. Her other research interests include institutional documentation practices, mapping documentation, audiences as documenters, and the similarities and differences in attitudes towards documentation in theatre and visual art spaces.

The ways of academia have often felt like a bit of a mystery to me. From learning how to reference properly in the first couple of weeks of my undergraduate degree to a recent training session in my third year of my PhD about what the Viva actually involves, my experience of the world of academia has been a series of slow revelations. One particular mystery which has been haunting me for some time now, is how to break into the world of paid academic work. In short: how to get a job.

I went straight through from A-levels to my Master’s degree, meaning that when I finished at Leeds in 2013, I had never had what my parents would call ‘a proper job’. After my MA, I tried in vain to get jobs, paid internships, unpaid internships, work experience, in the museums and galleries sector, and eventually ended up working in a commercial art and craft gallery in Cambridge, after the sheer luck of handing my CV in at the desk when I was passing by. Now, coming rapidly to the end of my PhD and three years of very gratefully received AHRC funding, I find myself in the same position: where do I go from here?

This is why I jumped at the chance to attend the STR NRN’s ‘What Next? Life after The PhD’ at the University of Birmingham on the 11th February. Having the chance to hear about the actual experience of people who had gone through this process of moving into their field professionally, and being able to ask them the burning questions I’d been sitting on for a while, seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed. From Kirsty Sedgman’s frank and empowering keynote which addressed the difficulties of finding full times posts, and the uncomfortable but necessary task of branding yourself as a researcher, to the individual stories we heard from those who were in their first University roles, up to established Professors, there was a refreshing honesty from everyone involved. Professor Graham Saunders’ assertion that the work really gets done in the bar at conferences, and Naomi Paxton’s encouragement to stick our fingers in as many pies, and pie-shaped things, as possible will be two pieces of advice which really stick with me. Jumping in, accepting opportunities, creating your own chances, and being persistent but realistic were all threads which ran through the panels, and will resonate with me in the following months, as I try to apply this advice to my impending job hunt.

CV surgery

Working on CVs during the CV Surgery, (c) Ella Hawkins

The two practical elements to the day – a mock interview for a job at the ‘University of West Pluto’, and a CV surgery session – added a sense of real grounding to these conversations. My own mock interview, conducted by Dr Sarah Olive, forced me to confront the way I describe the research I do, and to be honest about the gaps in my CV. Her feedback was really practical, useful advice, and I’ll certainly make use of it in actual interviews in the future. The CV session was another process of demystifying, laying out clearly what is expected of an academic CV, but also being open about the flexibility of how that is presented, how to bring in non-academic experience, and acknowledging that different departments will require different information.

Overall, ‘What Next?’ was not a day designed to convince us all that we’re going to be able to walk into well-paid academic jobs the moment the Viva is done. Rather, it was about empowering PhD students and early career researchers to go into the process with open eyes, and an even more open mind, to allow us to understand the intricacies of the systems we will be up against (and perhaps, one day, in) and to recognise opportunities which might fall outside of our expectations of what an academic job is. I, for one, am feeling galvanised: it won’t be easy, but it can be done!

If you’d like to contribute to this blog, take a look at our call for contributions and get in touch!

Tough Love: Tips on Getting Your Application Right

headshotIn anticipation of our upcoming Employability Event we asked Prof Kate Newey to give us the benefit of her experience shortlisting candidates for jobs. What we got was a combination of practical and strategic advice that we think you’d be silly to ignore!

…be ready to hear it like it is…


CVs – the basics

Layout, layout, layout. Make it clear and easy to get the main facts from a CV quickly. Jobs I’ve been on the selection committees for have up to 100 applications – there are some areas (eg Eng Lit) where this is doubled. If we have to hunt for information in your application, it’s not necessarily a good thing for you! If the information is unclear, or ambiguous, ditto. And I start to wonder what you’re trying to hide…

On the other hand, no whizzy showy stuff to “stand out” in that pile of 100. I can live without pictures on a CV too. We don’t need to know what you look like (Sorry <grin>).

What will stand out is a clean, professional, sensible knowledgeable CV with a clear straightforward application letter.

Always order things from the most recent to the most historic ie backwards.

Be judicious about what you include. We don’t really need to know your hobbies or your non-academic employment UNLESS you want to refer to it in your cover letter for a specific this-job-related reason. EG voluntary work is lovely, but only mention it if you’re doing such work in an area relevant to the job for which you’re applying. But I really don’t need to know that you enjoy reading (I should hope you do in this business!) or fell-walking in your job application. If you’re invited to interview, we can have a great talk about that over lunch. But don’t waste your space or my time on such stuff in your job application.

Resist, resist, really resist the urge to inflate your CV. Please.

You really don’t need to have more than you’d be expected to have in relation to your ‘career age.’ The problem with CV inflation is that you think you have to have all this stuff for a job application, but we might make a less than positive comparison between what you write and what we know to be the case: for example, book reviews are book reviews, not publications in the same way that a refereed journal article is a publication.

Just be straightforward about articles out for review: say that you’ve submitted an essay for X journal, and are awaiting readers’ reports. In the first couple of years post-PhD, we’re looking for a research trajectory, which means that you need to show you know what you’re doing & the direction you’re going in, and that you’re taking practical, concrete steps to get there eg you’re preparing a book proposal adapted or drawn from your PhD (important to show you know that your PhD is rarely publishable in its raw form!) and have submitted/about to submit to XYZ publisher. Be ready to talk about why that publisher in interview. Basically, any claim you make in your CV, be prepared to discuss in interview.

Personally I don’t like the Twitter-like biogs at the top of a CV for an academic job: just stick to the utilitarian basics.

Ditto for the summary such as “I am a highly motivated self-directed individual, able to work on multi-disciplinary project.” That sort of guff. This is for your cover letter, and needs to backed up by concrete evidence/examples. For non-academic jobs, such statements are required & useful, but for an academic job, we all know what the job is; your distinctiveness is going to be in your CV, which represents the mix of your experience so far.

Cover letters, proposals etc

Again, remember that your application or proposal is going to be one of many. So keep things clean, clear, and try to be helpful in your submissions – in that you should adhere to any directions given you about layout or word length and so on.

Simple stuff such as: if you’re submitting an electronic document, name each document with your name & what it is not just randomly “Exeter application”.

Instead, label it clearly <YOURNAME_Grant proposal Exeter 2017>

Think about what information you would need and in what order if you were managing say, 20 applications for the same thing. You’d want to be able to sort & save the documents by applicant probably.

I always prefer MSWord, rather than a PDF but check about format for sending something. Usually, if you’re asked for several parts eg Proposal, summary, and CV it makes sense to put it all in one document (as above, think of the recipient, managing 20 or a 100 such documents), each section of the document separated by a page break.

It’s all just digital good manners.

Cover letters for jobs

Be straightforward and clear, and get to the point of what you offer to the post.

Give us a one or two sentence summary of your PhD research, and what was original. Then tell us how this is relevant to a broader field. And show us/explain to us how what you’re an expert in will add to, complement, enable collaboration, challenge the students etc etc in the Department you’re aiming to join.

Think beyond your PhD. It changed your life, but your PhD won’t change the world – it’s just the start.

To be really tough on this point: when I’m chatting to ECRs informally, and even more so when I’m interviewing them for jobs, I do tend to find those who can’t look beyond their own nose – see beyond their PhD topic – can be rather <ahem> boring and a bit self-absorbed, and I do wonder what sort of a collegial sharing generous person they’re likely to be. Ditto people who are arrogant about their work, or secretive. You should be able to talk to colleagues about your work in an open, non-jargonistic way; indeed, you need to be able to explain your research to your colleagues, and enthuse your colleagues about it. One way of doing this is to have a built-in response to the “So what?” question – excite them about how your work opens up broader issues, or whatever, and so on.

It’s important because it’s a good way to conduct your professional life – it’s a good ethic to share and to engage, and to collaborate. But on a more pragmatic note, if I have concerns about your arrogance or the narrowness of research enquiry, from the way you share or don’t share in writing and in person, I’m going to probe and prod & push you in interview. Or if I can’t see, in your CV and your research forward planning, that you’re aware of the level of team work and collegiality needed as an academic, and the openness & breadth needed as a teacher, then I may not push for you to be shortlisted. With 60 or 100 candidates, we’re looking for reasons not to shortlist as much as to shortlist.

Take your work seriously, by all means, but don’t take yourself too seriously. I think if you approach it like that, you’ll find your balance.

And if you’re a man, you’ll probably have to work a bit harder at this, because you’re socialised since birth to feel self-important and necessarily of interest to others without having to try too much; it’s as well to try to be self-aware about that socialisation. Gender politics are real, and you can’t rely on the advantages of institutional sexism for very much longer. (And women, note that I am deliberately phrasing this in terms of male advantage rather than female disadvantage.)

Kate Newey

<aka the Grumpy Professor>


Kate Newey is Professor of Theatre History at Exeter. She has been a Head of Department for three different University Drama Departments (Lancaster, Birmingham, and Exeter), and has sat on appointments committees from Teaching Fellows to Professorial and other senior appointments. She is currently Director of Research for Drama at Exeter, and has led on the last 3 REF/RAE submissions for her department (2001, 2008, 2014). She was a member of the AHRC Peer Review Panel from its inception, and is a founding committee member of the British Association for Victorian Studies, and the Theatre and Performance Research Association. She was a judge for the Society for Theatre Research Theatre Book Awards (2008) and sits on the STR Research Awards sub-committee. She has taught in English and Drama Departments in Australia and the UK, and is an expert in the literature and popular culture of the nineteenth century and has published widely on Victorian theatre and women’s writing, including the books Lives of Shakespearean Actors: Fanny Kemble (editor, 2010), John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre (with Jeffrey Richards, 2010), Ruskin, the Theatre, and Victorian Visual Culture (co-editor, 2009), Women’s Theatre Writing in Victorian Britain (2005), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1993). She was co-editor of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film from 2005-2015, and led the AHRC-funded project ‘A Cultural History of English Pantomime, 1837-1901,’ 2009-2012.

NRN Blog: Transitioning from MA to PhD



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


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.


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

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Peer Reviewing and Friendship in Academia

Some NRN friends have kindly shared their peer review process anonymously. We think this is a fascinating read that can help people set up supportive group working practices…

We are a group of early career researchers in drama, theatre, and performance who completed our PhDs within a few months of each other. On one level, we’re just friends who read for each other, and people who maintained friendship outside of capitalist academia. On another level, the things we’ve learned from reading for each other can be carried forward to how we read for others, and (we hope) help inform your peer reviewing, too. As we often said to each other regarding chapter drafts: take what’s useful and ignore the rest!

We don’t really remember the first things we shared with each other. But we do know that by winter of our third year, we were sharing full chapter drafts on a regular basis. By summer, we were exchanging longer drafts about once a month. But we also shared shorter stuff much more frequently. Blog posts, tricky emails, job applications…if it was going public, we trusted each other to read it first. We got used to a pattern of sharing writing.

The trust that came with friendship was really important for our comments on each other’s work. We became buffers for each other before the work was shared higher up, with supervisors or other peer reviewers. Running writing past each other became a kind of safety check. We counted on each other to be honest but constructive in criticism. For example, we got into the habit of praising the parts that were good as well as offering critiques when giving feedback. Because we’re all from different subfields, we were also able to inform each other’s reading: our bibliographies are full of books and articles that we wouldn’t necessarily have found without each other. As much as it’s fun to read something right in your own field and feel like an expert, having an outside reader and being an outside reader is really valuable. We wanted the work to be as good as it could possibly be.

Strategies to Try

One strategy is to try to imagine that you are opening a book: does this chapter read like a book? Try to imagine it as a finished piece of work, in a journal or on a shelf. This helps to set the bar, and establishes the work as a professional piece of writing. So you’re not watering down the other person’s work, or patronising them. It’s just about identifying what’s convincing and what’s not, and saying what you think might fix any problems (in a constructive way of course).

Familiarity with each others’ style helps, too; the more you read, the more you get to know each other’s modes of expression. You have to remember that your instinct may be to add a comma or change a sentence, but it might work just as well without that intervention. You can make suggestions without trying to impose a style. Finding the language for that gets easier with practice. Two phrases that are really helpful:

“Take what’s useful and ignore the rest”

“These are suggestions”

With that approach, the comments become a dialogue—maybe the comma is needed, maybe it’s not, but it’s up to the writer. It’s important to understand what’s helpful at which stage of writing; saying “the structure is all wrong” three weeks before submission is not helpful! It’s also helpful to imagine yourself working on multiple levels. You might be commenting on commas one minute and asking big questions about the argument or the structure the next.

Something that happened as part of this process of reading and commenting was a transition from taking all of our supervisors’ comments all the time to understanding them as suggestions and choosing not to incorporate all of them. It raised our awareness of the fact that there are other readers in the world, always, and that every reader will approach the work differently.

In general, we took a “live dialogue” approach to commenting, rather than a “marking” approach. In other words, we would insert comments in the margins as we went along rather than writing up formalised feedback at the end—although we would often summarise our thoughts on the work overall in a brief email or final comment. But it’s important to remember that what you’re saying isn’t the final word on the draft; it’s part of a conversation.

Especially towards the end of a big project like a PhD, there’s value in stepping away from your own work and investing time and energy focusing on a completely different project. You learn from that, and it can become a kind of escape, an opportunity to disconnect and recharge.

Why It’s Helpful

One of the best parts of the process was the affective, absolute joy of a friend’s response back to an essay, and the experience of opening the Word document and seeing the comments. It often was the impetus to move on: a friend’s time taken to talk the work back to you encourages you to keep going. Sometimes we enabled each other to do the work that we could not do on our own. If you look forward to someone’s comments, if you look forward to how they enable you to do the work, that’s really valuable.

Built into this sharing was also permission to not read. We were all busy, and sharing always came with the understanding that the reader may or may not have space to read and comment. That ease of relationship became crucial and made us more comfortable to send again, to ask again.

A big part of that ease and trust was also recognising and acknowledging each other’s reading as labour. You could say that the labour of reading friends’ work is a feminist act. Certainly in our experience, women are more careful about how they request reading-as-labour. All of us have occasionally had emails from men who asked us to read things, which we did. But those requests were sometimes made in a less careful way, seemingly without awareness of the labour that goes into reading.

That isn’t to say that men can’t be feminist in their reading or their sharing of work; the feminist act is in how the request and the response are framed. In some ways, we’re attempting to resist the desire for women to be in competition with each other, the “divide and conquer” mentality. By resisting competition with each other, we resist the capitalist, neoliberal model of academia. The small acts of resistance inherent in reading for each other have helped us to take more pleasure in our work, to become more sensitive readers and peer reviewers, and and to nurture a powerful and valuable friendship.

Ultimately, we feel privileged to be in a friendship where we can work and share work without competition. We’re cautious of advocating a formulaic approach to peer reviewing and friendship. We didn’t formalise our own process until we sat down to write this blog post. There’s always an understanding that we’re all creating every day—and maybe that’s where the feminism is.

‘How to’ Navigate an Archive

Our latest blog post comes from the ever fantastic and knowledgeable Jill Sullivan. Jill completed her doctoral thesis on Victorian regional pantomime in 2005, and has since published a monograph, articles and book chapters on the subject. Her most recent publication is ‘English Pantomime and the Irish Question’ in Politics, Performance and Popular Culture: Theatre and Society in Nineteenth-century Britain, edited by Peter Yeandle, Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards (Manchester University Press, 2016). She is currently co-authoring a book on optical entertainments in the nineteenth-century. Much of Jill’s research has been archive-based; in 2013 she decided to retrain as an archivist and now works as Archives Assistant at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, a role that enables her to support the research enquiries and searches of students and other academics. This dual relationship means she is one of the best people to talk about how to navigating an archive! – Ed.

Autumn is definitely in the air and the new research semester has started. Some of you will be at the start of your doctoral research, or starting to think about the archival research element of your work. Archival research can be exciting and rewarding; sometimes it can be frustrating, sometimes surprising and sometimes it can provide a whole new direction for your research. If you haven’t used an archive before, don’t worry – here’s a short ‘How To’ Guide to using archives…

What exactly is an archive? 

An archive contains a single or separate collections of material which may have originally belonged to individuals (an actor, writer, or designer for example), or a theatre company, such as the National Theatre or Bristol Old Vic. Because of this, materials that you are interested in researching may exist in different collections across a single archive (and in different archives!)

An archivist is responsible for the care and preservation of and providing access to those collections. The archivist is also responsible for maintaining the integrity of these collections and keeping them in their separate order; in other words collections cannot be mixed up. Unlike a library, materials are not sorted by subject matter so if different collections all have material related to the actor Sir Henry Irving, that material will not be taken out and put into a separate ‘Irving box’ – it will all be kept within the individual collections.

An archive comprises largely paper-based information. So, for theatre and performance history this may include: scripts, prompt copies, production photographs, playbills, programmes, financial records, correspondence, production notes, show reports….

University of Bristol Theatre Collection website screengrab

(Note: Some organisations, such as the V&A and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection are also accredited museums so their collections also include 3D objects, which may include set models, paintings, costumes, props, ceramics, make up, wigs.…)

How do I know which archive to use?

Find out what archives are out there that are relevant to your subject area. The APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) has an excellent website for UK collections.

There are also University Special Collections e.g. University of Kent (Templeman Collection), Birmingham and Glasgow. And don’t forget that there are major archives in the USA including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas; Harvard Theatre Collection, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington and the Billy Rose Archive at the New York Public Library. Some theatre companies retain their own archives, such as the National Theatre and the RSC. And Local Studies Libraries and County Record Offices often have good holdings for local theatre history.

You will need to research your research plans to find out where you need to be!

Researching the archive holdings
University of Bristol Theatre Collection catalogue search screengrabMost archives will have an online catalogue. Remember to search these using different filters to find relevant materials. Don’t search too broadly (you might just regret putting ‘Shakespeare’ into a catalogue search!) but don’t be too narrow either – think around your subject.

Archive cataloguing systems often use literal spellings based on the way in which they were originally populated by an archivist (this isn’t Google!). You may need to try different versions of a name (e.g. Peter O’Toole, OToole or O Toole) to find relevant materials.University of Bristol Theatre Collection catalogue search results

Bear in mind that all archives will have at least some uncatalogued items and that they will have different policies regarding researcher access to uncatalogued materials – if a collection has only recently been deposited, the archivist may yet have to check it for any confidential material (we have to adhere to the Data Protection Act); and some archives don’t allow access to any uncatalogued archives.

Contacting the archive and preparing for your visit

First of all, check the organisation’s website for general information about directions, opening times, closure periods etc. – this will help you to plan your research visit.

Please don’t turn up unannounced at an archive asking to see everything on Hamlet! Plan your visit.

Also check for any required identification that you will need to take with you and publicised rules about camera/copying materials and charges.

Then, use the online catalogue to identify items you’d like to consult. Make a note of the catalogue reference numbers. Once you have identified the items you’d like to see, start an email conversation with the archivist. Tell them what you are researching and for what purpose (e.g. an article or your thesis or dissertation) and what you’d like to see in their archive. Ask them if they have any advice about other related materials that may be of use to you in their collections (in case they have uncatalogued but accessible materials). It is much easier for an archivist to help a researcher if they know what the research project is about and the sort of materials you’re looking for.

Get to know your archivist and help them to help you! Remember that they want to make the archives accessible.

Contact the archive well in advance of a planned visit – not only do you need to check for any closure periods which may affect your plans, but the archivist needs time to retrieve the requested items ready for your visit. Agree a date (and time if necessary) for your visit. And it’s a good idea to just double check on any identification required.

Having established the items you want to see, work out how much time you think you’ll need at the archive. Bear in mind that archival material can contain research surprises so allow time to explore further. And be practical – there’s no point in ordering up lots of items if you only have a couple of hours to spare.

Some archives will have a limit on the number of items retrieved per visit or during a visit – you need to know this beforehand. Many archives are huge, with hundreds of thousands of items that take time to retrieve. Be patient and work with their retrieval systems.

Working in the archive

You’re finally there, in expectation of the research treasures contained within all those files and boxes! Make sure you introduce yourself to the archivist – we like to put faces to names! You will also be asked to complete a registration form/show identification when you arrive.

Although you may have found reprographics information on the organisation’s website, you should also clarify with the archivist at this point about copying/scanning/camera use. This varies from organisation to organisation and there will probably also be different procedures depending on whether you want images purely for personal reference or whether you want to make them public (in articles, conference presentations, exhibitions, and any social media use or blogs etc.) Archives also vary in how they class the use of images in theses.

The archive does not automatically own copyright on its collections. In establishing early on what you want images for, you will be able to timetable plans for arranging copyright clearance and permissions – this will be your responsibility although the archivist may well be able to help you with information about copyright holders and who to contact. Don’t leave copyright clearance until a month before you submit your thesis or paper – it will invariably take longer than you think!

When working at the archive, be aware of in-house regulations. Standard requirements are that you use pencils only (accidental ink marks can ruin original documents) and that you wear gloves (either cotton or nitrile) for handling photographs or glass plate negatives. When making your notes, always be sure to clearly detail the catalogue number or the box or accession number if it is uncatalogued, for each item, plus the collection that it comes from. If you are unsure, ask the archivist for the correct accession or catalogue number to cite.

This is important for three reasons. Firstly, you will need these details for your own citations and bibliography – there is nothing more irritating than getting to the final proofs for your work and finding that you didn’t make a note of the reference number, and you may not have time to revisit the archive. Secondly, if you want to request the item again on a later visit or for a copy of the item for publication it will enable the archivist to find it quickly. Thirdly, remember that these citations are not only for your own reference but may also be used as a reference point for others using your thesis/papers as a starting point for their own research.

Finally, when your work is submitted or you have work published, do let the archivist know – we love to hear about our researchers’ successes!

Committee Member Kate is a bit of a fan of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, so if you want to read some of her musings on this particular archive click here.