Professor Andrew McRae shares his reflections on the doctoral journey as incoming Dean of Postgraduate Research

Professor Andrew McRae


Andrew McRae is Professor of Renaissance Studies in the Department of English; and  Dean of Postgraduate Research and the Exeter Doctoral College.



One hundred years of solitude ….?

Those students beginning their journeys towards a PhD this year are doing so precisely one hundred years after the first students enrolled for this degree (or, specifically, the ‘DPhil’) at the University of Oxford. Britain was late to the PhD: Germany had already been offering these higher research degrees since the early nineteenth century, and the United States since the 1860s.

The lack of this degree had not necessarily stunted the pursuit of knowledge in Britain. Charles Darwin, for one, never wrote a PhD dissertation. But perhaps for every Darwin there was an Edward Casaubon: the character in George Eliot’s magnificent Victorian novel, Middlemarch, who ruins not only his own life but years of his young wife’s through his unfinishable study of a key to all mythologies.

It seems to me that Casaubon should have done a PhD. That man needed the PhD: not as an excuse for his pomposity and overblown ambition, but as a way of directing and organizing the pursuit of knowledge. For the PhD, at its best, teaches researchers how to construct research projects that are at once ambitious yet realistic, pushing at the bounds of knowledge yet situated in the context of existing fields of research.

We have also got much better, especially in recent years, at thinking about a PhD as a piece of research that can be completed within a discrete period of time. It is never ‘perfect’, rarely ‘complete’, but always makes a contribution to its field. For the doctoral student, the PhD is an opportunity to pursue a passion while developing high-level skills that may prove valuable across a wide range of possible careers.

In the University of Exeter Doctoral College, we’re proud to be supporting over 1500 students on their paths towards a number of different research degrees, as well as early career researchers (ECRs) making subsequent, post-doctoral steps in their careers. And I’m delighted to have taken over as Dean this academic year from Professor Michelle Ryan, who did so much to establish the Doctoral College. I think we’re improving our provision of supervision, training and support all the time, but we’re always keen to hear suggestions for what we might do next. Please do contact us with any thoughts.

And when you take a break from your research – as you must – there is no better novel for any researcher to read than Middlemarch.

Written by: Professor Andrew McRae


Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) 2017

3MT Winners and judges

An 80,000 word thesis would take 9 hours to present

Their time limit…3 minutes

Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) is a National competition for postgraduate research students, run by research organisation Vitae. 3MT® challenges doctoral candidates to present a compelling spoken presentation on their research topic and its significance in just three minutes. The Doctoral College held a 3MT® competition on 30th May 2017, with 11 candidates competing to represent the University of Exeter in the National semi-final. A panel of esteemed judges assessed the 7 presentations according to the 3MT® judging criteria, with staff and students from across the University in attendance to hear about the cutting edge research of our postgraduate research students.

TIm GordonHolly EastElisabeth Matthews

The competition was a showcase of the fantastic research between undertaken at the University, by our equally fantastic postgraduate researchers. You can watch our prize winners – Tim Gordon (Marine Biology), Holly East (Geography) and Elisabeth Matthews (Astrophysics) – through the links included below.

3rd Place – Elisabeth Matthews, Astrophysics

Through the Looking Glass

The Very Large Telescope hosts the biggest telescope mirror in the world. It works as a massive zoom lens, allowing us to peak at the secrets that nearby star systems hide. Hidden under the bright glare of the starlight are planets, asteroid belts and comets: in fact, the latest research suggests that there are more planets than stars in the galaxy! To understand these systems, we need to use clever imaging techniques to peer through the glare of the star, and reveal the hidden planets. Join me on a journey through looking glass, where we learn how to peer through the star’s glare, and reveal the secrets on the other side.

2nd Place – Holly East, Geography

Maldivian coral reef islands: a drowning nation?

Coral reef islands are low lying (<3 m) accumulations of sediment produced by organisms on the surrounding reefs. They are of high ecological and socioeconomic significance, particularly because they provide the only habitable land in atoll nations. As a result of their dependence on locally generated sediment and low elevations, reef islands are regarded as extremely vulnerable to environmental change, particularly sea-level rise. My research aims to improve our understanding of Maldivian reef island vulnerabilities by answering 2 key questions: (1) what are reef islands made of; (2) how did reef islands respond to past changes in sea-level?

Winner – Tim Gordon, Marine Biology

Helping Nemo find home

Coral reefs are some of the world’s most beautiful, most valuable and most threatened ecosystems. Reef survival depends on healthy fish populations, which require reliable influx of new juveniles. Young fish spend their first few weeks of life in the open ocean before finding a reef to settle on, often returning to the place where they hatched. But navigation on this epic journey is becoming increasingly difficult in oceans dominated by chemical pollution, noisy shipping lanes and climate change. Our challenge is to preserve natural environments so juvenile fish can still find their way home – the future of coral reefs depends on them.

Tim was shortlisted for the National Semi-Final, but unfortunately had to withdraw from the competition to complete his field research as the Lead Scientist on a boat sailing to the Central Arctic Ocean.

We plan to run the event next year as a celebration at the end of our week long Postgraduate Research Showcase, on Friday 18th May 2018, in the Alumni Auditorium. We hope you will enjoy us, and encourage your students to present their research…in 3 minutes!

Life Beyond the PhD Conference 2017

Life Beyond the Phd Conference 2017.JPG

My review of ‘Life after the PhD’ conference at Cumberland Lodge 2017 by Betsy Lewis Holmes

I had little idea what to expect of this conference.  I was concerned that it would not be relevant for me, would be a low standard and not suitable for PhD students, mature students or those with previous work experience (I fit in all these categories). I was very pleasantly surprised with my experience, and recommend a visit to Cumberland Lodge for students of all disciplines. It is particularly recommended if you are interested in interdisciplinary working and collaboration.

I arrived at the historic and beautiful Cumberland Lodge on Tuesday afternoon, having driven through Windsor Park. We stayed for three nights and I was lucky enough to have a room to myself. The Lodge has excellent facilities, much like an Oxbridge college, and it was a pleasure to stay. There are many sitting rooms, lovely gardens to stroll about, a bar, games room, and of course good quality catering.  The whole building is full of art and design (part of the Royal Collections Trust). The setting (particularly the catering) allowed delegates to really focus on making the best connections and having the most inspiring conversations possible. There were about 40 delegates in total.

All aspects of the programme had been carefully organised and vetted to ensure they were of the high standard appropriate to PhD students. For instance, I came to the 9am Wednesday session on ‘Successful Applications’ thinking this was perhaps not going to be helpful – what more could I learn about how to make a C.V? The speakers, Dr Steve Joy & Katie Hewitt, proved me wrong, and I am not usually someone who enjoys ‘careers talks’. We were given practical information, relevant to those applying inside and outside of academia. We practised mock interviews and shared our CVs in small groups.

Workshops included tips for the viva, public speaking and public engagement, topics, which many of us think we know but these were of a high standard, with well-renowned experts in the field. I particularly enjoyed the public engagement workshop given by Steve Cross (Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow) who encouraged us all to try using our thesis as material for stand-up comedy! This has really got me thinking about how to use creative skills when completing the PhD.

The final talk ‘Why is a PhD worth it?’ given by Dr Tom Cutterham from the University of Birmingham was the highlight for me personally as it affirmed many of my experiences of doing a PhD. Tom encouraged us to think about how the PhD allows you to think differently about your life choices, how it changes you and what you desire.

The majority of students during this year’s conference were from the social sciences. As a humanities student I found myself in a minority, and conversations with social scientists really pushed me to reflect on my thesis project, the steps taken, methodologies and ‘data’ gathered. I was inspired to think about my project with new eyes. On the Thursday we each gave 5minute presentations about our work and then created an ‘interdisciplinary research proposal’ together. This was possibly the most challenging task I have completed during my PhD – and tested our communication and collaboration skills, but was so fascinating and interesting in retrospect.

I left with new friends, colleagues and inspiration for completing my thesis and beginning my life after the PhD. I felt empowered and full of ideas for possible futures. I know I will be staying in touch with many of the delegates I met, and there is already a London follow-up event being organised.

Thank you to Exeter Doctoral College for funding my attendance at the conference. I encourage anyone who has the chance to visit Cumberland Lodge and am happy to discuss my experiences further or answer questions.

Written by: Betsy Lewis-Holmes- Medical History PhD Researcher

Betsy Lewis Holmes