So, You Want To Do A PhD [And Get Money While You’re At It]

I have a strange kind of nostalgia for this time last year. I remember how I had arrived back in Galway for a few days to meet with a potential supervisor to discuss PhD ideas and funding, whilst also keeping my visit very low-key because I was a little bit worried about everything falling through (I’m cautious to the point of Let’s Not Do It At All, sometimes). Otherwise, I was spending my last few months in Stratford reading, researching, writing, thinking, putting together That Proposal. It’s amazing how much has changed in the last twelve months. When I think about it, those few months were fun, exciting, and full of possibility: now that I’ve started my PhD with full funding, I consider myself very lucky to be able to do what I want to do, to be able to do what I love with financial backing. It’s difficult at times, but there is nothing else I would prefer to do right now — which can only be a good thing.

Now, it’s that time of year where research councils such as the AHRC and IRC are rolling out their call for applications, and where people are putting together their proposals, and are sending tentative ideas to academics they’d like to be supervised by. I’m not saying I’m an expert on all that there is to know about applying for a PhD and getting funding (every situation is different), but this is all I can offer.

1. Initially, the process of choosing a supervisor should go like this: Topic, Supervisor, Institution. Which is a contradiction, but this was advice given to me by a PhD student at the Institute and he was damn right. I remember my MA supervisor telling me that I should do the project I’m doing *in* Ireland — because that’s where all the resources and archives and performances are. In that case, choosing my supervisor, and to that extent my institution as well, was a no-brainer (again, have you SEEN our archives?). As much as we all want to work with Tiffany Stern because she’s Tiffany Stern and pretty bloody amazing at what she does, do your research interests align with hers? No? Then don’t approach Tiffany Stern.

2. Make enquiries to intended supervisors. Who is the most enthusiastic about your work? Who makes time to answer your email in a detailed and timely fashion? Who shows interest? What is their attitude towards you? They could be a Big Shot in your field, but if they’re dismissive towards you… do you really want to work with them? This may not be feasible or maybe too expensive, but also try and meet with them in person. That will also give you some indication of how you might get on with them, and how excited they are about your project. I don’t have any advice on contacting supervisors you might not know (I was lucky in that I knew mine from my undergraduate days), but when initially emailing them, don’t send them A Huge Chunk Of Text. Especially if you’re prone to rambling about the stuff you love, like me. I remember redrafting my initial draft of the ‘so hey I’m interested in working with you’ email to my supervisor twice: partially out of fear, partially because it was too damn long. Save the rambling for when you meet them (but please don’t scare them off either).

3. Get reading! Get writing! Don’t be afraid to show drafts of applications to your intended supervisors. Contrary to popular belief, they will not think you are wholly incapable of doing research because of a rough draft you send to them. Remember, they were at that stage you’re at right now too, and they genuinely want to help you succeed and GET MONEY.

4. Enjoy doing the funding applications. I’m serious. They help you clarify and think about your research in ways you can’t imagine. You also need to be super specific in them too, especially when it comes to money and justifying your project’s financial needs. Go onto British Airways or Ryanair or Aer Lingus and see how much it would cost to attend the main conferences in your field. Include details of conference fees, bursaries (if they are awarded, that is — you don’t know if you’ll get them, but it will show that you have actually thought this through), living expenses, and accommodation. This also goes for research trips, but you need to make sure you’re thinking about them sensibly (I wanted to go to the Guthrie Theatre initially, in my first year. Ha ha, good one).

5. Further on from writing and reading and editing, use your supervisors, but ask friends, former tutors, and people whose opinions you actually trust to read over your drafts too. Listen to them. Sometimes you will agree with them, sometimes you won’t, but it is very valuable to discuss your ideas with other people who may offer different perspectives on your work. (If your supervisor is anything like mine, they will encourage this.) For example, my undergraduate Shakespeare tutor [who, in my mind, is equally as brilliant as Tiffany Stern] doesn’t work on performance, but his suggestion to be conscientious of plays with an Irish presence in the text was something I needed to be aware of. My best friend reads everything I send to her, and she is the queen of detecting clunky expressions and has the innate ability to make sentences sound beautiful and clear. And where your supervisors are concerned, they can help in making very valuable changes: suggesting a line of enquiry to take, or a place to go on a research trip to, or particular authors to include in your critical context section.

6. If the scholarship you are applying for requires an interview, bring a thesis outline and a plan for the duration of your studies. Draw on it during the interview (maybe bring another copy for yourself to keep), but leave it with your interviewers. Also, you might be asked to think about how your work so far has brought you to this stage, and how your work can make an impact beyond your immediate field. This is important: what are the wider implications of the work that you want to do? Again, what your assessors want to see is that you have actually made an effort, and that you have thought this through, and that you’re not flying by the seat of your pants (well, we all are flying by the seat of our pants, we all just need to learn how to hide it. I’m still learning myself. Also, isn’t ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ a FABULOUS expression?).

8. Acknowledge that your research is going to change and develop over this period, and that this is okay. In fact, it’s fun. As I’ve already said, funding applications are invaluable for helping you to clarify your research question, and to reshape it into something more exciting than you previously thought. If you don’t get funding, that doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of doing research, or that your idea isn’t great — research councils are unpredictable and often very fickle. Someone will get funding from one awarding body, and will be turned down by another. It’s very, very weird, and very saddening considering the amount of funding that is out there for the humanities (i.e., dwindling, dwindling quite fast). I wish you all the best of luck, and enjoy the ride.

PhD? Oh yes, that is a thing now.

GREETINGS wordpress. I haven’t written much in the last several months (April doesn’t count). I thought it was time I’d log in and actually write an update of some sort. A real one.

I moved from Stratford back to Galway. You already knew that. I finished my master’s with Distinction overall (hoorah!) and graduated in December. The graduation ceremony was magnificent: they had this brilliant musical section who I was ALMOST SURE were going to start playing The Throne Room from A New Hope. Unfortunately, they did not, but I’m pretty sure they played Wagner instead which was pretty cool. After a year and three months of being called ‘Emm-er’ by people, my name was at long last pronounced correctly on the podium to my relief (I apologise for my cynicism regarding the University of Birmingham’s correct pronunciation form). I also didn’t trip up or cause the Great Hall to implode or cause great injury to my friends, fellow graduates, academics, and loved ones. I then spent the evening with friends eating pie and wandering around in Birmingham’s massive humungous German Christmas market (i.e., drinking mulled wine in a charming little shack on what appeared to be New Street). There was also really nice pie and soft furry animals and liking Disney even though they reinforce horrible gender norms.

Leaving your whole life behind for the sake of one guy you met that one time -- that is A Thing. And yet I still love this film.
Leaving your whole life behind for the sake of one guy you met that one time — that is A Thing. And yet I still love this film.

And a few weeks later I had to leave and it was all very sad. But then I moved to Galway so I was less sad.

But here’s another thing: I am now a PhD student. One that started just this month. I was awarded a postgraduate scholarship by the Irish Research Council [UK friends who are not in the know, this is basically the Irish equivalent of the AHRC], and as such, I’m researching Shakespeare in modern Irish theatre 1969-2016 at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance, and assessing the impact of social, political, and cultural influences on performance in the country (taking into account the Northern Irish Troubles, Europeanisation, globalization and the Celtic Tiger, the economic crisis, the tercentenary of the Easter Rising, etc). It’s a big, exciting project, and I’m so delighted to get started. I’m grateful and thankful to actually have funding, knowing all too well how scarce it is from having to self-fund the master’s, as well as knowing many who are going/have gone through their PhDs in a similar fashion. Plus there are LOVELY AND USEFUL ARCHIVES on campus in which I’ll probably get lost in for the next four years. I mean, have you seen the Abbey Digital Archive? This is hardly a bad thing.

But seriously everyone, what am I doing?
but seriously everyone, what am I doing?

So, now I am almost four weeks into starting doctoral research. But it only took about a few days for the whole ‘what the hell am I doing?’ feelings to hit me. I’m not saying it’s all bad and awful: I really love my topic; I have a supervisor who is very supportive and encouraging; I’m in a department that’s inclusive and communal; I’m lucky to have friends, mentors, and colleagues who are there to say ‘don’t worry, it’s totally normal’, ‘that’s what it’s like here’, or ‘please, tidy up your desk’. (Said desk is like a crashed car at the moment. Sorry.) Friends ask me how the PhD is going, and my answer is half ‘I love it/I’m stumbling around in the dark’. Well, we all are to some extent — it’s a feeling that I’ve bonded with other new students over, at least. Maybe the amount of lists I make for myself in terms of TASKS and DON’T FORGET and PRIORITIES and which are STUCK TO MY WALL SO I REMEMBER THAT THEY’RE THERE AND THAT I HAVE TO DO THEM will make at least parts of it more regimented or something. Who knows.

But that’s how things have been so far. I have a conference paper to give in November and a full semester to get through before Christmas. It’s a hodge-podge of flailing hand gestures, ‘wait and see’, and just getting used to things. I think.

So the main nub and thrust of this is: I’m still alive. I’ll try and update this a bit more (I saw so many interesting things over the summer, and meant to write about them but never did), and I’m looking forward to the years ahead. No idea yet as to what they’ll entail, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

The (slightly sentimental, slightly mawkish) Year in Review 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that my annual report would be the most impressive thing that you’ll see this year, but it’s nice to see how far the blog has come. (And there are fireworks too!) I’m personally glad to see that ‘Women with Asperger’s syndrome’ was a particularly popular post, and of course, one is always very happy to see that picture of Mick Jagger from Bent again.

However, it has got me thinking about the year itself. At this present moment in time, I’m pretty much halfway through my masters degree, I’m in the UK, it’s my first Christmas as a postgraduate student, and also it’s my first Christmas HAVING TO WORK OVER THE BLOODY HOLIDAY PERIOD. You can add a optional ‘Gah!’ after that last bit, if you so choose. I’d like to think that at this point, I’ve adjusted more to what is expected of you as a postgraduate. I feel that I’m almost settling into a groove of sorts, knowing what level to work at. Well, maybe — we’ll see what happens when the final essays for this semester come in, how second semester pans out, and when the dissertation kicks off next summer. But in general, this year has been all change, change, change. In more ways than one.

There are *some* constants. I’m happy to announce that I’m still in love with Shakespeare, in fact I probably love him even more now. I’m happy to announce that the friends and family I care about are still here, whether they are still in Ireland, reside in the UK, or further away. And I’m happy in Stratford, which has been almost a new beginning of sorts. I know I’m starting to sound like a Stephen Gately song, so any better turns of phrase will be very much appreciated in the comments.

I haven’t had any major problems with 2012 (it still has one more day to completely mess around with me though). I’m hoping that this time next year, I can say the same about 2013 (don’t mess around with me either, please). I hope all of you have as much fun as you can possibly muster in 2013, just as long as you don’t go too crazy on the pink lemonade while you’re at it.

What No-One Tells You About Doing A Masters: Five Weeks In

As of last Tuesday, I officially became Emer McHugh, B.A. (NUI), and became an alumna of NUIG. I saw my friends, my other half, my family, hugged and waved at numerous people, paraded around in academic robes and struggled to keep my hat on my head. I didn’t realise how much fun a day it would be. And then I hopped on a bus at 1am, flew out to Birmingham at 6.30am, and arrived back in time for class at 1pm that afternoon.

Welcome back to Postgradland.

I have been immersed in Postgradland (or as it is officially known, a Masters degree in Shakespeare and Theatre at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon) for about five weeks now. I’m glad that now I can focus on something that I really do love, and that I can commune with people who share that same love. The novelty of that wears off in the first week, which is not necessarily a bad thing — it’s just second nature for us all to talk about Shakespeare and early modern theatre, and to natter about what we find so interesting about it.

At the same time, nobody prepares you for what a Masters or any form of postgraduate course entails. No-one tells you what to expect. NOBODY. I’m not asking to be spoonfed here, but after talking to fellow new postgrads, I’ve come to the conclusion that the first few weeks of a Masters is the equivalent of wading around in a deep lake that you thought was just a shallow pond. (Poor metaphor, I know.) It wasn’t what we expected it to be, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. We just went into it blindly, I think. But there’s a sense that maybe, just maybe, we should have pulled one of our lecturers aside, or someone who has gone through it, anyone, and asked a bunch of questions.

So this is for those of you who are contemplating doing a Masters degree. I’m not trying to put anyone off, but these are just my own observations.

1. It is a lot of work. Biggest ‘duhnoduh’ statement, but it is true. You may have six hours a week, but you do have work to complete for those six hours. If you’re a humanities student like yours truly, most of it will be reading. Which is not a bad thing. But there is generally a much shorter timeframe for you to do that reading. So, to quote one of my English lecturers at NUIG, ‘you’ve really got to like reading’.

2. You may feel that you can’t do the work. But that is OK. What was crucial for me was knowing that others felt the same way. Whether they were in the same course as me, whether they were in the same university, whether they were back home in Ireland or here in the UK. A great piece of advice from one of my best friends was that eventually, you catch up to the pace of what is expected of you. That same person has just received his results from his Masters, and he’ll be graduating from his M.IT very, very soon. I’m very proud of him. He also makes a mean cup of tea.

3. You’re not special anymore. Remember when you were the only kid in your seminar who actually talked and took an interest? Remember being the only one who answered questions in your lectures? And over the years during your undergraduate degree, as you attend classes and accumulate good grades, you have slowly built up a very good reputation for yourself. Well done you, but it turns out that you weren’t the only one. More than likely, your fellow classmates didn’t just sign up for this course out of idleness and are there because of their ability, interest in the subject, and intellect. And yes, you may not feel special anymore, but that’s something you need to get used to. It’s also something you can use to your own advantage too, which leads me onto to my next point.

4. You know what’s the coolest thing about doing a Masters? The people. I know it’s something I keep reiterating again and again, but it is true. Especially if you’re interested in something that is quite specialist, like Shakespeare or the eighteenth century. It’s incredibly nice to be surrounded with folk who want to talk about whether Aaron from Titus Andronicus is more sympathetic than Richard II in the pub, or whether that production you saw at the RSC the night before was better the second time you saw it. The lecturers and seminar leaders are just as eager to talk about such topics too. And for once, you’re not the only would-be academic in the room, and those who don’t want to be academics still care about what they’re studying too. For me, that’s just heartening.

So there you have it. While I’m at it, I should refer you to my dear friend Patrick McCusker’s post on a similar topic (albeit it deals more with studying for a Masters abroad). In general, I recommend his blog The Neverending Blog: Part II. It’s funny, insightful, and quite thought-provoking.

And to conclude, here is a banana kitty.

Happy Hallowe’en!

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