The PhD files: getting started (from personal experience)

Deciding to embark on a PhD is both daunting and exciting in equal measure. Hopefully, you’ve decided to take the plunge because you relish the idea of spending several years working on an idea you absolutely love, in your favourite subject in the whole wide world. That’s the theory, anyway. Speaking from personal experience, I left university after completing a BA in English Language and Literature, and an MA in Victorian Literature (that’s right, it’s the first mention of the nineteenth century – it won’t be the last) but I had a feeling my time spent in the 1800s wasn’t over.

For a couple of years, I had a job as a website editor and content writer. While I really enjoyed writing on a daily basis (and being paid for the privilege) there was a persistent little voice telling me that what I really wanted to do was some more lovely research into Victorian women writers. It turns out the little voice was right. In an odd twist, my job was made redundant, so I was given the perfect excuse to get started. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know university study does not come cheap, either financially or in terms of time and energy. I must stress, I was incredibly fortunate that my wonderful family were willing to support me, even to their own detriment. They were there to help with fees, with books, and, most importantly, with their precious time. They listened to me, they allowed me to drone on, and (crucially) to continue living at home, rent-free. They made it possible for me to spend five and a quarter years doing something I absolutely loved. For this, I cannot thank them enough. They were (and still are) wonderful, and I was (and still am) extremely fortunate. Without them, I have absolutely no doubt, I could not have embarked upon my PhD research.

Now, as this blog post is intended to offer advice for those of you thinking about starting your own research, or for those of you who have just begun, I will explain how I actually got started. I knew that I wanted to research Victorian women writers, I had a round about idea of the themes I might like to spend some time exploring, and I had a loose idea of a question or topic I would like to base it all on. I think it’s important to remember that in the very early days, you don’t need to have it all set in stone. Your ideas will change, develop, and shift so much over the winding, wonderful course of your research, that it isn’t possible for you to know precisely how it will go. So, if you have an idea, one that you think you can make original and develop, then you’re already in a great place.

After this, it’s time to start thinking about where you might like to base yourself, and in which university. This will be dependent on a number of factors. Do you wish to move away? Do you have a particular university department in mind? Is there a supervisor you would like to work with? Personally, I knew that I wanted to be in commutable distance of home, so I started by researching university English departments within my region, particularly those with research interests focused on nineteenth-century literature. I was very fortunate, because I found a wonderful one quite quickly. Take your time with this part. There’s no rush, and it’s fine to have more than one place in mind at this point. Once you’ve narrowed down your choice (or choices), it’s time to decide who to contact to set the ball rolling.

I think one of the most sensible things to do, is find the staff section of your particular department, then look for the member of staff whose research field matches yours. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same, but the same era and/or range of themes would be a good start. Once you have tracked them down, the next step is to take a deep breath, and send an email. There’s no need to panic. Remember, academics often receive emails from prospective students, and, by and large, they will be pleased to see that somebody wishes to come and work with them on a really interesting project, in a field they are passionate about. That was my experience. I sent an email, and a day or two later, I received a reply from a professor who was to become my eventual supervisor (of course, I didn’t know that at that point). I was lucky that she was very enthusiastic and friendly, and we set up an interview (eeekk!) for me to discuss my ideas and potential for study. So, that was it. Once I had made the decision to study, it all moved pretty rapidly! The next stage was the all-important interview, but as this blog post is already longer than I intended, I will save that for next time.

*I must stress before I sign off, this is my personal experience of a self-funded English PhD, studied on a part-time basis. If you are receiving funding in any way, then your experience is likely to be different at the beginning, as you may already have your institution and research plan in place.

Next time, I will offer my insight on the initial interview and what happens once you’re in! In the meantime, thank you for reading. Happy researching!

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