Interview, News

PhD Successes at the CoRE

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Bright atrium with students bustling about

Over recent months, a number of student researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Centre of Research in English (CoRE) have achieved conferment in their PhDs. In light of these successes, I got in touch and asked some questions about the life of an English PhD student.

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PhD student Martin Kratz

Martin Kratz

Martin Kratz working on: Touching the Untouchable: The Language of Touch in the Poetry of Les Murray and Michael Symmons Roberts

Why did you choose to focus so intently on your particular area of study?

I was in a reading group for my MA, where we were reading the poem ‘Desire’s a Desire’ by Selima Hill. I have a particular interest in the sense of touch, and it felt quite natural to me to draw out all the touch-related imagery in the poem. At the time, it felt like I was discovering something in contemporary poetry that hadn’t been considered before.

Have you had any surprises (pleasant or unpleasant) along the way?

Of course, what I was looking at had been considered before and someone had written the PhD I thought I was going to write. This forced me to methodically consider what was actually in front of me. As such what I am looking at now is totally surprising to me, and not what I expected to end up writing at all.

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Graham Foster working on: The Gathering of a Force: The Millennial Fictions of David Foster Wallace and the Beginning of an American Anti-Tradition

Area of study

In retrospect it wasn’t really a choice. For my thesis, I chose to study contemporary American literature, a subject that I love. It may sound rather melodramatic, but this was an obsession that transcended any vocational or financial considerations. It was just something I felt I had to do.

Any surprises? 

Unfortunately, it’s quite hard to give examples of pleasant surprises, as they were usually so specific to my research and, if I were to explain them, would generate hundreds, if not thousands, of tedious words. But there were always pleasant surprises, little nerdy discoveries that for me were mind-blowing, but for the neophyte would be, at best, yawn-inducing.

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PhD student Steve Hollyman

Steve Hollyman

Steve Hollyman working on: The Self-Begetting Novel: Metafiction in the Twenty-First Century

Area of study

My main area of research regards the potentialities that social networking sites offer for collaborative storytelling, so I created a ‘novel’ that was narrated on Facebook. The corresponding thesis was highly experimental and great fun to write.

Any surprises?

The fact I passed with no corrections was the biggest surprise. It was, however, extremely time consuming, and I would regularly work at least 15 hours a day on the project, and sometimes more. None of this bothered me, though, because I enjoyed the work so much and, if truth be told, became pretty obsessed with it.

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Elizabeth Harris working on: The earth-haunted mind: The Search for Reconnection with Nature, Place and the Environment in the Poetry of Edward Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Edgell Rickword, and Charlotte Mew

Area of study

I chose to study how modernist poets wrote about nature, place and the environment for several reasons. The most important was that I was, and still am, fascinated by the subject. I also chose to do a PhD because of my career goal to be a lecturer. The idea of continually learning about a subject you love and sharing your interest with students and colleagues has a very strong appeal, and without the PhD it would have been very difficult to get a teaching post in Higher Education.

Any surprises?

I think the most unpleasant surprise was how much of an emotional cost completing a PhD can take. Although it is essentially an extended piece of academic writing, the whole process became very strongly connected to your self-esteem, confidence and happiness. It is important to keep a sense of perspective and to not let it take over your whole life.

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PhD student Caroline Bayliss-Green

Caroline Bayliss-Green

Caroline Bayliss-Green working on: Queer Subjectivities, Transgressive Femininity and the Development of Proto-Lesbian Space in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing

Area of study

Primarily, I am driven by a love of women’s writing, and a love of nineteenth-century literature, particularly poetry. When I was an undergraduate, non-normative sexuality in literature was rarely discussed as an area available for legitimate academic study.  It’s incredibly empowering to be able to come back to academia, in a very different social context, to be in an environment where queer perspectives are available and supported.

Any Surprises?

Pleasant surprises: the camaraderie and encouragement, both online and face-to-face, and also the level of wider interest outside the university in the work of student researchers. Unpleasant, but not really a surprise: everyday life stress doesn’t disappear just because you are doing a PhD! I am not sure that I really thought it would but apparently it’s quite a common fantasy amongst research students!

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Ian Shaw working on: No Laughing Matter? An interdisciplinary analysis of contemporary comedic representations of disability in Hollywood and British cinema

Area of study

My experiences studying on a Masters degree were the catalyst for further study. I became fascinated by the interdisciplinary scope room for intellectual manoeuvre that Critical Disability Studies (CDS) afforded. I think that CDS can help to outline an approach to comedic representations of disability that goes beyond simple categorisations, and sees comedy as imbued with an interrogative and critical power.

Any Surprises?

Only at the sudden jump in workloads! I knew it was going to be hard, but I had no idea it would be this hard. That said, you can surprise yourself at what a bit of positive pressure can make you do. You are asked to do things that would be unthinkable earlier in your academic career, but because you’re driving yourself to achieve, and you have no choice but to make the step up. It’s all part and parcel of the overall PhD process.

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PhD student Aaron Jackson

Aaron Jackson

Aaron Jackson working on: a PhD which ‘positions J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary-critical corpus as a symptomatic corollary, imaginative rendition, and cultural-historical document of the British late-imperial period’

Area of study

My choice of research was defined firstly by questions of its viability. What work was being done in that field? Had the question that I wanted to ask already been engaged with? If so, was there room for another a study?  Did it have continuity with the previous study trajectory of my undergraduate and graduate degrees? And, was it capable of attracting funding? It may seem like a lot to consider.

However, in the decision to pursue a PhD, it just isn’t enough to simply ‘like’ a particular subject, area, author, topic, whatever. You have to be able define what will be your particular contribution to the field, and assess its strength and originality against whatever else is out there.

Any Surprises?

Nasty and unexpected surprises? Yes lots.

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Richard Gough Thomas working on: The Late Novels of William Godwin

Area of study

The topic of my research was influenced by two major things; the years I spent in teaching and the relationship I developed with my (then) supervisor. I first came to MMU as part of the outreach programme, doing MA units as part of my professional development while I taught A-Level English. In doing that, I met (and violently disagreed with) Dr Adam Rounce about William Godwin’s ideas on human improvement. When I left my teaching job, I knew I wanted to argue that case better and that MMU was the right place to do it.

Any surprises?

I knew when I started that doing a PhD in the humanities was a lonely business – it’s a recurring theme in a lot of accounts of the process. Those accounts don’t do it justice. Not many people understand what doing a PhD is like in the first place, but I’ve found that if you’re doing it *right* then you face becoming the most knowledgeable person in your very specific field – which means that there’s no longer anyone you can go to for answers. I’m very lucky in that I have a partner with a PhD of her own – she’s been through a lot of it herself – but still no-one can tell me what to write.

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PhD student Eileen Pollard

Eileen Pollard

Eileen Pollard working on: Origin and Ellipsis in the writing of Hilary Mantel

Area of study

I researched the writing of Hilary Mantel, who grew up in the same small village as I myself did. I became fascinated by her work very early on – mainly because she had escaped.

Any surprises?

A pleasant surprise was how absolutely fantastic I found teaching. An unpleasant surprise was learning to deal with critical feedback – however constructive – is an ongoing process. (Also, a pleasant surprise: how coffee-stained my mug became throughout my period of study…)

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Jason Crellin working on: Schizoanalysis and the Gothic: Terror and Subjectivity in H.P Lovecraft and William S. Burroughs

Area of study

I’d completed two Masters degrees in other areas of the humanities before deciding to apply for the PhD at MMU, but I’ve always been fascinated by Gothic/horror literature and wanted to explore the points of connection between that field and continental philosophy. When I saw how much active work is being done in that area at MMU I knew I had to try and get involved!

Any Surprises?

The process of writing for doctoral research is quite different from anything you’ll experience on taught courses – a much greater awareness of existing knowledge is required, and any new ideas you generate have to be carefully measured against that. For me, adapting to these new requirements constituted a steep learning curve, and at first I found it more of a challenge than I’d been expecting! I finally learned, though, that the key is to keep getting things down on paper, even if you’re unsure of them at first, and then revising and developing what you have.

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Angus is an aspiring writer, hobbyist photographer, and undergraduate student of English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is originally from Dundee, Scotland and has been living in Manchester, England since the summer of 2011. You can find all of his online hiding places here.

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