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.

7 ½ Reasons Why You Should Visit the Cartoon Museum before 24 July 2016

As part of my current AHRC project Reframing the Graphic Novel I have curated an exhibition with the Cartoon Museum in London called The Great British Graphic Novel. It tells the story of the graphic novel in the UK since the eighteenth century, with an emphasis on the last 40 years. There are all kinds of displays: cabinets of books, video interviews, and old comics, but the main attraction is original art. Over 125 pages of original art. The exhibition runs until 24 July, so you have roughly a month left to visit – and here are 7 ½ reasons why you should:

1. … to see a giant tube map of UK graphic novels


(c) Cartoon Museum 2016(c) Cartoon Museum 2016

How could we show the history of graphic novels – and all the different types of graphic novel – and provide visitors with a way of navigating the different parts of the exhibition? We decided to visualise the graphic novels on display as stations on a map of the London Underground, where the lines represent the exhibition’s sections. The whole idea was brought to life as a spectacular image drawn by veteran underground comix artist Hunt Emerson. As you can see, he’s added characters and symbols from the graphic novels themselves. And if you think it looks good on a computer screen, the first thing that greets you when you walk into the main gallery is a giant version of Emerson’s map!

2. … to attend an amazing talk

We’ve had some great events tied in with the exhibition. Since we opened:

  • Bryan and Mary M. Talbot discussed their new graphic biography The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, about the nineteenth-century feminist and revolutionary Louise Michel
  • Three editors from major UK companies shared their experiences and offered advice on getting your graphic novel published
  • We’ve been showcasing writers and artists from the Laydeez Do Comics collective

And there’s more to come:

  • Have you heard of graphic medicine but want to learn more? Come to the event on 13th July!
  • Woodrow Phoenix has been doing page-turnings of his graphic novel She Lives! (see below) and there are more page-turnings coming up
  • You can also catch Monica Walker’s Spotlight Talks focusing on key works in the exhibition!

3. … because some of the art on display is HUGE

Size matters, right? Well, the multimedia art of Dave McKean is enormous and spectacular. One of the graphic novels McKean famously worked on was The Sandman, written by Neil Gaiman. McKean’s covers gave the series a distinct look that set it apart from other comics on the rack and in the exhibition you can see that McKean didn’t just draw the covers, he constructed them as large-scale, three-dimensional art objects that absorbed mementoes and found objects.


Another gigantic exhibit in the show is Woodrow Phoenix’s She Lives! This is a one-off graphic novel. We’re displaying the book that Phoenix made by hand because there is no published version. Not many people would have room in their homes for it! There is only one copy in the world and it’s on show in The Great British Graphic Novel.


And while you can’t turn the pages yourself, you can (a) come to one of the page-turnings and have Woodrow Phoenix take you through the story himself, or (b) the pages can be viewed on the video screen next to the book.

 4. …because you never knew graphic novels went back that far

My research is about the history of graphic novels and the opening section of the exhibition shows how comics have grown in length, been published as books, and been read by adults (all things associated with the graphic novel format) over the last 300 years. To reflect the influence of engraver William Hogarth on later artists, the exhibition starts with some prints from Hogarth’s sequence of images A Harlot’s Progress (1732). Contemporary creators are not only influenced by the history of illustration, they appropriate and rework artistic traditions, and Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus is a great example of this. In the 1980s and 1990s Campbell depicted the present-day exploits of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, and in one scene (shown in the exhibition) Bacchus is chased by Mr. Dry (a character based on Prohibition-era political cartoons) through a mini-history of alcohol-related paintings, starting with Hogarth’s Beer Street (1751).

5. …to learn how graphic novels get put together

One of the pleasures of curating the exhibition was illuminating how the country’s leading artists go about producing their graphic novels. Some of the draft work on show includes character designs and page layouts (sketches that outline where panels will go on a page and what goes in each one). Visitors can see the lengths Hunt Emerson went to in his adaptation of Inferno, drawing his own map of the underworld to help him recreate the events in Dante’s original. You can also see how artists like Katie Green work with computers as well as pencils and ink. All of this, we hope, will inspire visitors old and young to pick up different tools and have a go at making comics for themselves!

6. …to see the classics of the future before they’re even published

At the end of the exhibition we’ve spotlighted three works by Kate Charlesworth, Asia Alfasi, and Jade Sarson which are still in progress but are shaping up to be classics of the future. The work of Alfasi and Sarson demonstrates the influence of Japanese comics on British graphic novelists (elsewhere in the exhibition, the art from the Manga Shakespeare series is another example of this). Jade Sarson’s book For the Love of God, Marie! is forthcoming as I write this but it will be published by the time The Great British Graphic Novel closes.

7. …to marvel at page after page of your old favourites

It’s edifying to spend years putting an exhibition like this together and for people to enjoy it. We haven’t been able to show art from every British graphic novel ever published, but what we’ve included has received some very positive reviews. If you’re already a passionate reader of graphic novels and are expecting to see your personal favourites, the chances are you won’t be disappointed. There’s art on show from Posy Simmonds’s Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists, Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl, Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland, and Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum. Alan Moore is one of the most written-about comics writers of all time and we have pages of art from five of his graphic novels: From Hell (art by Eddie Campbell), Watchmen (Dave Gibbons), V for Vendetta (David Lloyd), A Small Killing (Oscar Zarate) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Kev O’Neill).


(c) DC Comics Inc. 1986

7 ½.…because there’s lots to do when you (eventually) finish looking round the exhibition

The Cartoon Museum is one street down from the British Museum and located perfectly to explore Bloomsbury, or to do some shopping on Oxford Street, or to see a show in the West End. So although you’ll obviously come to look at the comics, you won’t have any difficulty finding other things to do when the Museum closes …

Dr Paul Williams is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English in the College of Humanities at the University of Exeter. He is currently researching how comics became graphic novels in the long 1970s. This project is funded by an AHRC Early Career Research Fellowship (2014-16) and you can read more about it on his blog.

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.

Three risks I’m glad I’ve taken as a researcher

Self-promotion, standing out from the crowd, and developing a good reputation are said to be key to climbing the academic ladder. One way of standing out is by doing something unconventional or daring. Here Sarah Foxen describes three situations in which she has taken risks as a junior academic. For each she discusses the dangers involved and illustrates why it paid off to take the risks.

I was bricking it right up to the moment I heard the first reactions to my audacious behaviour. As soon as the room erupted, though, I knew taking the risk had paid off.

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “oh, I’d love to XYZ, but I’m not sure I’m daring enough?” About a year ago I was invited to lead a discussion seminar at Cardiff University. In advance, one of the conveners emailed me with the instructions: “you’re welcome to use any format you wish…”

What would you do faced with that information?

Amazing I thought to myself, for once I don’t have to prepare a standard PowerPoint-And-Paper-Combo; I can do something different! But what?

I’d been asked to talk about my first experiences of ethnographic fieldwork, and I felt like I had a story to tell. Hmm; a story. One idea sprung to mind, but it seemed a bit outrageous. It was logical but was so far removed from the PP-A-P-Combo. I grappled with it for a few days then decided I’d take the risk.

Fast forward to that cold, grey Wednesday afternoon. People start filing in. It’s not my institution, so I’ve really got no idea who anyone is: that chap coming in with the stripy jumper, for example, could be a PhD student or lecturer or dean of faculty.

Everyone is finally installed: It’s showtime.Thump, thump, thump: I can hear and feel my heartbeat. Why did I ever think this would be a good idea? No going back. I begin:

“Hi everyone, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Sarah, and for today’s discussion I’ve drawn a cartoon…”sarah_foxen_cartoon

Cue: excitement, amusement, surprise, interest, laughter, recognition, engagement, questions, tangential thoughts, and animated discussion…

Like I said, as soon as the group reacted I knew the risk had been worth it. Just because we are scholars and are used to traditional forms of delivery doesn’t mean they’re the only ones we should use. I’m so glad I didn’t play it safe, because five awesome things happened as a result:

  1. I got a great reaction to my presentation
  2. I got to consider my research in a completely different way
  3. I was able to contribute in some small way to diversifying the appearance of academic research (cf. the ocean being made up of drops of water)
  4. I got to bring my creative skills into my research
  5. People remember me (a year down the line, the convener emailed me asking if she could use my cartoon to illustrate a blogpost on the discussion group)

Maybe cartoon drawing isn’t your thing, but I bet this next risky situation is one that has been – or could be – on the cards for many of you: the interdisciplinary conference.

An opportunity recently arose for me to submit an abstract for an interdisciplinary conference. I thought to myself: Interdisciplinary? Hmm, risky: I’d be out of my comfort zone, I might look stupid. Though that probably is the worst thing that could happen. 

But lets be rational: it’s interdisciplinary; everyone will be a bit out of their comfort zone. People sort of expect you not to be an expert.

And what about the best thing that could happen? It’s interdisciplinary: people will have very different research backgrounds to mine; they could give me really great input and insight.So shall I take the risk? Yes.

And so what happened on the day?

Well, I went to the conference and ‘confessed’ to my audience that I wasn’t an expert and that I wanted to learn from them. Then this happened:

  1. I felt liberated because no one expected me to be an ‘expert’: I could legitimately be a ‘learner’
  2. Others imparted their wisdom to me
  3. I met people from really different disciplines, and diversified my network
  4. I got to enrich the minds of my audience by sharing theories and ideas from my discipline

Now finally, some reflections about the biggest risk I think I’ve taken, and a risk I imagine at least some of you have contemplated: tweeting data, results or research as an expert.

Last summer an article appeared oni100 listing the top ten baby names for boys and girls.  Something linguistically interesting appeared to be going on. So I did some basic data analysis and visualisation.

The patterns that emerged were fascinating (we have a gendered alphabet: boys names favour consonant letters and sounds, whilst for girls it’s vowels). The thing is, the patterns were so striking, I wanted to share what I’d spotted with the wider world.

But there was a problem. I’m a PhD linguistics student: I’m supposed to be (becoming) an expert. What if I’d miscalculated something or made an error? Putting my calculations into the public domain felt quite risky. But the data was astonishing. So what did I do? I checked my calculations a zillion times, scrunched up my eyes and clicked tweet.

In came the likes and the retweets. I was beaming; others had found the linguistic patterns equally fascinating.I was loving seeing the retweets, then suddenly I got a notification of a reply: someone had said I’d got it wrong; I’d done my vowel analysis wrong.

What you have to know is that my PhD is all about vowels.

Ground swallow me up. Not good. Not good.

I looked again at the data; I was sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

And then salvation came: another linguist pointed out that I’d analysed the data with a British accent in mind and, since it was British data, I hadn’t made a mistake. They supposed my accuser had had an American accent in mind, which would explain their confusion.

Big sigh of relief.

So what did I learn? Well, it was a high risk, but, because I went for it:

  1. I got to use my skills and expertise to analyse data not related to my research
  2. I was able to share some remarkable linguistic patterns with experts and non-experts
  3. I strengthened (virtual) links with my research community
  4. Will I do it again? Yes. But I’ll continue to look at my calculations a squillion times, which, let’s be honest, is no bad thing.

And so to conclude, I encourage you to think about taking a risk or two – with presentations, conferences, social media, or whatever. What’s the worst thing that could happen? But what’s the best thing that could happen?

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.

This piece originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.

Why do women carry things on their heads?

An article by Professor Jane Whittle, Professor of History at the University of Exeter, specialising in the history of rural England in the late medieval and early modern period with particular interests in economic development, work, consumption, gender, and popular protest.

Originally posted on 23 February 2016 on Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 blog site.

Agnes Parker of Chilton Cantelo, Somerset, was crossing a bridge in 1592 with a bundle of hay on her head and a pot for milking in her hand, when a gust of wind blew her off and into the water below, where she drowned. Clearly the combination of a large load of hay on your head, a heavy woollen dress and high winds could be fatal. Mark has already mentioned this case from the coroners’ inquests in his post on agricultural work. But it got me thinking about another set of issues altogether. Why did (and do) women carry things on their heads?

There is good visual evidence from medieval and early modern north-west Europe that it used to be commonplace for women to carry heavy or awkward loads in this way. The earliest English example I know is in the Luttrell Psalter, an exceptionally revealing illuminated manuscript from the early fourteenth century, now owned by the British Library. Among its many scenes of agricultural life is one of sheep being milked in a pen, whilst two women walk away with pots on their heads, presumably carrying the milk back to the farm:


For the early modern period such images are common. The image below on the left is from a 1540s book of hours (the ‘Golf Book’, held at the British Library) from Flanders, and shows a woman carrying food out to harvest workers, with a basket on her head. A very similar English scene is found in the Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608 from the Folger Library, below on the right:



The two women in this seventeenth century woodcut are probably more milkmaids, but here carrying wooden buckets on their heads rather than pots. Perhaps the most plentiful source of these images are the many ‘Cries of London’ produced between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth century, which turned small-scale itinerant retailers of specialist products into a subject of picturesque fascination. Many of these street-sellers were women, and most carried their goods on their heads – judging by these images:


Commonplace in the early modern period, these images seem to disappear after around 1820. This romanticised image of a rural milkmaid is one late example from the second half of nineteenth century, from a painting by Myles Birket Foster:


Few appear in the photographical age. An admittedly not very scientific trawl of Google images turned up one image from Scotland of young female miners from the late -nineteenth century, and a posed image of a woman in rural France from the 1950s balancing a load of hay on her head while raking:








Of course, photographic images of women carrying pots of water and goods destined for market are familiar to modern eyes as iconic images of non-western societies. It is not difficult to find photographic images of women carrying things in this way in rural south Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, for instance:



Images of men carrying loads on their heads do 13occur, historically and in the modern world – but they are less common than images of women carrying things in this way.

In summary, then:

  1. Women used to carry heavy and awkward loads on their heads in pre-industrial north-west Europe.
  2. They had largely stopped doing this by the mid-nineteenth century.
  3. Women still carry loads in this way in rural societies based on small scale agriculture (peasant societies) in the modern world.
  4. Carrying loads on one’s head is gendered: it was (and is) more common for women than men.

What can we conclude from all this? Well these conclusions are speculative, but to me it seems that first, women carry things on their heads rather than men because men have easier access to other forms of transport. On early modern farms men drove carts and were responsible for caring for the horses. So far the project hasn’t found any examples of women driving carts. Women did ride horses, but perhaps not as often as men.

Second, women were expected to undertake hard physical work, such as lifting and carrying heavy loads. They learnt the skill of carrying heavy loads on their heads at a young age, and did so habitually as young women when required to transport pots, buckets, baskets and bundles that were bulky or heavy. There is evidence of women’s hard physical work from other sources. Bones from the medieval village of Wharram Percydemonstrate that both women and men bore the burden of hard physical labour, although the wear and tear on their skeletons suggests slightly different work patterns.[1]

Third, the fact that women routinely carried heavy loads on their heads in pre-industrial societies should remind us that (a) much routine work, such as collecting water, gathering fuel and laundering linens was physically demanding; (b) agriculture in the pre-industrial economy required a lot of fetching and carrying on foot – between house and fields (taking out meals and fodder, bringing in milk) – and between farm and market (taking in goods to sell and returning with purchases), and much of this was done by women; (c) that many women with very few resources made their living from selling small goods, as the Cries of London and Paris show – another very physically demanding occupation.

At least one question that remains is why (and when exactly) did women in north-west Europe stop carrying things on their heads? I’ll leave that one with the modernists among you – and any other comments, references and images on this topic that readers have would also be gratefully received.

[1] S. Mays, ‘The Human Remains’ in S. Mays, C. Harding and C. Heighway, The Churchyard: Wharram, A Study of Settlement on the Yorkshire Wolds, XI (York University Archaeological Publications 13, 2007), pp.77-192.

Balancing academia and music

This post first appeared on The Exeter Blog.

The life of an academic is full of deadlines and conflicting priorities; however, how do you balance these priorities, if you add an emerging band and a record contract?

This is the situation which PhD researcher, and member of The Echo and The Always, Angela Muir finds herself in. In this blog post she talks about how these different roles have become intertwined.

Photo courtesy of Polly Thomas
Photo courtesy of Polly Thomas

Like most PhDs and career academics I lead a very busy life with conflicting deadlines and priorities, and an endless struggle to find the time and inspiration to write, all of which needs to be managed with an eye on future opportunities and the endless funding applications they require. Like most (if not all) academics this is balanced against other personal and professional commitments outside academia. For me, that second commitment is music.

I’m in a very fortunate situation. I’m funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada to pursue my PhD on the experience of childbirth for unmarried mothers in eighteenth-century England and Wales. Outside academia I’m in a signed indie band called The Echo and the Always which has been funded by the Arts Council of Wales to promote the release of our debut album ‘…and After That the Dark’.

The first two weeks in December highlight just how busy these two careers can be. In addition to the inevitable endless marking that comes with the end of term I was also writing an academic article, writing funding applications, fulfilling my duties as PGR Liaison for History, and preparing for upgrade before I left to spend Christmas in Canada. At the same time, the band was chosen to be BBC Wales Artist of the Week. In addition to this I stepped in as a session musician for a BBC Horizons Maida Vale session, which involved travelling to West Wales for practice sessions with another band, then to London to record and film. At one point I showed up to an Ex Historia colloquium with my trumpet on my back because I had to leave straight after to catch a train to London.

This is just one example. On several occasions when we’ve been on tour I’ve spent my morning on my laptop in a hotel room analysing statistics on infant mortality or writing a conference paper, or making a detour so I can spend my day in the archives before meeting the band at the venue we’re playing that night. I spent part of the weekend of Green Man Festival sat backstage reading secondary literature for a chapter. This may not be for everyone, but I find it exhilarating.

For the past five years my academic and musical careers have been intertwined. I moved from Canada to the UK in 2010 to pursue my MA in Early Modern History, and even before I landed I was in a band with friends I had made on previous trips. Although our line-up has change over the years the academic links are still there – I met our guitarist (and my partner) during our MAs Swansea University.

It hasn’t always been easy, and the fortunes of the band and academia seem to mirror one another. The band had a great debut year at the same time I graduate with my MA and published my first academic article. Things slowed a bit with the band as we cycled through members trying to find the line-up that ‘clicked’. During this time I was turned down twice for international PhD funding. When I finally secured Wellcome funding the band signed to the independent record label, Jealous Lovers Club. Finally, not long after I was awarded SSHRC funding from Canada the band was awarded Arts Council funding. Surely this is just coincidence, but it’s been an interesting pattern nonetheless.

My schedule may seem hectic or unmanageable to some, but I’m one of those people who thrives when I’m at my busiest. Other than the never-ending worries about funding and constant self-promotion academia and music are very different, which is a blessing as each gives me an opportunity to clear my head of the other. This juggling act is also helping me learn how to make the best use of my time, and when necessary learn when and how to say no. The problem of major conflicting priorities has been mitigated by extensive planning and by making choices such as releasing our album at the end of October, which meant we could tour during reading week to promote it.
Photo courtesy of Gemma Conde

Swn-Festival-Photo-Credit-Gemma-Conde-224x300My schedule may seem hectic or unmanageable to some, but I’m one of those people who thrives when I’m at my busiest. Other than the never-ending worries about funding and constant self-promotion academia and music are very different, which is a blessing as each gives me an opportunity to clear my head of the other. This juggling act is also helping me learn how to make the best use of my time, and when necessary learn when and how to say no. The problem of major conflicting priorities has been mitigated by extensive planning and by making choices such as releasing our album at the end of October, which meant we could tour during reading week to promote it.

This balancing act is also made possible by the support networks I have working around me. I have a great relationship with my supervisory team, Dr Sarah Toulalan and Dr Alun Withey, and there is a fantastic community of PhDs and early career researchers at Exeter. The band serves as a surrogate family for me, and the music community in Cardiff is incredibly supportive and inclusive. Plus we have great management behind us.

I may be busy, but I’m also fully aware of the privileged position I’m in – I get to pursue not one, but two of my passions at the same time.

Fantasy Figures: A New Art Exhibition in Toulouse

Blue boy

Michael Sweerts (1618-1664) Garçon au turban tenant un bouquet de fleurs Vers 1658 Collection Thyssen-Bornemisza ©Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid

Professor Melissa Percival, Associate Professor (French, Art History and Visual Culture), talks about an exhibition she has curated that is currently showing at the Musée des Augustins until 6 March 2016.

Faces, heads, bodies. A busy gathering of ragged beggars, dashing soldiers, haughty courtesans, absorbed readers and sleeping children. Young and old, tender and wrinkled. Flashes of artistic brilliance, humour and eccentricity. These are the key ingredients of a new exhibition of 80 European old master paintings that I have curated at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, France.

Whereas portraits depict a real person in a well-defined social context (professional or domestic), fantasy figures are much more mysterious. They are hard to read with their dark backgrounds, minimal objects, flamboyant costumes and ambiguous expressions. Instead they lend themselves to fiction and dreams. When you ‘meet’ these characters it is not always clear who you are looking at: some actively engage with you; others make you feel like you shouldn’t be looking at all. This type of informal, experimental work was greatly admired by collectors. Our exhibition – the first of its kind – brings together works from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, France and England from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries.

Dossier presse_Fig_fantaisie_3

Bernardo Strozzi (Gênes, 1581/1582-Venise, 1644) Le Joueur de piffero (Il Pifferaio) Gênes, Galleria di Palazzo Rosso © Musei di Strada Nuova

The idea for the exhibition came from my book Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure (2012). Around 1769 Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted a famous series of sixteen fantasy figures that have long puzzled the experts. I discovered a large number of similar works by Fragonard’s predecessors and contemporaries that had never been compared with each other, or regarded as a distinct type of artwork. They were far too beautiful and fascinating to remain hidden in picture archives or scattered in museum collections.

I was fortunate to find a like mind in Axel Hémery, Director of the Musée des Augustins, one of France’s oldest and most prestigious museums. Together we made a long-list of loans, knowing that each would require careful negotiation, and that quite a number of our requests would not be met. It’s no easy feat to borrow an old master painting! I got to work on the catalogue, writing the main essay, shorter essays on each painting, and commissioning scholars to write chapters. Background research of this vast subject area tested not only my art historical knowledge but also my ability to read in several foreign languages.

Dossier presse_Fig_fantaisie_2

Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1658-1717) [d’après] Jeune femme endormie à la chandelle Fin XVIIe-début XVIIe siècle © Nantes, Musée des beaux-arts Photo C. Clos

After two years of preparation, the paintings are finally up on the walls. It has been one of the most exciting few days of my life, seeing packing cases delivered from all over Europe, and opened up to reveal much anticipated treasures. (Not being an experienced picture handler, I’m not allowed to touch anything!) The paintings were thoroughly checked by a paintings conservation expert before being placed in a pre-arranged spot and carefully aligned.

In the show we have ‘big names’ like Annibale Carracci, Murillo, Van Dyck and Frans Hals and of course Fragonard. But it’s also great to be showing the public less well-known but mesmerizing artists such as the Flemish Michiel Sweerts, who on his good days was as brilliant as Vermeer.

The designer has done an incredible job of creating an intimate yet dynamic exhibition space at the heart of the vast gothic church (the museum is a former Augustinian convent). Instead of ordering the pictures by chronology or artistic school, we have a less conventional themed arrangement: the sections are called such things as Musicians, Inner Lives, Laughter and Sarcasm, and The Laboratory of the Face. Alongside the serious scholarly purpose of remapping art history, the exhibition explores in so many ways what it is to be human.

Ceci n’est pas un portrait: Figures de fantaisie de Murillo, Fragonard, Tiepolo is at the Musée des Augustins from 21st November 2015 to 6th March 2016. ‪#Figures2fantaisie‬‪ ‬‬

Professor Melissa Percival is an expert in eighteenth-century French studies with research interests in Eighteenth-century art, literature and history of ideas. She has published widely on theories of physiognomy and facial expression.