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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NRN Blog: Redefining Research

Amanda Pintore

Amanda Pintore

We’re kicking off our NRN Blog Series with a contribution from Amanda Pintore. Originally from Omaha, NE, Amanda Pintore has spent the last several years traveling around the country as a Teaching Artist and Director focusing on creative movement, arts integration and facilitating theatre making with young people. Her current projects in Arizona include devising an immersive performance about the rainforest with a group of Montessori students for Childsplay and developing a Theatre for the Very Young piece for Kerfuffle. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Theatre for Youth at Arizona State University.

When approaching research, I often try to not approach itI really think of myself as a practitioner in Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) and I worry that I have already spent too much time not developing research skills.

This is something that I wrote during my first week of graduate school in the MFA Theatre for Youth program at Arizona State University during the fall of 2014. I came into graduate school convinced that I was strictly a teaching artist and could not simultaneously exist as a researcher within my practice. I had a naive aversion to the idea of research and a stubbornness in how I defined myself within this new world.

I took a Research Methods course with Dr. Mary McAvoy during this semester. The first thing she taught me was that I needed to genuinely have a desire to learn about, question or deconstruct whatever I set out to research. I had just moved to Arizona after spending many years teaching in the midwest and was steadily realizing what a challenge it was to get hired in this new environment as a heavily tattooed educator. I began to wonder how my tattoos shaped the way I was perceived in the classroom. When I described this frustration to Dr. McAvoy she introduced me to autoethnography as a research methodology. I realized I already had the tools to conduct research from the inside of my own unique perspective.

I began traveling two different, but parallel paths. First, there was the path I created as a researcher in learning about and applying an autoethnographical approach to my research project that semester. With no prior knowledge of this subject, I first had to break through the stigma of what I thought research couldn’t be and uncover all the things it could be. This allowed me to understand my own lived experience as research. Second, I created a new path in defining and understanding my body as an educator and how that role can be shaped by body art. I can not claim to understand someone else’s tattooed body in action as an educator. The beauty of autoethnography is that it allows you to view other people’s shared experiences in correlation to your own, but it demands that you rely on your own lived experience to truly analyze what you are researching.

During this research project, I created several pieces of narrative about specific moments I had experienced when young people interacted with my tattoos. I also included moments where I engaged with caregivers and employers about my body art in ways that were often positive, but sometimes negative. I interlaced this narrative with portions of interviews I conducted with other heavily tattooed educators in different parts of the country. Ultimately, I created a personal account of the ways in which adults and children choose to engage with, confront and investigate tattoos on the body of an educator. With Dr. McAvoy’s guidance I was able to discover that my practice is research and that my body is a performative element of that research. She also introduced me to a platform that allowed me to provide insight into a specific culture of educators, while exploring my own anxiety and pride in being a part of that culture.

I believe that this project, this professor and this new understanding of research has enabled me to approach my work in a more reflective and investigative manner. I also believe it has made me me more aware of how I can use my lived experience to navigate a new environment or set of circumstances. In my artistry, practice and research are now fundamentally linked rather than working in opposition.

Has there been something that has made you reconsider how you approach your research? Or, is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of your research? If the answer is yes, then your NRN wants you! Email Kate & Emer at to contribute to the STR NRN community by sharing a blog post.