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Interviewing a… PhD student

After completing a BA in English with Creative Writing and an MA in English Literary Studies, Lauren Randall is now taking on the challenge of a PhD. Studying at Lancaster University. Lauren is in her first year, and tells us about her dreams and realities of Post Graduate study.

Tell us about your route to the PhD...

I did both my BA and MA at Lancaster University before deciding to undertake my PhD here as well. I did look elsewhere for both postgraduate courses but the university specialised in my interests in a way that I didn’t see anywhere else, particularly for my PhD. I went straight from BA to MA to PhD. There were only two weeks between me finishing my MA and beginning the PhD!

Was the notion of post graduate study fostered within your undergraduate degree or was it something you always wanted to do?

It was something I always had in mind before university but in a very naïve, idealistic sense. It took me a while to settle in and my confidence took a massive knock. I worked extra hard, brought my marks up to a high standard – higher than I thought I could manage – and then it just organically evolved from there. My department’s encouragement after that was just added motivation.

What was the application process like?

The hardest thing was writing the proposal. Bearing in mind it’s probably nothing more than a concept at that stage, it’s a real challenge to set out a three-year plan and think about the bigger implications of your project. It was constant redrafting. Other than that? Just the small matter of actually getting the necessary marks!

How are you funding the PHD?

I was lucky enough to have been awarded a departmental bursary for my first year, meaning that all of my tuition fees were paid for (with the intention of covering the two years after that as well). With regards to accommodation and living, that’s been a mixture of savings and supportive parents, luckily.  However, I have recently been awarded AHRC funding for my second and third year, which covers both my fees and maintenance. There’s also the prospect of paid teaching.

How was the transition from both undergraduate and the masters in relation to your PHD?

I actually found the transition to MA from undergraduate easier and more motivating than A Level to undergraduate. Regarding the switch from MA to PhD, it’s a whole new deal. You’re working without ‘hard’ deadlines or the structures of seminars so it’s all down to you and that can be a challenge for a bit.

Tell us more about your PHD and what work has been involved so far?

The basis of my PhD is place, space, and the Gothic in contemporary American narratives (literature, film, music, advertising – anything and everything!), so it’s quite a big project. This first year has been all about finding my focus, setting up a structure, constant reading and researching, and drafting my first chapter, which I’m just wrapping up.

How are you finding the research aspect of the PHD?

Its hard work but I enjoy it. Because my project crosses so many different discourses the biggest challenge is often pulling those ideas together, but that’s also what keeps it so interesting. It also helps that I don’t struggle with the whole ‘on your own’ element of the research, which I know can be a pain for some. I’m quite happy to just get on with my own work in my own company.

How is your relationship with your supervisors?

I’m fortunate enough that he was my MA supervisor too, so we already had a fantastic relationship going into the PhD. He understands the way I work and how my confidence can be up and down. It’s interesting because, on the surface, you wouldn’t put my work and his work together but the perspectives that he provides on it have really opened up the project’s possibilities. He also gets bonus points for providing coffee and cake!

Do you teach in conjunction with the PHD?

I taught two seminars a week as part of my bursary agreement. It was hard at first to get the balance between teaching – seminar prep, marking, office hours, email availability – and my own work just right but I’ve since settled into a rhythm that seems to work for me. Teaching’s no longer compulsory for me under the AHRC terms but I’m still considering carrying it on as I’ve really loved the experience.

Describe your typical week...

Whilst teaching, the beginning of my week was devoted to seminar reading and planning for my tutoring, so that I could send out prep work for my students to do before their Friday classes. The days in between were spent on research and writing. This changed when I had marking to so as I had to sacrifice a good couple or three days to read and annotate essays, as well as write up feedback forms. Now the teaching’s stopped I’ll devote as much of my time to writing as possible, but I have papers to write and exams to mark soon, so it’ll change up again soon!

How many hours out of office time do you spend working on the PHD?

I always do bits and pieces outside of ‘office time’ (I work 9-5 hours but not necessarily in that time-frame), like at weekends or late at night. I get the guilt pangs if I think I’m taking too much of a breather. Or, I can just be really enjoying a piece of work and on a roll with it.

Have you had any work published?

Not articles yet but I’ve been fairly pro-active in online publishing. I was a guest-blogger for the IGA website in February and am a film reviewer for crimeculture.com. It’s relatively low-key but at least there are people reading my stuff on the internet. Journal articles are next year’s challenge…

Do you think you will finish on time?

Time’s a grey area in a PhD. I think I’ll finish my draft in the three years, yes, but writing up? Who knows? You can’t account for certain things. You might have to push research to one side to focus on a paper or article. You might fall ill for a couple of weeks. PhD time is like dog years: if you lose a day you lose a fortnight in catching up.

What is the plan directly after the PhD?

The big goal for any PhD student, I think, is to try and turn your project into a book, so that would be great if that could happen! I’m also intending (hoping) to carry on tutoring for a bit, yes, or to be a research assistant, depending on job availability.

I also like to do my own bits and pieces of writing so it’d be interesting to see if I can use my PhD, and the contacts made through it, to propel that in some way. I disagree when people dismiss the importance of a PhD. If you give it you’re all then you get so much out of it. It’s been a challenge – both in expected and unexpected ways - but I’ve loved every minute of it.