PhD induction: M3C Residential School Day 2

It’s quite amazing. I arrived home from the AHRC Midlands3Cities residential school in Birmingham just about 36 hours after I left, but I feel as though I’ve been away for weeks. The last two days have been so intense, intensive both in terms of the amount of information thrown at us, but also the …. changes that the school have created within us. It’s a difficult process to try to describe and I’m not at all sure that other people who attended are also feeling it (I’d be most interested to know if they were). But, I guess I feel a bit like I found myself. This is where I was meant to be. Since getting the news about winning M3C funding a few months ago, its felt slightly unreal, especially since there was so long to wait before it all began, with very little information about what the next three years would be like. Its felt dream-like, out of reach almost, and when PhD induction week started it seemed a bit hard to believe that it was now finally HERE. The last two days, however, have delivered a hefty, hefty dose of reality, validation and messages of success and ‘this is the beginning’ and all kinds of other lovely phrases, and it’s starting to really sink home, the magnitude of all this and what it means.

There’s a lot going round in my head, obviously and it will take time (And a fair few night’s sleep I suspect) to sort it out out better in my mind. I am so very very tired which is certainly not helping matters! I slept well enough last night (woke up at 5.30 am wondering why the window wasn’t where it should be), and this morning started with breakfast rolls and coffee. It was a more conventional day – a series of talks and presentations on a range of topics that we needed to know about. For example: Midlands3Cities run several funds that their students can apply to for things like funding trips to places that they need to go for research. There was a lot of explanation of the funds, what the differences were, how to win them, when to apply and so on. That took up most of the morning, then lunch was provided (a delicious beef lasagne followed by a lovely rhubarb and apple crumble). The afternoon session was about work placements. Midlands3Cities work with partner companies/institutions, and allow their students to work for/with them on a variety of projects or placements. They’re never for very long, six months at most, and our own research is extended by the same time, but it allows us – the students – to gain work experience in relevant fields to their research. So, for me, that could be working with a heritage organisation like the National Civil War Centre, or the National Archives, or even the diocesan archives. It’s not a compulsory thing to do, but it does add value to your qualification and help boost your career. This afternoon however, real companies/organisations were brought in who are setting up projects for the future that they want to try to find doctoral students to work with. We were organised into groups, and the facilitator explained their project and asked us what sort of skills and experience they thought students should have in order to work on the project. There were some really interesting-sounding projects and I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on some of those, for potential opportunities in the next few months.

Dr. Nick Barratt (Chair of the M3C DTP Partner Advisory Group) then presented the closing plenary lecture. This was an in-depth, warts and all, reflection of his own, rather zig zag career, where he felt he went wrong, what made him change careers and jobs when he did, how opportunities seemed to come his way, how he was, essentially, very lucky. Or was he…? He himself called that interpretation into question and spent time discussing how what some might see as luck, others might see as the sucess of knowing the right people, and being available and willing to take risks at the right time. One thing he said that really made me think, really struck home was that we have to sell ourselves, be our own agent, because no one’s going to advocate for us. And he had a point. We do have to sell ourselves, not just by being ourselves and striving to excel to the best of our abilities, but by actively promoting ourselves whereever possible, and making the most of possibilities that come our way. There was so much to think about from this weekend. It WILL take time to percolate through my mind, I’m sure.

Tomorrow: back to earth, back to my home institution, Introduction to web-research & the school social.

PhD Induction: M3C Residential School Day 1

Today has been exhilarating and exhausting in turns. I’m currently having a much needed, quiet cup of tea in my hotel room, relaxing before the evening event.

We – one of my interpreters and I – caught the train from Leicester this morning. A very cramped and crowded train but we had fun chatting all the way. Met up with my second interpreter, and another AHRC Midlands3Cities student from Leicester at New Street station; went for coffee, then hightailed it over to the ICC. More coffee, then the welcome, introductions and then, after more coffee, the first of two Vox Coaching sessions. This, the first of two workshops, was led by two actors, who were, I have to say, extremely good. The first workshop walked us through a scenario where a researcher was struggling with his boss, a professor. The two men – Pete and Dominick – played their roles very well, got us, as a group, to ask questions of the two, via an imagined big brother-style diary room chair, and to offer them advice for resolving the issues. Finally, they replayed their scenario, and each time we saw something wrong, we buzzed them, stopped play, and for them to correct the issue. Lots of laughter and hilarity ensued. It was so much fun and a really inventive way to get us involved in thinking about expectations and managing our own supervisory relationships. It worked far better than if we’d been sat down and lectured to.

After a lovely lunch, we were back in with Vox Coaching, same two gentlemen, who walked us through ideas of assertiveness, of being aware of our own body language when meeting people, of just simply saying ‘YES!’ In our heads when passing people. We walked through how we present ourselves when we’re just answering the question ‘what do you do?’, which is – apparently – what royals like the Prince of Wales ask people when they’re working. We discussed different levels of ‘I have a right to speak’ness, from the ‘barely heard, I apologise for even breathing’ level, through to the bombastic ‘I HAVE DECIDED TO SPEAK ABOUT SOMETHING INTERESTING AND ALL YOU PEONS WILL LISTEN‘. No – this was not what was said, at least verbally. This was all done through body language. The actual words the actor used was the same in each example and was something like ‘I have recently been researching something interesting and I’d like to share it with you’. (Great acting. One of them succeeded in doing creepy in three different ways – deliberately so!)

Although the two workshops were very different, they were extremely inventive in getting the material across to us, and I think, if I’m honest, that I shall probably still be absorbing lessons from them for quite some time. This was brilliant, interesting and inventive teaching, and there needs to be more of this – Not just within M3C, or in universities, but everywhere, as part of pedagogical practice, I think.

After that final Vox session, we broke for coffee, then worked on something called the VPP (Virtual Postgradate Platform). This is an M3C website where public information is available about all the M3C researchers. We control what goes up there, but generally, there’ll be something about our thesis, our sphere of research, maybe some info about papers we’ve given, or publications. Admin goes on behind the scenes, related to our research and the work that we need to periodically produce to pass each stage of our studies (we don’t just get a free ride for 2.5 years and then frantically rush to finish!). So lots of info about that and how we manage that. We then closed, had a group photo taken, and we scattered to our hotels.


My face is actually aching now. I don’t think I’ve ever talked so much, or laughed so much in ages. Tonight was a sit down three course dinner, but what was brilliant about tonight was the level of conversation. All of us there tonight, I think (I hope) had good conversations, but tonight, in a lull, I looked around and everyone was passionately engaged in discussing ideas with their neighbour – Not just polite ‘yes yes’ chit chat, but active, interesting, fully engaged conversations that paid little respect to things like nationality, language, or disciplinary boundaries. For example: I’m a historian, not a linguist, but tonight I spent a substantial amount of time discussing linguistics of sign language with a German linguistic student, who knows German, English and Spanish, and a dancer studying identity through dance and Caribbean music, talking about her experiences of how languages were used in Senegal, and my sign language interpreter. I wad able to offer not only my experiences as a deaf person, but also my experiences with my Dutch in-laws, and how I’ve used – or not used – communication in both The Netherlands and Germany. It was a cracking conversation, but the German student apart, none of us were trained linguists – what mattered was experience, and sharing ideas regardless of disciplinary boundaries or language.

And while I freely admit to being absolutely shattered now (and really struggling to write this) I also feel energised, and enthused. I have a taste now of that the next three years are going to be like, the conversations I’m going to have, the ideas we’re going to achieve as a group, and there is something amazingly inspiring about that. I can’t wait!

I think no record of the evening can go by without mention of the two University of Birmingham students who presented performance pieces to us, one entitled ‘Never Rehearsed, Never Repeated’, involving squirt guns and lemon juice, and a final piece involving lots, and LOTS of sellotape. Wonderful performances that will most definitely stick in the mind for a long time to come!

Tomorrow: day two of the residential school, then back to Leicester (and earth!) for the rest of induction week.

PhD Induction Week: The Introductory Session

You know, it’s slightly ridiculous. I’ve been studying at the University of Leicester for almost five years now, and I still get that ‘first day of school’ anxious feeling the first morning of a new course. At least, till I get onto campus. That’s what I did this morning; dropped my partner at the station (at Leicester, the station is down the road from the Uni) and then went for coffee. And sat and worked for a couple of hours, making notes, and my anxious feeling disappeared.  I guess I’m more comfortable in my role as student than I thought…

Anyway, this week is chock full of all kinds of events at the University of Leicester – it’s also Fresher’s week, so we’re dodging undergraduates and people giving us flyers for things we don’t want (one advantage to being an older mature student: they tend to assume we’re staff and don’t bother us!). I’m hoping to blog my way through this week, to give a flavour of what a PhD induction week is like – through my eyes – but we’ll see how far I get with that one. It’s a heavy week for me in terms of lipreading, and I may just find its too much work on my eyes (if you want to know what it’s like, turn the sound off on the television and try lipreading/understanding a programme on that. Exactly. and I’ve got to do 12 hours of it tomorrow). So we’ll see.

Today was the lightest day of the week, with the introduction to induction week. I got to say hello to a few of my fellow new PhD students, one of whom will be at the residential school in Birmingham tomorrow, which was nice. That was before a two hour session where a whole lot of information was thrown at us by the Postgraduate Tutor – most of it was the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a session like this. Where to find the student handbook. Where to find this, that the other.  Some of it I’ve heard before – in my MA induction – and some of it, well, okay, a lot of it was new. Every day now, I’m getting a better idea of what the PhD is going to demand of me, a shape of the work that I’m going to have to produce over the next few months. And that’s all good. But I’m also finding out some of the fun stuff. As our Postgrad Tutor explained, this first year is the most free we’re going to be for the rest of our academic lives. Its about reading – a LOT – and engaging in lots of conversations, opening our minds to the possibilities and learning our fields. Put that way, it all sounded really exciting. It was a lovely way to start the week – we’ll have to see if the rest of the week maintains this feeling. I do expect it to at least end that way, with the introductory New History Lab session. This is the history postgraduate community at Leicester and it’s fab, warm, welcoming and they do tea and fantastic cakes! I am firmly in favour of cakes. Cakes are food for the soul, as well as the body, in my book…. but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

First – tomorrow: A very long day. The train from Leicester to Birmingham first thing, and the M3C residential school all day, with a dinner in the evening. Should be fun!

PhDs and Welcome Events

I’ve not blogged in quite some time – been ferociously busy. Easter, of course, and then the last of my MA assignments (analysing a churchyard to see what it could reveal about the culture and community of the parish it serves) has taken up much of my time … just the dissertation to go on the Master’s degree – which I’m hoping to get done and handed in by the end of July, but we’ll see. (It’s actually due Sept 6th, but I need a holiday!)

I’ve also had the welcome event for the PhD funding that I won. Time to be a little clearer about that, I think! This is the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Midlands3Cities DTP (Doctoral Training Partnership) funding (aka M3C). They will be covering my living costs and tuition fees for the next three years, starting from October when the PhD kicks off, and I have to submit my final thesis before September 2020. I’m trying very hard at the moment not to think too much about that, if I’m honest! Eighty thousand words seems like an awful lot, but, as I keep telling myself, it doesn’t need to be researched and written next week. I have time. Andddd breatheeee….!*

Thesis panics aside, M3C is a fantastic opportunity. It’s a consortium of 6 universities, from 3 cities in the Midlands region: University of Leicester (my home uni), De Montefort University (also in Leicester), University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University, University of Birmingham, and Birmingham City University. Their focus is arts and humanities; the actual range of subjects they accept is incredible. It isn’t just about the money (nice as it is) or the opportunity to study at this level (which, honestly, many would love to do, but simply cannot afford). There are other opportunities that come through M3C – additional training opportunities, opportunities to work with partner organisations, opportunities to be involved in various student led projects. I jokingly referred to M3C as ‘miracle-gro for academics’ in my interview; I’m convinced now that it’s not that far from reality! Their aim is to help support and develop ‘the next generation of arts and humanities researchers’, and one of the key strengths of the project is that it’s multidisciplinary … and draws on the strengths of a range of universities. This has it’s impact in a number of ways, but the main one as far as I can see (at present) is that I have three supervisors, from two universities. The lead is from the University of Leicester, as my home university, the second is from the University of Nottingham, and both will be supervising the part of my project that is focused on politics – here I mean politics in the sense of relationships between people, the imbalances in power, not national politics. I also want to see if the politics are reflected in the built environment, which the third supervisor will be helping me to explore – he’s from Nottingham as well, and is an archaeologist (the other two are  historians).

So what AM I going to be researching? I’ve been asked this question an awful lot; I expect I will be asked it an awful lot more. I have an answer that rolls neatly off the tongue: ‘I’m going to be looking at the relationships between clergymen and their parishioners in seventeenth-century Herefordshire’. Most people (non academics, I hasten to add) sort of go, ‘um’, and change the subject, REAL fast. Heh. That’s okay. Although it’s telling me that perhaps I need to make it a bit more user-friendly! It’s succinct and to the point – and for me, at the moment, that’s a big step forward (you know those old comedy sketches of someone going ‘come back, I haven’t explained… ‘ as someone flees into the distance? That’d be me). But.. I digress. So. lets try this more user-friendly approach now. How about – The seventeenth century was a period where vicars were often one of the most powerful people in their parishes, but were also subject to fluctuating control from above. In addition, the entire century saw massive upheavals, with civil war, tremendous political, cultural, social and religious changes. I want to explore how the relationship that the average vicar had with his parishioners changed through all that. Did the means by which he coped with problems change? What was the impact of the war on the vicars themselves in Herefordshire? Was any of this reflected in the church architecture, or the churchground, or even the wider landscape of the parish? Lots of questions – and its very exciting! I’m going to be working a lot with Herefordshire Archive and Research Centre (which I blogged about before – beautiful building), possibly also with Hereford Diocese and Hereford Museum. I’m going to be exploring the parishes themselves – I’m trained by the English Local History centre at Leicester, which encourages you to walk the ground whereever possible! I’ve lots of ideas and plans and it’s all very exciting….!

This excitement really emerged last week at the M3C welcome event in Nottingham. It was a great day! 100 pending PhD students gathered in a room, talking happily and excitedly about their researching – the noise level was stupendous. My sign language interpreters had issues hearing at a couple of points, and I was quite glad for a quieter spell during lunch. We had a thorough introduction to M3C and what it offers, then midmorning we were asked to sign up to twitter, tweet our research topic (that succinctness came in handy there, I can tell you, with twitter’s 140 character limit) and then go talk to other people and find out/tweet something about them! It was fun – that’s  when the noise levels got a bit loud….! But the range of what this year’s group is studying was incredible (If you’d like to get a glimpse of that, go to Twitter and search for #M3C16, or even look at – around May 11.). After lunch we had workshops and talks from PhD students ahead of us in the programme, explaining some of what they’ve been doing and how we can make the programme work for us. We got to meet the movers and shakers within M3C as well, put faces to names. We have a 2-day residential course in September, and then, on October 1st, it begins.

And I cannot WAIT.


*edit for correction – thanks to (Dr. Carol Beardmore of the Centre for Medical Humanities also at the University.