Presenting my ‘Judas Superstar’ paper at the South West PG Theology and Religion conference

Stephanie Roberts, a current MA Theology and Religion student, talks about her experience of attending and presenting a paper at a recent PG conference, hosted by the University of Exeter’.

On Saturday 6 May, the 22nd Joint Postgraduate Conference on Theology and Religion was held at Exeter for the first time. With a total of 30 research papers presented, the day proved to be a fascinating exploration of the current research undertaken by MA and PhD students in the South West.

The presentations were split in to themes covering all things from ‘Belief and Practice in Antiquity’ to ‘Philosophy, Ethics and Revelation’. This is just some indication of the great diversity of papers explored during the day. The eclectic nature of this conference inspired a feeling of open-mindedness amongst the guests and speakers. This relaxed atmosphere, and the words of encouragement from my fellow postgraduate students, somewhat eased my nerves of presenting a paper for the first time later in the day.

For my part, I was curious to learn more about the areas of theology that some speakers had chosen to dedicate three years of their lives to, and yet had never crossed my path of study. I found throughout education that many students (including myself at times!) have a ‘but will this be in the exam?’ approach to learning, unwilling to clutter their minds with information that will not increase their final percentage. It was refreshing to be involved in a day where the audience were enthusiastic to widen their view of theology and engage in these new areas of study that are, no doubt, often outside their own chosen sub-discipline.

Following the coffee break, it was time for me to give my first presentation at an academic conference, with a paper entitled ‘Judas Superstar? A reflection on the relationship between Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar’. Despite my apprehension as a fresh-faced MA student addressing an audience who, generally, had much more experience of academic conferences, I was relieved that the questions were less intimidating than I had feared!

As far as academic papers go, I have found this one particularly enjoyable to present as the inclusion of movie clips and rock-ballads naturally accompany my analysis and the sight of audience heads bobbing along to Judas’ solos made me feel more at ease throughout the presentation. It seems the perfect way to have introduced myself to this academic rite of passage.

One paper I found particularly thought- provoking was by Amna Nazir, a PhD student of Law and Theology with cross-institutional supervision from Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham. She demonstrated the necessity of interdisciplinary study in her paper, ‘The Death Penalty in Islam: A Religious Necessity?’. Having never studied Islam, this is a topic I knew very little about but I was intrigued by the provocative title.

Nazir explored the death penalty in Sharia law and international law and argued that, until there is absolute justice in the courts and governments of these countries, the death penalty cannot be right. Nazir explained that court cases’ reports are often restricted and so it is impossible to know whether countries have properly adhered to both Sharia and international laws. Furthermore, the great variance of its practice across Islamic countries is indicative of the fact there is a lack of consensus even within the faith about when the death penalty is to be evoked.

I found the paper incredibly interesting to listen to and the discussion that followed was just as rich. It became clear that there are a small number of Muslim voices supporting this view and, where westerners attempt to enforce their views against it, their criticism is merely met with disdain or suspicion by Islamic countries. Ultimately, if the application of the death penalty in Islam is to change in any way, the impetus must come from within the religion.

It was exciting for me to be involved with such a packed day of research papers and, in my view, the conference aptly demonstrated the active interest present in the theology’s many manifestations. The post-graduate community highlighted their willingness to engage in interdisciplinary study and to recognise the impact religious studies can have in a modern context.

Social Media, Outreach, and Your Thesis

Ever wondered about the benefits of social media and public outreach for your thesis? Matt Knight presents some of his experiences and why he thinks everyone should be trying it.

It’s been hectic few weeks in which I have inadvertently immersed myself in the world of public engagement, outreach, social media, and everything in between. Two years ago I would have had no idea what I was doing – for the most part I still don’t! But I thought I’d try and tie some of my incessant thoughts together about why I’ve bothered trying to engage with the complexities of social media and general public outreach and its overall benefit to me and my thesis.

To give you some background, I’ve been using social media (Twitter and Facebook mainly) and blogging about my research since I started my PhD two years ago. It started as a way to help my mum understand what I do (a problem I think most us have encountered!), while also giving me an avenue for processing some of my thoughts in an informal environment, without the fear of academic persecution that comes with a conference. I coupled this with helping out on the odd public engagement gig.

It’s safe to say this has steamrolled somewhat, as four weeks ago I found myself sat in a conference workshop dedicated entirely to Social Media and its benefits for research, and two weeks ago I was one of four on a communications and networking panel for Exeter’s Doctoral College to offer information and advice on communicating their research. This has been intermitted with a presentation of my semi-scientific archaeological research to artists, as well as educating a class of 10/11 year olds, alongside teaching undergrads. To top it all off, last weekend, I inadvertently became the social media secretary of a national archaeological group.

presenting to primary school kids

– A picture of me nervously stood in front a class of 10 year olds!

As you read this, please be aware, I don’t consider myself an expert in this field whatsoever. I have 300+ followers on Twitter, 230ish on Facebook, 40ish followers on my blog and minimal training in public engagement – these are not impressive facts and figures. Much of what I’ve done is self-taught and there are much better qualified people who could be writing a post such as this. And yet, I want to make clear that the opportunities, experiences, and engagements I’ve had are beyond anything I could have hoped for.

alifeinfragments facebook page

– A screenshot of the Facebook page I established to promote my research

A lot of this stems from the belief that there is no point doing what I do – what many of you reading this also do – if no one knows or cares about it. From the beginning of undertaking my PhD, I knew I wanted to make my research relevant. For an archaeologist, or indeed, any arts and humanities student, this can be difficult. Every day can be a battle with the ultimate question plaguing many of us:

What’s the point?

Social media and general outreach events are a great way to get to grips with this and have certainly kept me sane on more than one occasion. Last year I participated in the University’s Community Day, in which members of the public were able to attend and see the ongoing research at what is such an inherent part of their city. That day was one of the most exhausting and exhilarating days of my PhD thus far.

Archaeology Community Day

– Myself and a fellow PhD researcher setting up for Exeter’s Community Day 2015

But then, 6 non-stop hours of presenting your research to nearly 2000 people will do that to you.

It will also help you gain perspective on the value of what you do. Children are particularly unforgiving – if they don’t think something is interesting or matters, they will let you know. The key I’ve found is to work out one tiny bit of your research that people can relate to or find interesting and hammer that home.

This rings true of outreach and engagement events, whether that’s to academics outside of your specialist field, or a room full of restless 10 year olds.

Where I’ve had my most success by far though has been online. My minimal online numbers inevitably stem from my niche field (i.e. Bronze Age metalwork), and yet it’s attracted the right people online. Through Twitter and Facebook I am in regular contact with some of the leading experts in my field, without the formality of “clunky” emails. They retweet and share pictures of what I’m doing. They ask me questions. They share ideas with me.

I’ve recently found out that my blog has become a source of reference for several upcoming publications. This is huge in a competitive academic world where getting yourself known matters.

alifeinfragments blog page

– A screenshot of my blog site where I summarise lots of my ongoing research

Beyond this, you’d be amazed what members of the public might contribute to your thesis. So many of my ideas have come from discussions with people who have general archaeological interests, wanting to know more, and asking questions that have simply never crossed my mind.

I’m not going to lie – maintaining this sort of approach is time-consuming and exposing. It’s something that needs to be managed, and needs careful consideration. You need to be prepared that it opens you up to criticism from a wide audience and can add another nag to the back of your already stressed mind. But I know without a doubt my PhD experience, and indeed my research, would be weaker without it.

This blog post has inevitably been largely anecdotal, and by no means explores all of the possibilities open to you. But hopefully it might encourage a couple of you to think about the benefits of engaging with outreach events (there are hundred on offer through the university), as well as turning social media from a form of procrastination into a productive avenue.

Matt Knight is a PhD researcher in Archaeology studying Bronze Age metalwork. He frequently posts about his research and can be followed on Twitter @mgknight24.


PhDing in a Foreign Land

Sam_Hayes_3colThinking of taking your PhD to somewhere else in the world? Sam Hayes shares his experiences organising and carrying out a research visit to Munich in the spring of 2015. Such a visit can feel quite daunting to arrange, but it’s well worth taking the plunge.

Just over a year ago I did what was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done: I got on a plane and set out to spend three months in another country to continue my PhD research and improve my foreign language skills. This was the longest I’ve ever spent abroad by myself, and I was shocked (and surprised) by how much I learned about myself while out there, and the personal challenges I faced. I thought that in this post I’d share some of those experiences to try and help any other research students out there looking to do some research abroad.

How to Get There

Possibly the most important thing on the list is to get where you want to go. This is a bit more complicated than just hopping on a plane; you’ll need to select a host institution, find a colleague to work with, and try to get any funding to cover your travel costs. This is actually a lot like choosing a PhD supervisor and institution, but with the added advantage that you’ll probably know more about your project at this stage (and you’re not burdened with your choice for the next three years).

I narrowed it down to two institutions, and decided on Munich in the end. This city has produced a bunch of Martial scholars who’ve heavily influenced the field, and the option to meet these people was too good to miss. The person I contacted at Munich also got back to me very quickly and although she couldn’t supervise me due to her being on sabbatical she put me in contact with a finishing PhD student of hers who was hugely helpful. The other institution… was less helpful, and the scholar I would have worked with was very busy. I went with my gut.

For funding I was lucky enough to have a fund specifically designed for AHRC students to travel with, but there are numerous institutions like the DAAD which regularly advertise this kind of travel scholarship. My advice would be to get everything sorted out a long time before you travel as deadlines can be quite tight (I didn’t apply to the DAAD in the end because of this). It might be worth considering waiting until the next funding round to get everything sorted in time. The Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität also helped source my accommodation for me (which was a godsend), but there are loads of good websites out there to help you out. Make sure to ask your local contact(s) for advice and support.

What to Do When You’re There (Academic)

The number 1 priority for me was to improve my reading and conversational German, but it’s also worth experiencing life and study in another country, as well as seeing what you can while you’re there.

I found improving my conversational German very difficult when I was in Munich because Germans tend to practice their (irritatingly good) English on you. If you discover that people find it easier to communicate with you in English I’d suggest finding a couple of people who are exceedingly patient to practice on (elderly landladies are perfect for this). I’d also recommend doing what I didn’t and joining an intensive language programme. They can be expensive, but the results speak volumes. The proudest moment of my stay was going grocery shopping for my landlady and managing the whole trip in German (frozen red cabbage was particularly hard!). After nearly a month and a half feeling like I couldn’t express myself it was moments like this that really boosted my confidence. My spoken German is still not perfect, but I’m so much faster than when I started, and my reading abilities have sky-rocketed. It’s worth being honest with the levels you can achieve while you’re there as well. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

You should also check out the institution while you’re there. Find out how their research culture works, how their undergraduates learn, and how they socialise. I found it a bit odd that there was a much sharper distinction between work time and free time (lots of very serious German faces 9-5, for instance), but the sense of community was stronger too. The more you can see and do the better. I also gave a research talk (in English) and got to meet several colleagues at this and other events (including those scholars I mentioned earlier). Make sure to make the most of the time you have, too – going over and chatting to some big-shot professor because you may never get another chance is a good idea, and you might well be the most interesting person in the room at this point too so knock yourself out. If all else fails you won’t be there long, anyway.

What to Do When You’re There (Non-Academic)

Don’t forget that this is still a trip. Travel! See the world! What’s the point of going hundreds of miles to simply sit in another dark room reading books and articles? The chances are you’ll have far too much spare time in a strange, new place anyway so you can always catch up on work in the quiet hours. The worst thing to do is just sit around feeling sorry for yourself – force yourself out of the front door and see the local sights, walk the block. See, feel, smell, hear, and taste the novelty. If you don’t when’s your next chance? What stories will you tell your envious friends at home when you get back?

I guarantee that travelling for part of your PhD can be one of the hardest parts of the doctorate, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding for me. I’ve met so many exciting new people, seen and experienced new things, and got to travel a bit more of Europe in the process. This is the most free you’ll ever be in your academic life, so go out there and, as a wise philosopher once put it, just do it.

Sam Hayes is a third year PhD student in Classics, specialising in Latin literature, at the University of Exeter. He hosts a blog (on which this piece originally appeared) at where he discusses aspects of his research and the overall PhD experience.

This blog has been reposted with permission of the author.

Researching Abroad

Researching abroad as part of PhD study is the topic covered in our latest episode of The Humanities PhD podcast. Listen below:

Being a Part of It: the Benefits of Being on a Committee

Do you like being part of your academic community? Do you feel that talking to people in your field is inspiring? Maybe you should be on a Committee…

Personally I find it really exciting when I get a chance to speak to people who really understand my subject. The best conversations are the ones where I get to talk about the specific issues at play in my wider field of performance and my narrower field of circus – the chance to talk about the specific issues at play is really exciting because of the connections it inspires and the feeling of being understood.

So, last year when the chance to join the Society for Theatre Research’s New Researcher’s Network  came up, it seemed a good opportunity. I had the chance to meet and work with like-minded people with the aim of trying to think about some of the ways we could make being a PGR or ECR in the field of performance easier.

For me it also represented something slightly different: an opportunity to bring my old professional life and my newer academic life into conversation. Previously I had been a marketer who ran events and managed communications, including social media. This set of skills was something that the NRN needed, so it felt like a good way to contribute something useful.

Since I joined the NRN I’ve worked with the other person responsible for social media and publicity to set up our own blog  focused on providing useful reflections on personal experiences of research eg the ‘I-wish-I’d-known-this-when-I-started’ or descriptions of moments that changed people’s perspectives on their research. I’ve also started to organise a symposium that has given me the chance to draw on personal connections for mutual benefit, eg publicising an archive I love and drawing on the expertise of some of my personal connections. There is also something interesting in observing how these types of organisation work.

I think this is probably the key to deciding if you want to be part of a committee like the NRN. You need to be prepared to give something as well as to work out what is in it for you. For me a lot of the experience I have had has been in a range of industries such as corporate events, civil engineering/construction services (sexy!) and the charity sector. Being a part of a field-specific committee has allowed me to use those skills and make them more relevant to the academic context I am now working in, whereas for you it might be gaining them for the first time. It has also widened my network to include some great people who I am now working with who I might not have met because are research doesn’t overlap – circus meets live-streaming/Shakespeare/early modern studies anyone?

You probably can identify something else hovering underneath all of this description. I think we have to be honest that part of what being on a committee involves is a wish to make your CV more desirable. Yes, that is definitely true, but you will only get the most out of it if you are also invested in giving something back. I’d definitely recommend doing it because you’ll meet some great people and have some inspiring conversations along the way.

Author’s Bio

Kate Holmes is based in the Drama department and is in the third year of a PhD on female aerial performers of the 1920s and early 1930s. For more information on Kate’s research please see her eprofile .

This Blog has been posted with the permission of the author.


Experimental Archaeology: Neanderthal Spear Technology

PhD student Alice La Porta is undertaking archaeological experiments on the nature Neanderthal spear use this summer as part of her PhD project on Middle Palaeolithic stone tool projectile technology. Read all about her research below!

Did Neanderthal use stone-tipped wooden spears as throwing hunting weapons?

Fig 1 Alice and friends

Alice la Porta during the first set of experiments (summer 2015), at Aöza Open-air Museum during the “Mesolithic Living” project.

In Europe, a small number of wooden spears have been found in archaeological contexts from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic (c. 1,200,000-40,000 years ago), such as at Schöningen, Clacton and Lehringen. The first suggestion that such spears had stone tips comes in the European Middle Palaeolithic, the time of the Neanderthals, in the form of distinctive stone points, also called Levallois or Mousterian points. But how can we be certain that these stone points were used by Neanderthals as spear-heads for their wooden spears? Analysing the utilization wear and the impact fractures present on the surfaces of modern, experimentally-used spear-tips and archaeological stone points, using optical and digital microscopes, is one approach to inferring the prehistoric uses of these tools.

A big question in any discussion of Middle Palaeolithic spears is…how were Neanderthals using their stone-tipped wooden spears? Where Neanderthals throwing their spears or were they using them as close-range thrusting weapons? It has previously been argued that, while Neanderthal populations may have used stone-tipped wooden spears, these were rudimentary thrusting weapons. However the differences between throwing and thrusting spear delivery systems are still poorly understood for the earlier Palaeolithic, both in terms of spear performance and concerning the traces left behind on the spear tips. This partly reflects the limited range of experiments which had, until recently, been undertaken.

Fig 2 spear throw

First set of experiments (summer 2015), at Aöza Open-air Museum during the “Mesolithic Living” project.

Building on previous archaeological experiments, and drawing on ethnographic observations, I am conducting a series of weaponry experiments within my PhD research project. The experiments aim to test the performances of replica Middle Palaeolithic stone-tipped wooden spears, and explore the differences in the resulting wear and breakage patterns that can be seen on the thrown and thrusted spears.

The experiments  have  been  funded  by  the  UK’s  South  West  and  Wales  Doctoral  Training Partnership (SWW DTP), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and the University of Exeter. They are taking place at Aöza Open-air Museum “Steinzeitpark Dithmarschen” (Albersdorf, Germany) within the OpenArch/EXARC partnership. The support of all of these organisations is very gratefully acknowledged.

Author’s Bio:

Alice La Porta is a second year PhD student in the Archaeology department studying stone tools in the Middle Palaeolithic. She is funded by the AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership under the supervision of Linda Hurcombe and Rob Hosfield (University of Reading).

This piece originally appeared on the Archaeology Department blog (


An A-Z of reasons to do a POST fellowship

Sarah Foxen’s piece originally appeared on the NEWBROGUESANDBLISTERS Blog and is reposted with permission.


Last year I did a POST fellowship. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Applications are now open for the next round of fellowships and I cannot recommend it highly enough; here is an A – Z of reasons why.

You engage with all sorts of people during your fellowship; there’s no hiding in the corner. You find your voice and your assertiveness develops.

You see academic research from beyond the academy and that is really useful. Inside the academy, you only see half of the story. Engaging with research outside the institution balances your view of its place and function in our world.

A PhD can be quite a lonely experience. However, during your fellowship you (learn to) work collaboratively; with colleagues, fellows and others that you engage with.

You have a clearly defined task on your placement and a clearly defined goal. You also have a relatively short time to do it in. You need to work to a plan and you need to go for it. In so doing, you develop – and work with – a drive to achieve.

You’ve been developing expertise in a particular field for some years now. Your placement puts you in contexts where you get to call upon the expertise you’ve worked so hard to develop.

You meet really nice, interesting, dynamic people, some of whom will become friends.

It’s not just about what you can get by doing a fellowship, but also what you can give. As a funded PhD student, several funding bodies have probably invested in your development over the years. By doing a fellowship and using those skills, you get to give back.

You will have developed a lot of skills and knowledge over the years. These may be unique to you. On your placement you can use your knowledge and skills to help colleagues and fellows.

In a completely different environment, meeting new people, going new places, doing new things, making new connections, inspiration strikes.

Job prospects
A fellowship looks great on your CV and provides you with fantastic experiences to recall in cover letters and interviews.

On your fellowship you research a topic in depth. In so doing, you gain a lot of knowledge in that area.

PhD students love to learn, but PhDs have us focusing our learning. Doing a fellowship, you learn lots of different things through the things you do and the people you meet. Some of the things you learn are really valuable and worth sharing.

If a PhD is a marathon, then a fellowship is a 10k race. The pace is faster. You’ve only got three months to turn it around, and that means you’ve got to keep moving, which is really welcome when you’ve been creeping along at a snail’s pace with the PhD.

During your fellowship, you engage with all sorts of different people; some you meet just once, others you liaise with repeatedly. They introduce you to others. Connecting with them on social media, you connect to others who are connected to them. You grow a fantastic network.

Opportunities come at you from left, right and centre. You will also be in a position to make your own opportunities. You must take hold of those opportunities and go for it.

Sometimes we are disheartened by the thought that our esoteric thesis will be read by just a handful of people and is unlikely to change the world. The work you produce on your fellowship has purpose. It is widely read. It is useful. It feeds into parliamentary and policy debate. It is impactful.

On your fellowship you scrutinise all kinds of documents and evidence. You become much more discerning and your default becomes to question things.

When you’re in a different context, you see yourself from a different perspective. Your fellowship opens up a space for you to reflect on where you’re at and where you want to go next.

Your fellowship gives you space and distance from your own research. It allows you to think about it differently and see it from a different perspective. When you return to it you are refreshed with new ideas of how to approach it.

Based in Westminster, interacting with all sorts of fascinating people, carrying out research of contemporary societal importance, you come away with great stories woven into your life tapestry.

Working in Westminster, you gain a lot of understanding into how Parliament and Government work and how they interact with wider society.

Your fellowship allows you to see how academic research is made meaningful in the wider world. You see it through the eyes of parliamentarians, policy makers, charities, industry, journalists and others. You see it in a whole new light and that changes the way you do research.

During your fellowship, you write in a way you probably haven’t written before; you write about complicated things in a concise and accessible way. You learn a whole new useful way of writing.

The calibre of people you mix with on your fellowship is pretty high. People work hard, have high expectations and get things done. Being in that environment, those things rub off. You grow into that kind of a professional, and come away with those kinds of expectations.

The idea of doing a fellowship might feel overwhelming: ‘I could never do that,’ you think. Well, you can. Your colleagues are supportive and helpful, and you will get there. Be brave, go for it, YOLO.

The POST team and fellows are dynamic, motivated, quick, engaged, and on the ball. It’s an energetic and inspiring environment and it’s contagious.

Author’s Bio

Sarah Foxen is a postgraduate researcher in French Linguistics. Her research investigates the interactions between language and identity in the Franco-Belgian borderland. She is also interested in trends and developments in academia, and blogs about researcher skills, research and impact from the perspective of a junior academic.

Conference Season

Summer means conference season in academia. From casual graduate symposia popping up across campuses, to the vast annual international gatherings of scholars in one dedicated field, there will be the congregation of academic minds. Whilst undergraduate marking looms like an unmovable mountain in May, come June and July academics will be packing suitcases and embarking on trains across the country, and indeed airplanes around the world. It’s a romantic image to think on such an international scale. But before that, there has been the search, which for most academics today begins online, alone.

Finding a conference can be a challenge, especially when you are starting out in academia. There are just so many possibilities out there. Since beginning my PhD I have attended and presented at some great conferences and some truly dire ones. I have spoken in a room to six people, and an auditorium of 200. There is a really great article by Cornelia Oefelein that details different kinds of conferences, which can be found here.

Over time, I have learnt that where and how you search, changes the kinds of conferences that you will find. Below, I detail my favourite places to look for conferences and what they are especially useful for, alongside the disadvantages. As a humanities scholar these are biased towards the arts and humanities disciplines. I also maintain that perhaps the best place to find out about conferences is by talking to friends and colleagues.

  • Online Conference Database

Advantages: Of the numerous sites out there, H-Nets Academic Annoucements is my favourite conference database. It offers a convenient way to narrowing down the vast number of conferences out there. Tick boxes and filters mean that you can choose to search for conferences with “Call for Papers” that are still open (i.e. you will be able to present) or for conferences that are open for registration. You can search by location, subject or keyword terms. Another good place to look if you are in English Studies is the University of Pennsylvania’s CFP database. It isn’t as beautiful as H-Net but it does have a load of conferences for literature / Digital Humanities scholars.

Disadvantages: Cast too wide a wide net, and you’ll be inundated with conferences and feel overwhelmed.

  • Eventbrite

Advantages: If you are looking for a one-day conference (or symposia as it is sometimes called) Eventbrite is a great place to start. Events listed here are often organised by groups of people at one institution, so it can be a really easy way of getting involved in otherwise closed circles. I recently attended a graduate conference at UCL on the theme of “Dissidence” via Eventbrite. People attended this particular event from all across the U.K, testament to the potential reach of this platform. These events have the benefit of being public too, meaning that you might get a wider and more diverse audience for your paper = win!

Disadvantages: The events here only usually last for a day, meaning that you miss out on the potential to make stronger connections over a few days.

  • Twitter

Advantages: Some of the best conferences I have been to have been recommended by colleagues on Twitter who’ve spotted a CFP elsewhere. Twitter allows you to expand the power of personal recommendation to a wider circle of peers. “Following” people in your field, and looking at the conferences which they are organising / attending / tweeting about is a great way to find places to get involved.

Disadvantages: You need to be able to discern between a meaningful recommendation and an automated plug. Like the conference databases, there is an over-abundance of information on Twitter.

  • Institutions / Organizations

Advantages: The biggest conferences are hosted by large organisations. Following these centres via membership, mailing lists, RSS feeds, or social media provides an excellent way to stay in the loop in regard to conferences. These large events pull a greater number of colleagues, have world-leading experts and tend to have the largest catering budget!

Disadvantages: They can be competitive to present at and so applying for these is more likely to result in rejection. Try not to be disheartened though, as sometimes they also result in success and an excellent chance to disseminate your ideas.

Author’s Bio – Zoe Bulaitis

Zoe Bulaitis is an English Literature PhD Student at the University of Exeter, UK where she also holds a BA and MA in English with specialism in Criticism and Theory. Zoe’s thesis focuses on the changing value of the humanities in higher education. You can find out more about her latest projects at or follow her on Twitter @zoebulaitis

Teaching-Research Synergy Symposium, UCL

A recently published Government Green Paper signals a move to separate education and research and is planning a Teaching Excellence Framework for higher education that focuses on teaching more than learning. This first symposium between staff and students of the University of Exeter and UCL attempted to begin a collaboration to define ‘excellent education’ in the context of research-intensive universities. Read Archaeology PhD student Emily Johnson’s report of the day…

On Monday the 21st March staff and students from the University of Exeter and University College London met to discuss the importance of research-based education in a university environment. The Archaeology department, along with History and STEM subjects such as Physics, Biosciences, Natural Sciences and Conservation were invited to this symposium due to good track records of research-led teaching, and teaching-led research.

After a 7:30 start, and due to some unrealistically optimistic travel arrangements, the first discussions of the day happened on the bus! We arranged ourselves into mixed subject groups and discussed how fully integrating research and teaching was being tackled in other disciplines. There were some really great examples of good practice from all departments – for Archaeology, we identified that taking students on excavation in their first year involves them in research and encourages participation in research projects in the future. Thankfully, before we all got too travel sick, we arrived at UCL. After meeting our counterparts at UCL over some lunch we fed back the morning’s discussions and then separated into our subject groups, after being informed of the hashtag – #ExetermeetsUCL! PhD student Emily Johnson (@zooarchaemily) provided a running twitter commentary of the discussions.


Figure 1 feeding back the morning’s discussions from the bus

In the archaeology subject discussion our main discourse revolved around the obstacles that are preventing a full realisation of the benefits of research-led teaching. These involved:

  • Control of admissions being centralised without interviews means academics no longer choose their own students, so there’s no controlling entrance of students that might particularly contribute to a mutual teaching/research relationship (particularly if they do not meet the grade requirements).
  • Lack of resources (funds) and staff time to encourage and support student research projects.
    How do we encourage ALL students to benefit from the department’s research culture when it is normally the proactive, engaged students that take advantage of research opportunities? What about those that just want a degree, and in the short term don’t really care about the research culture?
  • The “spoon feeding” culture encouraged by making all resources immediately accessible online does not encourage high quality research – or indeed, the kind of graduate students that are valued by employers.

We also identified again what archaeology does particularly well:

  • Excavation involves students in research in their first year, which engages and enthuses them for their time at university.
  • The community spirit in archaeology is particularly beneficial to creating a positive culture of teaching and research. Practical classes encourage a more casual relationship between students and staff which in turn makes it more likely that they will work together in the future. A research community that involves ALL students at all levels (UG, PGT, PhD) and staff is mutually beneficial to all parties.

After meeting in our disciplines we fed back to the main room, where other disciplines had identified similar issues. We came away with a better understanding of what it takes for a culture of research-led teaching to thrive, and how important the synergy of research and teaching is to a university environment. It provides a better student experience and more employable graduates, let alone the fact that it allows for world class research and the furthering of human knowledge.


Author’s Bio – Emily Johnson

Emily Johnson is a third year PhD student in the Archaeology department studying dietary changes in Neolithic Central Europe (5500-4500BC) through animal bones. You can find out more about her research on her e-profile or follow the most recent updates on twitter.

Originally posted at:

What not to Wear to a Conference: “The Dusky Fluff of the Thibetan Goat”

It is always a risk setting a broad theme for a conference. Increasingly, diverse and detached topics have been known to find shelter under the over-generous canopy of an umbrella term.

When the PGR conference announced the theme of “Communication and Interaction” you might have been forgiven for thinking that this would be an invitation for just such an incoherent jumble of papers. However, many candidates commented that the joy of this particular conference lay in the surprising consonances and overlaps which emerged within and between panels. To a large extent, this was a reflection of the far-sightedness of the committee chaired by Marina Hannus. It was also down to the team of staff in the humanities postgraduate office who brought their unfailing support to the committee’s vision: Cathryn Baker, Lizzie Millican and Matt Barber. These people showed that the organisation of a conference is as much a part of its success as any other aspect of it.

After Professor Richard Toye’s opening address, which encouraged candidates to eschew cloistered scholarly isolation in favour of sharing and presenting, Professor Regenia Gagnier opened the conference with a lecture about cross-cultural influences and cultural appropriation. The lecture theatre were amazed to discover that the tenets of Western liberalism, derived from Marx, gained linguistic currency in China in the early twentieth-century while Walter Pater’s coinage for decadence, “Art for Art’s Sake”, had an afterlife in Vietnam. The theme that emerged out of the first panel was that of a struggle to break away from stereotyping. Hasnul Djohar’s lecture discussed how Arabic words like “Jihad” and “Hijrah” have specific historical meanings and more general personal meanings relating to personal struggle and journeys of self-discovery. Similarly, Katie Newstead discussed the struggle of actresses in their forties such as Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep to find new roles outside the simple Hollywood caricatures of witches. Finally, Jacqueline Hopson pricked the conscience of our Western society with a shocking insight into the reductive and shallow presentation of psychiatrists in popular culture.

During the lunch-break there were some poetry readings. Esther Van Raamsdonk Mike Rose-Steel gave us a taster of their project to translate seventeenth-century Dutch poetry into English iambics. Their reason for doing so became arrestingly apparently as the poems are beguiling beautiful in their original language and the translations rise admirably to the challenges they present. The poetry reading was brought to a close by Alison Stone, whose crisply-worded, sensuous poems, often emerging out of her own experiences living on Dartmoor, were a short-lived joy to hear.

In the post-lunch panel, chaired by Imogene Dudley, medieval and early modern worlds collided. Henry Marsh and I were talking about signs and symbols, in his case the prodigies and portents in which God revealed the future to the medieval chroniclers like Adam of Usk and in my case the spots and features in which God revealed therapeutic uses to herb-enthusiasts like Shakespeare. Michelle Webb and Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth brought great sensitivity and insight to the social problems of facial disfigurement and dying well respectively.

Dr Natasha Lushetich spoke to candidates at the conference dinner, describing an art installation in which the artist extracted the breath from an inflatable object blown-up by a friend who had passed away. The condensation and the re-vaporisation of the breath in the vessel in which it is currently contained means that the art installation poses unique questions about what it means to be alive and to breathe. Conference delegates moved stones with each other’s breath—contained within plastic bags—participating in this artistic initiative in more modest ways. This meant that by the time the food had arrived everyone was feeling like they had earnt it through their small but significant artistic endeavours.

The following day opened with a panel in which a theme of female presentation in the media united the three papers. Aqeel Abdulla, with a stylish lecture, suggest that just as in the old magic trick, society delights in putting women in boxes until they disappear. He examined this pigeon-holing with relation to dramatic presentations of Muslim women. Gill Moore then took us into the field of nineteenth-century clothes advertising, which sounded at once familiar and very alien to twenty-first century ears. Victorian ladies were bewitched by ingenious turns-of-phrase promoting tiger-skin alongside “the dusky fluff of the Thibetan goat.” Finally, Leonie Thomas described the ascent of 1930s BBC producer Hilda Matheson, who managed to break out of many boxes, having no less than six careers at a time when few women were able to work.

One panel covered a lot of ground: the transatlantic of eighteenth-century Bristol and Boston; a particularly fertile stretch of land along the Amazon River and the Trent Valley in the Midlands where the Anglo-Saxons had set up a system of defences. The last two in particular came to focus on fire: use of fire to create the fertile black soils which were such an important part of the Tapajó tribe’s foodscape and the use of fire in hill-top beacons to communicate the approach of the Dane in long-ships.

The final panel of the day brought the conference right up to the present hour with a discussion of digital media. Gemma Edney discussed the origins of Youtube and the way that make-up tutorials and baking instructions can be interpreted as feminist voices. Sofia Romuldo explained the concept of “gameful play” and argued that we should strive to reconcile the playfulness of games with knowledge acquisition and learning. Richard Carter’s lecture, which was given in a wistful vein now that he has achieved his doctorate, discussed how writing can hamper academia from embracing its digital potential. It would be fair to say that all three lectures left us wondering if there might be a less serious, writing-orientated way of approaching academia and offered the audience some attractive alternatives.

The conference was brought to a close by Professor Steven Barnett, who whilst pointing out that there was good journalism in tabloid press, also exposed some of the worst excesses of journalism, when it could be malicious and cruel. He referred to Tony Blair’s words about the “feral beast” of the press and suggested that enough was not being done in the wake of the Leveson Enquiry to keep the beast chained.

Of course, not all the conference happens in the panels, much of it occurs in conversations over tuna sandwiches, in the swapping of cards and asking of questions, and in the tireless work of its organisers. Nevertheless, the panels themselves made for a bold, eclectic conference, striking up surprising dialogues like a well-ordered anthology of poetry.

Author’s Bio – Harry Ford

I am a first-year PhD student trying to why Shakespeare introduces so many plants into his writing and where his plant knowledge fits with regard to the reformation. One of the disadvantages of studying Shakespeare is that his mode of punning is carried uncomfortably into your own writing style and into every-day life. Most of my other puns are lifted from the “Joke of the Week” in the window of an Exeter tea-shop called Cake-a-doodle-do.

This blog was first published here.  To learn more about Harry’s research visit his e-profile


The Self-Funded PhD: Is it Really Worth it?

No one likes talking about money; however, for researchers, it is an increasingly pressing concern. It can be demoralizing, depressing, and devastating being turned down for funding at the beginning of a PhD, but there is another option: self-funding. In the current economic climate, more and more students are opting to take the self-funded path. But is it really worth it?

One of the questions I often get asked, but really hate answering, is “who are you funded by?” The vast majority of PhD students I know are funded by various institutions, research councils, or organisations, so I understand the assumption. However, with bigger and bigger cuts to funding, and the re-organisation of how funds are allocated (for example, from 2014/15, AHRC funding was largely given to groups of universities, or consortia, for allocation to new starters only, thus removing the opportunity for second-year students or above to obtain it), the number of self-funded students is rising.

It doesn’t stop the questions, though, or indeed the looks of shock/horror/awe when I tell people I’m self-funded.

“How do you do it?” they ask. “Why didn’t you get funding?” “How do you time manage?” “Is it really worth it?” So I thought I would write a blog post about my experiences, and what consequences my status as self-funded has had.

When I was first applying for my PhD, I read article after article, forum after forum, that essentially said “no funding, no point.” What is the point in doing a PhD if you’re not being paid for it? If a university doesn’t believe in your project enough to fund it, why bother doing it? And so I went through the application process thinking that if I didn’t get funding, I wouldn’t do the PhD. I would stop, work for a bit, and try again. Sounds simple enough.

The thing is, is that by the time I had gone through the arduous, and at times frantic, application process, I was so invested in my ideas that there was nothing else I wanted to do. I had no interest in spending time on anything except this project. I was so confident in my ideas, that I felt sure the funders would be too.

Unfortunately, for me, that wasn’t the case. I was devastated when the rejection came through. I had put every bit of effort I had into refining my proposal and was all but ready to start, and then suddenly it was all taken away from me in one, small paragraph.

So, I had three options: 1) try again a year later, 2) do it anyway, or 3) throw in the towel and give up. For a while, the third option seemed favourable. But then I realised that there was nothing I would rather do, so I decided to start the course.

I am in an incredibly privileged position: thanks to the wonderful support of my family I was able to start as a full-time student, rather than part-time. I understand that this is not a privilege that most people get, as the costs are just too high, but being able to go into a full-time course, with the added benefits of council tax exemption, desk space provision, a full-year’s quota of printing credits, and the generally (in my personal experience) greater feelings of community that come from being full-time, has made all the difference to my experience as a PhD student.

But, it is still hard. I work a part-time job whilst studying, fortunately at the university with incredibly flexible working hours, but when, as one member of staff so lovingly reminded me, you should spend “90% of your time on the thesis. Everything else can wait,” time management can sometimes be difficult, as can the feeling when you’re having a productive half-hour but have to go to work, subsequently breaking up the day and sometimes losing track. Aside from tuition fees and general living costs, research is expensive. Conference registration, travel, printing, books (and, in my case, French films that aren’t available in the library), stationery, it all adds up. I’ve become very good at living on a budget, but it’s tiring sometimes having to turn down invitations from friends who have long since graduated and entered the “real world,” or having to meticulously manage my spending.

Sometimes people ask me if being self-funded will make it harder for me to get employed: if the funders didn’t believe in my PhD, why would they believe in me as an employee? First of all, there is no obligation to state whether or not your PhD was funded on your CV; I attended some departmental interviews here at Exeter two years ago, and only one of the applicants stated their funding on their application. Secondly, I genuinely believe that a lack of funding does not reflect the quality of the research; it simply reflects that, at the time of interview, you were not as strong as the other [insert small number of available studentships here] candidates. Getting a job is hard for everyone at the end of the PhD; I don’t think a self-funded PhD is the deciding factor in an application.

So yes, it is difficult, frustrating, and sometimes downright miserable. But at the end of the day, what research degree isn’t? There is still nothing else I would rather be doing (except maybe sitting on a beach somewhere sipping margaritas… but that’s not a viable career choice), and as long as that is true, then it is worth it. My advice to anyone considering self-funding would be to think about practicalities: if you are in a position to start, be it full-time or part-time, (and also realistically still going to be in a position to continue in a few years’ time), and you are passionate about your project, then do consider the self-funded option. If you’re not so sure it’s viable, then there is no shame in taking some time out and re-applying at a later date when you have more savings.

In short: yes, my PhD is definitely worth it. I just might pass on that fancy conference dinner or cocktails after work…

Author’s Bio – Gemma Edney

I am currently in the second year of my PhD, researching the role of music in contemporary, French girlhood film, focusing on the interaction between music, character identity, and spectator subjectivity. When I’m not writing my thesis, I spend my time getting stuck in traffic, baking, drinking coffee, and being paid to answer questions that people could mostly answer themselves using the website.

This piece originally appeared here: and is reposted with permission.