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

UPCOMING EVENT! What Next? Life After The PhD

SAVE THE DATE! We’re very excited to announce our next event, taking place in the new year! Read on for more… *drumroll*

What Next? Life After The PhD

When is it? Saturday 11 February 2017

How long is it on for? 10am-5pm

Where is it? Murray Learning Centre, University of Birmingham

How much is it? Free!

Getting employed is hard. Whichever way you turn after completing a PhD, job markets are fiercely competitive and often seem impossible to penetrate.

What Next? Life After the PhD is an employability event aimed specifically at late-stage doctoral candidates and post-PhD early career researchers. The event will include a series of workshops and talks, a CV surgery, and a one-to-one mock interview. The content will be presented by academics and practitioners at a variety of career stages; you’ll hear from chaired professors, casual-contract postdocs, archivists, and theatre practitioners. By the end of the day, you’ll have received heaps of practical advice about landing a job, sharpening your CV, and polishing your interview skills. Whether you want to stay in academia or pursue an alternative path, you’ll walk away ready to do battle in your field of choice.

For more information, please email nrn@str.org.uk. Registration will open in the new year!

The NRN wants YOU to join our committee!

The NRN is seeking a new committee member to assist with our livestreaming programme.

A sub-committee of the Society for Theatre Research (STR), the New Researchers’ Network (NRN) is a supportive group of postgraduates, new scholars, practitioners, artists and early career academics with shared interests in theatre and performance, theatre history, and theatre historiography. The NRN is comprised of individuals from a variety of academic disciplines including Theatre, Drama, and Performance Studies, History, Art History, English Literature, and Modern Foreign Languages as well as theatre and performance professionals.

The NRN meets throughout the year for a series of study days, workshops, lectures, archive visits, theatre tours, and social dinners. The calendar of events is designed to encourage members to share knowledge and ideas, provoke discussion and debate, and develop a network of helpful and supportive contacts. Members of the NRN are also members of the STR, and as such are encouraged to participate in STR activities, including the lecture series, the Poel Workshops, the Research Awards, and theatre-related outings. Finally, the NRN provides opportunities for new researchers to present their current research in a more formal setting at the annual symposium.

The NRN is currently recruiting a new committee member specifically to assist with the livestreaming of the STR lecture series. The role would therefore suit a postgraduate, early career researcher, or young professional with interests in digital media, livestreaming, and/or audience development. As a full member of the NRN Committee, you will also be involved in planning the annual symposium and other events, keeping up the NRN’s online presence, and thinking ahead to the 2017/18 academic year.

This role will require the new committee member to undertake NRN activities in central London approximately once per month, and so we are expressly seeking someone London-based or with easy access to London.

To apply, please send a CV and a brief letter of application to the NRN Committee at nrn@str.org.uk by 5:00pm on Friday 30th December. We will inform candidates of our decision by Friday 6th January.

 

If you have any questions or would like more information about the role, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at the email address above.

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.

The Physicality of Writing

Committee member Kate Holmes invites everyone to take a break and look after your body. If you want to know about Kate’s research, check out her eprofile.

Think: eyes look to the side slightly. I raise my right hand, push it and the mouse across the desk, finishing the action with a downward pressure to cause the mouse to click and to put the in cursor place. I lift my right hand so that it comes to meet the left hovering over the keyboard. The action facilitated by the light engagement of shoulder muscles that hold the hands in place. Now, I push fingers down, hardly noticing the link between movement and mind. Without thinking, I press the backspace, not noticing how the process of writing is also edited through the movements I make which track back from finger to shoulder.

I’m struggling to work through an idea. My immediate instinct is to reach for my notebook. I lift the notebook with both hands, and lay it on my lap. One hand rests on the left edge of the notebook, whilst the right hand lifts to pick up the pen and position it over the page. Again, the right shoulder facilitates the movement of my hand pushing from left to right across the page, stepping downwards to fill it with my script.

Until 8 April this year I hadn’t really thought about how I use my body when I’m writing. Instead I very much thought of it as an activity of the mind. What changed my perception was when I was involved in an accident that left my right shoulder immobilised. I had just entered the last six months of my PhD and was very much in writing mode and was suddenly brought face-to-face with how I use my body and mind together when writing.

As you can see from the description above, the shoulder muscles I wasn’t able to engage are used in most of the activities of writing. But, not only that, being left with just one hand makes performing a range of tasks associated with it really difficult. When I write I often have files open on the floor or pieces of paper on my desk, so I frequently find myself reaching, lifting, crouching and using both hands to flick through papers. Obviously these activities were no longer possible in the same way.

But for me, the hardest part of temporarily losing the use of my right shoulder, was the link between the mind and the physical acts of typing or putting pen to paper. I experimented with using speech dictation software – in fact this post was written using it a few weeks back. For anyone who has ever tried to use this, it is a really strange experience. In fact, you might notice that I’m generally using quite short sentences in this post which is as a result of dictating. This sort of software requires more thought because you need to speak a full sentence rather than being able to delete as you go (you also need to be really careful about using the word ‘delete’ because it can remove something unintended! Can you guess what just happened!) There are commands you can use to edit text, but you generally need to have got the sentence out in one go first. Credit goes out to anyone who uses this sort of software every day, because although it is great I find it a real challenge. Although I can see how it might help when suffering from writers’ block because it feels such a different way of working from typing.

But when my brain was fuzzy through painkillers and I wanted to think through the fuzziness by putting pen to paper I couldn’t. I couldn’t capture or clarify those things I thought I might forget when I got back to work. When I physically write with a pen I feel like I’m accessing a different part of my brain. And, to be honest that is something that I had to put to one side for a while, (alongside my timetable for completion). Technology has meant that I could have a Google document that I could speech dictate into on my phone, but it’s still not the same…

So, I suppose the point of this post is really to try and make people privilege the relationship of your body to your mind – because I was in danger of forgetting it. Despite the fact that my research uses my bodily understanding of aerial practice, I still didn’t value my body enough in the writing process. This experience has made me realise I need a healthy body to really write well. That means that as I re-approach the last six months of my PhD I need to look after my body, because I might well have put writing in front of exercising or eating as healthily as I should. For me this is going to mean putting my body first in terms of doing my physio and trying not to push my body too far by working at my old work rate, before I even get back to exercising as I once did.

For you, particularly if you’re in your last stages of your PhD I’d love it if this post made you finish work early on a day you needed some rest, or encouraged you to go to the gym when it was rainy and you felt like the exercising but didn’t want to get wet. Put your body first now because we all rely on it: the act of writing is a physical one that is assisted by a strong healthy body and mind.

Before Shakespeare PhD scholarship

Before Shakespeare is a very exciting and very important project (we recommend perusing the website and reading some of the excellent blog posts up there). They’re currently advertising for a PhD student to join their ranks (based at Roehampton): if you’re interested in early modern London theatrical culture 1565-95, consider applying.

Before Shakespeare

We are delighted to announce a fully-funded PhD scholarship on London theatrical culture and its context, 1565-95. Full details can be found here, and all current Roehampton PhD scholarships are posted here.

This PhD will be supervised by Dr Andy Kesson and Professor Clare McManus and run alongside much of the work of our project. This will provide multiple opportunities to develop networks for future career plans and develop the impact of the candidate’s own research. Candidates are being asked to propose their own topic within the remit of the project, in the hope of adding new ideas to our own for everyone’s mutual benefit. Any questions, contact Andy on andy.kesson@roehampton.ac.uk.

Andy Kesson

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